5 Questions for...C. Susan Nunn
Written by
Five Questions
July 2014
Written by
Five Questions
July 2014

C. Susan Nunn is the author of the new book Song of the Earth, which just became available on Amazon, print and Kindle, on July 18. Susan holds an MFA, with a dual concentration in fiction and creative nonfiction, from Antioch University Los Angeles, and is a Certified Creative Writing Instructor. She has had several pieces published through the years, most recently in Pilgrimage Literary Journal and in High Country News. With the publication of this novel, Susan is now devoting her time writing a memoir and has started another novel. While working as an innkeeper on the US-Mexican border for twelve years, Susan was a tireless advocate for human rights. She has spent a lifetime studying “place,” and is living in Joplin, Missouri with her father and Harry, her black lab. Here, Kat Rohr speaks with her about the story behind her new novel, her creative process, and the responsibility of the author to inform her readers. 


Kat Rohr: I have read your novel, Song of the Earth, and couldn’t get it out of my mind. I understand it has taken you fifteen years to write and it’s quite timely, I must say. It is a love story with the immigration issues and politics as a backdrop. I understand you wrote this over a period of fifteen years. I have two questions about this. First, how did this story come to you? Secondly: Did you and the story change as you went?

C. Susan Nunn: Yes, fifteen years and two college degrees later, and still a timely subject. I find that amazing. The story came to me while I was working as an innkeeper on the Arizona/Mexican border which I did for twelve years. I learned a lot in that time. It was 1998 when the floodgates burst at the border and immigrants overwhelmed all of us in southern Arizona. It went on over a period of time, like years and it is still happening. There were thousands upon thousands and the flow never stopped. The immigrant stories broke my heart. At that time in my life I had raised and educated my three children and thought it was time to focus on myself. But that idea flew out the window as the needs of others were so intense. They begged for such basics as food and water. I fell off the “shelf of indifference” and was absorbed by the chaos.

I wanted to make this story the best it could be, and I knew I had to go to school and somehow keep my job at the same time. I was accepted at Vermont College (low residency program) and graduated with my BA (studying Mexican History and writing) in 2003. In 2010, I was accepted into the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. This is where it all came together. I arrived with a completed manuscript. My first mentor, Leonard Chang, read it and told me it was written more like a screenplay. He suggested I pull one of those characters out, setting the rest aside, and write a character driven novel with the border and immigration as the backdrop. This is exactly what I did. I will forever be grateful for his insight.

Then I was drawn to another mentor, Alma Luz Villanueva, who believed so deeply in my story and gave me permission to expose my deep spirituality and creativity on the page. I had been holding onto it for all it was worth, keeping everything hidden for so long. With exceptional mentors and classmates who saw this through from the beginning of the rewrite, the story grew. And as it did, I did. I graduated in 2012 with a dual concentration (fiction and creative non-fiction). I am very pleased with the book’s transformation as well as my own.


Kat Rohr: Song of the Earth is represented by the Mexicans respecting and worshipping the abundance of the earth. Does Song of the Earth also represent Jessie and Clay's relationship, and how does politics fit into this?

C. Susan Nunn: As with most things, one feeds into the other. It’s a tough world out there and when one finally moves deep enough within themselves they discover that the core of a caring and compassionate people is still alive. The fog, such as the ‘gotta have’ syndrome, the capitalism, the greed, has swept our planet and enveloped our hearts and minds. The story takes us back to the beginning of our structure, a journey into our consciousness, a time when we ‘were of this earth, and not merely walking on this earth.’ And, as for the politics, the story wouldn’t exist without it, as it is our political environment that is part of the fabric, the thread that guides the story.


Kat Rohr: How did you choose Jessie as your protagonist?

C. Susan Nunn: You aren’t the first person to ask this. For my second semester at Vermont College, I had chosen a poet as my mentor. I was looking for more of a rhythm in my writing. By then I had been working on the novel for about three years. I had my heart set on the voices to be of those crossing the border. I wanted to give them the power of that voice, but my mentor urged ­– almost demanded – that I focus on a character my readers could relate to – someone north of the border.

That night, totally stressed, I put a note under my pillow regarding this issue and I had a dream to beat all dreams. In this dream I was in my office at the guest ranch doing some work, and this woman came in and interrupted me, handing me a manila envelope. She kept saying this is the answer. In this dream, I was busy and I pushed her aside, locked her out, but when I turned around, she was still there smiling and handing me that damn envelope. It went on for some time, and I even threatened to call the Sheriff. Finally I woke out of frustration, realized what had happened, dressed in a hurry and ran out to find my mentor. He just laughed, and said, “I told you so.” On my flight home, as the plane lifted through the low, thick clouds, the sun came out and Jessie was a part of the narrative.


Kat Rohr: During a high-speed chase by the Border Patrol, three teens were killed. Your narrator asks the question "Can the Border Patrol be held responsible for the teens' deaths?" How do you answer that question?

C. Susan Nunn: This one is more of a philosophical question Jessie is asking. If it were a declared war zone, which it isn’t, all the deaths that result from high speed chases, etc., would be considered collateral damage. In real life, they are also not held responsible, although many feel they should be. I mean, there is something to be said about how government agents should be able to judge whether they will chase someone through town, or wait until they are out on the open road. Of course, the same thing could and does happen on the open road, so where is the balance? But, for Jessie, she is thinking more of the morality of the border agents and how hopefully they will evolve sooner rather than later and rebel. Then demand and help the government to find better policies. But for now, they seem content with the status quo and I leave it as an open question for the readers to ponder.


Kat Rohr: Why don't Clay and Jessie divulge their personal backgrounds to each other? How does their "deception" influence the story?

C. Susan Nunn: People don’t trust each other much on the border, maybe more so than other places. Clay, even though he is indebted to Jessie for pulling him from the flash flood, he can’t say a word for fear of blowing his undercover status, and especially not to a journalist. And, Jessie is still trying to discover her true self and would not be the one to bring up her past that she is running from. Also, she isn’t trusting what is emerging. They are both involved now in an illegal activity. It helps knowing the other is just as guilty. As Clay spends more time with her, he feels he could trust her with a part of his story like the baby girl’s blood oozing down his neck as she lay on his chest dying, but he is afraid to even start, for fear it will all come out.

At one point, remember he asks himself why he can’t have just a regular job like in construction or something, and why she couldn’t be a professor or a waitress? At this time, he didn’t know her real identity, only that she was a journalist. Would we tell some guy that we just met and slept with our whole life story? I don’t think I would. The sex would be enough for the time being.


Kat Rohr: What responsibility does a writer have to educate readers about failings in human rights?

C. Susan Nunn: I think this is a huge question. Why do we write, but to give our readers an insight into things that are happening around the globe, to stir something deep inside of them. We put it in story form and give the readers the experience of the journey. We plant the seeds that hang out in their subconscious, hoping those seeds will take root and another individual will move towards a deeper understanding of what is happening around them. I think it is highly important that although I have written a novel, much of the information in this book is true, not the story, but the landscape and our policies, as these policies are why the story surfaced, as I said earlier. I remember giving a talk at Vermont College as part of my graduation requirement and I told them the story of our border, with flip charts and other visuals. People had no idea what was happening and they were all very well read individuals. No idea whatsoever, and one of those women who remembered my story all these years is now publishing this novel.

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  • This is an amazing interview, and very inspiring. Thank you! I will go to Goodreads now to mark it as one I want to read.