1) –Tell us about your latest book.
My new novel, In the Garden of Stone, is an intimate, multi-generational story about a family who migrates from a coal camp in War, West Virginia, to a mountain farm outside of Bluefield, Virginia. Set between 1924 and 1973, the novel follows three generations of a family all bound to the beautiful, and sometimes harsh, landscape of Appalachia.
The story is told through the points of view of four different narrators. The first narrator, Emma Palmisano, is the daughter of a Sicilian coal miner. The novel opens as a rail car overturns, burying the front of her family’s house in coal. Emma wakes to find a railroad man named Caleb Sypher digging her out. Though she knows nothing about Caleb, she marries him a week later and moves to his 47-acre farm near Bluefield, Virginia. The novel eventually moves into the perspectives of Dean, Emma’s son; Sadie, Dean’s wife; and Hannah, the daughter of Dean and Sadie.
This kind of novel, which is sometimes called “a composite novel,” requires unifying elements beyond the chronological retelling of a family story. This novel required more, and different, unifying elements that a traditionally-structured novel doesn’t necessarily require, such as recurrent images and protagonists, and a strong sense of place. While each chapter could exist on its own, together they must rest upon each other and have the arc of a novel. I would say that the various gardens that appear in the novel—the wooded mountains, the Italian stone garden on the family’s home place, and even the coal mines–provide the key images that unify the whole novel.
2)–What is a typical writing day like for you?
Ideally, when I have a longer stretch of time to write, I try to create a work regime by repeating certain habits. Usually, I wake up before the sun rises, and go downstairs to make a pot of coffee. I return to my office and read something, usually poetry, until I feel like writing. I’ll write for 4-6 uninterrupted hours, knowing that one of those hours will be spent immersing myself into whatever project I’m working on, and one of those hours will be spent coming back out of that project. When I’ve finished writing for the day, I’ll take notes about where I’ll begin the next day. I think it’s really important to know what your next day’s work will be at the time you quit working for the day. Usually, after I finish writing at my desk for the day, I feel a bit tired, so I’ll take a long walk or lift weights, eat lunch, nap, read. By about 2 or 3 in the afternoon, I’ll take more notes with a pencil on a lined legal pad. Later on, I’ll read some more before I fall asleep. Then, I wake up and start all over again.
That is definitely my ideal schedule, but usually I only have this kind of time when I take an unpaid leave from work, or when I have a few weeks off in the summer. Like most people, I work a full-time job, and I have a family. When I don’t have a long stretch of time for my writing, the main thing I try to do is read a lot, take a lot of notes, and carve out smaller moments to write. I have learned to defend those moments pretty fiercely. Most of the year, I am carving out time and space in my daily life to write, and I try to go to it as regularly as possible. I am always reading, which is an essential part of the writing process. If you establish what Flannery O’Connor calls “the habit of art,” then the very act of writing every day will get you through times when you have a heavy load at your day job, when it is next to impossible to concentrate on writing fiction. If you are writing something, anything, on a regular basis you’ll remain in practice and ready for when the idea for the next big book project occurs to you.
3)–Who are your favorite authors, the ones you read when you should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?
Some of my favorite authors are Norman Maclean, William Styron, Andre Dubus II, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Sarah Orne Jewett, Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. These writers appeal to me because they all use place as more than just a backdrop for their narratives. Their descriptions of the natural landscapes shape their characters, create conflict, establish rhythm and structure within their stories, and communicate their central themes. My own novel is set in the coal country of West Virginia and Virginia, and my characters are immigrant Sicilian coal miners or people indigenous to the Southern Highlands. This is an area of tremendous natural beauty and harsh economic strife, and so I had to create primary characters who know everything about staying alive on the remote side of a mountain, or in a deep hollow. These characters are formed by this wild, isolated landscape. They have to know how to make moonshine, which would have been the only form of medicine available to them, (other than turpentine), in the early twentieth century. They know about snake lore, and they know how to plant by “the signs.” They know how to cook and make nostrums from the herbs and flowers they pick in the woods around their houses. While writing this book, I had to keep in mind that the emotional identities of these characters were rooted in the natural landscape, and that their lives were shaped by the seasons and the weather, rather than by our modern sense of time. Early in the novel, a lot of the conflict occurs when someone, or something, invades the natural landscape. There is obvious tension caused by the coal and timbering companies that decimate the land. Ultimately, though, I tried to concentrate on the less-obvious, intimate stories about the women, children and immigrants who scratch out a living here, and survive. The novel is, at its heart, about endurance, but the children narrators keep the story balanced and hopeful because they still have such a firm sense of identity and place. Like most kids, they intuit the grim forces acting upon them, but they are still pretty open to the natural beauty of this place, and they are resilient.
4)–How long have you been writing?
I have been writing for about 25 years. I published my first short story when I was twenty-one, and I published my first novel when I was forty-five. In between those milestone publications, I published essays and short stories in literary journals, and I published short story collections with small, literary presses. I also worked as a professional book reviewer and as a writing teacher. If you were to use the tortoise and the hare fable as a metaphor for my writing life, you would definitely identify me as the tortoise—one of those big, leathery loggerhead tortoises who moves along slowly and steadily. And I am just fine with being the tortoise because I have had a lot of time to develop and hone my craft while plodding away at writing year after year. It’s sort of like I’ve had a very long apprenticeship.
I spent several years writing In the Garden of Stone piecemeal while working full time, and mothering full time, but as I neared the end of writing this novel, I took an unpaid leave from my job so that I could finish it. A friend lent me her 1917 camp house that stood at the base of the Seven Sisters Mountain range, in a little town called Montreat, North Carolina. Montreat is a spiritual retreat center that was settled by Scottish Presbyterians in the late 19th century, so this place resembles a lower highland village in Scotland. There are no sidewalks here, just hiking trails that lead from the front doors of everyone’s houses and border a quiet stream called Flat Creek. The creek crossed through the town center, which is really just a small lake named, almost providentially, Lake Susan.
When I went to live in this place for the whole month of September, I had the idea that I would let this mountain landscape work on me as I finished the novel. I began writing the end of the book by walking in the woods. First, I followed Flat Creek down to the lake, where I discovered that the gorgeous swans that patrolled the lake were the least elegant creatures on this earth when viewed up close. They snort like hogs. They tip over, rumps in the air, snaking their beaks underwater to swallow whole frogs. When they tip back over, I could see the frogs slowly struggling down the inside of the swans’ snowy necks. After pausing at the lake, I hiked up to the nearest trailhead that branched off into the “lower trails,” which, I learned quickly, were once wilderness trails that reached elevations as high as 5900 feet. After a few days of hiking, (and heaving), along “the lower trails,” I began to learn how to remain quiet, and how to pay attention. I discovered that falling acorns sound like gun shots when they hit a tin roof, and that clouds rise like delicately twisting handkerchiefs from black ridge pockets after a storm passes. I learned that black bears are real comedians. If you remain still and watch them from a safe distance, they will come out at dusk to swing on the limbs of the apple tree growing beside your kitchen window. They’ll balance delicately, on all four paws, on top of your bird feeder and scoop out all the bird seed. And if you are sitting beside a window at dusk, reading, you might look up and see a doe staring in at you, taking your measure, so close you can see the veins inside her ears. If she likes the look of you, she’ll bring back her fawns the next night so that you may admire them. I don’t mean to sound like Henry David Thoreau’s direct descendent here, but I did go to the woods so that I could learn how to see and hear, and so that I could write without distraction. I finished the last third of the novel in this setting, in exactly one month.
5)–Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?
Maybe because I have been at this for a while, I have had a lot of talented and gracious writers take me under their wings. I would say that the writers who have had the greatest influence on me are the ones who are my mentors and friends. The fiction writers Jean Thompson and Thomas E. Kennedy have been my mentors for over twenty years. These writers taught me a lot about the craft of writing. However, because they welcomed me into their lives and became genuine friends, they also taught me a whole lot about how to establish good writing habits. These writing habits prepared me for a long career that has withstood times of triumph, and times when I haven’t had a lot of external affirmation. These people also served as good role models for how writers should behave towards each other, and towards their writing students.
Perhaps I should mention, too, my very first writing teacher, the novelist James Lee Burke. A lot of people recognize him as a mystery writer, but I came to know him as my teacher first. By the time I studied with him in the MFA program at Wichita State University, Jim already had published several novels, and Alec Baldwin had bought the movie rights to his novel, Heaven’s Prisoners. I believe he’d also won an Edgar Award for Black Cherry Blues around this time. But you wouldn’t have known that he’d achieved such notoriety because he was extremely humble, and being humble is probably the greatest trait a working writer can have because writing is an act of complete humility. If you have too big of an ego, then this will show in your writing. A large ego will prevent you from seeing beyond yourself, into the viewpoints of characters whose lives are different from your own. If you allow your ego to get in the way, you won’t recognize your own need to push yourself, and evolve as a writer.
Anyway, I received a tremendous gift the day I walked into Jim’s classroom that first time and met a man who was wearing black cowboy boots and a plaid shirt. Jim spoke with a Louisiana accent, which I had never heard before in my life. Simply listening to him talk was a lesson in writing because he has a rich way of speaking that is largely informed by his birthplace in Louisiana, and by his adopted home in Montana. He is also highly schooled in classic and modern literature, in both poetry and fiction. I think that is why he writes such beautiful prose. He is attentive to language and story because he is so well studied in the language of poetry and classic literature. He also has a terrific ear for dialogue. Around the time I studied with him, he was known to “test” his characters’ dialogue out while he was sitting in the front seat of his pickup truck. Some of the guys in my workshop would sometimes sneak out into the college parking lot before class, and hide behind the back bumper of Jim’s truck, hoping to overhear him as he spoke aloud blocks of dialogue from the fiction he was working on at that time. Then, my classmates would come back and report whatever lines of dialogue they’d supposedly heard Jim speaking while sitting in his pickup.
But I think the most important lesson—among the many important lessons I learned—was how to behave towards other writers. I never once heard Jim make a cutting remark about a student or a colleague or another writer, and he never validated himself by making other writers feel small or low. He never got into ugly competitions with anyone, and he discouraged this kind of behavior in his students. He said it best when he told all of us this, (and I am paraphrasing here): “You aren’t competing against each other; if you need to be competitive, then you should compete with the great writers who came before you, the ones who paved the way.”
6)–What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?
I am most satisfied when I am right in the middle of a book project, when I’m practically living inside of the book that I am writing. I like the feeling of being completely immersed in a story and its characters—so immersed that I’m not really even thinking about writing. Some people refer to this state as “the writing coma.” I think it’s more like being in a dream state while I’m still awake. It’s just very satisfying to be in the middle of something, especially when it is going well. When I’m not immersed in a book project, I feel a sense of loss. I feel guilty, too, like I’m wasting my own time here on earth.
7)–Mark Twain said, “Southerners speak music…” Do you have a favorite southern saying you can share with our readers?
I am awfully fond of my mother-in-law’s sayings. She was a great reader, but the only book she had available to her when she was a child growing up in Bluefield, Virginia, was the Bible, so her everyday speech had the cadence of the King James Bible, and her voice had a quiet musicality to it. Listening to her talk was almost like listening to someone read a psalm. One of her favorite sayings was “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” This is a mountain woman’s phrasing, and she often used it playfully to let us know that she would make it to our house in South Carolina, no matter what, for a visit. But this phrase is really loaded with meaning; it says so much about who she was, and where she lived her whole life.
In the mountains, the creeks can be more dangerous than any other body of water. If a mountain gets timbered out, or if a coal company uses mountain top removal, all the rain from a storm rushes down the side of a mountain, and there aren’t any natural elements—like trees—to slow down the water. When the water hits the creeks, they rise quickly and flood people out of their houses. A few years ago, my husband and I took a drive down into McDowell County, in West Virginia. A lot of the coal companies pulled out of this area years ago, but there must have been some mining going on down there still. I recall that my husband and I drove alongside a creek that had flooded the summer before. The houses to the left of the road we were driving had been built up on the ridges, and when the rains came they must have just washed all the houses away, down into the creek. When the creek rose, some of the belongings from those houses floated back up with the flood. By the time my husband and I were driving beside this creek, the water had dwindled again, but you could see how high the water had gone because there were ripped bed linens hanging from the tops of the trees beside the creek. There were plates, toys and mattresses that had washed up from the flood, and somebody had heaped these household goods in piles alongside the road. It didn’t look like anyone could be living down in this area, but as we drove on I saw two men dressed in Hawaiian shirts, standing beside those roadside heaps, picking through the debris. Those images—the torn bed sheets hanging from the tops of those trees, those two men picking from the flood heaps—are forever burned in my memory, so I still feel a bit haunted when I hear the phrase, “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”
8)–Who were your favorite authors as a child? Have they influenced your writing career in any way?
Definitely, the Brontes were my favorite writers when I was a kid. In fact, I still read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre every year. I think these writers informed my own writing because they were especially sensitive to natural landscapes; in fact, their characters are largely formed by, and driven by, their surroundings. In Wuthering Heights, Cathy and Heathcliff are formed by, and forever tied to, the Moors. This is equally true of Jane Eyre.
9)–What are major themes or motifs in your work? Do your readers ever surprise you by seeing something else in your stories than you think you wrote?
Now that this novel is out, and people are reading it, I am continually surprised and amazed by the different ideas that readers are drawing from it. A few weeks ago, a friend and I had coffee, and she told me her thoughts about the book. I must admit that she summed up the book’s basic premise and its themes much more succinctly than I ever could. Perhaps this is because I don’t think conceptually while writing fiction; I tend to concentrate on who my characters are, what they want, and what they do to get what they want. In other words, I tend to think in story. So it was quite wonderful to hear a detailed analysis of the book from this friend.
I’m also excited when a reader I’ve never met before finds something of herself in the pages of the novel. It makes me feel like I’ve made a connection with someone I wouldn’t otherwise have known. Just this past weekend, I was at a book festival, and a married couple came over to the table where I was signing copies of my book. The wife was an Italian American, and she’d already read the book. She cracked her copy of the book open, and pointed to a passage about a periphery character named Aunt Maria. She said, “This woman is just like all of my aunts!” to which I replied, “I had an aunt like this too!”
A lot of people are surprised that there are so many immigrants in the novel because it is set in Appalachia. It is fairly well known that many Appalachian people are of Scottish or Irish origins. Perhaps what is less known is that there were large numbers of Eastern European, Southern Italian and Sicilian immigrants who arrived in this region in the early twentieth century. Between the years of 1906 and 1913, one million of Sicily’s 3.5 million residents had emigrated to the U.S. Often, the coal company agents would meet these Southern Europeans at Ellis Island and tell them that they would find work in Virginia and West Virginia. These immigrants were grateful for the job opportunities, and they usually accepted offers to work in the coalmines before they actually saw the working and living conditions. Once they arrived in the camps, they’d usually spent all of their money, and since they were paid in company scrip they usually couldn’t afford to leave. This lesser-known aspect of Southern history was a revelation to me when I started writing the book. I thought it was interesting, but I tend to like obscure stories, or obscure treatments of larger historical events, such as immigration stories. I really had no idea that anyone else would find this aspect of the novel interesting or surprising.
10)–If you could talk for thirty minutes with any author (or person), living or dead, who would it be?
Andre Dubus II. I’ve read and admired everything he’s ever written, and I believe that he was a masterful writer. I think he was one of our greatest writers, and he has left a tremendous legacy among so many writers I have known. I never got the chance to meet him in person, though I feel like he made a profound impact on my writing, and on my personal life. My husband, Rick, introduced me to the work of Andre Dubus. In fact, on one of our first dates, Rick read Dubus’ beautiful short story, “The Fat Girl,” aloud to me from beginning to end. The story was so lovely and moving, and it contained such insights into the heart and mind of the female protagonist that I was astonished, immediately hooked on Andre Dubus. My husband is not full of guile, but he definitely sealed the deal with me when he read to me the most perfect and beautiful story I’d ever encountered. Aside from that, from all accounts I’ve heard, Dubus was a gentle and deeply humane person. He was an amazing teacher. In the last part of his life, he didn’t teach professionally; rather he held writing workshops in his own home, and he worked with underprivileged women. I think he also worked with a shelter for battered women. I would have liked to have known Andre Dubus II, but I have to be satisfied with knowing his work, and with hearing the accounts of him that I’ve heard from other writers who knew him.
11)– –What are your thoughts on the standard writing advice, “write what you know”?
I think this is very good advice, especially for writers who are just starting out. If you already have a deep knowledge of the characters and places you want to write about, it is easier to craft this “material” into good, working narratives. I also think that there comes a point, once you learn the basics of writing a story or a novel, that you can and should move towards writing more about what you want to know. When I first started writing, I wrote mostly about what I knew; I wrote about childhood, my travels, my early years of marriage, and childbirth. But there is only so much I could write about my own experiences without repeating myself. So now I write more about what I want to know. But, like most people, I have an innate need to seek out places that resemble the landscape of my childhood because that is where my emotional landscape was formed. Another way of saying this is that even when I’m writing about a place and a people who are seemingly different from my own experience, I’m often still working through some basic emotional truths that I haven’t quite figured out, and I often will write about a place that resembles my early emotional landscape—whether it is the Southern Highlands or a village in Italy—in order to do this. Though I do a lot of book research, I also have found that I need to live with those researched details until they become a part of who I already am, so that I’m not just “dumping” information into my fiction, and so that the details remain in service to the story that I am telling.
12)–Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
I am wading into a novel project set entirely in Sicily, in the early part of the twentieth century. The story centers on one of the periphery characters who appears throughout In the Garden of Stone. This character is an elderly Sicilian aunt named Maria. The new project is about Maria’s younger life, when, at the age of twelve, she’s given to a convent in her village and trained by the nuns to make the abbey sweets. I’m still in the research phase of this novel, so that’s all I’m able to say about the book at this moment.Stop by the website http://susantekulve.com/