Susan Straight: Writing in the Van

When I first met Susan Straight, she and I had traveled from different places to visit a friend in need and Susan walked in and started cleaning house.  Literally.  She picked up a broom.  I knew then that I loved her.  Her writing ricochets between beauty and menace (when she allows there to be a "between"); she can bring a rollicking room of hipsters who are waiting to hear music and watch a Kendama competition to absolute silence.  I am so pleased to that she was able to share this story of her writing life with you here on She Writes:

I finished my seventh novel on New Year’s Day 2010.  When I typed the final page, transcribing tiny cramped sentences I’d originally written by hand on a series of those annoying subscription cards you find inside magazines, I wanted to sign off with the date, and then name the exotic locale or city considered an intellectual haven – a place where an artist could finish a book.

When I was a teenager, fascinated with author photos and biographies, I loved turning to the final page of “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” by James Baldwin, one of my favorite writers, and seeing New York, Istanbul, San Francisco 1965-1967. I wanted more than anything to have that life – to be that WRITER.

This year, on the final pages of novels I read, authors had signed off with Prague, Paris, New York City, Cape Cod, and Rome.  In their acknowledgments, they mentioned writer’s colonies in Italy, Vermont, and Santa Fe.  The acceptance of a writer’s colony means the work has been found worthy of solitude and a beautiful landscape, of the intellectual company of other writers.

But I always tell the truth, when I’m not writing fiction, and so most appropriate is Mercury Villager, Riverside, California.  I wrote more than eighty percent of this novel in my car.  Longhand, on legal pads, on the backs of discarded homework papers from my daughters (a very long packet about Lincoln), and yes, on about fifty of those magazine inserts.  You have to write very small, around all the print on those things.

I tell my students – whether in college classes, prison workshops, or elementary school presentations – that anyone can write, anywhere, at any time, and I mean it.  I bring my legal pads to show them.  I have lived in the same house for 22 years, less than a mile from the hospital where I was born and two blocks from the city college where I wrote my very first short story, when I was sixteen, in a lined notebook like the one carried by Harriet the Spy.

I wrote my first novel, “Aquaboogie,” over the course of seven years, often in a pale green 1975 Fiat in our driveway, often while my husband was working on the vehicle.  He would say, “Check the brakes!” from underneath the car, and I would push down on the brake pedal, then write a few more pages in my notebook.  

After that novel was published in 1990, I was 29, and had a baby about to turn two, was pregnant again.  My life seemed so circumscribed, so parochial – I actually fantasized, as many writers do, about the writers colony where I would have meals delivered silently to my porch while I typed in a room where only the sound of birds would break into my concentration.  But I worked on my second novel while sitting on the curb, while my first daughter had finally fallen asleep in her stroller and I had to seize the moment, right then, that half-hour.  I hunched over my notebook, the stroller beside me with the brake on, and a car pulled up.  A woman offered me money and sympathy, since she thought I was homeless.

I’m just writing, I said.  She frowned.  Writing what?

I couldn’t say it, back then.  I knew I looked bad.  Tired, wearing old clothes, holding a legal pad.  A novel?  Just writing, I replied.  She shook her head like I was deranged and drove away.

After I handwrote scenes from each of my next three novels, I’d type them on my old pale blue Smith-Corona, given to me by my mother for high school graduation.  Finally I bought a used IBM Selectric from the office where I’d been a secretary.  I felt bad, still, until I met Larry Brown, another writer I admired immensely, who told me he wrote in the garage next to his house, on the same exact model of Selectric.  (Oh, those days of spooled ribbons and White Out!  He also lived where he was born, married his childhood sweetheart, had three kids.  And his novels and stories were astonishing in their breadth, compassion, and ferocity.)

In 1997 I found the notebook where I’d composed the first fifty pages of “Highwire Moon” when I was 19 and home from college for the summer.  I worked at a Mobil gas station that was repeatedly robbed since it was adjacent to the freeway leading to the desert.  My boss Florencio expected us to recognize potential gas thieves quickly enough that he could run outside with his baseball bat and leap onto their hoods to bash in the windshield.    

But I wanted to be a novelist.  One night, I read a news story about an immigration raid on a local linen plant.  A number of women had been deported, and I wondered about the children they must have left behind, when they were led from the steamy rooms lined with huge dryers of tumbling hospital gowns and sheets.  I drove that night in my first car, a tiny silver Honda Civic, to St. Catherine’s of Alexandria, a local church, and wrote in the parking lot, staring at the statue of Saint Catherine with her hands extended in welcome and sympathy.  I wrote about a three-year-old girl sleeping in a station wagon while her mother is deported, but I didn’t know what the mother would do back in Mexico.  I put the notebook away until I was 34.  By then, I had three daughters, a green Mercury Villager minivan – and I was getting divorced.

I thought I’d be a different writer by then – the kind who goes to Rome on a fellowship, who spends two weeks working in a London hotel or at the New York Public Library.  I tried to feel sorry for myself – but then I saw a photograph of Eudora Welty, sitting with perfect posture at her desk in her bedroom in the house where she was born.  I read “One Writer’s Beginnings.”  I found photos of Flannery O’Connor, on her farm.  And I remembered an interview with Raymond Carver, who said that to escape the chaos of his home and family, he often wrote in his car, parked in front of the house. 

I sat in my van, at my curb, and thought about the Carver stories I re-read every year.  I thought about how he must have felt, sitting behind a windshield in rainy Washington, and realized I was a native southern Californian who had spent much of her life in the car.  There was an expansive freedom in the windshield, completely different from a house window.  And my middle daughter was most like me – when we pulled up after school, everyone else went inside, but she and I stayed in the car while the sun was lowering, starting homework, listening to the radio, or just staring at the trees before the others came to get us, puzzled by that small liberty. 

By 2004, working on “A Million Nightingales,” my three girls played on three different basketball teams, and I drove to games or practice every single day.  Even Sundays, which was the only day one all-girl league played games.  Entire teams piled into my green Mercury.  I was the mom who would have other players for the whole weekend, because my kitchen was the place where we made eighteen bean burritos at a time (with hot sauce from extra Del Taco packets). 

I wrote most of the novel in the van.  By now, I’d given up on the idea of Yaddo or MacDowell, and would settle for a latte and coffee shop – but the three times I tried that, some guy would always sit next to me with a laptop, smirk gently at my legal pad and say, “I’m working on a novel – what are you up to there?”

I didn’t want to talk.  I’d say, “Grocery list,” and receive the smug nod.

Usually, I had only forty-five minutes between teaching my classes and picking up the youngest kid from elementary school, and if I went home, there would be basketball girls wanting food.  One day I pulled alongside the lake at the nearby park where I’d played as a child, feeding ducks while avoiding drug deals.  I wanted to finish a vital scene in my book where a girl is slowly dying of lead and mercury poisoning during 1811, while her young slave companion watches the doctor treat her with the compounds that are killing her. 

I was breathless, sitting with the window open in the heat, writing with the legal pad propped on the steering wheel, terrified by the girl’s father, who had realized the doctor’s error and was going to kill him, was going to shoot his white horse. 

A hand tapped my left arm.  “Hey,” a man said softly.  “You working?”

I pulled my brain from the depths of 1811 Louisiana and focused on his face.  He was leering.  “What?”

“You working?”  He looked at my chest.

I was dressed in jeans and a blouse.  But I’d forgotten who worked this part of the park, near the river.  He thought I was a prostitute.

He kept his hands proprietarily on the open windowframe, and I started the engine and pulled away.

I felt drugged myself, writing about the horse falling into a pit, the doctor facing down the father.  Four blocks from the park, I pulled along the curb in front of the orthodontist where, as a sixteen-year-old, I’d gotten braces the night before my junior prom, which I went to with the boy I’d later marry. 

No one even glanced at me – I was just another mom, making another list.  I wrote seven more pages until it was time to pick up my youngest daughter, and then I drove quickly to the elementary school, pulled into the line of cars near the playground, late, while the other mothers gave me those mildly scornful looks I endured all those years as the distracted single mom whose green van was dirty enough that one daughter’s boyfriend wrote I LOVE THIS FAMILY on the side window, who instead of gossiping or fundraising in the bleachers during basketball was always writing something in a notebook, on the top row away from everyone else.

Then, cosmic irony descended on my house – while I worked on my latest book “Take One Candle Light a Room,” a novel about a travel writer who has never married or had children and who has refused for years to help her orphaned godson, my 20-year-old nephew came to live with me and my three girls.  My nephew, who needed me in the past, and who I was afraid to take in, because it seemed too much.  With his dreadlocks and skateboard and ONE LOVE tattoo, his Pan-like mischief and freedom due to the utter indifference of his parents, he has transformed our house.  But the constant laughter of visiting skateboarders and YouTube drove me to a familiar place – the van – where I wrote about the travel writer, descended from that slave companion who watched the doctor and his horse die; a woman selfish and beautiful, with only coffee in her kitchen, rather than endless stacks of tortillas and red packets of Del Scorcho.  Would she rescue her godson from the trouble that could get him killed? 

Six yellow legal pads, the backs of letters, even day passes from Disneyland covered with words (waited an hour on a bench for them to all come off Splash Mountain).  I finished the novel at dawn after the only night all my children spent elsewhere for the first time in months, typing ten hours without stopping except for coffee and chocolate, transcribing the very end of the story which I’d written for months on subscription entreaties from Sport Fisherman and Runner’s World while in a doctor’s waiting room, where my brain went into a fugue state of imagination that might feel like a deserted cabin somewhere, a colony, so that I could write after the very last line something that sounded impressive and not the prosaic and common name of my village. 

It seems like I’ve never gotten anywhere, but I’m cool with it now, I’d better be, and so I wrote – 2010, Riverside, California.


Susan Straight has published seven novels and one middle-grade reader. Highwire Moon was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001; A Million Nightingales was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2006. Her short stories have appeared in Zoetrope, The Ontario Review, The Oxford American, The Sun, Black Clock, and other magazines. “The Golden Gopher,” from Los Angelas Noir, won the Edgar Award in 2007; “El Ojo de Agua,” from Zoetrope, won an O. Henry Award in 2007. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, Harpers, The Nation, and other magazines. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on Highwire Moon, and a Lannan Prize was an immense help when working on Take One Candle Light a Room.  Her website is:

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  • Beth Kephart

    I really loved this, Susan and Reiko.  Reiko, your introduction of Susan is perfect.  It should be her official biography!  And Susan, I'm just so glad that you persisted.  I can't wait to read your newest.

  • LuAnn Braley

    I hear you on the needing to quiet the noise of life in order for our writing to speak to us.