As The Plot Thins (ATPT): Thanks for taking the time to answer some of our questions. To start out, can you tell us a bit about your writing style? What’s your ideal writing environment? Do you follow a specific process when writing?
Susan Coll (SC): I’d say my style is dogged. I just keep writing even when I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say. I write a lot of bad early drafts. I write myself into brick walls and then I back up and start over again. It’s not pretty but I usually get where I’m going in the end. Because I have so little time to write these days, I’ve become very disciplined. I write when I can, wherever I happen to be, as long as it’s reasonably quiet.
ATPT: When writing, do you plot out your books ahead of time or is it more of a free flowing process that you later edit? How did the story of The Stager come to be? Is it based partly off personal experience or is it off of something in Washington D.C. culture?
SC: I typically have a rough idea of the storyline, but I’m not one of those people who can outline the entire novel. I envy those people, but for me it’s intuitive and sometimes messy. Fortunately I love revising—that’s the best part for me. I enjoy toying with language far more than plotting, which is sometimes excruciating.
About seven years ago, when I sold my house, the Realtor insisted I hire a stager. I didn’t give this much thought until a stranger came into my home and started taking my pictures off the walls and rearranging my furniture. Even though I wasn’t particularly attached to my house and was eager to sell it, I suddenly became defensive and emotional, which made me realize what an invasive process this is. It occurred to me on the spot that this was a rich narrative device: having a stranger—or worse, someone who you actually know—mucking around in your private space, possibly even digging up skeletons. The very idea of depersonalizing a home so that others can imagine themselves living there is rich with metaphor, as well.
ATPT: Dominique is a pretty influential character in The Stager. What made you pick a rabbit? Did you have other animals or character types picked out for that role or was it always a rabbit?
SC: The rabbit was at the center of the novel from the start, but he was never meant to play such a pivotal role. All I knew was that there was a bad smell in the house because he had chewed through an electrical wire that led to the freezer. I’m a pretty empirical person and yet I must say that the Dominique character took on a life of his own. He wanted a central role in the book. As I began writing the last section he just…started speaking. So I stepped back and let him do his thing.
ATPT: Is there a point in time that you reference when you decided you wanted to be a writer? Or were you always pretty convinced this is what you wanted to do with your life?
SC: I’ve always loved to read. My family moved frequently when I was growing up, and while it was a challenge to make new friends every time we relocated, the books were always there. I think the love of reading led naturally to the desire to write. I even loved writing high school English papers. Go figure.
ATPT: Who are/were you inspired by to start writing? What’s the best piece of writing advice you have for aspiring authors?
SC: One of my favorite books as a teenager was Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald; that scene on the beach in the French Riviera is seared into my consciousness. It’s so vividly written—I can see the sand, the raft in the Mediterranean Sea, Nicole Diver tanning with her pearls on. Oh my. To be able to write a scene like that. I also remember a scene in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime that got my heart racing, having to do with aligning a chair with a slant of light. It seemed kind of cheesy last time I looked at it, but at the time the symbolism blew my mind.
My best piece of advice for aspiring and published authors is to write because your heart starts racing when you read, or write, a perfect sentence. If fame and fortune, or even a return on your book advance or a long shelf life in a bookstore are part of the fantasy, odds are you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
ATPT: Do you have plans to write anything aside from literary fiction in the future? Do you have any projects planned for the future?
SC: I’m working such long hours right now that I am forcing myself to not stress about the next project. I have notes for a possible memoir, and I’m thrilled to be going to Yaddo in the winter, so my plan is to get back to work then and try to let it all marinate in my head in the meantime.
ATPT: Out of your five current books, do you see one as more successful than any others? Is there a writing achievement you’re proud of?
SC: In terms of sales and reviews, Acceptance was the most commercially successful. But I’m most proud of The Stager. I was able to let go with this book, to both embrace the conventions of comedy but let loose a bit and play with form.
ATPT: Your novel Acceptance was adapted for television. Any talk of seeing The Stager on screen?
SC: Oh, one can dream! My film agent is very excited about the possibilities, but I know how this business works, so best not to think too much about it.
Big thanks again to Susan for participating in this interview with us. Thanks also goes out to Lottchen Shivers at FSG Books for helping us set up the interview.
The Stager was released on July 8th, 2014. You can find it and all of Susan’s other books on her Amazon page for purchase.