I recently had the chance to interview Susanna Daniel, author of Stiltsville and Sea Creatures. Susanna graciously took the time to answer my questions, which appear below.
BCM: First of all, thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. I really enjoyed reading Stiltsville and Sea Creatures and it’s so fun to get a one-on-one with an author! Did you write much when you were growing up? When did you decide to become a writer?
SD: As a kid I was told so often, by so many people, that I should write, that I almost considered it inevitable. It wasn’t until I was a few years out of college, working as an editor and rising in those ranks, that I realized that if I didn’t make it happen for myself, it would always be on the back burner. I had other aspirations, of course — a stable home life, a family — and it dawned on me, belatedly, that it was likely some goals would crowd out others. I decided to leave New York, and the editorial work, for Iowa City to get my MFA — this gave me time to write among a community of writers, many of whom were much more serious about the whole enterprise, and much more experienced, than I was. This was very good for me. I had to catch up.
BCM: Were you a reader as a child and in high school? What did you major in at Columbia?
SD: I read constantly, but not always material I would necessarily recommend for young minds. My mother was also a big reader, and she and my father were constantly putting age-inappropriate books into my hands: John Irving at age eleven, Pat Conroy a year later. I was an English and Anthro major at Columbia; I wasn’t a particularly good student, and my lowest grades were in my Physics for Poets class and my Logic and Rhetoric class. (Logic and Rhetoric is, of course, writing!)
BCM: What kinds of experiences and jobs have helped you as a writer?
SD: I’ve had a lot of jobs but all of them have been generally in the publishing vein. I think this was a mistake — I should have been more adventurous in my choices, let my writing yoke out a little. But by far the experience that has had the broadest, deepest impact on my writing is my membership in families — as a daughter, sister, mother, wife — and the close attention I pay to domestic dynamics. Here’s where being a boy crazy teenager actually paid off, indirectly.
BCM: I read about the ten-year period in which you worked, with productive lapses due to regular life obligations, to finish writing Stiltsville. You spoke of the state of being in what you called “active non-accomplishment.” And you described a series of events in your life that helped you jump-start your writing. Do you think that’s typical of a first novel?
SD: My teacher Chris Offutt once said that a person puts a whole life into a first novel — it’s difficult to assimilate that much information at any age, and I wasn’t a particularly young first-time novelist. But really it’s a question of focus. I borrowed the focus that eventually helped me finish Stiltsville from all corners — successful friends and their tough love, fear of unhappiness, support from my husband. And Stiltsville gave me the focus I needed to finish Sea Creatures, in a much quicker time frame.
BCM: How was your experience in writing Sea Creatures different? I imagine that some things were easier. Were there similarities in the process? Did you encounter different road blocks?
SD: It was easier because I understood much more about the process and had more confidence — it was harder, too, because I knew much more about the process. Sea Creatures is a much smaller book in some ways, but also more shapely — it’s more mature, but it’s also a book I’m particularly proud of because I think it represents my growth as a storyteller and also as a person who prioritizes her writing.
BCM: Is it difficult to balance the marketing aspect of being a writer with the actual process of writing?
SD: Yes. A lot of people can do this gracefully, but that part of the job makes me want to crawl under my desk, which too often I do, figuratively speaking. I could do more but it exacts a real toll on me.
BCM: The internet and social media have a big presence in the book publishing and book reading market. Everyone out there seems to be reading, reviewing and sharing information about books. When you are in a writing phase, do you tune into this mass of information, or do you feel a need to separate yourself from it?
SD: I do like to hear writers talk about writing, and I seek that out when I’m not writing, as a way to plug in to the creative process. But the online buzz is often about publishing, not writing, and I do not ever, at any stage, seek that. It feels to me like a very costly fee that I and others have to pay for what we want to do. I like talking to people about my own work, or about theirs — I enjoy visiting reading groups and doing appearances very much — but I do not like the constant onslaught of buzz about the publishing industry. It’s disheartening.
I also teach writing, and with them I share reviews, craft talks, even twitter feeds from inspiring authors — but do I share pieces about the industry wars or about who sold what for how much? No.
BCM: In an article about reading, you expressed your concern that there’s an expectation for everyone to read the same books, the hugely popular series and best-sellers. Your idea is to find interesting reads in the lesser-known stacks, and use word-of-mouth to recommend these books. What do you think is the best way for a book club to break out of that pattern?
SD: It seems like the best book clubs are — and forgive me for being prescriptive — large in number. We all exist in several echo chambers, and small book clubs become another form. They read books because they “want to know what the buzz is about.” This becomes a question of volume — if you’re reading a few books a week, sure, read for whatever reason you want. But if you’re reading a book a month, the buzz isn’t a good enough reason. More people in a group means a greater variety of voices. The other thing I’ve noticed works nicely for reading groups is to meet one time per year to choose that year’s books. Then it’s not about what book is getting buzz when the group meets — it’s about what books have really lodged themselves in people’s minds when they come together to plan. These groups don’t read hardcovers, I’ve noticed, and though I love a hardcover (to read and to sell!) I think this also contributes to keeping the buzz factor down, because a book has to be out for a while before the club will get to it.
BCM: I do think a lot of book clubs try to mix things up by adding non-fiction to their reading lists. Do you like reading non-fiction? If so, what do you enjoy most?
SD: I adore nonfiction. I write some creative nonfiction, but generally I don’t identify as a nonfiction writer, so when I’m reading it, I’m not also taking mental notes (unless it’s also a book about writing, in which I’m taking all kinds of notes). This is an immense relief. I’ve read anything ever written about William Maxwell, as well as his volumes of letters. I will pick up anything by Joanna Scott or Robin Romm or Anthony Doerr.
BCM: I read that your favorite books are Age of Grief, by Jane Smiley, Selected Stories, by Andre Dubus and Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, and that these books have influenced your writing. Have any other authors influenced you?
SD: All authors influence me. Some writers only influence me on the page, and some I track to learn more than what’s on the page — how to be a writer in the world, not how to build a career but how to manage inside the one I have.
BCM: What popular fiction do you enjoy?
SD: I’ve been reading Lauren Grodstein’s books lately, and I’m enjoying them very much. She writes with a lot of confidence.
BCM: Stiltsville and Sea Creatures are both set in Miami, Florida and your descriptions reflect having lived in this area. Now that you are living in the midwest, will you draw from these experiences in the future?
SD: I have one more South Florida book to finish, then I can think about moving my fiction to the midwest. I’m reluctant to let go of that part of me that hasn’t ever moved out of Florida.
BCM: In Stiltsville, you use Margo’s insomnia as a way for Dennis to get closer to his daughter, by sitting up with her and talking with her. Despite the lost hours, there’s a good feeling about this time spent. In Sea Creatures both Georgia and Graham suffer from different forms of sleep disorders, but there’s a much more frightening element to these late-night hours. How did you develop the sleep disorder idea for Sea Creatures?
SD: I heard a monologue by a comic named Mike Birbiglia, which was years later made into a movie by This American Life — in it, he discussed his own parasomnia, and I laughed along, but I also thought: My word, what it would be like to be married to this guy?
BCM: In both Stiltsville and Sea Creatures, you give the reader a real sense of the dangers that come with living in a stilt house, including falling from the railings or other perches, and swimming or waterskiing in the open water and, of course, hurricanes. What was it like spending time in the stilt house community? Did neighbors look out for each other?
SD: My parents could answer that better than I, but I don’t remember a lot of vigilance. They made sure we could swim, then let us go. I know a few parents who are easygoing in that way now, but not many.
BCM: Tell me about your writing group, the Madison Writers’ Studio, how you started it and how it works.
SD: My partner Michelle Wildgen and I teach eight-week workshops in our homes a few times a year, and we both teach a yearlong novel writing workshop that meets monthly. We started it because we love to teach and wanted to bring writers together. It’s not expressly a writing group, because the sessions are run like MFA-level workshops, but there’s a supportive aspect to the classes that I think we all find nurturing. We also host readings at the close of each class, which gives the writers a sense of how it is to share work broadly and aloud, and gives them a chance to hear what other people are working on. People are very serious about their own writing, even if they aren’t yet publishing — the studio gives them a place to take it seriously among other people who feel the same way.
BCM: I enjoyed reading an article about how you spend your typical day, and how, for certain times of this day, you make writing well your first priority. How do you manage the challenges of raising young children and the frustrations that pop up when your schedule changes? Are you able to reorganize your day to write at night, for example?
SD: I am not able to write at night. I wonder often how much more productive I would be if I could. I do not Do It All — I’m not that person. Instead, I delegate, hire, lower my expectations, often fail. I have a novel group that helps bring me back to the work when I wander for too long — that’s been essential for me these last few years. We’ve also started what I hope will be a long tradition of taking weekends away to write, to goose productivity. It’s still true that a day is only really good if I write well that day. How to write with young kids is a problem each person solves in her own way. The schedule and balance is under constant revision.
BCM: Thanks so much, Susanna, for this interview. I’m looking forward to your next book!
SD: Thank you, Barbara!
Author Susanna Daniel’s debut novel, Stiltsville, was awarded the PEN/Bingham prize for best debut work published in 2010, and her second novel, Sea Creatures, was named an Amazon Editors’ Top Pick of the Best Books of August, 2013.
Susanna was born and raised in Miami, Florida, where she spent much of her childhood at her family’s stilt house in Biscayne Bay.
Susanna is a co-founder, with author Michelle Wildgen, of the Madison Writers’ Studio. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and was a Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. Her writing has been published in Newsweek, Slate, One Story, Epoch, and elsewhere.
Susanna lives with her husband and two young sons in Madison, Wisconsin, where during the long winter she dreams of the sun and the sea, and of jumping off the stilt house porch at high tide.