Monday, June 3, 2019

The acclaimed novelist Susan Richards Shreve talks about memory, mystery, family an her stunning new novel MORE NEWS TOMORROW

My first encounter with the magnificent Susan Richards Shreve was with her novel MIRACLE PLAY. I had just sold my very first novel, MEETING ROZZY HALFWAY, and my then editor told me that I had to read this novel, that the author and the book would change my life and help me to be a better writer. I studied that novel, every page of it, to see how I might learn from it. I still have my copy, which is now dog-eared, along with every other novel Susan has written.

Here is the official and impressive bio: Susan Shreve is the author of fifteen novels, most recently You Are the Love of My Life, a memoir Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood and twenty-nine books for children. She has edited or co-edited five anthologies and her essays have appeared in several collections as well as The New York Times, The Washington Post and several magazines.
She was co-founder and has been a Professor in the Master of Fine Arts Program at George Mason University for more than forty years. Susan has been a Jenny Moore Fellow at George Washington University, a visiting writer at Princeton University, for several years at the School of the Arts of Columbia University, Bennington College Summer Seminars and Goucher College.
In 1985, she co-founded the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and served for thirty years most recently as Chairman. PEN/Faulkner began as an award in Fiction but developed a Writers in Schools Program in which more than 200 writers discuss their books in all of the DC public and public charter schools. The writers work as well with incarcerated youth and pregnant high school students.
She has been a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction, a grant in fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grub Street Award in Non-Fiction, the Alumni Award at the Sidwell Friends School, and the Writers for Writers Award from Poets and Writers. She serves on the Advisory Board of Poets and Writers, the Advisory Board of 826DC and the board for The Cheuse International Center at George Mason University.

And here is some of the praise for her astonishing new novel, MORE NEWS TOMORROW, about a daughter struggling to understand the reasons for her mother's mysterious death:

"Shreve creates a spooky atmosphere with stormy weather, eerie parallels between past and present, and at least one threateningly crazy woman. Even spookier is the backdrop of 20th-century racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigration feelings that are all too familiar today.
Part gothic novel, part adventure story, but primarily a meditation on surmounting misfortunes that may lie beyond an individual’s control." Starred Kirkus
“With a keen sense of place and pacing, Shreve weaves a subtle but unrelenting pattern of malevolence in this portrait of a woman burdened by the sins of her father and sustained by her unshakable belief in his innocence." Booklist

Thank you so, so much, Susan, for being here.

I always suspect that writers are haunted into writing a particular book, that there’s a “why now” feeling you can’t resist. Was it this was for More News Tomorrow? Was there something haunting you that you had to write?

I was looking through my mother’s photographs and came to one of my grandfather and grandmother who never knew sitting side by side n a rowboat on the lake of the boys camp in Northern Wisconsin which my grandfather owned.  

By the time I had put away the box of pictures and gone downstairs,  the man in the photograph had become a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant in June 1941 at a campsite called Missing Lake where has stopped to spend the night  with his cold, anti-Semitic wife and four year old daughter.
That night his wife is strangled and in the morning he confesses to the murder and is taken to the state prison.

Where that story came from I do not know…but there it was and I was driven to write it.

I loved the canoe trip, which terrified me, but kept me reading with panicked fingers. Is this something you are brave enough to do?

Obsessed, I might.  But no.  I like canoes but not on rivers.

Memories—what we forget, and what we only think we remember—figure prominently in this novel, which brings me to the question. Do you think the brain knows the difference between a real memory and one we have somehow pushed ourselves to believe?

I do think the brain knows--but memory is fickle and sometimes, even often, we tell ourselves the story that we want to believe is true. And then it is true. 

You always have such a deep, exquisite understanding of family (and human) relationships in every book, especially this one. Do you think that writing about families has taught you something that you could not or did not learn living in the midst of real relationships?

I am from a very small family, almost no extended family and what I longed to have growing up was a large family who filled the house. I wanted safety in numbers and dependable company.  I had four children and filled the house with people and my head with characters. It was of course more complicated than my imaginings but I feel as if I’ve been a student of families since I was a child for themselves and as a microcosm of the larger world.

You’ve had such a long, brilliant career, that I want to ask: has every book changed you, both in how you write and personally? How did More News Tomorrow?

I used to know the end of the book at the beginning and that was reassuring.  I knew it would end. But sometime in the late nineties I would start a book with no sense of what exactly I was writing and no anticipation of its conclusion.  There was a wonder in trusting that the end would surface inevitably and since then I have been conscious of my own change in the books I write.  

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

After my husband died three years ago, I discovered the sweet, heartbreaking suicide note his first wife had left him when she died. He was 28.  And I’ve kept the black note with white script as a strange treasure.  Reading it over again and again, I have fallen in love with my husband as if for the first time. 

Why? There it sits—waiting for something to happen.  A book.  A short story.  A play. Maybe a play.  I l used to write plays, quite bad ones.  I’d  like to try again with the suicide note.