On Oct. 15, Managing Editor Kevin Keckeisen sat down with Susan Straight, an award winning writer and distinguished professor of creative writing at UCR, to talk about writing, our campus, Riverside and Facebook. Her new novel, “Between Heaven and Here,” hit store shelves last month.
Susan Straight: I think I started when I was really really young. My mom taught me to read when I was three. I actually grew up playing on the UCR campus if you can believe that. I grew up hiking up Big C, which is right behind us, grew up playing tennis right here, exactly where we are sitting; this used to be the tennis courts, and I would play tennis, and my future husband was actually playing basketball in that gym that I’m pointing to right now. We were freshmen in high school. But I didn’t write my very first short story until I was 16. I was writing poetry, bad poetry, which we all begin with, and I would write these little vignettes, you know, little pieces of dialogue, but I didn’t write an actual story until I was 16, and I was a student at North High, right down the street on Third Street. I took a class at RCC [Riverside Community College] in the summer. A lot of my friends had started using drugs and selling drugs that summer between junior and senior year of highschool so my mom said I had to take summer school and not hang out with them. I took a creative writing class. I wrote an eight page story about a woman riding the bus, and the professor at that time, he was so kind he called me to my office and said, “This is a great short story and I want you to read it out loud.” I was only 16 and everyone else in the class was, you know, 20, 25, so I refused to do so he read it out loud anonymously, and, seeing everybody’s reactions, I thought, “Oh I really like this.” I like the fact that I made up a story that is completely untrue and it’s just got human dialogue. So that was at 16, my first one.
KK: It’s an interesting feeling seeing the reactions of people when they listen to your writing, you know. I’m sure when you’ve done readings on campus and things like that you can see how people are affected—you can see it in their faces.
SS: Well what I like is when people say, “Oh, I cried when you read that story,” and I think you want to have a reaction, whether you want someone to laugh, cry or not forget at all, what you wrote. I think that’s what we’re aiming for, right?
KK: Along those lines, what draws you to the craft and what beauty do you see in it?
SS: Ah that’s a really good question. That’s not something people ask very often because you think more of visual arts as something that has to do with beauty. But I think loving to read, loving the way someone can describe the way a river looks. I just gave a student a copy of Ross Macdonald, and Ross Macdonald’s a mystery writer and people don’t think a mystery writer can be amazing, but he has this amazing paragraph in one of those novels where there’s a bar and a smoky pool room and the men were walking around like flat footed spear fishers on the bottom of a vast ocean because they’re holding their pool cues, and you think about them moving through the smoke it looks like they’re underwater, that’s such a beautiful sentence isn’t it? So I mean the way that we’re able to use words to make something that vivid to where it stays even in my mind when I read as much as that, that’s what I think I like so much, is that somebody will say, “Oh, you describe this person’s hand and I can see it as if I were sitting there.” I think that’s what we want to do. Filmmakers want to do that in terms of how they set up a scene, right? Poets want to do that in their lyricism and imagery, and visual artists will paint that scene.
KK: How do you find inspiration for your writing?
SS: I really love to be outside. I love to be outside or I love to be in my car. And I love it when you’re walking, whether you’re in a city or you’re walking up Big C, and you look at the pepper tree. And if you take the time to look at the pepper tree you think, “Wow, that looks like a giant green chicken with droopy feathers.” Or other times if you stand underneath the branches of the pepper tree and the wind comes, it looks like you’re underwater and it’s all seaweed. You have to take the time to look at things. I was in San Francisco last week for Litquake and I’m walking around the streets of San Francisco, and you know there are so many strange characters on the streets of San Francisco, right? It’s San Francisco! But there was this one guy and he was standing on the corner playing old school funk guitar and he had a band with him, you know three other guys; they stood there for an hour and just everybody crowded around looking at them. He had on a pork pie hat and a leather jacket—he looked like he could be from a movie from the ‘70s, and he played for an entire hour, played funk guitar without stopping. Just watching his hands, how strong his fingers were, and I was just looking around, being observant. Writers need to be observant. Our deal is to be observant and to listen well, to listen to overheard conversations, to listen to the people speaking to each other.
KK: What are some pieces of advice you can offer to young writers trying to get a handle on the craft?
SS: Well you might not like it, because most people that are in their 20s don’t like it, but I do think that you have to get off the computer now and then because Facebook will kill you. Because I know, my girls talk to me about it. With Facebook you’re being a voyeur and it’s a really good thing in a way because you are seeing a lot of interesting and fascinating stuff, but I don’t think that when you see it on the screen you can translate it as well into making it into a full fleshed theme or character. What do you think?
KK: It’s funny you mention that because just a few days ago I deleted my Facebook because I realized that it’s almost a different level of communication. It’s different than what we’re having now, a conversation. It’s its own sphere. You have time to actually think about what you’re going to write, but when you’re in a conversation as we’re doing now, it’s spur of the moment spontaneousness. You don’t really see body movement, how people are interacting spatially with each other on Facebook; all you see is text and a picture.
SS: That’s interesting because my middle kid deleted her Facebook and she’s exactly your age. She deleted her Facebook two weeks ago. The thing about Facebook, and I’m not hating on it in general, I’m just saying for writers, is think about it—when I’ve watched teenagers have a fight over texts you lose all context, don’t you? You can’t tell if somebody’s really angry with you when they’re texting something that sounds angry. They could actually be laughing and messing with you, right? You don’t have any visual cues. So when you look at Facebook you’re completely right. People have time to compose who they are on Facebook. But I think when you get out and walk around, or even if you sit in Coffee Bean and you overhear people talking and you hear the cadence of their language and you hear where they pause or where they stop—that helps you be able to write dialogue. And I also write in a notebook. And it’s not that I don’t like the computer, of course I use the computer all the time, but when I’m able to write something in my notebook and capture a strain of dialogue or something, then later when I’m typing it in the computer I feel pretty confident that this is a conversation that these two people had, but I know where the pauses were, or I know when somebody got up because they couldn’t bear to look at the other person, or I know that one person kept doing this (rubs space between her eyebrows) and that’s how the other person knew that this person was lying because they know that this person always rubs the skin between his eyebrows when he lies.
KK: There’s so much more to an exchange than dialogue. What’s not said is often as important as what is said.
SS: Now here’s the thing. I am completely not saying that you should never go online because last night my youngest kid showed me these bad lip readings, have you ever heard of them? Bad lip reading is some crazy thing where they have the debate, not just the presidential debate but the vice presidential debate, they have Paul Ryan, they have Joe Biden, and it’s bad lip reading so they dub in all these things that it looks like they were saying. We spent a good half an hour watching. We were crying. We ran out of tears we were crying so hard. There’s that; I do love that. And I mean I love watching crazy stuff on Funny or Die, but as far as being a writer goes, you’re still producing a book, or a short story, and so there is a way that I think you have to be able to work on the page, whether that page is translated to a Kindle or an eBook, it still has to start with words, and there’s a way that from your brain the words go onto the page; I think people need to go back to walking around and thinking a little bit more.
KK: As an aside, because I know you’re a Riverside native, where’s your favorite place to eat in Riverside?
SS: My favorite place to eat? I can’t pick one!
KK: It may not be a writerly question, but I’d love to ask a Riverside native.
SS: Well, I have about four places that I like to eat. I love Pho Saigon right down the street from here, and the couple that owns Pho Saigon, their daughter went to school here; she majored in chemistry and she lives in Texas now, but they have such amazing egg rolls and they have great food. I do love Señor Baja fish tacos. I gotta tell you, I love Bann Thai, it’s just really good Thai food, and it’s a small place. But my favorite place to eat? Absolute favorite? That’s when we have family reunions at Bordwell Park and you know, all the cousins barbecue and all of us bring side dishes. 100 people barbecuing. That’s family. The thing is that people always ask my what’s my favorite barbecue restaurant and I don’t have one because cousin Carnel and cousin Eddy make the best barbecue there is in the world and so my girls say the same thing. We just want family barbecue.
KK: You really can’t beat homemade.
SS: No, it takes 12 hours and it’s in the half ton cooker that they bring you on a trailer. That’s what we’re used to eating.
KK: Speaking of Riverside, why do you choose it as the setting for so much of your work? What draws you to this place? What do you see in the landscape and the people?
SS: Every writer sort of makes a decision to write a mystery series, or to write travel monologue; I mean it is funny, there are those of us who write about one place over and over again, and I used to think that was a failing. Strange enough, I did this radio show on Saturday for NPR up in San Francisco and there was a banjo player there, who was originally from Atlanta. She’s young, she’s 30, and she said she grew up reading Flannery O’Connor and she loved reading Flannery O’Connor’s version of Georgia, which is very different from Atlanta. Flannery O’Connor was writing about small town Georgia. There are some writers, Eudora Welty, Jackson, Mississippi, William Faulkner, his famous Yoknapatawpha county.
KK: Yeah I can never pronounce it correctly.
SS: I can’t either. I was practicing. Louise Erdrich always writes about this area of North Dakota and a particular Indian reservation but also the towns around it…For me, I felt fiercely defiant about my landscape when I moved to L.A. to go to USC. I felt as if no one would understand the pepper trees or the foothills or gathering in the park to eat barbecue, and then I wrote these stories, and people said, “That’s a crazy place. What is that place?” And I realized that really is my landscape. And I wrote last night. I was writing very late at night about the night my brother was born—he was born in November. And the next day my mom said this huge Santa Ana wind came in as it does in November; we lived in a tiny little one bedroom house outside of Rubidoux, very rural, right? She said all the tumbleweeds were uprooted by the wind and when she tried to open the door the entire house was surrounded by tumbleweeds. It was like being in the snow in New England and not being able to open the door; she couldn’t open the door because the tumbleweeds backed up. That’s a particular landscape. I could never make that up, could I? So I guess I translated that even when I was little and she would say that story, and I thought, “Well other people have snowbanks outside and we have a bank of tumbleweeds. What does that mean?” And so there’s a way I think I wanted people to see our unique landscape.
KK: And I think there’s something special in taking pride in where you were born. I’m from Corona.
SS: Same thing. You know you have the fragrance of lemon blossoms, which is different from orange blossoms, and nobody knows that unless you’ve been there.
KK: I liked what you said in your interview with the LA Times, that there are two types of people in the world: those that leave and those that stay. That really hit me when you said that, and at UCR this city has such a unique landscape amongst the other UCs.
SS: You know people make fun of us and we have the best campus. Think about it. In fact, you know what’s funny? A senior professor from here, he and I were talking last spring. We were walking across campus and I was telling him how much I love teaching at UCR after he asked me if I ever wanted to leave, because our students are so good at helping each other. You go to the HUB and everyone is sitting and talking to each other; It doesn’t matter what color or religion, everyone is working on their projects together. This senior professor told me that he went to Berkeley for a visit and no one talked and everyone was so competitive and they’re all hating on each other, and he said, “I’ve always like UCR because our students genuinely like each other,” and we talked to another professor that said he went to another UC campus and there’s no diversity either. And you walk around here, people are from Corona, they’re from Ethiopia, and they’re sitting working a project together. I love that about this campus. And I think it’s because Riverside is so uniquely accepting of everybody; I mean look around, there’s people in Riverside from everywhere too. Even Corona, your home city. My best friend’s from Corona, the natives of Corona, they’re all Mexican-American and grew up working in citrus groves. And they always talk about old school Corona.
KK: Well, thank you Susan I really appreciate it.
SS: Thank you.