Friday, April 21, 2017

Q&A with Susan Coll

Susan Coll is the author most recently of the novel The Stager. Her other books include Beach Week and Acceptance. She worked at Politics & Prose bookstore for five years, and is currently on a leave of absence. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and she is the fiction editor at Moment Magazine. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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

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: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes as you go along?

A: I don’t know where I’m going as I write, and that includes the end. I usually have a general sense of how it will all wrap up, but I can’t articulate the details until I get there.

That means I revise and revise endlessly. Some days when I sit down to write it’s a struggle to not start at the very beginning again; I feel like I need to have every detail right before I move forward. It’s not the most efficient process, needless to say.

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: What about the D.C. area makes it a good setting for your novels?

A: Every novel I’ve published has been set in the Washington, D.C., area, which is surprising even to me since I am not from the area. I suppose I began writing about D.C. and Montgomery County because I was viewing it through the lens of an outsider, and everything seemed fresh and interesting.

But part of what continues to fascinate me about Bethesda in particular is the ideal nature of the place. There’s an unusually high level of affluence and education among the residents, and they are all trying to live examined lives.

In my mind I often equate Bethesda with Plato’s republic—how do you set about creating a perfect society? And then once you have achieved that, just sit back and see what happens. 

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: You worked at Politics & Prose bookstore for five years. What role do you see bookstores playing in the current political and economic environment?

A: A recent New York Times article provided a round up of what bookstores across the country have been doing in the wake of the election, from bringing customers together to write postcards to elected officials, to becoming hubs of protest. Independent bookstores have long doubled as community centers, and this seems an especially critical time for them to occupy that secondary role.

Not all bookstores are overtly political of course, but nevertheless, part of their unwritten mission is to provide a forum for ideas. Politics & Prose has organized a number of “teach-ins,” in on subjects such as women’s rights, immigration, and climate change.

Q: You're now teaching writing. What are some of the most important things you've told your students, based on your own experience writing novels?

A: I’ve tried to communicate to my students that they should take the long view, that once they have finished drafts, they need to go back and really take the time they need to revise. To sit with a sentence or a paragraph for as long as it takes to get it just right. 

I’ve also tried to emphasize that writing a competent novel is not the goal. I think everyone of my students is capable of completing a novel, but I’m urging them to think outside the box and to find ways to make their work original---the best, and most creative, version of itself that it can be.

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. Susan Coll will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival on April 22, 2017. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.

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