Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Q&A with Suzy Vitello




Suzy Vitello is the author of the new novel Bitterroot. Her other books include the novel Faultland. She lives in Portland, Oregon.


Q: What inspired you to write Bitterroot, and how did you create your character Hazel?


A: The character of Hazel is an amalgam of many people I’ve known over the years. She’s always been a bit of a puzzle to the folks in her small hometown.


Half-Japanese, but white-passing, a talented artist drawn to the artistic rendering of posthumous bodies, Hazel works a day job as a forensic artist. When her husband dies suddenly (it’s in the opening chapter, so not a spoiler), she questions her purpose, her identity, her sense of where she fits in.


I set the book in Northern Idaho as a way to explore the polarity there in terms of ideology, religion, and relationship to the land.


Having experienced some of the same challenges as Hazel (my first husband died in a car accident leaving me widowed in my 20s, parental and grandparental war-related displacement, and LGBTQ family members directly affected by religion-based, anti-gay policies) I wanted to explore these tensions via a character struggling with her own burgeoning sense of self.


Q: As you mentioned, the story is set in a small town in Idaho--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Very. For me, setting is as much a character as are the humans in my novels. I’ve lived in Portland since 1989, so have had the good fortune to visit Northern Idaho several times. I’m drawn to fiercely stoic places, and the Idaho Panhandle strikes me as the sort of environment that might fit the tagline: No Whiners Allowed.


The sheer beauty, the ruggedness, the silver in the hills, the epic forest fires, its history of attracting hard-scrabble, opportunistic pioneers, oh, and the sex workers! Prostitution, though not entirely legal, was practiced in Wallace (aka Steeplejack) until the mid-1980s—these were among the elements that pitched me on setting a story there.


Q: The writer Rene Denfeld said of the book, “Deceptively easy to read, this book strikes at the heart of loss, and the alchemy of change.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love it. To me, that means that the themes in the book sort of sneak up on the reader instead of being immediately obvious.


The motifs of loss and change are, I hope, woven throughout Bitterroot. Every character in the book springs from their own personal disruption, and becomes entangled in the lives of the other characters in ways that lead, in some cases, to examination, and in others, to misfortune.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the novel?


A: Maybe that the idea of living an authentic life isn’t out of reach for anyone. That sometimes the compression that occurs in the aftermath of tragedy can lead to profound metamorphosis. A way to codify identity and move forward in one’s pursuit of happiness.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a novel coming out next year sometime with Running Wild Press. It’s a departure from my usual interests. I guess you’d call it a crime novel.


Beyond that, my latest work-in-progress is very new, but I think it’ll be a different sort of family saga. Two estranged sisters in middle-age forced to live together due to financial hardship. Clash of values. Hopefully it’ll be funny. I do find family dysfunction and its accompanying absurdities somewhat humorous (and heartbreaking—the two go hand-in-hand).


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Bitterroot is my fifth published novel, and my first with Sibylline Press. I’ve never been part of such a proactive, rich community.


The collaborative model at this niche press is built around harnessing the sisterhood of a given cohort of authors—we read one another’s books, share promotional tips and ideas, meet at an in-person retreat organized and sponsored by the press—the whole experience so far has made me feel like my work matters, and that I’m not having to face the proverbial publicity gauntlet alone.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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