Monday, June 17, 2013

Q&A with novelist Susan Coll

Susan Coll, photo by Lauren Shay Lavin
Susan Coll is the author of four novels: Beach Week, Acceptance, Rockville Pike, and She works at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., as the events and programs director.

Q: Your two most recent novels, Beach Week and Acceptance, deal at least in part with the transitional period for many families when their child is leaving high school for college. What intrigues you about that phase of life?

A: I’m weirdly fascinated by the way we live, and parent in the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C., at this moment in time. My interest likely stems from coming to this as something of an outsider, having lived overseas while my children were young, then plunging into the belly of the beast that is Montgomery County Public Schools.

There is something about the intensity of this phase, as children begin to assert their independence, that brings out the best--and the worst--in us as parents. I was much more interested in documenting the parental tendency to micromanage and become hyper-involved in their children’s lives than in what the kids were up to, which in my view has remained pretty constant.

Q: Your books are often described as witty, satirical, and humorous. Do you enjoy reading--as well as writing--books that fit that description?

A: I didn’t start out thinking I’d write comedy; like every aspiring writer, I imagine, I thought I’d write gorgeous, sweeping, literary fiction. But when I turned my first book in, which was meant to be a historical novel about Eleanor Marx--Karl Marx’s daughter, who committed suicide--and people said it was very funny, I realized I had a different sort of calling. 

I enjoy reading a wide range of books, but definitely some of my favorites are dark comedies: William Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa; Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana; George Orwell’s Burmese Days.

Q: Acceptance was made into a movie starring Joan Cusack. How much of a role did you have in the process, and what did you think of the result?

A: I had no real role in the movie. I was shown the script as a courtesy, and made a few minor suggestions, but that was the extent of my involvement. I didn’t see the movie until about a week before it aired. I thought Joan Cusack was fabulous---she’s one of my favorite comedic actresses, so it was a thrill to see her inhabit one of my characters and really bring her to life.

Q: You work at the famed Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. From that vantage point, what is your sense of the state of the book-selling business today?

A: Book selling seems somewhat more stable right now than one might think--at least that’s my impression after recently attending an annual book conference in New York, absorbing a lot of industry statistics and listening to men in suits with Power Point presentations.

But of course everything is in flux, and it’s discouraging to watch bookstores close and to watch amazon become increasingly dominant, which is not good for anyone, including authors.

Working in a bookstore really does drive home just how many books there are out there, which is both inspiring and depressing at once. Inspiring that so many books continue to be published; depressing that so few of them wind up on the shelves of bookstores or in the hands of readers.

Q: What are you writing now?

A: My fifth novel, The Stager, will be published next summer. It is very Montgomery County. It’s set in a fictional suburban enclave called The Flanders, which is in a gated golf course community in Bethesda. It’s a comedy to do with rabbits and real estate.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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