About Me

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My work can be found in REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, wigleaf, Pank, New Delta Review, and Gargoyle #57, among others. One of my stories has been translated into Farsi by Asadollah Amraee, and many others by Jalil Jafari, two of which have been published in the Iranian journal, Golestaneh Magazine. Currently, I'm an Associate editor for Narrative Magazine. In 2011, I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

Monday, July 02, 2012

A Conversation with Susan Woodring

"Goliath" by Susan Woodring, is an elegant, character-driven novel, about the impending death of a small-town and the characters' large-hearted attempts to revive it. "Goliath" is successful both in scope and depth and I was moved to ask Ms. Woodring for her insights on writing it.

Katrina: You handle the omniscient point of view expertly. I can understand why you chose it; it’s the best point of view in which to capture the spirit of “Goliath.” Is this a point of view you usually use? What are the advantages? What are the challenges?

Susan: I think I’ve used omniscience only once before Goliath, in a short story that ultimately failed. However, I’ve long been fascinated with it. . Some years ago, I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina and loved it. Not only did it feel authentically and wonderfully Russian (I spent some time teaching English there many years ago), but it also used omniscience in this sweeping, beautiful way. I also read The River King by Alice Hoffman, and the opening pages are magical and fairytale-like in the novel’s use of omniscience and I ached to try it myself.

I like the flexibility in distance I have with omniscience. I can pull way, way back—speaking from the sky in many scenes—but then come zapping down, into my characters’ heads, and especially that of Rosamond, the main character. This allowed me to “see” the characters and their town from so many different angles.

I like how omniscience can create the sense that the reader and the narrator are very close—we’re in this together—while the story becomes something they observe from a distance, like a play on a stage. With Goliath, I really wanted, too, to create a sense of isolation for the town of Goliath. I wanted the reader to feel like he/she is peeking into Goliath—a sort of existence unto itself.

Omniscience is, of course, a pretty complicated point of view, one that isn’t used that much in contemporary fiction. It’s a bit of a risk; many readers simply don’t like it. When I was working on Goliath, though, it felt very freeing—daring in a foolish way—and I remember feeling like I was always holding my breath. I was all the time thinking, “This will never work, this will never work,” and “I’ll never get away with this,” but also, “What the heck.” It was such fun; I couldn’t talk myself out of it.

Also, I feel like taking this sort of risk with point of view allowed me to give myself permission to take risks in other areas. For example, I used a few supernatural elements. These—which included a ghost—were edited out later, but still, I feel like experimenting with them stretched the story (and the writer) in ways that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.

Katrina: I’m always interested in process. What is your office like? Do you write by hand or type? Do the drafts come to you in a linear way or do the scenes arrive and you arrange them later?

Susan: Oh, my office is a disaster. We painted it this odd reddish-pinkish color (play-doughish, if that makes sense) because the color looked good in the can—not so much in real life. I have a bookcase with a writing ledge and there are a few more bulging bookcases and piles of papers around me. My knitting basket is at my feet. Also, my kids’ homeschooling stuff is slowly taking over the room—computers and art supplies and so forth.

But, my laptop is tiny—it’s actually a netbook—and so I’m pretty transportable. I often head over to my in-laws’ with my kids—they play and I write in the spare bedroom. I hit coffee shops on Saturdays, when my husband is home to keep the kids.
I begin jotting down ideas and snatches of dialogue or characters’ thoughts in an unlined notebook and move onto my laptop when I feel like the story or the scene I’m working on are firm enough to start drafting. I usually don’t know exactly where the story is going, but I do have a vague sense of where things will end. I often have a visual image of the last scene. (I had the epilogue to Goliath in mind from the very beginning.) I do a lot of revising, but it’s usually in chunks and while I’m still drafting—it takes me so long to figure out what the story is really about. Especially with longer works, I really like using a lot of characters, so often in drafting, what I’m doing is figuring out why they all belong in the same book.

Katrina: “Goliath” is rich with details and complexity. Did this richness come with revision? How long did Goliath take to write? How many revisions did it go through? Did the first draft differ greatly from the end result? If so, in what ways?

Susan: Goliath began in 2006 as a NaNoWriMo novel set in the wake of the JFK assassination. It was initially centered on Hatley, a door-to-door salesman who ultimately took on a secondary role in the book, and it was only in later drafts that it became a story about a factory town. I didn’t really have a good sense of it at all until I discovered Rosamond, and even then I didn’t really know what the story was going to feel like until I wrote the first scene, with Vincent Bailey discovering Percy Harding’s body.

I believe that from that moment—when I had the first scene and my main character—it took about two years to write. My editor at St. Martin’s, Elizabeth Beier, was so, so brilliant with the changes she suggested—I feel like the process of taking her recommendations and re-working the book taught me so much about fiction-writing, particularly about novel-writing. For example, Elizabeth really pushed me to get the book, with so many, many characters, to really focus on Rosamond. In her editor’s notes, she said, “I firmly believe that the best and most successful novels not only have terrific writing and great characters, but (even if it’s subtle, barely seen) an imagined outcome in the reader’s mind that they either long for or dread.”

Katrina: I know you are the mother of two children and that you home-school. How do you find the time to write? Do you have any advice for stay-at-home mothers who want to work writing into their lives? Any nifty tricks?

Susan: I don’t sleep!

Well, not really, though that’s been part of my equation for far too long. I’m starting to feel the effects of this, though, and it ain’t pretty.

I used to say I get up every morning at 4 a.m. to write. I no longer do that—I just can’t. But, I have found I can get up really, really early—sometimes even like two-thirty or three—and write for several hours once or twice a week. Otherwise, I cobble together time when I can get it. My in-laws also local and retired and WONDERFUL. They keep my kids for two afternoons a week, plus they take in my whole family, husband included, when I go out of town for book events and conferences. It’s an amazing blessing. I come home from a trip with only my own laundry to get caught up on—my mother-in-law has done the rest.

Also, my husband really gets how important this is to me. I take off most Saturdays for three-to-four hours’ of writing time. And, during the school year, I have a babysitter (also wonderful!!) who comes in one morning a week.

I have no nifty tricks. Sometimes, I’ll get asked about this at a post-reading Q and A, and I say that I throw handfuls of Froot Loops to my kids, like breadcrumbs to pigeons, rather than stop writing to feed them. I had to quit saying this, though; I had a group that looked completely horrified until I explained I was joking.

Katrina: Your teens, Vincent and Cassie, are fascinating. I find teenagers difficult to get right, but you make it look easy. Did you find these two characters difficult to embody?

Susan: Oh, Katrina, thank you so much! I think I identify with teenagers—especially the kind who live on the fringe of things--because in my heart of hearts, that’s who I still am. I am horrendously self-conscious. It took me years to get up the guts to wear open-toe shoes—toes are so vulnerable-looking, don’t you think?—and I still lie awake every night, cringing over the things I said to different people during the day.

Also, I’ve always been drawn to adolescents. I used to teach middle school and found my students so adorably neurotic. This attitude helped a lot with Vincent, I think: I really identified with his mother who tries so, so hard to help him. Who tries to understand him but really, just can’t. As far as Cassie goes, I always picture a former student of mine when I think of her. I knew the student when she was much younger than Cassie, and her situation is different, but her plucky defiance, with such an unreachable sadness underneath—I totally got that from my old student.

Katrina: Vincent is challenged to swallow things. It seems, symbolically, not in any conscious way, he chooses to swallow living things in order to forget about death. What was the inspiration for this?

Susan: Ooh, Katrina! That’s great! I honestly never thought of it like that. Yay!! (It REALLY helps to have smart readers….)

I thought of him more as his trying to become something else. I think he really feels overcome by what he witnesses at the first of the book and by the growing distance between him and his father. He craves a different mode of existence, maybe.

The actual inspiration for this is pretty gross. One morning, I killed a cricket in my living room, and, picking its squashed body up with a paper towel, I really looked at the thing, saw how meaty (forgive me!) this little creatures was. I don’t know how I went from that to deciding Vincent was going to try swallowing it. I suppose we sometimes write about the things that frighten us, don’t we?

Katrina: “Goliath” has a lot of symbolism. Were you aware of the symbolism as you wrote or was it all a surprise?

Susan: Yes and no on both counts. I had the name of the town before I realized it was going to be, in some shape or other, a kind of David-and-Goliath story. And, the cardinal paper knife just seemed like the kind of thing Rosamond would pick up at the drug store as a gift for Percy’s family. From there, I suppose I picked up on birds in the story when I could, and they became symbolic. The best kind of analogy or symbol, of course, is the kind that is a surprise. That feels unplanned and serendipitous. I believe our subconscious minds work very hard--both in our ordinary lives, and in the stories we tell ourselves—to construct meaning and to form ties between seemingly disconnected entities. Our job, then, is to more or less get out of the way, and to clean up the excess afterward.

Katrina: Goliath is a character itself. Did you intend this? What were the challenges in creating the essence of a town?

Susan: I think that, for me at least, point of view and character and setting develop at the same time, in tandem. They are linked in messy and intricate ways from the very first. The events of the story and its shape flow from these first three. So, I can’t tell you which came first: Goliath as a character or the omniscient point of view. I do believe that if I had begun with a different point of view, Goliath would have ended up being a very different entity. Maybe it would have been “only” the setting of the book. I don’t know if I would have been able to see the town as a whole if the point of view had been focused only on, say Rosamond.

The greatest challenge in creating Goliath was in portraying a sort of quintessential small town that is recognizable as such, but at the same time, making Goliath unique and believable. I wanted to capture the feel of a small town—the good, the bad, and the ugly—without making it feel like a clichĂ©.

I liken it to creating a character of a particular age, especially child characters. You want your made-up seven-year-old to think, act, and talk like a seven-year-old, but you also want your character to be an individual. Your aim is to create a unique being and not an every-seven-year-old. I had the same thoughts when creating Goliath.

Katrina: Which character was the easiest to write? The most difficult?

Susan: Hatley, the prodigal husband and father, was by far the hardest character for me to write. I needed for him to say certain things, though he also didn’t seem like that character that would just come out and say things. Every Hatley scene was about me making him say, “hello,” and “I stole a spoon,” and my editor pressing me to make him say and do more. I really had to push that man.

The easiest character to write? I really don’t know. I enjoyed different aspects of different characters. I enjoyed writing about the encyclopedia salesman because he was cute and young and unsuspecting. I liked writing Agnes because she reminds me, in many ways, of myself, all that early-twenties angst I think so many of us face during that period of our lives. I liked Rosamond’s courage and her determination as well as her awkwardness and her inability to see what she really needed/wanted. Oh, and Clyde! I loved working through the Clyde and Rosamond scenes, and the Clyde and Ray scenes.

Katrina: There’s this part in the book in which Ray is preaching about Jericho and Vincent is in
the garage with his father and the focus switches back and forth between both scenes. It’s an interesting technique that added tension. Was this an intentional choice?

Susan: I think this goes back to what I was saying about taking risks. I trusted the story to carry the omniscient point of view, and when the story wanted to do something like this—there are actually a few scenes with these kinds of cut-takes—I let it. I hate it when writers talk like that—about what the story “wants to do—but I don’t know how else to explain it. One very important thing I learned (or think I learned) while writing Goliath: trust the story. Follow it.

Katrina: The end is beautiful and transcending. How did you come to that particular end?

Susan: I knew the epilogue from the beginning. I don’t know how else to say that. I saw it almost as soon as I saw the factory or the woods behind the high school or Rosamond herself. Before Vincent found the body, the end had already been written, or at least imagined.

Katrina: What's next?

Susan: My agent is reading a new manuscript at this very moment! I'm very excited about it; I hope he likes it. Like Goliath, it's set in North Carolina, but with this story, the setting is a little farther west, in the mountains. I'd say that Goliath focuses on community with marriage and family being secondary, but I think this new one is just the opposite. It's really about marriage and love. Something that was really fun about it for me was that there are two concurrent stories taking place, one in the present and one in the past.

Katrina: Sounds wonderful. I can't wait!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

North Carolina's Amendment One

Ever since Amendment One passed in my adopted state of North Carolina I’ve been trying to understand and integrate the complexity of feeling around the issue, both in myself and my community. For it is a complex issue. Though the amendment seemed to be quickly boiled down by both sides to a simplistic gay rights issue, the amendment also snuck in a host of other human rights questions: the ability of two elderly people to live together in dignity with their civil rights intact, the rights of children of unmarried couples, the protection for an unmarried partner from domestic violence. These issues aside, the one that took center stage was whether two people of the same sex could live under the same protections and with the same rights that two people of the opposite sex take for granted. And the majority of voters of North Carolina gave a resounding, a disappointing, No.

I love my adopted state. North Carolina is where my writer self feels most at home. North Carolina is where I met my husband, the love of my life. North Carolina was where my youngest son, now 10, was born and is being lovingly educated and embraced by community. North Carolina is full of people who care for their state, work hard every day to provide for their families, give countless hours of volunteer time to their communities. That said, I was initially deeply saddened by the outcome of the passing of this amendment. Saddened because I’d hoped the majority of the people in this state, my adopted home, had moved beyond a fear and misunderstanding of homosexuality, had moved beyond hating one group of people based on a perceived difference, had moved beyond singling a group of people out and declaring them unworthy of God’s love and protection, and finally, perhaps most disturbing, declaring them unworthy of the law’s protection and consideration.

It’s clear this is a divisive issue. People seem to feel so passionately one way or the other that manners have been forgotten or discarded and accusations and vitriol have bubbled over into an otherwise sane discourse. But I wonder, in all of this back and forth, if people have taken the time to put faces to the issue. Surely, in this day and age, the people who pushed to pass this amendment and who voted it in must know someone who’s gay. A friend, a relative, a child. If not, surely they know someone who will be adversely affected by such restrictive rewriting of our Constitution. I wonder if they took the time to think, How will such an amendment affect my neighbor, my daughter, my mother-in-law, my son’s friend? I wonder if they asked themselves, How will my words of hatred and prejudice affect my community?

My oldest son, now a young adult, is gay. He’s brilliant, hard-working, caring. He’s a beautiful young man with a beautiful soul. I’m immensely proud of him. He no longer lives in North Carolina and I can’t help but feel protectively relieved he wasn’t here to read all the hateful articles in our local paper. And yet, I’m not giving him enough credit. He has had to deal with prejudice and judgment every day of his life and doing so has made him an incredibly strong and admirable human being.

I voted against Amendment One. I voted against it because there is no place for government in the bedroom. I voted against it because it’s wrong to limit or deny civil rights to our fellow citizens. I voted against it because it comes down on the wrong side of human rights. And I voted against it because one day, I don’t want my son to go through the frustration and pain of being denied access to his partner’s hospital room because their partnership is not recognized by the law.

I believe in God. I do not, however, believe in the ability of religious dogma to accurately and fairly interpret God’s intentions and I find all attempts to do so not only highly suspect, but arrogant.

Change in the issue of gay rights has been a long time coming. And it is happening. As people open their hearts and their minds, acceptance is spreading. I’ve seen it with my own eyes over the last thirty years.

Two days ago, I felt disappointed and disheartened. Those feelings have eased and left me with a feeling of hope. Because I suspect most of my adopted people who voted it in did so because they believed they were doing the right thing. Because most of my adopted people did not resort to hatred. Because I know the intrinsic good of humanity has prevailed in the past and will prevail in the future and it is these kinds of situations, the ones that boldly push important issues right up to our faces, that inspire us to deal with them, to consider them thoughtfully, sometimes even reconsider them, with heart, until eventually love and acceptance win out.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Read: "Birds of a Lesser Paradise" by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Once in awhile I discover a book that, after reading, inspires me, on a deep level, to be fearless in my own writing. I’m not only referring to the writer’s courage to render the ugly and unfortunate aspects of human nature and the world, but also, and maybe even more so, the fearlessness to offer the beautiful, the honorable, the heart-on-a-sleeve kind of writing that feels wholly authentic and much like a message from a dear friend insisting, “These are the things I love about life, and I love you enough, dear reader, to share them with you.”

This is what the dozen stories within this accomplished collection seem to be: love stories. Stories of unabashed, deep, awakened, intelligent, love. Love for animals, love for the Earth, love for children and parents and partners, and ultimately, love for life itself, however messy it gets. The writer of these stories has an enormous capacity for deep feeling and she isn’t afraid to use it.

The characters are not without fault, however, and love doesn’t show up for them without cost or in the expected ways. They have burdens, they’ve made mistakes, but even so, they face the next day with eyes and hearts wide open.

In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother travels to Myrtle Beach with her young, precocious son, to a roadside zoo. She’s on a mission to hear her deceased mother’s voice one last time, a voice that is held indefinitely, she hopes, in the throat of a surly African Gray, her mother’s beloved pet. In “Saving Face,” a young veterinarian struggles both to forgive herself for the accident that left her disfigured and to allow her fiancĂ© to love her, imperfect as she is. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” the narrator must decide whether to take a morning-after pill which would appease her own adopted world view and that of her radical boyfriend, a self proclaimed human exterminist, or listen to her instinct and her heart, both conditioned by generations of mother-love.

Beyond theme and emotional depth, beyond clear, beautiful language, strength of voice is most noticeable. Most of these stories are told using the first person point of view, and though there is intelligence and an uncanny awareness in each female voice, each is distinct, each is memorable. Many of the women wrestle with forgiving past mistakes, reflect on what motherhood means, view caring for animals and people a priority, and feel a deep responsibility for the well-being of the planet.

“Birds of a Lesser Paradise” is a book I’d love to press into the hands of friends and strangers alike, saying, “Please read, and be transformed.”

* Review first appeared in the March 4th edition of The Pilot of Southern Pines

Monday, February 27, 2012

Read: "The Dreaming Girl" by Roberta Allen.

"The Dreaming Girl" is a slim, poetic novel that lured me into its dream and didn't let me go. Set in Belize, its unnamed characters, the girl and the German, are drawn together against the lush backdrop of paradise and all of its unique inhabitants. The girl dreams her way through life until she meets the German, and her attraction, and consequent love for him, forces her out of the safety of her dreams. The German, with a girlfriend at home, finds himself surprised by his desire for the girl and initially resistant.
The prose in "The Dreaming Girl" is spare, yet Roberta Allen knows how to set a mood with the blank spaces, and there are plenty of sharp insights to be unearthed. It's an honest, beautifully rendered metaphor for the birth and death of love. A spectacularly gorgeous read.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Pedestal Magazine

I'm honored to have a story in the latest issue of The Pedestal Magazine, guest-edited by the amazing Terri Brown Davidson. Randall Brown also has two beautiful short fiction pieces in the issue.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Read: "Echolocation" by Myfanwy Collins

Be prepared. Haunting, mesmerizing, "Echolocation" is a page-turner you will not be able to put down until you've reached the end. It's the story of four women connected by family and the bleak, harsh, land of northern New York. Some have escaped, but they're all brought together again by tragedy and secrets they thought they'd left behind. There's Auntie Marie, dying of cancer, the two girls she raised, Geneva and Cheri, and Renee, Cheri's mother, who ran away to Florida not long after Cheri was born. Cheri returns to help Geneva with their aunt, and Renee shows up unexpectedly with a secret that will change them all.

The characters in "Echolocation," men and women alike, are flawed in the best, most fascinating, ways, and though they make mistakes, they are not beyond redemption, not beyond our empathy. Collins clearly loves her characters, weaknesses and all, and that authorial love elicits a similar compassion from the reader. These four women are fierce. Auntie Marie's devotion to Cheri and Geneva is as strong as her devotion to God; Cheri is determined in her self-destructive desire to deny her feelings; Geneva's strength in carrying on with life after a devastating accident is remarkable, and Renee finally discovers she's capable of caring for another more than herself.

This is a complex story, told with an assured, deft hand. Collins is a master at weaving story lines together in an artful, spare way. Every word is well-chosen. Every nuance is perfectly placed. "Echolocation" is literary fiction at its finest.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January Reading

These are the books I read in January:

"The World We Found" by Thrity Umvigar
Beautifully written story of the strength of women's friendships.

"Running the Rift" by Naomi Benaron
*Review to come

"The Good American" by Alex George
Deftly written story of a family's journey to becoming American. The author, a recent English immigrant, has written a Great American Novel.

"The Flight of Gemma Hardy" by Margot Livesey
A hybrid of the retelling of Jane Eyre and a tale drawn from Livesey's own childhood and young adulthood. Atmospheric and highly readable. Even if you haven't read Jane Eyre, you'll enjoy the story, the characters and the language.

"The Artist of Disappearance" by Anita Desai
Three beautiful novellas. I'm a huge fan of Desai's elegant writing and sensibilities.

"Still Alice" by Lisa Genova
Gripping story of a professor slowly losing her life as she knew it to Alzheimer's.

"American Dervish" by Ayad Akhtar
This is one to read. It's the story of a young man raised in the Midwest by parents of non-praticing Muslim parents. When his "Aunt" Mina arrives from Pakistan, her devout faith shakes everyone up. Funny, tragic, insightful, refreshingly daring, this is a great read.

"Stay Awake" by Dan Chaon
The stories within this collection are grim and frightening in the best way. One of my favorite short story collections. A real stand out.

"The Odds" by Stewart O'Nan
O'Nan is one of my favorite writers. This story of a couple on their second honeymoon in Niagra Falls trying to save their finances and consequently their marriage is amazingly tight and so well done. Loved everything about it.

"The Invisible Ones" by Stef Penney
I enjoyed this mystery involving a group of elusive gypsies.

"Other People We Married" by Emma Straub
Loved these stories! Superb wrting, fresh imagery, and intriguing characters.

* These are not reviews but rather quick notes I made about each after I finished with it.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Read: The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar

The Torres-Thompsons live in an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Scott Torres’ software executive job has enabled him to provide his wife with a view of the Pacific and his boys with the kind of toys that inspire the maid to name their bedroom The Room of a Thousand Wonders. With the help of a gardener, a nanny and a maid, Maureen is able to teach art as a volunteer at their sons’ private school and stay home the rest of the time with her three children. When Scott loses money in the stock market, however, he’s forced to let go of the gardener and the nanny, leaving the cooking, cleaning, and baby-sitting to Araceli, the tall, dour-faced Mexican maid who was “more likely to ignore you when you said hello in the morning or to turn down her eyes in disapproval if you made a suggestion.”

Disagreements over money ensue and when the last argument wreaks havoc on the marriage, the two go their separate ways to lick their wounds: Scott to a coworker’s and Maureen to a spa with only her young daughter in tow. Both parents neglect to inform Araceli of their plans or their whereabouts and soon she feels compelled to take the boys into LA to search for the boys’ paternal grandfather, a decision which will impact her standing not only in the household, but also in the country.

“The Barbarian Nurseries” offers a hilarious look at our solipsistic culture and a poignant reminder of the Mexican immigrants who live among us, often invisible, taken for granted, and ultimately powerless. Tobar uses the omniscient point of view effortlessly, allowing the reader to see Araceli, a surprising, larger than life character, through the eyes of a multitude of people, people who perceive Araceli either as a victim or a criminal depending on their particular biases and agendas.

This novel is a comment on immigration in today’s volatile socioeconomic environment, a comment on our relentless desire as a nation to accumulate and consume more and more, and a comment on the pliable circus our media has become. Tobar’s love for his characters is obvious and none is without culpability of some degree. Intelligent, provocative, this book is loads of fun to read, and though the reader will be confronted with some unflattering truths, he can still come away from the experience entirely hopeful about humanity.

*Review first appeared in the December 18th edition of The Pilot
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