Sunday, October 17, 2010

Finding your place

Susan Straight found her place as a writer in the town where she was born. She loves the land and people of inland Southern California. As a high school student, she melded into the extended African American family of her boyfriend (now her ex-husband and father of her three daughters). She absorbed their history and culture, the cadence of their voices, and it spills onto the pages of many of her books as it does her life.
The other night I attended a reading and signing at the Culver Center of the Arts in Riverside, Calif. This is the town Susan fictionalizes as Rio Seco in her novels. She was introduced by Marion Mitchell-Wilson, executive director of the Inlandia Institute, which named Susan as its first Literary Laureate. "Susan embodies our entire mission--to celebrate the people who live, work and write about this place."
Susan, who has written six novels, was a 2001 finalist for the National Book Award and her short stories won the O. Henry Prize and an Edgar Award. But she's so down-to-earth, she baked cupcakes and her mother baked brownies for the booksigning.
She told the audience that she carries small notebooks with her most of the time but writes on anything that's handy, like the subscription cards inside magazines she finds at the gym. "I wrote a big scene on a Disneyland Day Pass."
Her latest book grew out of two events that happened years ago and waited to find their place in a story. One was a beautiful but grief-stricken woman Susan saw every time she rode a bus as a student at USC, and the other was a murdered girl whose mother said no one would care that someone killed her daughter because she was black.
In TAKE ONE CANDLE LIGHT A ROOM, Glorette, a woman who turned every man's head loses herself to crack when her heart is broken. She's found dead, but no cops are called. Susan's haunting prose: Her small body folded in on itself by someone who'd left her in a shopping cart in an alley behind a taqueria, her long black hair, tangled around her beautiful face and falling through the metal mesh that left marks on her cheek.
Fantine, the story's narrator who left Rio Seco, gets a call from her sister-in-law on the anniversary of Glorette's death.
"So you might drop by, huh? If you ain't too busy." Cerise sounded pissed, like she did every single time we talked. She was mad at me for being in L.A., mad at my brother Lafayette for leaving her and their kids, and mad at Glorette for being dead.
"Fantine!" she whispered harshly. "You didn't never see her anymore! But I saw her all the time." Cerise was crying now. "If I went to get my nails done. Or at Rite Aid. She went in there for a break."
I didn't know what to say. I tried to imagine what Glorette had looked like by then.
"She would just smile and say, 'Hey, girl,' like it wasn't no big thang she had a bruise on her neck."
I plan to write more about the book in a future post, but I wanted to put this up to let people know Susan's on tour. If you're in New Orleans, she'll be at the Garden District Bookstore on Oct. 19. Then on the 20th, she'll be at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. In November, she'll be in Washington and California. For a complete itinerary, check Random House.
I'll leave you with some advice to writers from Susan "to stop and look at the world, not judge it. Just be in it."


The Words Crafter said...

In those snippets, she really nails dialogue-my weakness.

Very intriguing excerpts, thanks for sharing them.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Sounds like a wonderful book. I hadn't heard of this author. Thanks for the introduction.

Yat-Yee said...

As I have gotten older, I've become aware of more ways that my judgmental attitude has reared its ugly head. "Look at the world, not judge it" is something that I need to be reminded constantly. Thanks.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Just be in it.

That's wonderful advice.

And I love the idea of writing a scene on a Disneyland pass!

Donna said...

I have just begun reading "Take One Candle Light a Room" and I'm already entranced. I'm also terribly worried about Victor. In addition to voice and place, Susan Straight knows how to build tension, which is particularly difficult for me as a writer. Thanks for writing about her.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@WordsCrafter: Her dialogue is sooooo good. When the older Louisiana men talk, the words seem like music. And it all sounds authentic. I never feel played.

@Sherrie: It's a stunning book, as is the last one, A Million Nightingales. I hope you read her sometime.

@Yat-Yee: That comment really got me, too. As writers, I think we need to let each character be what he or she is and not judge them. That's how we really get to the heart of them.

@Stephanie: Isn't that the best line? I think I need to put that on a post-it in front of me: Just be in it.

@Donna: I'm scared for Victor, too. Susan nails so many aspects of good writing that I'm lost in the world and the words.

Bish Denham said...

Wow. Beautiful. Love the quote/advice to authors.

Lydia Kang said...

Beautiful excerpts, thank you! And I agree, that word of advice at the end is just golden.

Robyn Campbell said...

Lovely Pat. And the advice is terrific. I only judge the FOOL that gave my computer the virus that wiped everything out. God understands my feelings on this. :)

I had not heard of this author. I will be buying her books now. Thanks for telling us about her. "Just be in it." I love that!

Hugs Pat.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I love this, Tricia, and her advice to writers is perfect! :-)

Davin Malasarn said...

That's wonderful advice at the end! And, following it would be very relaxing and enjoyable too! I recommend everyone do it.

Thanks for telling us about Susan, Tricia.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Bish: She's sooo good. I hope you read her books sometime.

@Lydia: It is. Solid gold.

@Robyn: I'm heartbroken over your loss of all your pictures. One wants to judge such fools.
I was really struck by that advice, because I think that's how we create characters that resonate, by not judging them.

@Shannon: It's my new mantra. :)

@Domey: I think you'd love her books. She writes literary fiction that has street smarts and layers of emotional depth.

L.T. Elliot said...

Excellent excerpts! Thanks for sharing these with us. Now I wish I were in New Orleans!

Hannah said...

I want to read that just from the excerpts alone! That's fantastic advice too.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

Nice! I haven't heard of this, so thank you for the introduction! Love it.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@LT: How I wish you could be, too. For that matter, I'd love to be in New Orleans right now! I'm glad you enjoyed the excerpts. The book is so riveting.

@Hannah: Oh, I hope you read it. I'm so engrossed in it right now. Haven't finished. It's got me worried for the characters and enchanted by the writing. In fact, I've had several eye-opening moments about craft as I've read.

@TerryLynn: Glad to oblige. ;)

Unknown said...

Hadn't heard of her, but she sounds like my kind of gal. :) Thanks for sharing.

VR Barkowski said...

Wonderful advice. I've never read Susan's work, but I plan to remedy that oversight soon. Thanks, Tricia.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Karen: She's an amazing writer. Thanks for stopping by.

@Viva: I think you're going to love her books. They're gritty and real but beautiful and lyric, as well.

Anonymous said...

Susan sounds like an amazing writer and person. Thanks for introducing her books to me!!

Sarah Laurence said...

Very powerful writing. Thanks for the introduction to Susan Straight.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Paul: She is amazing. I'm going to write much more about her and the book soon. I hope you enjoy reading her work.

@Sarah: It is powerful--authentic, gritty, riveting and beautiful. Glad you're intrigued.