Susan Rebecca White On The MFA in Creative Writing + Book Clubs + Authors and Social Media

susan rebecca whiteName: Susan Rebecca White
Author’s Website , Facebook, Twitter
Hometown: Atlanta, GA USA
Based In: Atlanta
Education: BA Brown University, MFA Hollins University
Briefly: Author of:
A Place at the Table
A Soft Place to Land
Bound South

Essays in The Huffington Post, Tin House magazine (forthcoming), The Bitter Southerner
Favorite Read: Hard to choose one, but The Confederacy of Dunces always makes me laugh, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird teaches me something new about writing each time I read it. I also love Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety.
Pet Peeves: People who text / check their cell phones at the dinner table.
If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…A high school English teacher or a caterer.
Author Crush: Ann Patchett
Fiction or General Publishing How-To Book I’d Recommend: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing by Steven King.
Up Next: A novel about college roommates in the mid 1960s whose lives go in very different directions during America’s counter-culture revolution. Also, I’m working on a lot of personal essays, motivated by the fact that I am pregnant and thinking about all sorts of things in regards to raising my baby.

Relax your mind for a bit. And think. What’s the earliest book-related memory that comes to mind?

Having my mom or dad read the line “goodnight mush” over and over again from the children’s classic Goodnight Moon. At age four, the thought of saying goodnight to the oatmeal was hilarious to me.

How do you react when you find yourself experiencing writer’s block while writing a book?

I get really self-critical and feel like I’ve probably lost my mojo and will no longer have a writing career. But usually I’m able to talk myself down and recognize that I might just need to take a break and re-fill.

Where do you do most of your writing?

I move around a lot while writing. I have a home office, an office I rent nearby, and I sometimes write at the Woodruff Library at Emory.

What do you wish you had known before you entered the publishing world?

The Serenity Prayer. (God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.)
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You earned a BA from Brown University…A BA in English. What was the most interesting class you took there that was literature or writing related?

My favorite class was taught by a young adjunct professor whose name now escapes me. It was on African-American literature. We read such good books—Beloved, Jazz, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Invisible Man. It was a wonderful reading list, and also reading those books gave me insight into important American experiences that aren’t my own. I think that class still informs some of the writing that I do now, some of the issues that I try to tackle or at least engage in.

Do you follow an outline when writing?

I don’t follow an outline. I sometimes think it would be more efficient if I did, but that’s not the way my brain works. I don’t know how my novel is going to end until I’m very near completing it. I figure out my book as I write it. I do sometimes write notes to myself about the book, and those notes help me figure out plot points.

What was your overall reaction when you found out that you South Bound had been shortlisted for the Townsend prize?

I was thrilled! Especially because Bound South was given a bright, sassy, very girl-y cover, which, though very pretty and charming, did not emphasize the weirder or more literary parts of the book. So it was nice that the weird / literary parts were recognized by the nominating committee for the Townsend prize.

You teach writing at Emory University. What do you hope that each of the students who walk out of your class after the semester concludes learns about writing?

I love teaching writing. I want my students to become more curious about their lives and the world around them, by virtue of taking my class. I want them to use concrete details to describe their experiences. I want them to start to question the narratives they’ve been given about their lives and to figure out what their real story is.

You moved to Manhattan for an entire summer just to do research for A Place at the Table. What sort of things did you do?

I was going through a divorce during that time, and the experience of my divorce colored that whole summer. I walked around the Central Park Reservoir nearly every day; that cleared my head. I met up with my best friend from college a couple of days a week and walked to Carl Schurz park, a place that makes an appearance in A Place at the Table. I spent a lot of time at the main branch of the NY Public library, working. I walked around the neighborhood where the real-life Café Nicholson once was, which was the inspiration for Café Andres in A Place at the Table. I cooked a lot of meals at home–partly out of thrift, partly because it was comforting to feed myself.
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You have an MFA in Creative Writing. Do you think that this is something writers who are serious about their craft should undertake?

I think it depends on the person. I know wonderful writers who did not get an MFA, but for me, it really helped me become a professional. It was meaningful to be recognized as a writer—by virtue of being admitted to the program—before I’d ever published anything. That gave me more confidence in trying my hand at this scary, intimidating thing. My professors were mostly great and encouraging, and there was a real sense that we students should just use our time in grad school to explore our talents on the page, to try new things, to try anything, as long as we kept writing. For me, that time was precious.

And what is the most valuable thing you got out of the program?

Well the thesis I wrote ended up being the first two-thirds of Bound South. I think that in my program I learned how to “kill my darlings,” to eliminate sections that I really loved the sound of, but that were not actually adding anything to the story.

What inspired you to write A Soft Place to Land? In the novel this couple—the Harrisons—Phil and Naomi—leave behind a will stipulating a surprising living arrangement for their surviving daughters.

I am the only biological child of my parents, who married each other after divorcing their first spouses. In my parents’ first marriages, they each had children. So we were a blended family, with three kids from my dad’s first marriage, two kids from my mom’s, and me. When I was in my twenties I found out that had my parents died when I was a minor, I would have been sent to live with an aunt and uncle in the Bay Area, while all of my other siblings would have lived with their one remaining biological parent, remaining in the South. When I found this out, my first reaction was, “How awful for young, orphaned me!” My second was, “This would make a great story.”

Do you imagine yourself following the example of the Harrison and doing something similar with your own last will and testament?

God, I hope I’ll never be in that situation. It seems a little crazy to me to send a newly orphaned child across the country to live with relatives she doesn’t know very well. But I know that my parents also thought that my aunt and uncle in the Bay Area would be the best possible guardians for me, and in many ways I think they were probably right.

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Sometimes books go through transformations as they are being written. Is Bound South, the published novel, the same as the first draft, in terms of characters and basic concepts?

In terms of characters and basic concepts, Bound South is very much the same as its first draft. But I cut and added many chapters, and revised, revised, revised. I can definitely say that the published version of Bound South is much better than its earliest incarnation.

How can authors make the most of book clubs?

Book clubs are a wonderful thing, and I think it’s important that we authors appreciate them, and show gratitude to the folks who have chosen to purchase our book, read it, and meet to discuss it. I love to visit with books clubs, as long as they’re not too far from my home. I like to hear what people got out of reading my novels.

Do you think it’s helpful for authors to participate in social media marketing?

It’s a balancing act: You can become so involved with social media that you stop creating new work. That’s a bad thing. But I also think that the days of authors being isolated hermits is over. You have to engage in the world, and that includes the world of social media. What is helpful for me is to try and never take a reader for granted, to always try and retain a sense of gratitude for my readers, these people who are interested enough in what I have to say—and the story I have to tell—that they will purchase something I have written. To me that is humbling, and helps me think of my readers as an extended community. That makes engaging in social media feel more like reaching out to friends and family, rather than something kind of slimy and simply self-promotional.

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What’s the brightest side to being an author?

I love having my voice heard.

And what do you enjoy the most about writing women’s fiction?

The majority of readers of fiction are women, so surely I have more female readers than male, but I am not writing for one specific gender. I’m trying to understand the world through writing, trying to understand complex relationships and socio-economic situations. I’m trying to understand family, and American history, and our country’s history of oppression, and connection. I am seeking to better understand God through my writing—or God’s absence. I am seeking to better understand how we become broken and we can heal. And I am wanting to tell a damn entertaining story that keeps the reader turning the page. I think that these objectives serve a male as well as a female audience.

Writers are born procrastinators. How can procrastination be conquered?

My answer is two-fold: It’s okay to let yourself be empty sometimes. Sometimes we just don’t have anything to write about. Take time to fill back up. But at a certain point, you have to shut down the Internet and sit in your chair in front of your computer for a few hours. If you do that, the words will come.

Author photo credit: Dorothy O’Connor

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