orange into GRAPE and grape into ORANGE

My novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying, has been out for two years this fall. It’s increasingly rare to hear from a reader encountering it for the first time, but because I recently moved and found a vibrant and supportive literary community, I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to put it into new hands. Last weekend, as I settled in to watch some performance art among the rocks of Joshua Tree National Park (have I mentioned how much I love this place?), a reader told me she’d noticed a tiny detail in NOFOD that no one else has, at least as far as I know. When she told me, I shrieked in surprise and delight. (Apologies, I know how sound carries in the desert.)

What she found is a tiny “Easter egg” I planted in honor of the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who I happen to be related to but would revere for her words and example regardless. As a kid, I knew of her but didn’t spend time with her, and she was gone before I could express my appreciation. I reread her poems often, taking inspiration and reassurance from her wise, bold, precise language.

I nestled a reference to her poem “Ballad of Orange and Grape” (from Breaking Open, 1973) into Chapter Nine of NOFOD. Marko, the main character, is in New York City, stalking Daniel, a man who hurt his beloved Lola and may have answers Marko intends to demand. Marko and Lola are equally reviled in their mid-Hudson Valley hometown. They both have sketchy pasts, questionable appearance, bad habits. They are barely tolerated. How we judge and label others—how we consider them “others,” in fact—are questions that developed into themes for NOFOD, and which I find addressed in Muriel’s work.

So I sent her a tiny, belated thank you, knowing it might go unnoticed. I am so grateful to the reader who noticed my tribute and I remain grateful to every reader, especially those who have mentioned something, however small, that resonated with them. That is, of course, the best moment for a writer: making that connection.

Please take a couple of minutes to hear “Ballad of Orange and Grape,” read by the poet:

 “Not EVERYTHING is a metaphor, Mom.”

This, from my laid back, pragmatic 18-year-old. He’s very wise, but on this he is wrong. EVERYTHING, for me, is metaphor.

Maybe I can blame my decades-old English degree, earned by dissecting books as if fetal pigs, prying loose each pickled piece to be parsed and analyzed, examined microscopically. Maybe it’s just who I’ve always been, a hopeful cynic, a nature-worshiping atheist in search of…what? Not answers. I don’t trust those, generally. Insight, maybe. Instinctively, reflexively, I seek to make some sense of my fellow humans or maybe even myself. I want to understand this human condition with which we’ve all been afflicted.

A few weeks ago the sky fell. Or rather, the ceiling did. Water worked its silent destruction. A ruined roof shingle developed a pin-sized hole, and quietly, invisibly, over who knows how short or long a time, the rain did its worst. There were no hints or portents. One day we had a thunderstorm, no different than any before, but this time the pressure proved too much. The ceiling gave way. What should be held outside was suddenly in. Sodden sheet rock and insulation hung from the gaping, dripping hole like spittle from a monster’s mouth. The ceiling had just been there, firm and clean. Now it was a mess.

My life, metaphorically. How could I see it any other way?

It had been a difficult few weeks, even before the sky fell. I’d struggled to solider on as always, like the Strong Woman™ I am. That label is a triumph and a burden. Lately the burden had grown heavy. I’d taken hits that slowed my momentum. Changes were constant and discouraging. I’d begun saying things like “I’m hanging on by my fingernails,” “white-knuckling it,” “circling the drain.” This is not helpful self-talk. But even Strong Women™ have a breaking point. When it is reached, if we dare tell, we may find ourselves disappointed by the response. Our loved ones are used to our self-reliance, our resilience. We look okay: the exterior appears as firm and clean as ever. There are no hints or portents of the mounting pressure. But one day: just one drop too many. Everything collapses. Everything is exposed.

Barn’s burnt down—
now
I can see the moon.
-Mizuta Masahide

It was a relief. I could no longer pretend to hold everything together. I had to confront the fact that this was never possible—too much is out of my control. In wreckage there is truth. It hangs like eviscerated innards for all to see, like dripping wet insulation. For a moment, I wasn’t strong. I fell all the way down. From the floor I stared up at everything I could not control and thought of metaphors. The collapse was mine, just in the nick of time.

Be Brave; Live Now: a New Year’s Wish

2016 can’t show itself out soon enough. Aside from all the lost icons and heroes, the contentious, too-long U.S. election ruined any sense of unity on the Left, killed the dream of a woman president, and ripped off a bandage to reveal our festering, misogynist, racist mess. And then there’s my personal life. I won’t get into that.

In 2017 my only child will leave for college. That’s a good thing, the best. He is whip-smart and thoroughly kind and will improve the world just by living in it. He’s a straight white male who gets it. Yes, I’m writing this through tears but I’m not sad, really.

In 2017 I will move to California’s Mojave desert, where I’ve dreamed of living since I first encountered it years ago. Immediately, it felt like home. The silence, so complete, is precious comfort. I am running toward it, laden with baggage. Okay, not running. But I am moving, inexorably.

I am moving toward the only things I know for sure: I must be somewhere I can write and edit and make art and be myself and think. I believe that California will be a safer place for women than any state that went for Trump, as did the state I’ve lived in for a decade: Georgia. Georgia, I will remember you like an ex-lover: with some fondness, but completely sure that we are done. Goodbye, good luck. Surprisingly, my county, north of Atlanta and traditionally conservative, went for Hillary. A small, bright spot of blue in a sea of angry red. I take comfort in that, and some pride. For years I stuck my neck out in hostile territory, despite knowing I was surrounded by concealed, loaded guns. I won’t miss that.

I am running away to California as I did once before, in 1990. So many adventures began for me in San Francisco. So many heartbreaks. I have no illusions that California is a perfect place, not at all, or immune to the destruction that will be wrought by Trump & Co. But California is a hopeful, forward-looking place. That’s where I want to be.

In 2017 I will finish (?) my current novel-in-progress, which I love and can’t wait to share but I’ll have to write it first, won’t I? Too much of it still lives in my imagination but you can’t see that. You can’t hear what I’m trying to say unless I say it. So in 2017, I will try.

I wish everyone moments of joy in the new year, and moments of blinding outrage, too, because without that how will we stay motivated to fight? Gather your strength; we will need it. Say what you mean. Go where you want.

Move inexorably toward whatever you know for sure, even if it is only one small thing. Be brave. Live now. I am writing this through tears but I’m not sad, or not only.

Born and Dying: My First Book’s First Year

cvrIt’s not like I had no idea what to expect. As a bookseller I assisted with author events both swanky and huge (Pat Conroy at a Connecticut yacht-club brunch) and tiny and spare (local writers at my used bookstore in Kingston, New York). As a book buyer for the wholesaler Baker & Taylor, I bought everything from small press titles to kids books to some of the largest adult trade lines (all of which have since folded into Random Penguin–yes, I know they prefer the names reversed.) Book promotion is an enormous challenge at every level. Even backed by a corporate publisher’s PR machine, many books struggle to attract interest. Every year, thousands of excellent books are published and ignored. It’s an honor to reach any readers. And if you hear from a few who loved your book and got what you were trying to say–well, let that wash over you, because that connection is everything. You get used to the non-responses from places you’d hoped to appear. You get used to leaving readings with unsold books. To empty seats in the audience. To other books getting more attention and praise. You stay grateful throughout.

So, to celebrate Not On Fire, Only Dying‘s first year, a multimedia look back. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: thank you for hearing me.

Pics or it didn’t happen: proof it wasn’t a strange, beautiful dream with too much public speaking:

[slideshow_deploy id=’1025′]

Original music composed by Naomi Hamby for Not On Fire, Only Dying:

“Marko’s Theme” was used for the book trailer. Here it is accompanied by the previously unreleased “Lola’s Theme.”

Speaking of the trailer:

Maybe you’d like another listen to Marko’s mixtape?

Select blog posts written through acceptance, publication, and promotion. Short and honest:

Thank you for hearing me. (12/31/14)
Cats get in the way. (1/23/15)
No big deal, but…MY BOOK HAS A COVER. *swoon* (3/26/15)
Blurbs and Preorders and THANK YOU. (5/4/15)
Presenting my book trailer! And insecurities… (7/3/15)
Brooklyn, beginning. (9/5/15)
Have I mentioned I have a new book out? (9/29/15)
But is it art? On book reviews. (10/18/15)
More than chocolate? (2/4/16)`
What do you want? (5/11/16)

Thank you to everyone who read this book (and to those who have a copy and might yet get around to reading it–no worries. Trust me, I know how that goes. Maybe once in a while something small and unrelated will remind you of Not On Fire, Only Dying.

Happens to me all the time:

Thanks, I failed better.

This July I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo, my first crack at this sort of writing “sprint.” I failed spectacularly.

The original NaNoWriMo, held every November, challenges writers to bang out a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. The “Camp” allows writers to set their own word count goal. The time was right: Finally, after countless outlines, isolated scenes, and false starts, I had a few thousand words of a new novel. I didn’t hate them. That weren’t completely wrong. I knew the story I wanted to tell. I knew the characters well enough to trust where they led me. I set a modest goal: 15,500 words, just 500 a day. I had a lot going on, personally, but I figured I’d work around it. I was determined to try.

I did try, and I failed. fail-better-red-5251

I did not come close. Life interfered, as I feared it might. In all the ways that feed and distract a writer. I wrote a fraction of what I’d hoped. I failed but I wrote 4,349 words. 4,349 new words building on those already written, pointing me more clearly in the direction this novel will take. 4,349 words that brought my characters to life and sent me into fits of deep planning. 4,349 words is not much. Not enough. But it’s a lot more than I wrote the month before.

If I want to finish this novel I’d better return to this manuscript every single day, give myself increasingly ambitious word count goals. I know I can do it. I’ve completed and revised (and revised) two novels and rewritten one word by word. That one, Not On Fire, Only Dying, was published last year.

I will return to it (what a relief!) when I appear at the Decatur Book Festival‘s Emerging Writers Stage at 2:20 PM on Sun Sept 4. I’ll give a very brief reading, followed by a signing. Not On Fire, Only Dying will be available for purchase throughout the festival.

Now I should get back to work. I’ve got lots more failing to do.

What do you want?

9th birthday 1977Today I am the youngest I’ll ever be again. And I am older. Birthdays aren’t so exciting anymore, are they? Not like when you’re nine, the age I am in this picture. What a great age to be–a kid, not a child. A BIG kid. But not yet ten which is SO OLD, a DECADE!

We were in Jacksonville, Florida, with my dad who was there to give a speech. He gave speeches all the time, but this one was special because it was MY BIRTHDAY and some wonderful stranger made me this DOLL CAKE. I wish I could say I’m grinning because I’m taking a knife to the Patriarchy but that is genuine joy on my face because I LOVED DOLLS. They had everything to do with making me a writer. But on that day in 1977, it was just about that DRESS which I hope you realize is made of FROSTED CAKE.

And the doll really was beautiful, you can’t see that in this picture. With big blue eyes like I wished I had.

cvrOn my ninth birthday I knew what I wanted: that cake, that doll. Now? Well, my characters are my dolls. And I can eat cake whenever I want although I try not to because ugh carbs and sugar and but f*ck it–it’s my birthday. I’ll never be this young again. What do I want, this birthday? The best gift I could receive is support for my novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying, which came out last fall. NOFOD is the truest part of me, the most eloquent conversation I’ve ever managed. If you get it, you get me.

So tell me if you read it. Tell me what you liked about it (I will squirm with discomfort but I’ll love it and be grateful.) Ask me questions. Tell other people about it. Review it. Show it off in your hands. If you have a blog, invite me to contribute. Mention it to your book group or favorite bookstore. I’ll read from and discuss it, wherever I’m asked! You’ll make this birthday girl as happy as a DOLL CAKE once did. And that is VERY happy.

xSusan

5 WAYS HELP AUTHOR

 

 

Talk Talk: news about interviews

I recently found myself in the completely new (to me) position of being interviewed while at the same time I interviewed someone else. Everyone involved is a writer: MaryAnne Kolton, who had wonderful things to say about Not On Fire, Only Dying, is conducting an interview with me. I hope to be able to share news of its publication soon. Her perceptive, thoughtful questions send me into deep memory and contemplation. I find it thrilling and terrifying. It’s a challenge for this introvert, stepping out from behind the veil of fiction.

Of course I am wildly grateful for the opportunity to discuss the book, which I always believed in, even when it seemed it would never find its home. I never expected it to have a huge audience, but I believed–and have since had it confirmed–that some fine people would read it and get it and love it hard.

At the same time I interviewed Grant Faulkner. He is a fascinating contradiction: co-founder of the journal 100 Word Story and author of Fissures, a collection of his own spare, exquisitely crafted 100-word stories. He’s also Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that month-long marathon in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel, however rough. This happens to be an exciting time in Grant’s emerging career. The interview was published at Necessary Fiction, where I serve as Reviews Editor.

All this Talk Talk-ing about myself reminds me of the 80s (honestly what doesn’t? I’ll use any excuse.) Gwen, you’re fierce and I love you, but you almost ruined this song for me. The antidote is listening to the original. And for a few minutes: no talk.

 

Hudson Valley writers! Let’s read.

Writers: Is your work set in the Hudson Valley? Is it your home, present or past? I want to read there this fall and I could use some company. Maybe yours?

Not On Fire, Only Dying is set in the fictional town of Schendenkill, NY, on the west bank of the river in the mid-Hudson Valley. The search for a (possibly?) missing newborn also brings the characters down to NYC’s East Village. Not On Fire, Only Dying was inspired by the years I lived in Kingston, in Ulster County, NY, in an apartment above my tiny used bookshop. It’s where my son spent his first years. For now I live in the South, but my heart and this book belong to the Hudson Valley.

My book tour feels incomplete. It doesn’t feel right, with all the places I’ve gone to promote it, that I haven’t read from NOFOD in the place it began. (And I want an excuse to be there when those colors hit.)

Last fall, when NOFOD debuted, I think I failed to communicate how much this is a book of that region. Now, when I approach bookstores and libraries, I’ll include this wonderful review, which said, among other lovely things: “The author’s poetic, laser-focused empathy unmasks life on the urban edge of Ulster County as Steinbeck’s did Cannery Row, revealing ‘normal’ as a shoddy sham.”

Maybe I’ll also include a tiny excerpt like the one below.

If you’re interested, please get in touch. I want to know the connection between your work and this area. I want to know that our fiction makes sense together. Maybe we’ll meet in the Hudson Valley this fall, sell some books. Maybe we’ll hear each other’s words and swoon.
__________

Excerpt (from Chapter Three):

This week is the ecstatic pinnacle of autumn. The entire valley is aflame. The hills on both sides of the Hudson burn crimson and tangerine. In the weeks to come, the leaves will starve, then drop. Fall is about endings, Marko thinks. Death.

This isn’t the right attitude for a Schendenkill native. Schendenkill has long relied on seasonal visitors, or “leaf peepers.” This is the time of year to hike to the highest point you can: maybe Sam’s Point. From there the Shawangunk Ridge stretches endlessly, punctuated by glassy, sky-mirror lakes. The views are almost too much, too intense. Colors swim as with the onset of a hallucinogen.

His mother, always too sick to go herself, let him hike these trails so long as he was with his sisters, who were older. Hiking alone is discouraged. Someone must be nearby in case you swoon. Someone must remind you that the land you see is not on fire, only dying. Gently, as it’s meant to.

Overlook Mountain Sunset

More than chocolate?

10 days until Valentine’s Day! What does your lover want even more than chocolate? (Trick question. Your lover wants chocolate AND other stuff.) May I suggest a copy of Not On Fire, Only Dying?
Untitled-4
You may have heard about its desperate, marginalized characters and Lola’s [possibly?] missing newborn, but did you know it’s also a love story? It is, truly. It doesn’t shy from ugliness but it believes deeply in hope and redemption and, yes, love.

Not On Fire, Only Dying is available from the publisher, Twisted Road Publications, your fave indie bookstore, or from one of the big guys—Right now it’s discounted at both B&N and Amazon. Thank you for the love you’ve shown me and my book over the months since its release. I already have my gift (but I’ll always accept chocolate).

xo Susan

__________

Excerpt (from Chap. 5): For the last year Marko has loved Lola from afar, following their one and only time together. Now they’ve just made love a second time.

__________

The night outside is endless black, rising into space. He has stripped off his sweater, at last, and everything else. He is curled around Lola, her bottom resting in the damp curve of his lap. His spine juts like the bony seam of a tortoise shell.

“Is he dead, Lola?” he whispers. He strokes a fingernail along her arm, watches the goose bumps appear and disappear.

She says nothing, but he knows she’s not asleep. Her breathing is light and irregular. For a moment she doesn’t breathe at all.

“Our baby,” he presses.

“We don’t—”

“Fine, Lola. Your baby.”

“Don’t you really want to ask, ‘Is he real?’”

“Is he?”

This takes her a moment. “As real as I am.”

“Is he dead?” Marko repeats.

He would rather be quiet. He wants to be here, with her, for as long as she’ll allow. Let her speak in riddles, or say nothing at all.

But now he’s asked, he must know.

It’s not her fault, so sick and no one watching her. Her sickness metastasized, but no one checked. She kept the extent of it hidden from everyone, even him. It’s not her fault, if one day she got confused. If she forgot the baby was real and fragile. It’s not her fault that being needed panics her.

They will bear the detective’s disgust together. Marko will stand beside Lola and explain that no one helped her, not even him, and she can’t be held responsible. He won’t let her live in a room without visitors. He’ll come as often as they allow and bring everything she likes: her cigarettes, cream for her coffee, the Swedish fish candy she told him she ate as a child. He’ll smuggle in tiny wedges of hash for her to pinch into sandwiches, to take the edge off the fluorescent lights. What else? He would find out what else.

Hold me responsible, he’ll tell the detective. I should have kept myself curled around her like this, always.

Or he’ll help her disappear, if that’s what she wants. There’s a throb of pain, at the thought of losing her again. But he will help her, however much it hurts him.

__________

 

Let’s soar together in the New Year. Let’s roar.

According to shitty magazines, new mothers should get their bodies “back” roughly six weeks post-birth. After I had my son in 1998, it was almost a year before I recognized my body. Even then, weighing the same as it did before growing and delivering a healthy human child, it was different. I did not get my body “back” as it had been.

Publishing a book is often likened to childbirth. Both involve tremendous work before and after. The debut changes everything. Long before I knew Not On Fire, Only Dying would be published, changes in me were underway. Writing this book reframed my self-perception, forced me to deeply consider what I meant to say. The manuscript, my thumping heart, was thrust into disinterested hands until the word “No” became a background thrum. Like most writers, I had hopeless days.

And then—the euphoria of acceptance, but, with it, fresh challenges: asking for blurbs, for opportunities to read and promote, for reviews; not to mention traveling to bookstores, standing in front of audiences, fielding questions—none of it came easily to this introvert. Sometimes I was hugely uncomfortable. But I did it. Of course it changed me, summoning courage over and over. I became myself. Stronger. I began to speak my mind in ways I hadn’t always, reject old roles I used to play. Once again, the shape of me changed.

On September 15, 2015, Not On Fire, Only Dying was born. Now it exists in the world independently, like my child. Some people connect with it and say lovely things about it. Some people don’t care that I made a baby or a book. This year I learned that some (who knew me once but not recently) just want me to be quiet. Compliant. They want me to play along. But I can’t do that and be this person I’ve become. This person I am.

A writer must reject those who prefer her as she was before her book, just as she must reject the gossip rag shaming a new mom for looking different. As if for months she did not make room inside herself, withstanding exhaustion and discomfort and fear of the pain of birth, of the baby not being what people hoped, of it being her fault. As if she did not suffer as her body wrenched apart to push this baby from cozy uterus, through cervix and vagina, and into other people’s hands.

As if she did not survive it, and triumph.

2015 shook my foundation and sent me soaring. With any luck I’ll have another year just like it soon. And I wish you nothing less. Let’s soar together in the New Year. Let’s roar.

cow licking clean its just newborn red calf