:: Interview with Susan Straight
By Dominique McCafferty, Librarian
Susan Straight was born and raised in Riverside, California, and continues to live there with her three daughters. She is the author of Aquaboogie, which won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights, The Gettin' Place, and Highwire Moon, which was both a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Gold Medal for Fiction. She has written two children's books, Bear E. Bear and The Hallway Light at Night, and her work has also appeared in Salon.com, CaliforniaAuthors.com, and Harpers. Other honors include a 1997 Guggenheim Fellowship and the Lannan Foundation Award in 1999.
More than this, Susan Straight is a storyteller, and everything is grist for the mill: the neighborhood where she lives, the university where she works, even the interviewer sitting across from her, "What's your story? What do you do?"
She is a voice for the voiceless.
Dominique McCafferty: Tell me about your childhood.
Susan Straight: I lived down the street (from Simple Simon's). My dad owned three laundromats. One on Third Street, one on Pedley, and one on Iowa. And my mom was a foster mother and raised foster kids till were we about thirteen. And she went back to school at Riverside Community College (RCC) and got her degree and then she went to work at Cal Fed Bank.
DM: Do you have any brothers and sisters?
SS: I have a half brother and sister I haven't seen since I was one. I have a full brother who died three years ago. I have a half brother who lives in Freeola, Washington, and I have four step brothers and sisters on my real dad's side. And I have four foster brothers and sisters who grew up with us.
DM: I'm thinking of the mother, Sandy, in Highwire Moon. She was a foster mother. I really loved that book, by the way.
SS: Thank you.
DM: I want to see some of those places you were talking about.
SS: Well, they're making it into a movie. I'm actually going out to the desert to scout some locations with the director.
DM: That's one of the questions I was going to ask you—whether or not any of your books had ever been optioned for film. Is Highwire Moon the only book? Or are there others?
SS: I remember someone was writing a script for Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights. So we're going out to the desert next week to see about locations for Highwire Moon.
DM: Are you nervous about it? I mean books are such different creatures from films.
SS: Well, I don't write screenplays or do anything like that, so I figure if somebody buys the book and turns it into a movie—then? I mean, if you sell somebody a car you can't really argue about what they do to it.
DM: That's true. I suppose the book doesn't belong to you in a sense. I mean once it's published, once it's sent into the world. People can interpret it as they wish.
SS: Not unless you write the screenplay and you insist on creative control. I'm sure it'll be fine. She's a nice person, an independent director, and I'm sure it'll be fine. You never know. The movie business is strange. I don't understand how it works.
DM: Where did you go to elementary school?
SS: I went to Highland Elementary, and then I went to University Junior High. All right down the street from each other.
DM: Do you like traveling?
SS: Oh ya. I travel all the time. Let's see, I've been to Belize and Canada and France. This summer we're going to Switzerland to see my mother's family. I've been traveling all my life. I like to travel. I like living in the same place, but I travel every year.
DM: I wondered about that because you have such deep roots in Riverside. I remember thinking as I was driving along one day, "I wonder if Susan is a traveler?"
SS: I love to go away, but I always come home.
SS: My kids will probably live far away. They like to travel. They don't seem as excited to come home as I do.
DM: Well, and your descriptions of Riverside, too. The tumbleweeds flush with the chain link fence. As I read your work I think, "Oh, she knows Southern California." What about your teachers? Did you have any memorable teachers in grade school?
SS: In grade school?
DM: Or in junior high and high school. Who springs to mind?
SS: I had an elementary school teacher named Mrs. Rhode. She was from Lake Elsinore ( Calif.). We were in the first GATE group—the first gifted and talented group. And then I had a couple of really good teachers. One was Mrs. Corley, Dorothy Corley—she just passed away. And Mr. Derrick who taught French. I've been taking French since elementary school. Probably my biggest influence as far as being a writer was at RCC. I had a teacher named Bill Bowers who taught at RCC. I took his class when I was sixteen. He was teaching a creative writing class, and he was very good, very encouraging.
DM: I've heard you're quite the spokesperson for writing workshops.
SS: I think writing workshops are good. Because otherwise, who are you going to show your work to?
DM: Friends. People whom you trust.
SS: But what if you don't have any friends? I don't have any friends who are writers. I don't have any friends who write. I only show my work to my agent and one friend. So if I didn't have workshops in college I wouldn't have had anyone to show my work to. The people I hang out with everyday, none of them are writers. So if I hadn't gone to college and taken workshops, I would have been way behind. I'm sure it's different for people who have a lot of friends who are writers, but for people like me? No, I think workshops are great. I mean, think about it. If you come from a neighborhood where nobody reads, who are you going to show your stuff to?
DM: That's true.
SS: If you play basketball, well you can't play by yourself all the time. You have to have somebody to play with. Otherwise you'll never get any better. Because you can't look at your own work after two or three drafts and have any idea what to do with it.
DM: What about people who are really cruel in their criticism of other peoples work? Some people can't take that kind of harsh criticism.
SS: I would never do that to anyone.
DM: Well, not you, but students in your workshops.
SS: I've never had a student do that. I'm sure people are mean to each other on their own, but editors are going to be mean to you, too. If someone's devastatingly mean to someone in a workshop, at least you haven't spent any money to hear them at a writer's conference. But if you send your work to The New Yorker and someone's mean to you, there's nothing you can do about it. People are going to be mean. If you send your work to an editor and he says, "This is the worst thing I've ever read," there's not much you can do about that. At least you're going to get honest feedback in a workshop. But if you've only ever shown your work to your friends, and your friends like you, and then you send it out to editors, and they're mean to you, it's much more of a blow. I'd rather be in a workshop setting with people who actually know something about the work. So I like workshops. I think they're really good.
DM: So your first workshop experience was at RCC, then?
SS: I took classes at RCC while I was still a student at North High. I went to USC for my bachelors.
DM: And then you went back east.
SS: I got a fellowship to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
DM: That's where you earned your MFA. And it was there that you studied with—
SS: James Baldwin.
DM: Mind if I digress for a moment? The first time I saw you, you were interviewing Alice Walker at the Los Angeles Book Festival. I'm wondering how that experience was for you?
SS: I thought someone was going to shoot us, because she said some political things, but she was great. She was really wonderful to interview. It was a big place and there was a balcony. I remember being irrationally afraid that someone was going get unhappy with what she was saying or what I was saying. But she was really nice. It was fun. She had on really nice earrings. We had a good time. I haven't interviewed anybody since then at the LA Times Festival. I've always done panels. I just got on a panel two weeks ago. That was fun.
DM: I understand you keep late hours. You write late into the night.
SS: I stay up pretty late. And I had to get up at six this morning.
DM: You keep a hectic schedule anyway, don't you?
SS: I take my first kid to school at six thirty in the morning. I take my other kids to school at eight thirty. I get to the university at nine. I usually teach two or three days a week until two. I leave UCR at two thirty, I pick them up at two forty and three and four. And then there's basketball practice or whatever. And then I come home and do the laundry, and then they go to bed at ten, and then I write.
DM: And how late do you normally stay up?
SS: Until about one.
DM: You got a Guggenheim at one point. So you didn't need to stay up until one during that time. You could take care of your bunny rabbit.
SS: I applied for a Guggenheim. I have thirteen rabbits.
DM: Thirteen rabbits!
SS: And I told them when I applied for the Guggenheim that I'd like to stay at home during the day and sleep at night. I stayed home. I got some time off and wrote Highwire Moon. That was back in '98. It was a long time ago. The book came out in 2001. My newest book comes out in 2006.
DM: Really? A new book.
SS: I have a young adult novel that will come out next year, too.
DM: You've written some children's books as well.
SS: I published one children's book in '95. And the person who just bought the young adult novel wants to look at the other children's books I wrote. I've written five other children's books. She's looking at those now. The young adult novel is for ages nine through twelve. That'll be my first book in that genre. And don't know when it will come out because it was just sold yesterday.
DM: Well congratulations.
SS: Thank you.
DM: A student of yours once complained that he didn't have enough time, and you told him about your tight schedule and said, "What's your excuse?"
SS: I like to tease him about that. He's a single dad.
DM: I wasn't sure about the context.
SS: Well it's true. If someone says they couldn't get their work done because they didn't have enough time, I'm not very sympathetic. If there's ever a fight about who has the least amount of time I usually win.
DM: How old were you when you started writing?
SS: I wrote my first short story when I was sixteen for that creative writing class at RCC. Before then I read a lot. I wrote a lot of sports stories. I used to like to write sports articles when I was in junior high. I liked watching football and basketball games and then writing an article about it. I was practicing to be a sports writer. I wrote a lot of poetry when I was in junior high and high school. And in my junior year in high school I started writing short stories.
DM: There's your short story collection, Aquaboogie.
SS: I wrote several of those stories when I was twenty and twenty-one. I went to graduate school when I was twenty-two. I was young. And I got married when I was twenty-two. I wrote most of the stories in Aquaboogie—probably about eight of them—in graduate school. And I wrote another six of them when I got out of graduate school.
DM: That's so wonderful, I think. You've worked so hard.
SS: Well that's what I do. Other people do other things. Some people build houses, and others work with computers. The only reason I write stories is because that's what I do. I don't sing, I don't dance, I don't paint. I can cook really well.
DM: Do you even call yourself a writer? Some people don't like to call themselves writers. Some people say, "I'm a person who writes." Like Joyce Carol Oates. She won't call herself a writer.
DM: I know she's blurbed a number of your books. What a determined person she is.
SS: She's really prolific.
DM: Yes she is. I deeply admire her work.
SS: I don't call myself anything. It's not something that I think about. I don't wake up in the morning and think, "I'm blonde." If someone asks what you do, you tell them, right? I mean, I write everyday, and this will be my sixth book or something like that. But I don't walk around saying, "I'm a mom." It's just what I do. So as far as I'm concerned, you're a writer if you write. And I don't think you even have to be published to call yourself a writer. Think about it. Don't you write stuff that you never show anybody? I have at least fifteen essays and four short stories that I've never shown anybody. I wrote them and I really like them, and sometimes I think, "Oh, I should do something with these." And then I read them again and I think, "No. I wrote them for myself, basically." So I think you're still a writer even if you do that. And you're still a dancer if you dance at a ballet company and you have a day job—you're still a dancer. That's what I think.
And when you're sitting in a chair, you're listening to what someone says. And if you can't take a walk and notice the way the jacaranda tree looks against the building—well? I was on a panel in Pasadena ( Calif.) and it was about Los Angeles writers, and someone said, "Even when I'm not working I'm working." Somebody might think that's very funny. They might say you're only writing when you're actually typing. But even when you're not writing, you're actually still writing.
But I don't think you can do that with the television. The one thing I can't say is, "I spent four hours watching TV today because I was working on my book."
You can listen to music and write. I drink Tazo Tea while I write. You know the hot tea?
DM: Yes, I love Tazo Tea. I love their iced tea.
SS: I didn't even know until recently that they had iced tea. It's good stuff.
DM: It is. When I go to Barnes & Noble I get a tea and then wander around the store.
Which books did you treasure as a child?
SS: I really loved those Marguerite Henry horse books as a kid—all the books about horses. And probably A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And I borrowed them all from the Riverside Public Library.
DM: Do you buy many books or do you mostly borrow them?
SS: I don't buy very many books. But I don't come to the library very often anymore because I have the UCR library, and my kids have their own library at school. I miss the library. But when I was a little kid I came to the library every week. We also had the book mobile.
DM: The book mobile. They've been talking about starting up that program again.
SS: The book mobile used to drive through my neighborhood. And so I went to the Alpha Beta parking lot and checked out books from the book mobile. That's when I checked out A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. That was good. And I also read Anne of Green Gables. That was a great series. And then Betsy Tacy. I checked all of those books out from the Riverside Public Library over and over again. And those books are all about girls who ended up becoming writers. Betsy becomes a journalist. Anne becomes a writer. And also the character Francie in Brooklyn.
DM: Whom do you enjoy reading these days?
SS: Joanne Harris. She's good. She's one of my favorite novelists. I check out all her books out at the library. I like Five Quarters of the Orange.
DM: How about Chocolat?
SS: Chocolat was good but Five Quarters of the Orange is my favorite. And then Holy Fools was good. And I just started Coastliners. She's really good.
I like Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Mosley. In the mystery genre I like Walter Mosley and James Lee Burke. I really enjoy mysteries. I read a lot of mysteries. I like Louise Erdrich. I'm a big Leslie Marmon Silko fan. I love Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. And then there are some younger contemporary writers I really like. A. Manette Ansay is one. She's one of my favorites. She writes about Wisconsin. There are a lot of writers where I'll look for their new book—like Joanne Harris. I like looking for their new books.
DM: I love to read books of a religious nature--Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, Reynolds Price.
SS: I go to church every Sunday. It's right down the street. I've been going there for ten years. Before that I went to Calvary Presbyterian. When I was a little kid I went to the church across from the library. But my mom doesn't go to church.
DM: I don't care for the large group atmosphere.
SS: I like the church community. I'm on a lot of committees. We feed the homeless. We do a lot of missions work. We do a lot of volunteering and donations—AIDS in Africa. I like that. I like my church family, my church group. What I like about church are the rituals. I like going to church on Sunday. I like the way our sanctuary looks. I like the different services we do throughout the year. I like decorating the church at Christmas time. Do you know what I mean? There's a certain ritual aspect to church.
SS: I like to receive Holy Communion. That's once a month, and it's a time when you reflect on the month. That's what I tell my kids. And it's just an hour out of your week that you're in church. You know what I'm saying? The rest of the time you do whatever you need to do on your own.
DM: I read books about it all the time.
SS: And I've never read about God or religion or church. And I've never read a book about writing, either.
SS: No. Never. Why would I want to read a book about writing? I talk about writing in school, and I write all the time.
DM: I appreciate the kind reassurance I find in books about writing.
SS: Because you don't go to workshops. I went to college, and then I went to graduate school for two years.
DM: Do you think that would resolve it? I guess it depends on each person.
SS: I like reading fiction, and I like reading poetry, and I like reading essays, but I've never read about it. And plus, I teach writing all day.
DM: That's a good point. You teach it all day.
SS: Why would I want to go home and read about it?
DM: You started teaching at a fairly young age, too.
SS: I graduated from Amherst when I was twenty-four and then I started teaching at RCC. I taught at RCC for a year-and-a-half. I started teaching at UCR when I was twenty-seven. That's pretty young. Almost all of my students were older than I was.
DM: That didn't bother you in the slightest.
SS: Nope. Because older people have better stories to tell. I liked my students at RCC. I taught there at night, and a lot of them were returning students, and they had really good stories.
*This interview took place in spring 2005. Read some of Susan Straight's essays on Salon.com.