Sunday, May 2, 2010
Atlanta Author Susan Rebecca White--A Soft Place to Land
Atlanta author Susan Rebecca White's new novel, A Soft Place to Land, arrived in bookstores on April 4. The new book follows last year's debut novel, Bound South, which was nominated this year for a Townsend Prize for Fiction. Ms. White's new novel was featured in a review in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution. To read that review, click on the link below and go to the lifestyle section.
Ms. White officially began touring for the book last week, in addition to her duties as a creative writing teacher at Emory University. I would like to thank her for taking the time recently to answer questions about her new book, and her writing in general, so I might share her comments here.
GBAW: First question. Your first book, Bound South, was terrific (and, ahem, was also reviewed early on this blog). Bound South was a finalist for this year's Townsend Award. That's really quite an honor, particularly considering some of the other authors who were among the nominees. Your second novel, A Soft Place to Land, has been selected by Target as a featured title for this spring. So, how does it feel to receive both literary kudos AND a big vote of support for your book as a possible bestseller?
SRW: You know, it feels great. I work really hard on crafting my novels, on trying to get the language, and the psychology, and the details right. So it's extremely gratifying to get recognition for that, to be, for example, shortlisted for the Townsend. But at the same time, I'm very aware of audience when I write. This is not to say that I write books with easy answers and pat solutions (I think some reader wished my endings felt more wrapped up!) But being aware of my audience keeps me conscious that things need to happen--that I need to check my tendency for navel gazing. I mean look, I am asking people to take precious time away from their day to read my book, and I want to offer them a good story. I want to hook them in from the beginning. I want people to finish my books feeling that they have just had a textured and meaningful experience. And the wider the audience the better, so I was beyond thrilled when Target chose A Soft Place to Land for its April book club pick. A wider audience does bring out your insecurities, because more readers means more criticism. But that's part of the package. What I'm finding is that I will drive myself crazy if I worry too much about whether or not people like the book. Of course I want for people to like it, but I don't have any control over that. Once I put the book out into the world, I lose control. What I do have control over is what I put into the book while writing it: the hours at my computer, the wrestling with story, the love for my characters.
And your review of Bound South, by the way, was fantastic.
GBAW: Thank you. I thought that it was a terrific book. I know some of the ladies in it.
Question 2. A Soft Place to Land deals with the complicated relationship between sisters Ruthie and Julia. The question that you will be answering at every reading you give for the new book: How much of the relationship between Ruthie and Julia is drawn from you and your sisters?
SRW: The intimacy, the teasing, the private games ("Biscuit and Egg"), the inside jokes, all of these elements of Ruthie and Julia's relationship were elements of my relationships with my sisters. I drew upon my girlhood memories of playing with them, sneaking into their beds at night, scratching their backs for the priviledge of sleeping in their beds. But once Phil and Naomi die, Julia and Ruthie's story veers far from my own, and the two sisters become their own selves, and not mirrors of my sisters and me.
GBAW: Speaking of sisters, one of your sisters is Lauren Myracle, a bestselling author of young adult books. Your husband, Alan Deutschman, is the author of several successful business titles, and has written for Vanity Fair, Fortune, Fast Co., and GQ (how cool is that?). My question, then, is what is it like being in an entire family of successful working writers? Do you consult each other on projects? Review each other's rough drafts? Is there a family betting pool as to who is going to get on Oprah first? Seriously, that's a lot of creative energy in one family.
SRW: Lauren paved the way for me. I was so impressed when she got her first book deal; I didn't believe that "real" people really published books. But then she kept publishing, and publishing, and publishing, and it began to feel normal. That normalization of publication was really helpful, because it made it seem like something I might actually be able to do. Because Lauren and I share so many memories, and both write fiction, we don't read each other's drafts, rough or polished, but wait until our respective work is in print. In fact, lauren also wrote a story about two sisters (Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks) that was published in March of 2009, and I didn't read it until December of 2009, once A Soft Place to Land had gone through all its edits, because I didn't want to be unduly influenced. And she didn't read A Soft Place until it was out in galleys.
With my husband Alan, it's a different story. He writes non-fiction, and our books are so different from one another that there is no fear of overlapping. I talk through my stories with him, and he offers really helpful suggestions. It was Alan who suggested that I open the book by having Julia and Ruthie tell each other the story of their parent's plane crash, so that readers could 1) get a sense of their relationship by how they talked to each other, 2) get a sense of the "mythic" romance that their parents had and 3) "see" the crash without actually being on the plane. Alan is invaluable help to me during the process of writing.
GBAW: Next. Food. A Soft Place to Land gives a great deal of attention to food. Do you cook? What's a Susan Rebecca White specialty? I understand that you are also a gardener. What are you growing this year? Finally, feel free to mention any favorite restaurants or local food-oriented establishments (in Atlanta or San Francisco).
SRW: I love to cook. In the book, Ruthie becomes a pastry chef, which I thought fit her controlled, exacting nature, but I am more interested in cooking savory things. I make a mean roast chicken--probably because I buy nice little chickens at the farmer's market, or from Sawicki's--and I take the time to brine it and then slather butter and herbs all over it and roast it in a hot oven. I also like to braise things. In the winter I make a yummy braised duck (legs) with prunes and red wine. I serve that over mashed potatoes. I also like to make lasagna Bolognese, though that is quite a production because I often make the noodles by hand and the ragu sauce takes about 5 hours to prepare and then you have to make a bechamel to layer in there. It's one of those dishes that I make about once a year, it's so much trouble, but I'm always glad to have made it when I finally get to eat a slice. As far as my garden goes (grows), I have moved from vegetables to flowers. I just felt like I was growing a salad bar for the squirrels, and got fed up. I have a couple of tomatoes in pots, but the garden is mostly non-edible: we've got hydrangeas, peonies, butterfly bushes, blueberry bushes, some petunias, some zinnias, and some sunflowers.
Fave restaurants in Atlanta/Decatur: Cakes & Ale, Tacqueria del Sol, Floataway Cafe, the burger at Holeman & Finch, spaetzle at Cafe Alsace. I've also become quite addicted to the grapefruit/mint popsicle sold by The King of Pops who parks his popsicle stand at the corner of North Avenue and North Highland.
I have no authority to speak of restaurants in New York, because I'm inherently out of the loop--given that I don't live there--but, I'm going to anyway because I can't help myself. There's a teeny-tiny Greek restaurant in Soho that I love, called Snack. Like everyone, I find pork buns at Momofuku scary good. And for a celebratory meal, I don't think you can beat The Union Square Cafe: the food is fresh and good (the homemade pastas are a stand-out) and the people who work there take such wonderful care of you. I think that's really important, that a restaurant give you a sense of well-being. Cakes & Ale (in Atlanta), which I already mentioned, does such a good job with that.
In San Francisco, I always have to go to Zuni for the roast chicken, and the salted caramel ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery makes me swoon. And I love the burritos at Tacqueria Cancun. For a moderately prices yummy Middle Eastern meal with fantastic service, you can't beat La Mediterranee on Noe Street.
GBAW: Next question. Atlanta. Much of your story in the new novel is set around the Peachtree Battle area of Atlanta (sorry folks, if you don't know where I am talking about). Specifically, you mention the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center. I have to ask. Do you remember Oxford Bookstore (the original that used to be in the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center)? Do you have any favorite Oxford Bookstore stories?
SRW: I loved Oxford Books! And its companion store, Oxford, Too. I grew up about a half mile from Peachtree Battle Shopping Center, and my mom would take me to Oxford at least once a week. We would each buy a book and then go get a snack at the Cup & Chaucer cafe that was on the second floor of the store. I loved their hot chocolate. It was just chocolate milk that they steamed with a little wand, but it was creamy and rich and delicious. I would order a hot chocolate and croissant and read whatever book I'd bought. Maybe that was the start of my associating books with food.
When I was in the fifth grade, all of the boys loved Stephen King books. I went to Oxford, Too, which sold used books, and bought eight Stephen King thrillers for maybe 50 cents each and brought them to class the next day to donate to our class library. I pretended the books were all mine, that they had just been lying around my house, so that the boys would think I was cool.
GBAW: And--really--two last questions (both devoted to George Plimpton): You recently stated that you had read Nelson Aldrich, Jr.'s book, George, Being George, a collection of stories about the late George Plimpton, by many of the people who knew him best. You also suggested that you had only recently discovered Mr. Plimpton, and that you were very excited about having done so. As a fellow admirer of George Plimpton, I am curious to know what was it about him that so intrigues you. Were you aware that soon-to-be Georgia State University football coach Bill Curry was a good friend of Mr. Plimpton's? They actually co-wrote a book, One More July. Mr. Curry's 2008 book, Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle, dedicates a chapter to Mr. Plimpton.
SRW: I didn't know that about Bill Curry and George--how cool. As for me, I just love George Plimpton's joie de vivre. He was worldly and sophisticated but he took a child-like joy in life, and he did so many things, from helping found The Paris Review to boxing with Archie Moore...I suppose he inspires me because he was proof that adult life does not have to be staid and safe and dull.
GBAW: After you posted your comments about having discovered George Plimpton, I sent you a bit about Plimpton that I had previously posted here on my blog. Since you teach creative writing at Emory University, I want to ask you what you thought of the piece that I sent over to you. It was pretty good, wasn't it? Witty? Original? Please feel free to critique it as honestly as you would for one of your students. Just keep in mind that I will be sharing your comments about my work with my two young children.
SRW: Your piece gets an A!
GBAW: Speaking of your students at Emory, are there any up-and-coming writers among them whom we should be on the lookout for?
Well, my students are all smarter than I am, so if I can do it, they should be able to, too.
Thanks again to Ms. White for taking the time to share her thoughts, comments and recommendations on her books, on the writing craft, and FOOD.
Susan Rebecca White will be appearing at Outwrite Books in Atlanta, on May 19, at 7:30 PM. Call 404.607.0082 for more information.
RMR. Books about girls.