Ask Susan Straight - September 26th, 2012 discussion

Ask Susan!

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message 1: by Margo (new)

Margo (maothrockmorton) | 1 comments Mod
Welcome to the group! Susan will be answering questions on Wednesday, September 26, 2012. In the meantime if you have a question for Susan or just want to introduce yourself feel free to do so in this thread.

message 2: by Ron (new)

Ron (ronscheer) | 2 comments BLACKER THAN A THOUSAND MIDNIGHTS remains one of my favorite novels. Two questions: (1) Which Southern California writers from previous generations do you feel deserve to be read more widely today? (2) Do you have any favorite writers of westerns?

message 3: by Patricia J. (new)

Patricia J. O'Brien | 3 comments Hi, Susan! What a pleasure this is, and thank you, Margo, for moderating the group.
I'd like to ask about structuring a novel. Do you outline or write scenes first? Develop plot, characters or both before beginning? How big a role does research play?
Could you use one of your novels as an example of how it took shape and how long the process took?

message 4: by Patricia J. (new)

Patricia J. O'Brien | 3 comments I have not yet read Between Heaven and Here, but I will very soon. I was completely captivated by the first two of the trilogy: A Million Nightingales and Take One Candle Light a Room.
I am haunted by the line, "No one will care," which a mother said about her dead daughter found in a shopping cart and which you quoted in your gorgeous essay for KCET. Story, you said is when something won't let you go.
Now that you have finished the trilogy, how does it feel to let that story go out into the world? What do you hope will become of it?

message 5: by Susan, Author of Between Heaven and Here (new)

Susan Straight | 6 comments Mod
To Margo - Thanks for hosting! I do love getting the monthly newsletters from Goodreads and I often find great new books that I might not have otherwise seen - and I also like getting reviews from other readers for the same reason.
So, these are excellent questions, and I read them and then went out to feed the chickens so I had time to think.
For Ron - I often think of Blacker when I'm driving, and often because there are so many fires these days and I think of when my brothers and I were younger and we'd ride our bikes to watch a fire - and encounter a hundred other people all watching the fire, too.
I think a lot of southern Calif writers from the past deserve much more attention and I'll list a few. I believe from the 1940s and 1950s, Ross Macdonald should be more well known, for his diamond-hard imagery as well as the social commentary on life if SoCalifornia. I'm reading "Find a Victim" for the fourth time right now, and it's amazing each time. I still love those desert writers of the past, Harry Lawton and Earle Stanley Gardner. But also MFK Fisher's memoirs, and Hidaye Yamamoto as well.
For Westerns, my father-in-law, who was a black/Cherokee/Irish man from Tulsa, taught me to like Louis L'Amour. And these might not fit into the category completely, but I've loved books by Tom O'Neal recently, writing "Nebraska," and Kent Haruf, who writes about Colorado, and Dan O'Brien, who write about South Dakota. Also, James Welch's novel "Fools Crow" remains one of my favorite books, western or no, of all time.

message 6: by Susan, Author of Between Heaven and Here (new)

Susan Straight | 6 comments Mod
For Patricia,
With each novel it feels different!
Well, it seems that I'd be better at practicing a specific method, but it doesn't happen. With Highwire Moon, I began with 50 pages handwritten in a notebook in my old Honda, when I was 19, and then I picked that novel up again when I was 33, and spent two years going to Oaxaca, driving in the desert where my foster siblings were from, actually going out to grape harvests in Mecca, CA, and to the Salton Sea, and then finished it.
With this trilogy, I began with the chapter which is the last in Heaven and Here, strangely enough, with a young man finding out his mother had been strangled and her body put in a shopping cart in an alley. He was with his grandfather. Then I spent the last fifteen years writing three novels - the first was a historical novel, A Million Nightingales, set during slavery, because I had to find out how this mixed-race woman who was the ancestor of the characters had begun her life, and how she'd felt about her own son. Then I wrote Take One Candle, set in 2005, on the fifth anniversary of the death of the beautiful mother in the shopping cart, about her son and how his life had been. And finally, I finished this new book, which is where it all began. Which leads me to answer your next haunting question - since all this began with the image of this woman in a shopping cart, and her mother lamenting that no one would care that her daughter was dead, and I spent all these years writing about the whole community around her, now I'm walking around missing these characters very much since they were part of my life for so long. I have been working on some essays, but they never feel the same as fiction, which keeps me going.
We send each novel out into the world as if it were our beloved child off to kindergarten, I think - we know we've done everything we can to make that child who she or he is, and we've combed the hair, tied the shoes, packed the bag and given the child a kiss, and whispered into his or her ear, "I hope everyone treats you well."

message 7: by Patricia J. (new)

Patricia J. O'Brien | 3 comments That waa a beautiful answer, thank you. I'm so intrigued by the notion that you sort of wrote that trilogy backwards from the initial event, going first to the dead girl's ancestors, then to the anniversary of her death before her story. At least, that is how I interpreted your answer. (pls correct me if I'm wrong!)

When I think about how this story grew from that poor girl in the shopping cart, I think you honored her life in a stunning way.

message 8: by Judy (new)

Judy Schachter | 2 comments Susan, I really liked your description of hurricane Katrina in Take One Candle and wondered if you read N.Z.Hustons' Their eyes were watching god, which also has a mezmerizing hurricane description.

message 9: by Susan, Author of Between Heaven and Here (new)

Susan Straight | 6 comments Mod
Thanks, Pat. That's exactly what I meant.

message 10: by Susan, Author of Between Heaven and Here (new)

Susan Straight | 6 comments Mod
I did read Zora Neale Hurston's novel, many times, and I also like Shirley Ann Grau's novel "The Hard Blue Sky" in which a hurricane is bearing down on a tiny island off the Louisiana coast back in the 1950s.
But for Take One Candle, I went to south Louisiana, and talked to people who'd been in the hurricane, and their stories were terrifying! They were some of the people we saw on the news. I also wanted to write about Plaquemines Parish because it had been my focus in A Million Nightingales, and it was so scary that this was the place where Katrina actually made landfall.
As well, my three daughters and I went to Gulfport, Mississippi and worked for a week on rebuilding a house for a minister, her husband and their three granddaughters, and they told us a lot of stories which also helped. Seeing that landscape, where dresses and bras were dangling thirty feet up in the trees from the surge, was like nothing else.

message 11: by Judy (new)

Judy Schachter | 2 comments Susan, I was also impressed by how you managed to convey the extraodrdinary exhaustion of the people on the road trips that came one right after the other. It made my eyes ache to imagine all that driving!

message 12: by Donna (new)

Donna | 2 comments Your characters are so real that I find myself watching for them on the streets. Is there a secret to bringing characters alive? I'm only a few pages into Between Heaven and Here, and Sidney and Glorette are already breaking my heart. Also, do you discover "what happens next" as you write or as you think about the story?

message 13: by Ron (new)

Ron (ronscheer) | 2 comments Thanks, Susan. Your novel, BLACKER, often comes up in memory for me in fire season, too. But also the lawn and garden business whenever I see men working in yards and driving by in their pickups loaded with mowers and gardening equipment. That single image of tossing flyers in plastic bags into driveways, weighted with stones...I go along with your western writer picks. Another South Dakota novelist is Kent Meyers, The Work of Wolves. And Ron Carlson has a good novel set in Idaho, Five Skies. Thanks for the socal recommendations. I will look for Find a Victim.

message 14: by Susan, Author of Between Heaven and Here (new)

Susan Straight | 6 comments Mod
Hope I can still answer. I had to pick up a kid yesterday evening and then help a neighbor whose mother had died. All was chaos.
I don't think there's a secret other than listening, always listening, to people when they talk - which my children might call "creeping", but I call listening, and then walking around thinking about those characters for days on end. James Baldwin was one of my teachers - lucky for me - and he talked about how hard it is to walk around as if working - you are working when you are thinking, or reading, and we can't let anyone tell us otherwise.

I discover while I'm writing - and often I'm surprised. I knew Glorette died, and Sidney found her, but I didn't know who killed her until three years after beginning to write about them. That was crazy.

message 15: by Susan, Author of Between Heaven and Here (new)

Susan Straight | 6 comments Mod
I love Meyers and Carlson. I do love Five Skies, as well as all of Ron's story collections. I recommend him all the time.
I still have a flyer, weighed down with a sparkly white rock, that someone threw into my yard in 1992, which began my thinking about Darnell and Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights. So funny that you made me remember.
It is here in my desk as I write now.

message 16: by Donna (new)

Donna | 2 comments Thanks, Susan. Leave it to kids to come up with "creeping." I'll remember that, along with James Baldwin's reminder about thinking and reading and writing.

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