National Book Award finalist Susan Straight shares her story of how she started writing on Meg Waite Clayton's 1st Books today.
I'm delighted this week to host Susan Straight, whose new novel, Take One Candle Light a Room, is just out from Random House. Susan was a National Book Award finalist for Highwire Moon, and has been called “One of America’s gutsiest writers" (The Baltimore Sun), and "a lyrical and intelligent storyteller, [who] burns clean the forbidding barriers of culture and race that blind people to one another" (People). She's written a lovely post about writing from a lovely place. Enjoy! - Meg
It was a revelation to me when Fantine Antoine, the protagonist of my new novel Take One Candle Light a Room
, said to her best friend: There are two kinds of people – those who stay and those who leave. Fantine’s left home to be a travel writer, to hang out almost exclusively with people who have also left wherever they were born and remade themselves into citizens of nowhere in particular but the world.
I stayed. Sometimes I can’t believe it, that I’ve lived all these years in the same place where I was born, and that I have been writing about this place for more than twenty years. It’s not Los Angeles, it’s not San Diego, it’s Riverside, inland southern California, land of tumbleweeds and orange groves and people who I always knew had fascinating lives though I’d never read about them in novels.
When I was nineteen, working on my first book without even knowing it, writing in the same black notebook that Harriet the Spy used to carry, listening to people talk and laugh and tell stories, I never thought anyone but me would read those pages. In a college class, I read an astonishing essay by Joan Didion, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” about failed women and men and murder in a place familiar to me – lemon groves and beauty parlors. When I described it to my mother, she said casually, “Oh, the woman who killed her husband? She lived across the street from your Aunt Beverly.”
But I never read novels about a place like mine. I worked on my first book, a novel in stories called Aquaboogie
, that summer, and then when I got married at 22, I worked on it even during my second night of our honeymoon outside Tijuana. (I’d known my husband since junior high – we loved each other passionately, but he fell asleep early, and I couldn’t sleep, so I headed out to the balcony with the notebook.) I went to graduate school, still working on the stories, while he worked nights at a juvenile corrections facility. Then we came back home to California, to an apartment within sight of the hospital where I was born and he was born, and where our daughters were born, too. I wrote in a closet, on a trunk his grandmother brought when she left Mississippi. I wrote in the ancient Fiat he was always fixing, about the orange groves, the forest fires, people who fished in the local lake. Even then, I knew that like Ernest J. Gaines and Joyce Carol Oates and Flannery O’Connor, I was writing about my home in a way no one else would or could.
But I can’t believe sometimes that I walk the dog out my front door, down the street past that hospital, and then past the city college where I wrote my very first short story as a sixteen-year-old in a summer class my mother made me take because my best friends were busy selling drugs and getting in trouble.
I teach at University of California, Riverside
, in a room where the window faces the foothills where my brothers and I hiked nearly every day when we were children. Sometimes, I shiver violently while my students are working with their heads down, and I see the boulders sprinkled like toasted sugar on the brown slopes, and the groves where we played, crunching the dead fruit from last year like hollow black ornaments.
Twenty years have passed since I published my first book, and I realize that some of the characters in Take One Candle Light a Room
are people I wrote about way back then. A woman from Oaxaca, standing in an alley with washwater, shocked at finding a dead body, a woman who I left in a previous novel picking strawberries in a migrant worker camp; a woman who ran a boarding house in the 1950s in a black neighborhood, who took in girls from a Louisiana plantation who were in danger of being raped by a predator; and a high school history teacher who was a hero in a previous book, trying to save his nephew.
That teacher is Fantine’s lost love, the LA travel writer who has enjoyed the severance of ties with Rio Seco and the isolated orange groves where she was raised by her father, near the Santa Ana River, a place where her nephew learned to shoot when her brothers lit the fronds on fire so that rats would leap out of the palm trees. She doesn’t want to step in when a gang confrontation causes her nephew to flee LA for Louisiana. She doesn’t want to see everyone who stayed, because they give her a hard time about how she’s the one who left. But she figures out eventually that she loves Victor, her orphaned godson, whose mother Glorette was killed in that alley where the woman from Oaxaca stands with the washwater.
During the years I wrote about Fantine – a woman unmarried, childless, unencumbered by anything but her own desires, planning trips to Naples and Belize, writing for Vogue
and Travel & Leisure
– I was walking the same sidewalks, with daughters and dogs, as I always had. One day, walking alone, feeling that I’d never gotten anywhere, I went home and looked at pictures of Eudora Welty at her desk in the house where she’d grown up; pictures of Ernest J. Gaines in front of his house in Louisiana, which he’d built close to the cemetery where his ancestors were buried on the plantation where he was born; photos from Smithsonian about Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote about her childhood home in upstate New York with great eloquence and deep love. And I knew how grateful I was to have such a place as this, and to see every day people who tell me stories no one else could know, even as they bring me oranges from their backyard groves and we look at the baby tumbleweeds like green explosions in the vacant lots nearby, a strange beauty in their softness, months before they turn gold. - Susan