Today’s Author Spotlight Suzan Still, whose debut novel Commune of Women will be released on July 16, 2011.
JLR: As all aspiring authors know, writing the novel is the easy part—getting published is where the real work comes in. Tell us about your road to publication. Is there anything you would have done differently?
SS: You’re certainly right about that! I was very fortunate. Lou Aronica was just starting the Fiction Studio imprint. He had several months previously looked at the manuscript for Commune of Women in the capacity of an editor. One day I just received an email from him, asking if I would like to be one of his first twelve Fiction Studio publications. Would I! I might still be writing query letters, if not for that marvelous stroke of good fortune!
JLR: There is so much advice given by authors about the writing process. What type of writing routine do you have? Are you a planner or a figure-it-out-as-you-go type writer? Any tips you want to share?
SS: I’m a mixture of the two. I generally have a fairly full idea of where the book wants to go. But I also truly revel in my characters’ willfulness in taking off in unexpected directions. I wrote biographies of my characters that were never used in the actual novel, in order to get to know them better. For me, the best process is to work almost daily and to write where the heat is, instead of in a linear fashion. Later, I can go back and link these spots where the true passion of writing takes me over. So I guess my advice would be not to delay writing something, if it’s insisting itself on your consciousness. Even if it’s out of sequence, let it come!
JLR: How have you been able to balance your writing with your day job and your family responsibilities? What sacrifices have you had to make?
SS: I’ve always had to sandwich my writing into a very busy life, often staying up late at night to squeeze in a little writing time. As a consequence, my writing has for many years been sporadic—which is why some of my works-in-progress have been so for decades! Two years ago I retired from teaching at the university and I was suddenly able to invest myself fully in my writing and that’s when I flew into the completion of Commune of Women with real relish.
JLR: As readers of my book reviews know, I have a habit of casting real people, usually actors, in my mind as the characters when I read. As you are writing, do you base your characters on real people? If Hollywood made a movie of Commune of Women, who would you like to see playing the leading roles?
SS: Only one of the characters in Commune of Women, Heddi, is based on a real person—a dear friend who is the epitome of chic and who is brilliant, to boot. Fortunately, she doesn’t have the neurotic tendencies I’ve given to her fictional counterpart! Pearl, the ancient bag lady, may have accreted around the gritty person of a friend’s grandmother who was, by his account, a truly resourceful, tough and compassionate pioneering woman. The rest are purely figments of my imagination—although my husband insists he sees parts of me in every one of them! I’d love to see Cicley Tyson play Pearl, the bag lady, and Emma Thompson or Meryl Streep as Heddi, the Jungian analyst. Kathy Bates would be perfect for Betty, the histrionic housewife, and Julia Roberts would make a lovely Ondine, the artist.
JLR: Setting goes a long way toward establishing the feel of the book. What made you to decide to set your story in such an unusual place?
SS: The setting for Commune of Women is rather unusual: a small staff room, where the women are trapped for four days. I wanted to create a psychological pressure cooker that would bring out both the best and the worst in each character and also inspire them to look deeply into their lives, in remembrance and self-evaluation. The flashbacks into their life stories provide windows into the greater world.
JLR: World-building requires the author to do a lot of planning and inventing. Can you tell us a little about your world and your process for creating it?
SS: I wanted the characters in Commune of Women to be as diverse as possible and that necessitated the invention of seven wildly differing worlds: a plush home in Malibu, a wild mountaintop shanty, a piece of cardboard on a city street, a subdivision house in LA, the substandard world of a Palestinian refugee camp, and an aristocratic home and garden on the Atlantic seaboard of France. These worlds are vivid, in my imagination. Each partakes of some part of my own life experience, mixed with a large dollop of imagination, a handful of research and several pinches of reverie.
JLR: I’ve always felt that to be a good writer you must first be a good reader. What types of books do you read and how have they influenced your writing?
SS: I devour both fiction and non-fiction. Currently, I’m reading To Die In Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War by John Gibler, as research for my novel-in-progress. And I just finished Katherine Stockett’s The Help, which I loved, and now am tying into In Memory of David’s Buick by Bob Saar—a rollicking road trip novel. One of my favorite literary works is Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, in which four characters experience the same events from very different perspectives. That kind of psychological relativity interests me, so in Commune of Women the reader gets to see events from the perspective of each of the seven main characters.
JLR: Do you keep a journal?
SS: I’m an avid journal keeper. I have about three yards of old journals on my library shelves! There are journals there from age 5, onward. I record my dreams, primarily, and then the events of the day—the first flowering of forsythia in the snow, the capturing of a swarm of bees, or my very first sighting of a Mourning Cloak butterfly in my garden (I thought I’d seen a tiny angel!). I often mine my journals for ideas and descriptions that become part of larger works.
JLR: So much about our real-life influences our writing. Are there any specific things in your past which influenced Commune of Women.
SS: I suppose that each character in Commune of Women partakes of some of my life’s experiences. For example, Heddi, the Jungian analyst, reflects my fascination with depth psychology. Pearl, the ancient bag lady, has many of the pithy, honest and hard-working characteristics of the people I grew up knowing, who were remnants of California’s Gold Rush or migrants from the Dust Bowl. Ondine’s love of art and color is my own—and I have to say quite frankly that I’m envious of her situation at Quatre Vents! I live rurally and so Sophia’s way of life is very familiar to me. And I’ve been involved with dream groups for over twenty-five years and know that women come together in times of trouble to exercise great depth of wisdom and compassion for one another, which is a main theme of Commune of Women.
JLR: Tell us a bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What was your family like? Has your childhood influenced your writing?
SS: I had a pretty unusual childhood. My parents pioneered on a remote mountaintop in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. My first home, as a newborn, was an 8-by-12 foot miner’s shack with no interior walls, plumbing or electricity. My father later built the house where I still live. I never felt alone, growing up, because of two great loves: nature and reading. I was always out in the woods roaming around, as a child, and if I wasn’t there, I was curled up in a chair, reading. In Commune of Women, Sophia’s character expresses some of that experience. There’s no doubt that the closeness I experienced and still enjoy with nature has had a major influence on my writing.
JLR: How did your formal education prepare you for becoming an author? Is there anything that you feel you’re your schooling could taught you to better prepare you for the publishing process?
SS: My masters degree is in art and writing and that period of my schooling was tremendously freeing, creatively. I spent two years in a bliss of writing, painting and sculpting. That experience opened new, previously unimagined depths in my creative process. My doctorate is in depth psychology and that field of study has given me a fascination with personality, the formation of character and the archetypal underpinnings of psyche—all very useful when writing characters. I’m not sure that anything can prepare one for the publishing process, however! All kidding aside, though, I do think that the perseverance that higher education requires, the discipline and the ability to take the long view of things, definitely prepare one for the long and arduous publication process.
JLR: What other works have you published?
SS: I have a non-fiction piece, “Prison as Cultural Shadow,” in the anthology, Psychology at the Threshold and, of course, my doctoral dissertation, Dark Persephone: Soul’s Descent to Eros. I’ve had essays, short stories and poetry published in various literary journals, most recently, in Stolen Island Review. Commune of Women is my first novel.
JLR: Have you had the opportunity to meet any famous writers? Were there any who made you star-struck?
SS: I have the good fortune to know James Hillman and his son, Laurence Hillman. James has published so many books that I’ve lost track—25 or 30, maybe? His book, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling was on the NY Times Best Seller list. He’s one of the most dazzling intellects on the planet. His son, Laurence, is also a writer, of Planets in Play - How to Reimagine Your Life Through the Language of Astrology and the co-author of Alignments - How to Live in Harmony with the Universe. He’s an archetypal astrologer and a truly deep and charming person. The two of them are among the most profound and delightful people I know.
JLR: I’m always a sucker for a good love story. Who is your favorite fictional couple of all time?
SS: Oh, it has to be Scarlett and Rhett, of Gone With the Wind. They had tremendous chemistry—although I was always annoyed with Scarlett for being so difficult!
JLR: Do you have any hidden talents?
SS: I love to dance, to sing when no one’s around (especially along with Julio Iglesias, in Spanish), and to speak in public (which makes it, I guess, not such a hidden talent!).
JLR: If you and I went on a road trip across the country, would you rather drive or navigate? Any favorite car games?
SS: I love road trips! I like to drive and am really comfortable and competent behind the wheel. But I’m also a happy passenger because I’m a born voyeur—I want to see everything! My friend and I did a 4000-mile road trip through Mexico and my eyes were like one of those scanning cameras you see in stores, taking in every detail. But please, no car games. I don’t want to be distracted from the passing scene or the conversation, which should be deep and soulful or riotously hilarious! Singing along with favorite CDs is allowed, however!
JLR: What are you writing now that Commune of Women has been released?
SS: Now that Commune of Women is released, I’m working on Fiesta of Smoke, a love story that spans five decades and is entangled in the intrigue of a coming revolution in Mexico. Earlier, you asked who my favorite romantic couple of all time is and I have to tell you that, truthfully, Calypso and Javier are. Their relationship is complex, emotional, humorous and fated. And they have undying sexual attraction for one another! When I’m writing the scenes in which they’re together, I’m touched by their truly deep love for and understanding of one another and also by their sizzling chemistry.
JLR: Where can readers go to purchase Commune of Women?
SS: Commune of Women is available in both paperback and e-book from:
Barnes & Noble
JLR: Thank you, Suzan! It’s been lovely meeting you!