Thursday, March 22, 2018

Susanne Davis talks about her extraordinary connected short story collection, The Appointed Hour, giving voice to the marginalized, stray dogs, and so much more.

Today, it's vitally important for us to understand changing rural America, and in Susanne Davis' gorgeous collection of stories, THE APPOINTED HOUR, she lets us in on their struggles and their lives.

Susanne grew up in Connecticut and comes from six generations of dairy farmers in that state. Her short stories have won awards and recognition and been published in American Short Fiction, Notre Dame Review, descant, St. Petersburg Review, Zone 3, Carve and numerous other journals, while Harvard Magazine, Harvard Law Bulletin, Mothers Always Write, and others have published her nonfiction.

I'm so thrilled to host her here. Thank you Susanne!

Why a short story collection instead of a novel? I’m always fascinated because to me, short stories are like dates, while a novel is a long marriage. 

It’s true we develop relationships with our characters and our writing. On one level, I agree with your analogy--when I commit to writing a novel, every aspect of my life is committed too.  I live and dream in terms of a novel’s story.  A short story may live with me for a month or a year, but then it goes out and hopefully finds a home in a journal.  However, in this story collection, while the stories did start coming individually, and found homes in journals, eventually the characters returned and started showing up in each other’s stories.  They weren’t done with me.  They wanted me to know that they had more to say collectively than they were able to say alone. As a result, I discovered how the challenges in my characters’ lives revealed a bigger world than I first realized.

On an artistic level, I hope I hit the right notes, allowing the stories to become a kind of Greek chorus, with the characters’ unique voices and emotion shining through.

The imagery in your stories is so breathtaking that I want to ask—how do you write? Do you plan these out, wait for the muse, does the story or the language come first? 

Well, first, thank you for those kind words, Caroline.  You are one of the most generous people I know! Having grown up on the dairy farm still operated by my father and brother, I received a tremendous gift of loving the land.  Spending all that time in nature gave me an appreciation for the way the landscape changes from morning to night, and over the seasons and years. I see the Quanduck River running through my dad’s farm, swollen with rain, spraying mist to catch prisms of light and the night sky filled with stars so bright every tree casts its shadow over the ground.  When I am writing about rural characters who are so often sustained by the beauty of nature, these details come rushing forward like movie scenes.  I honestly can’t take credit for that.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

A novel that includes stray dogs and Russia and its brave Stray Dog Cabaret writers of witness who wake up a contemporary American woman and challenge her to change her life.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have? 
Perhaps one last question to consider:  What are your hopes for this book?  Well, I hope people read The Appointed Hour and feel moved by it.  I knew I wanted to give voice to people marginalized and not often heard from in our culture.  We are all Americans with universal human cravings for love, shelter, adequate food, education and medical care, among other things.  Yet, the gap in the way we identify each other politically keeps growing and I worry about how we will reach each other with any kind of compassion as the divide widens. Continuing with the idea I mentioned above of the characters’ voices as a Greek chorus, I think the larger story of what’s happening in rural America is like a Greek tragedy.  Rural communities are being ripped apart by heroin overdoses, job losses, decreasing social supports and a palpable hopelessness.  My characters showed me some incredible resilience as they faced pretty unfavorable circumstances. I didn’t write these stories with politics in mind, but rather people who showed me their situations.

I think writers are a bridge to help people understand each other and see that we have more in common than what divides us. The late Jim McPherson, who was my professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, said it is the fiction writer’s job to show us what it feels like to be human.  I hope these stories in some small way do that.


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