Susan Tekulve surges onto the literary scene with her gorgeous debut novel, IN THE GARDEN OF STONE. Susan has generously shared her journey and expertise with us here. So settle in for a treat.
We’d like to thank her for taking the time to be part of our “5 Minutes Alone” interview series.
AuthorScoop: What was your very first publication credit?
Susan: Wow, that was a long time ago, but I remember quite clearly that it was a short story that I published in the Indiana Review in 1990. At the time I wrote this piece, I was twenty years old, and enrolled in my first workshop with the novelist James Lee Burke in the MFA program at Wichita State University. I had a short story due for workshop in about a week. I had an idea for a story about two twelve-year-old Catholic schoolgirls, Anna and Lee, from Southern Ohio. One of the girls, Lee, had received a mini tape recorder from her father, a painter who was divorced from the Lee’s mother. The father was living down in Kentucky, and every weekend he came for a visit, bringing Lee another adaption for the mini tape recorder. The divorce was a really big deal for my two main characters, pretty much an anomaly since the girls lived in an all-Catholic community in rural Ohio, in the early 1980s. Lee also had an older sister who’d come home from her secretarial job in Washington D.C., pregnant without the benefit of marriage, and she’d just been forced to give her baby up for adoption. The sister was still living at home, half crazy with the postpartum blues and grief. The pregnant sister was also a big deal because premarital sex was a bigger sin than divorce in the Catholic community around this time. So I had a bunch of details about the schoolgirls and their parochial school, and I had plenty of conflict with the one family’s divorce and the unwed pregnant sister. But I didn’t have a plot to hang these details and conflicts on, and I didn’t know how or where to begin. Essentially, I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing.
One day, as I was fretting about this short story, I wandered down the hall of the English department to Jim Burke’s office to talk to him about my ideas. When I walked into his office, I noticed immediately that he had a pair of deer antlers hanging on the wall behind his desk. Jim listened to me ramble on for a while, and then he said, “If you were a kid, what would you notice first in my office?” I said I’d notice those deer antlers on the wall behind his head. He nodded, and I realized he was gently suggesting that I needed to use a child’s perspective to tell my story. Next, he asked me what my characters wanted, and I said I supposed they wanted to know more about love and marriage, and how all of this ties into the Catholic concept of sin, particularly mortal and venial sins. (I also knew that my young characters wanted to know a whole lot more about sex, but I was too shy to mention this part to Jim.) Then he told me I needed to give my characters “a job,” something to do, and he suggested that I have the girls do something with the mini tape recorder that the one girl had been given. In just a short conversation, Jim was able to give me a solid definition of what a story is: Every story must begin with a character who wants something, and that character must do something to get what she wants. Finally, every character must come up against something that prevents her from getting what she wants.
I went home and wrote a quest story about two Catholic school girls, Anna and Lee, who come upon a mini tape recorder and set out after school one day to interview everyone they meet about sex and sin. I chose to tell the story through Anna’s perspective, in first person. On some intuitive level, I knew that using this perspective would create a lot of dramatic irony, perhaps because Anna could observe and report all the inherent conflict in Lee’s broken family, and even though Anna didn’t understand everything she saw and heard, the adult reader would. The two girls use the mini tape recorder to interview their favorite, eccentric nun up at the convent beside their school. They go down into the village and sneak into a bar to interview a couple of bikers. The story climaxes when they go to interview Lee’s older sister, Bridget, the one who got pregnant and had to give her baby away. I titled this story “Venial Sins,” and turned it into Jim. A few days later, I heard Jim walking toward my office. He always wore the same black cowboy boots, so I could hear his heels squeaking down the hallway before I saw him. He ducked into my office doorway, shook my hand, said, “Congratulations. This story is the real deal.” Then, he turned and walked out, and I could hear him walking down to his own office.
I don’t recall much about the actual workshop, but I do remember that Jim told me to send the story to the director of the creative writing program, who then sent the story on to the AWP Intro Award contest, a project that featured the work of student writers in national literary journals. That’s how my first short story ended up in the Indiana Review. Then, I spent the next three or four years trying to figure out exactly how I’d written that story because I wrote the whole thing intuitively. It wasn’t until much, much later that I returned to Jim Burke’s basic definition of a story. Now, the lesson he taught me that day in his office is my mantra. Every time I begin a new project, whether I am working on a story or a novel, I ask myself, Who is my character? What does she want? What does she do to get what she wants? What, or who, is preventing my character from getting what she wants? I try to keep the plot line this simple, and I try to keep all place and character details in service to the story, but I allow the motivations to become complex as the story evolves.
AuthorScoop: Tell us about your latest release.
Susan: My new novel, In the Garden of Stone, is a 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 Emma’s family’s house in coal while they are sleeping. 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” or a “novel-in-stories,” requires unifying elements beyond the chronological retelling of a family story. This novel requires 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 longer arc of a novel. I would say that the various gardens that appear in the novel—the wooded mountains, the Italian stone garden that Caleb eventually builds for Emma, the cemeteries and even the coal mines—provide the key garden images that unify the whole novel.
AuthorScoop: Aside from your own hard work, who (or what) else do you feel has contributed to your success?
Susan: 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, Jim Burke and Thomas E. Kennedy have been my teachers and 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. I never once heard any of these people make a cutting remark about a student or a colleague or another writer, and they never validate themselves by making other writers feel small or low. They don’t get into ugly competitions with other writers. They only compete with themselves, or with the great writers who came before them.
I’ve also learned a lot from my writer friends and colleagues, just by talking over coffee, or by sitting at a bar with them. When I taught English at Clemson University, I met two superb fiction writers, Bart Barton and Dale Ray Philips. We all taught four sections of composition every semester, and so every Friday, after we finished our last class of the day, we all went down to a local bar called Nick’s to drink a pint, swap stories. We talked about our favorite books and repeated our favorite lines from those books. Nick’s was the kind of bar where people took their dogs and children, so there were pinball machines and even an ice cream case so that the children who came into the bar with their parents could eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream while their moms and dads drank a pint. I think I learned just as much about writing fiction while sitting on a bar stool at Nick’s, talking to Bart and Dale Ray, as I did in my official fiction workshops. I’m not saying this to belittle my formal education; that training was invaluable because I learned most of my foundation skills in the classroom, and by talking with my teachers. But the talks with my writing peers made me feel connected, and there was always a kind of good energy that came out of our informal “writing group” at Nick’s that inspired me, and made me feel like writing all the time. Though I no longer live in Clemson, and I’m not able to go to Nick’s, I still make an effort to find writers who live nearby, or I meet writers with whom I enjoy an email correspondence. I still need to feel this connection. I still enjoy, and thrive upon, this camaraderie among my writer friends.
AuthorScoop: At what time of day or night do you do your best writing?
Susan: When I have a longer stretch of time, usually in the summer, I try to create a work regime by repeating certain habits. I wake up before the sun rises, and go downstairs to make a pot of coffee. I talk to my cats, go out to my garden to see what’s blooming. I find out if any of my tomatoes and red peppers have ripened. We have one blackberry vine that produces about three or four berries a day, so I usually pick those and put them in a bowl so that my husband can put them on his cereal when he wakes. I return to my office and read something, usually poetry, until I feel like writing. I’ll write for 4-6 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. Then, I’ll take a long walk, eat lunch, nap, read. Around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I must admit, my “real” writing gets done. By this, I mean that dialogue and scenes from my story come to me unbidden, when I’m not in my office, and when I’m not necessarily thinking about the act of writing. A friend of mine likes to call this state of mind “writing when the policeman of the mind is asleep.” Essentially, this is the time of day when the part of my brain that censors and criticizes is off, and this is when I grab a pencil and a yellow legal pad and frantically write down all the scenes that are coming to me. Sometimes, I’ll even go back to my office to work again until it is time for bed. Sometimes, I’ll just write the notes, read, fall asleep, wake up and start all over again the next morning.
That is definitely my ideal schedule. Like a lot of people, I work a full-time job, and I have a family. The main thing I try to do is read a lot, take a lot of notes, and carve out smaller moments to write. Over the years, I’ve had to grow a spine, and I’ve learned to defend these moments pretty fiercely. I am a natural-born people pleaser, so I used to put everything, and everyone, before my writing. Also, I drive a pickup truck, so friends and neighbors often call me up while I’m writing, asking me to drive them some place to pick up something that they can’t fit into their cars. A lot of people send me out with their giant propane tanks to get them filled, or they ask me to haul mulch for them. Once, a neighbor called while I was writing, and he asked if I’d drive him to a junkyard to pick up an engine for a car he was rebuilding, and I ended up way out in the country, sitting in my truck with a bunch of junkyard dogs snarling at me for several hours while this guy hunted for car parts. I felt pretty resentful of my neighbor at the time, but now I realize that it was my own fault for answering the phone while I was writing.
Anyway, I still do this for people, just not during my writing time. The main thing I try to do is what Flannery O’Connor calls establishing “the habit of art.” If you establish a firm writing routine, 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 your own fiction. You’ll remain in practice, so to speak, so that you remain ready for when your novels and stories come to you. Also, having this routine will help you make it through time when you aren’t receiving much external affirmation. Oh, and here’s a glorious story about what can happen if you are a good neighbor AND you remain loyal to your writing routine: When the neighbor who asked me to drive him to the junkyard heard that my novel had just come out, he surprised me with a congratulatory case of Highland Thunderstruck Coffee Porter. This happened years after our infamous trip to the junkyard. Apparently, while I was driving him around that day, we talked a lot about beer, and I told him I was a porter and stout drinker, and he remembered this! I thought this was a remarkable gesture. I even took pictures of this case of beer because I was so touched by his thoughtfulness.
AuthorScoop: Finally, what advice would you give to new or unpublished writers?
Susan: The market is changing right now. I used to tell beginning writers to submit to local publications or national contests and journals geared toward student writers. This was a way to build a reputable and solid publication record. But I think the percentage rate of fiction acceptances in literary journals is about 1% now, and a lot of really good print journals have had most, if not all, of their funding cut by the universities that house them. The editors of these journals have had to go from producing 3 print issues a year to producing 1 print issue and several web issues. Many have gone under, and many have gone completely online. Also, a lot of established writers with five or six book publications have been dropped by their large publishing houses, so they’re now publishing with good small publishers or university presses. These writers bring prestige to the small presses, but this phenomenon also makes it much tougher for young, emerging writers to find a publisher for a first book, especially if they are trying to publish short story collections or other non-traditional works that a big house won’t touch.
Also, I love having a print book or a print journal in my hands when I read, but I am realistic about what is happening right now to the printed word. The fact that people are creating new and reputable online journals and ebooks shows that good writing and literature will prevail, but perhaps it will prevail in another form. We don’t have the same resources we had ten or twenty years ago, and yet there are very good writers and editors out there who are finding ways to make good writing and books available online. More and more presses are using the print-on-demand approach to publishing books too. As a writer trying to break into the market, you do have to be careful about putting your work on the Internet. There are sometimes disreputable people who prey upon those who desperately want to publish. I have students asking me all the time whether a certain online journal is reputable, and I always say, “Did they ask you for money? If anyone asks you for money before they publish you, then they probably aren’t too reputable.”
In terms of honing your craft, I highly suggest that you read everything. Keep your nature open. Travel far enough away from home so that you gain perspective about your home and about yourself. The more perspective you have about where you come from and who you are, the better you’ll be able to process and understand the new places and people you encounter. Know that sometimes people and memory can serve as a “place” in story. Even if a physical place disappears, or no longer exists in the same way you experienced it, you’ll still have your memory of that place and its people to write about. Learn how to listen to other peoples’ stories. I find that a lot of people like to tell interesting stories about themselves, and those stories can be great gifts for a writer. Go to your writing regularly, even when it’s going badly. If you can’t stand to look at your own fiction, move into a different genre, such as poetry or nonfiction, and explore your ideas in that genre until you are ready to move back into fiction writing. This keeps the writing muscles toned for the times when the good story ideas come to you. Keep in mind that you got into reading and writing because you wanted to discover something. If those feelings of wonder and curiosity stop, you need to find new ways to recover those feelings that made you start writing in the first place.
IN THE GARDEN OF STONE is out now and you can find Susan Tekulve on the web at susantekulve.com.