How I Write: Susan Straight
Published: October 27, 2006
|The idea for Susan Straight's novel, A Million Nightingales, grew from an imagining of slavery and its legacy. It's a story about mothers and daughters and a harrowing tale of survival in a harsh world, whose brutal history still resonates today. Meticulously researched and rendered with startling beauty and authenticity, the novel provides a captivating portrait of 19th-century Louisiana and a stellar cast of unforgettable characters. Her previous novel, Highwire Noon, was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Commonwealth of California Gold Medal for Fiction. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, where she lives with her three daughters.|
I actually started out as a sports-writer. I didn't really start to write fiction until I was 16. I grew up in a rough neighborhood, and a lot of kids my age were beginning to experiment with drugs, so my mother decided to enroll me into a creative-writing class to keep me out of trouble. I loved it.
I earned my living as a sportswriter at USC. I didn't return to writing fiction until I was encouraged to go to graduate school.
Stories come to me. I'm always working on my fiction. I've been writing fiction for a long time now, and it's just the way my brain works. I don't see something in real life and then go home and write a story about it. My brain is always working on a story. It might be something that I've been thinking about for a year or longer. My latest novel took me five years to write.
I think of setting as another character. I always think of it as landscape, and I tell my students this,too. It's not just about setting. When you say "setting," it makes it feel fictional. Or, like you're only concerned about the landscape in terms of the creation of a character. Landscape, however, is everything that forms you, isn't it? It's about everything that in-forms a life. So, I think of it as a major character. However, that's not true for every novelist.
I live three blocks away from the house where I was born. I've lived in the same landscape all my life, except for the times when I was in college.
Fictionally, it's important for writers to know how landscape changes and influences your characters' lives. Russell Banks is a master at portraying how people cope with harsh winters. Louise Erdrich does a great job in portraying a fictional landscape, also.
I have to get the first draft down on paper. I don't do any editing until the first draft is done. It's important not to interrupt the flow of writing. I wrote about 80 percent of my latest novel by hand. I'm a very busy single mom of three daughters, so I try to make every free moment count. I was always writing in the car or I was writing on the way home from somewhere. I wrote desperately all the time. I wrote any- and everywhere. If I had a free hour, I would go to the park and write, in-stead of going home, where there were too many distractions. At night I would transcribe any writing I did during the day into the computer. I continued this process until my first draft was complete.
Once the first draft is done, I do a second draft to make sure my work is in good shape. Next, I send it off to a friend to read. She gives me feedback, and I make adjustments accordingly. Finally, I send my work off to my agent.
I'm a huge reader. Recently, my friend (author) Kate Moses and I were talking about the state of book culture right now. She believes that instead of graduating 10,000 MFAs in writing a year, we should be graduating 10,000 MFAs in reading. No one is reading enough. I ask my students if they're reading all of the time. The response is usually that there isn't enough time.
Reading is the passion that brought me to writing. Reading to me is crucial. I tell my students all the time, "If you're not reading, who's going to read you?"
--Posted Oct. 27, 2006