Students, faculty and library staff gathered on Oct. 3 to hear Professor Susan Straight speak of her new novel, “Between Heaven and Here.” The event was held in the Special Collections and Archives room of Rivera Library with refreshments and a book signing to follow. After a welcome and introduction by Head of Special Collections Melissa Conway, Straight took the stage.
Born in Riverside, Straight received her B.A. at the University of Southern California and her M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Since then, Straight has published eight books and has received both the Lannan Foundation Award (1999) and Guggenheim Fellowship (1997). Straight teaches fiction in the creative writing department at UCR, though she is on sabbatical for the fall quarter.
“Between Heaven and Here” marks the completion of a trilogy and is set in the fictitious city of Rio Seco, which, like much of Straight’s work, is based on the familiar landscape of Riverside. The first book in the trilogy is “A Million Nightingales,” which was published in 2007. The second book is “Take One Candle Light A Room,” which was published in 2010. Straight explained the origin of her trilogy. About 15 years ago, Straight was moved by an unexplored murder in Riverside, which motivated her to begin writing. The tragic news story revolved around a dead and pregnant teenage girl whose body was found discarded in a shopping cart in an alley. Straight recalled the mother of the dead girl saying that no one would care about a dead and pregnant African American teenager. It was then that Straight was moved to write her story. Rather than use writing to drive out her initial empathy for the deceased girl and her mother, she argued that the arts do the reverse. “When you write fiction, poetry, painting, sing, dance, you keep it more closely within you,” said Straight.
Straight went on to share with the audience the first passage she had written, toward the end of “Between Heaven and Here.” She models the death of her character, Glorette Picard, after the news-story in Riverside; her body is similarly found in a shopping cart in an alley. Furthermore, Glorette is a prostitute and drug addict. But she is also a mother to an intelligent teenager, Victor, who is also a main character in her novel. Glorette’s death leaves Victor ill prepared for his future. In the scene Straight shares, Victor recalls his mother and his life before she died. Through brief memories and details, we come to know him.
The language is beautifully descriptive, transforming the commonplace and unrefined into poetic attachments. For example, Victor recalls the bark he’d painted with bug juice as a child. It became a treasure to his mother, and she proudly hung it on the wall of their apartment even after burglars had broken it in half. He remembers that she knew the right orange juice to buy—Tropicana—and the delicious shrimp burritos she would bring him every Tuesday. The details about his harsh lifestyle bring us fully into his world of a damaged family, cops, gunshots and his practice vocabulary for the upcoming SAT. A good score on this test is the key to a better future. Victor repeats over and over that their life worked, “because we had the system down.” But because of his mother’s death, he misses the exam. A once optimistic 17-year-old loses all hopes for college. Yet despite these multiple tragedies, these tender memories show us that Victor misses his mother. We know that he still loves her. Suspense, colorful detail and hopeful characters all made this passage a pleasure to listen to.
Straight’s explanations about her writing process were both entertaining as well as helpful for aspiring writers to be aware of the details in their own life. In the next passage she read, she connected the images of her own life to those in “Between Heaven and Here.” She noted the sounds of animals walking on the grass as well as the moon behind a palm tree giving the impression of a sparkler. It is the same sparkler tree that Victor remembers his mom talking about. She would tell him, “you can have it every month. You’ve always got a moon, remember.” With this small advice, the future does not seem so hopeless for Victor.
In the Q&A session that followed, Straight, when asked how she took care of herself with such a demanding schedule, said, “I am nothing. I am no one. It is a joy. I am grateful to write fiction.”
She explained that, like other writers, she thinks about her character all day and then writes. “I am curious what they are going to do,” she said. The best advice she has for writing in general is to listen and for fiction writers not to forget secondary characters.
Perhaps the most intriguing question was why she chose a fictitious Riverside rather than employ its true name. In response, Straight said that she knew people in Riverside, and using the actual titles of the city and streets would violate their privacy. “I’m not going to write the truth about that,” she said. “My intent is to make you feel something.” Straight added further that a made-up setting allows writers the freedom to play around with geography.
Following the reading and questions, copies of “Between Heaven and Here” were sold and signed. A quote before the text reveals the source for the title, “It’s a thin line between heaven and here,” says character Bubbles form the HBO television series, The Wire, by David Simon. Straight cited that the discrepancy between paradise and her struggling characters is also a theme within her own work.