Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Susanna Daniel: Stiltsville

I was first introduced to Susanna Daniel in the very best way:  an afternoon browsing in my favorite bookstore where I picked up her debut novel, Stiltsville.  I was drawn to the story because I too had grown up in a much different Florida than exists today -- and Susanna's novel is about a community of houses on Stilts off of Biscayne Bay -- Stiltsville -  a place that now lives only in the memories and photographs of those who once inhabited the houses.  I read this novel in a breathless rush -- and then I did it all over again.  And then I contacted Susanna to tell her how much the book meant to me. It's that kind of book.  The writing is lush, gorgeous, the characters of Frances Ellerby, Dennis DuVal and their daughter Margo are as compelling as any character in contemporary literature and getting to spend twenty-five years in their lives is a beautiful, heart wrenching gift of the very best kind.
Please welcome Susanna as she talks about what it takes to write that first novel and get it out into the world -- as always -- I'll see you in the comments section.

Novelists: More Swagger, Less Stutter

In my more optimistic moments, I describe novel writing as a sort of game, wherein I have the pieces and have to put them together. In my less optimistic moments, I describe it as a grind and a mystery. The scary kind of mystery. The kind where you're scrambling through the darkness toward either a highway or a cliff.

In between -- and this is where I live most of the time, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, neither dark nor light -- I describe it as an act of faith.

Anyone who's been around a lot of writers know that they tend to be a confident lot. Overconfident, even; some might say arrogant. When I first dipped a toe into a writing community, in my first semester as a graduate student, this was a big turn-off. I liked the people a lot, actually, but when it came to listening to writers (almost all of whom had more experience than I at writing and talking about writing) wax on about their own work, I found it unseemly.

In college I had a friend who was a flutist at Julliard. I went to see her play, and on stage my sweet-natured friend became a bit of a diva: she gesticulated grandly with the music, scowling or  looking euphoric as the music rose and fell. After the performance, I asked her about this theatricality, and she said it was par for the course. She rolled her eyes. "It's expected," she said. "If you don't do it, the teachers don't take you seriously."

This was shocking to me. I thought the music should speak for itself. The musician was a blank canvas, I thought, or should be. Similarly, the author should be a blank canvas for the novel.

Apparently, this is one of the many things about which I'm just plain wrong.

I published my first novel, STILTSVILLE -- the debut, as it's called -- with Harper last month. STILTSVILLE has gotten many very good reviews. I've heard from dozens of readers who devoured it in one sitting, who say it's one of the best books they've ever read, who cried buckets at the end. This is all very complimentary, and I'd be lying if I said this kind of thing didn't matter to me -- it matters a lot, in fact.

Still, when it comes time to talk about my own work, I clam up. I've been interviewed over the phone by reporters, over email by book bloggers, and twice so far in a radio studio, for taped segments. And every time, what comes to mind is that experience of listening to my classmates talk about their own work, their self-satisfaction and self-indulgence, and feeling strongly that I do not want to come off that way.

But the fact is, it would be better for me if I could toot my own horn, now and again.

I have never felt in describing STILTSVILLE that I've done it justice. As everyone knows, the novel is like the baby -- and how do I describe my own two-year-old son? He has alarmingly blond hair, fat peachy cheeks, and two legs that surprise me every day in how closely they resemble the legs of a grownup human being. When the other day he shouted, "Mom!" and then made a fish face -- puckered lips and hands flapping at his ears -- I was so surprised that I dropped a plate to the floor. Now, you tell me, how am I supposed to summarize my baby? People ask me about him, and I give a vague and stilted description: "He's a delight. He's starting to be willful. He's running and jumping and talking." This is not only a thin, unhelpful summary, but it's such a tiny and bland slice of the whole as to be more or less a lie.

The only criticism of STILTSVILLE that has lodged itself in my mind was from a woman who loved the book, but said that she thought the jacket copy was misleading. This haunts me. I wrote the jacket copy, more or less. What does it say about me that I can't even write a few paragraphs that accurately describe my own book?

There are a few skills that are independent of writing but still useful for a writer. These days, being able to promote with a little panache, verbally and in print, is crucial. I don't wish my book were different in any way -- I love it as is, for what it is and what it is not. But I wish I were different. I wish I were comfortable talking about it in a complex, meaningful, and inspiring way. In a very real sense, I wish I were a little more smug and self-satisfied.

I look back on that uneasy feeling it used to give me, listening to my classmates describe their stories in fawning terms, and I wag a finger at myself. Not only will that talent or skill or whatever it is they have -- and I don't -- serve them well as they publish and give interviews, but also, who am I to judge them? I, who can't answer a question about my book without stuttering or making a self-deprecating joke? I, who finds it gut-wrenching to answer the simple question "What is your book about?"

Writing a novel is, more than anything else, an act of faith. And the bottom line is that it starts with having faith in yourself -- not just a little, but a lot. Some might even say an unseemly amount.

Susanna Daniel was born and raised in Miami, Florida, where she spent much of her childhood at her family’s stilt house in Biscayne Bay. Her novel, Stiltsville, was called an "exquisite debut" by Publishers Weekly, "lushly descriptive and complex" by Booklist, and "a perfect beach and book club read" by Miriam Tuliao of the New York Public Library. Susanna is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives with her husband and son 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. She is at work on a second novel.


  1. Wow, Susanna, I'm afraid that I'm like you, better to crack a joke about how lousy my book is than to brashly tell people they will want to read it... yikes. Need to get busy banishing humility from my mind and embracing a deadly sin or two in time for any (cross my fingers) interviews, etc. Thank you for saying that a little vanity is not only OK, but required!
    Your book (and you) sound amazing.

  2. Siobhan -- another one for the reading list -- Susanna's sentences are so beautiful they hurt. I can't wait for your debut!

  3. Sorry to be so late on the uptake here, ladies -- but thanks, Sioban, and I am also looking forward to your debut. The book -- whose title I adore -- looks fantastic.