Friday, September 5, 2014

Q&A with author Susan Coll

Susan Coll is the author of the new novel The Stager. Her other novels are Beach Week, Acceptance, Rockville Pike, and She works at Politics & Prose bookstore, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you choose a home stager as one of your main characters?

A: I’ve long been obsessed with trying to capture the way we live in contemporary suburbia, and the idea of home staging seemed especially rich with metaphor. The Stager’s goal is to create illusions about the way we live---or more accurately perhaps, the way we want to envision ourselves living.

I also love the symbolism of neat exteriors masking messy interior lives. Essentially a stranger comes into the home to strip it of personality, to symbolically declare that the house is no longer the emotional property of the homeowner.

Add to this already volatile emotional situation the fact that the Stager is presumably a complete stranger who has access to the very private realm that is one’s home.

When I had my own home staged at the behest of a Realtor, my admittedly dark imagination began to churn: what if the Stager was not a stranger? What if she had her own agenda? What if she was a person with no boundaries? What if she was an unreliable narrator, to boot? It seemed a delicious set up.

Q: Another important character is a rabbit. How did you come to write about him?

A: Oh Dominique! The rabbit really began as a comedic sidebar. There was a bad smell in the house, and it was caused by the rabbit chewing through the electrical cord of the freezer. This had happened to a friend, who had a destructive pet rabbit who kept chewing on things, including the carpet.

But as I wrote, the rabbit took on an increasingly important role. By the time I got to the end of the book this rabbit just inserted himself into the narrative. He wanted to tell his story. I stepped aside and let him do his thing.

Q: You wrote the book from the perspectives of some--but not all--of your protagonists. Why did you pick those particular perspectives?

A: I struggled with the point of view in this book through many drafts. Originally Elsa, the 10-year-old, did not have a speaking part. She was just a child in the room, sitting on the floor playing with her dolls.

I had written part of the narrative from Bella’s point of view, but at some point I decided I was less interested in what in what she had to say. I didn’t want to pass judgment on Bella, and in some ways I didn’t even want to know what was going on in her head, I was simply more interested in her as an archetype, and in the destruction she was wreaking on others.

But once I dropped Bella’s POV, I lost my way into certain important elements of the narrative. This led to one of the key comic conceits of the novel---Lars’ omniscient point of view, which is caused by mixing too many medications with the letters x, y, and z. I invented this side effect in order to get the reader into Bella’s head to tell us what was happening in real time.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: At times I feel I am nothing more than the sum of what I have read: Everything I’ve ever read is lodged inside me somewhere, which is part of why I can’t give any of my books away, and my house may soon buckle from the weight.

But the simpler answer is that I love to read dark comedy. William Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa, Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, George Orwell’s Burmese Days, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. I’m a huge fan of Cathleen Schine, who writes very smart but accessible fiction, so I was honored to have her write a blurb for the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am taking a brief, blissful break until February and letting some material marinate for a few months. In February I will go off on a three-week writing residency and reboot---it’s the first time I’ve ever done this. I have been toying with some linked essays, which could be my first foray into nonfiction.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I feel quite fortunate right now to have a life and a job where I’m surrounded by books. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Susan Coll, please click here.

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