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."