- Published: 14 September 2013 14 September 2013
Jo: The South, to me, is filled with fabulous, exotic names. Like Starla. How can you not love a character named Starla? Is there a story behind her name? Eula, too. Or shall it remain “one of Egypt’s mysteries”?
Susan: I can see Starla has influenced your phrasing. She had a way of doing that to me too!
Before I begin the actual writing process, I do a lot of character development (and not much in the way of plotting). In choosing a name, I usually think about when and where my character was born, who his/her parents were … how I’m going to feel about it after typing and retyping it for months on end. That said, I didn’t do any of that with either Starla or Eula. Oddly enough, they both sprang into my head with their names already pinned on them. Which, I suppose, actually is “one of Egypt’s mysteries,” even to the author.
Jo: Your writing is so rich, in part by the great colloquialisms that season each page. How do you find them, or do they find you?
Susan: It’s a combination. Many of them have no defined origin. They’ve just always been in my head, so I must have been hearing them since birth. A few of them I made up (it is fiction, after all). The rest have come from reading and traveling. A good writer is a good observer—and not ashamed to shush her husband so she can hear nearby conversations more clearly.
Jo: Have you ever changed a character’s name—or book title—in the eleventh hour?
Susan: Never a character’s name. By the eleventh hour, they are so real to me that it would be like changing the names of my grown children.
Book titles are something else entirely. A rarely have a title in mind when I begin writing, probably because I’m not always sure where my characters are going to take me. More than once I’ve had a “negotiation process” with a publisher to find the right title. Most of the time, as with Whistling Past the Graveyard, it appears to me in the writing process. When I typed the opening line of Chapter 8 of WPTG, I immediately thought, “That’s the title!” When that happens it provokes a little happy dance around my office.
Jo: Reading this story, I thought about the challenges of writing in the present time. Technology like cell phones and Amber Alerts, and the political correctness that smoothes away a lot of conflict, makes the past richer soil in which stories can grow. Was that why you set yours in the early 1960s?
Susan: Well, put! That is exactly why I started exploring time periods when planning this book. I began looking for a time when a child could go missing and the whole world wouldn’t be called to action within hours. Then I settled on 1963 Mississippi because of, as you say, “the richer soil.” It was a time of great change in our country overall, and so much of it centered around the Civil Rights movement. And as you said, it’s all about building conflict. Placing my duo in the segregated South placed the most obstacles in their path. At times it was very difficult to put my beloved characters into some of their harsh situations, but I felt it was important to not shy away from the reality of the time. The icing on the cake for my choice was that I was around in the 60s. I could draw from my own memories for many of the “childhood” details.
Jo: A child in danger or distress is immediately gripping. What were the challenges in writing from her perspective that you wouldn’t have had with an adult?
Susan: There were so many, more than I’d prepared myself for at the outset. By having Starla tell her story immediately, purely as a child (think Huckleberry Finn), as opposed an adult recounting an event that happened when he/she was a child (think Scout Finch), I limited my vocabulary and how I could present complicated situations. There was no adult understanding with which to ground the events. I had to present them with Starla’s child’s understanding and somehow infer to the reader that she was misinterpreting. It was challenging, but I feel it made for a much more intense narration.
Jo: As someone who lives in Indiana and has written books set in the South, how do you feel about Hemingway’s statement: “Never write about a place until you're away from it, because that gives you perspective.”
Susan: I do believe he has a point, although the world is much smaller for us than it was for Hemmingway. People are more transient. Mass media keeps us intimately connected with people and places far from us.
When you’re immersed in a particular culture, it is all you know (take Starla for example). In order to understand how it fits into the wider world, you have to remove yourself and experience life from an alternate viewpoint. Like I said, it’s much easier for us than for Hemingway. Which is a lucky thing, although I often do a research trip, I’m quite the homebody.
Jo: What writing advice would you give, to an amateur and a professional? (It can be the same or different for each.)
Susan: For both the writer in the beginning stages of development and those who have experience in publishing, there are two key things to keep at the forefront
1) Hone your craft. Learn from every experience. I feel I’m a much better writer now than when my first book was published … and I’m light-years ahead of where I was when I wrote my first five unpublished novels (that number says you must persevere to succeed). You learn from reading, from critiquing, from interacting with other writers, from workshops.
And 2) I believe Michael Connelly said it most concisely and best, “Write with your head down.” When you’re in the writing process, it should just be you and the page in front of you. Don’t let all of the distractions of expectations and worry about what’s going on in the publishing world outside your door. Shut it all out and bury yourself in your work. Give it your best, focused writing self, and allow your voice to sing.
Jo: Your book cover is sensational. Is there anything you’d like to say about it and book covers in general?
Susan: Whistling Past the Graveyard does have a great book cover, doesn’t it? I’m thrilled with it. I know I gave the team at Gallery Books a difficult task to capture the essence of this story (especially with a title that could be interpreted as paranormal or gothic!) and they rose to the occasion.
I think it’s important to give the reader the proper expectation of what’s behind that cover. A great marketing/sales cover is great, but only if the reader isn’t misled.
Jo: What are you working on now?
Susan: I’m writing a novel set in 1923 that features three displaced people, Henry, a 16-year-old orphan of German immigrants; Gil, a WWI veteran pilot; and Cora, an 18-year-old debutant whose family has lost their fortune.
These people have all been set adrift by life-altering circumstances and find themselves bound together by mutual need. Their tumultuous journey is fueled by blind obsessions and conflicting goals. They criss-cross the heartland, exploring the rapidly expanding role of aviation: from barnstorming to bootlegging, from a wildly popular flying circus to the newly founded and dangerous sport of air racing. Their lives entwine with farmers and tycoons, tent revivals and bootleggers. Love, both unrequited and otherwise, will bloom and wither; betrayals will occur. I haven’t yet decided who will achieve their goals and who will falter, but that makes my ride almost as fun as the reader’s.