Susan Rebecca White Interviews

A Conversation with Susan Rebecca White

Q: When you sat down to write Bound South, did you know that you were going to have three different women narrating it, all from the first-person point of view? Do you think of one particular woman as the protagonist, or do the three women share this role? You obviously care about all of your characters, but are you especially attached to a particular one?
SRW: I did not initially plan on having all three women narrate Bound South from the first-person point of view. In fact, initially I opened each section of the book with a story told from third-person point of view. But my editor convinced me, rightly, that the occasional switch to the third person was jarring, and that it was important to let the women of the book narrate their stories completely.

Q: It’s interesting to think back on my process of writing this novel. The first piece I wrote was about Missy stealing Louise Parker’s clay bird. I wrote that as a stand-alone short story, but when I was finished with it I still had Missy’s voice in my head, and I wanted to write more about her and find out what happened to her dad. (I tend to find out what happens to my characters through the process of writing their stories, letting my subconscious mind do all of the work.) And then one day I wrote a piece called, “Louise Parker speaks,” and there was Louise, just as alive as could be, springing up from the page. And of course writing about Louise led me to writing about Caroline, because Caroline needed to have her say. And so, piece-by-piece, the book came together.
SRW: In my mind Louise is the major protagonist, as she is the one who is directly connected to almost all of the characters in the story. And while I love Caroline, I have to say that both Missy and Louise hold a special place in my heart. They are both just so vulnerable and yet resilient.

Q: You were born and raised in Atlanta, where Bound South takes place. How did your personal relationship with Atlanta find its way into the novel? Do you consider yourself a southern author?
SRW: I’ll start with the second question: I didn’t really think of myself as a southern author until after I wrote Bound South, and then I realized that yes, indeed, the South has shaped me, and my understanding of the South helps my writing. Here’s what I mean: when I was in college in the northeast, and then later when I was living in San Francisco, I wrote a lot of stories, but they weren’t really place specific, unless you consider a bar in either New York or San Francisco a specific place. And then I got to graduate school and I realized that a lot of writers set their stories in urban bars. I remember thinking: I am not going to write another story that takes place in a bar or on a date. Not because such stories are inherently bad, but because I realized I didn’t really have anything new or interesting to say on the subject, whereas other writers do. And I guess it was around that time that I also realized that while plenty of other authors could write about New York or California better than I, I really, really knew Atlanta, or at least one slice of it, and I should try writing about it. And that led me to Missy and Louise, who I think are both products of their environment. Caroline a little less so, perhaps, though in the end she finds she can’t escape feeling real nostalgia for the South.

I wrote much of Bound South while living away from Atlanta, and my yearnings for home made their way into the book. For example, Caroline is always trying out recipes from The Gift of Southern Cooking and of course that was the cookbook I turned to every time I felt homesick. Even Missy and R.D.’s love affair with Chick-fil-A sandwiches was a reflection of my own cravings.

Also, writing about Atlanta allowed me to explore different parts of the city whenever I returned home to visit my parents. It’s quite feasible that a woman like Louise Parker would live in Ansley Park, but I also situated her there because I really like that neighborhood, and I thought it was fun to research its architecture and history, and to walk its streets whenever I was in town.

Q: Is there a character from Bound South with whom you most relate? Is Bound South in anyways autobiographical?
SRW: Bound South is not autobiographical, but it is based on my understanding of the people of Atlanta. It’s funny—I tried to write an autobiographical story and found that I wasn’t very good at it. I took myself—or perhaps I should say my viewpoint—too seriously. So I started writing about people different from me, first Missy and then Louise. Which isn’t to say that I don’t take either of them seriously, just that I’m able to see their foibles, and I’m able to see how their specific backgrounds influence who they are and what choices they make, how each character knows truths about life that come into direct conflict with the other’s truth.

In terms of relating to any specific character, to be honest, I relate to them all. While we have somewhat different worldviews, I, same as Louise, try to be honest about acknowledging uncomfortable and painful truths about myself. And I really like living in a pretty environment, as does Louise. I’m a big cook, like Caroline, and I’ve always been drawn to religion, though I’ve never bought a cross to wear around my neck. And like Missy, I’ve had my heart broken (although not by my father), and I understand how we can create gods and ghosts out of those people who break our hearts, the way that Missy did with her daddy, Luke Meadows.

Q:Art plays such a pivotal role in Bound South. What role does art play in your own life? Do you personally know, or collect the art of, anyone like Mr. Earl LeTrouve?
SRW: I have a distinct aesthetic sensibility—can’t say if it’s good or not— and I usually have an immediate response when I see a piece of art for the first time. Either I am instantly drawn in—as Louise was drawn to Earl’s egg tempera pieces—or I am left cold. I have a very odd photo that I just adore. I bought it for my husband’s birthday, and he was nice enough to let me pretend that it was a gift for him and not really for me. The photo is huge—at least three feet long—and in it an old beat-up sofa is on fire. The fire is just raging. And in front of this burning sofa is a stuffed (but very real looking) fox, whose hair is being blown by the gusts from the fire. When I first saw the fox I thought it was alive, but then I realized that all of the animals in this artist’s work are taxidermied. (The artist’s name is Jody Fausett.) Anyway, I looked at that photo and I just loved the statement of the fire, the intensity of it, the lack of ambiguity, the clearing away. And so I bought it and hung it in my dining room, justifying the central placement by saying that it’s a “conversation piece.”

My friend Susan Bridges runs an art gallery (named whitespace) out of the carriage house behind her home. Through her I have met some deeply eccentric southern artists, though none quite like Mr. LeTrouve.

Q: Bound South does not shy away from either serious or controversial topics, including transgenderism, teen pregnancy, suicide, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, sexual harassment, and even a mother’s own violent thoughts towards her daughter. Yet the book is laced with humor. How did you manage to write about such weighty topics and still write a funny book?
SRW: When I was growing up my father often said something to the extent of, “very few things in life constitute an emergency,” and I suppose that attitude got somewhat ingrained in me. (Although if you ever sit next to me on a plane you will experience a not so Zen girl. I am a panicky freak on flights.) Also, I’m not writing about war, or genocide or imprisonment—(though of course there have been funny books written about war.) Anyway, while some experiences are inextricably difficult and sad, there is often humor laced through the way that we deal with them. I am reminded of the time that my grandmother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, started to sit and then froze halfway down because she couldn’t remember whether or not she was in the middle of standing up or sitting down. It was a horribly sad moment, and a harbinger of many more terrible moments to come, yet she and my mother started laughing hysterically because it was all so ridiculous and darkly comic. And it seems to me that that is how life is. There are ridiculous moments even in the middle of big and serious events.

Q: Caroline, Missy, and—to a lesser extent—Louise all struggle with their religious beliefs. Does this reflect a struggle in your life with religion? Do you consider yourself a religious person?
SRW: I have a genuine desire for religious experience in my life, and I am quite envious of those who have it. And though I’m not always comfortable calling myself a Christian, I do—most of the time—believe in God and I do practice elements of the faith. And yet, I am fundamentally put off by any religion that claims its followers have backstage passes to the God show, as it seems most major religions do.

The times I feel most spiritually connected are during times of service (volunteering at the homeless shelter), times of meditation, and times spent in nature. I wish I had a more solid religious core, and yet I often feel that people who are very religious erect a certain boundary around themselves that no one can enter besides those of their own faith. And that seems a shame.

Q: You earned your MFA in creative writing from Hollins University. There is a lot of discussion among writers about the value and merit of these programs. Are you glad that you attended one? Do you think your time at Hollins helped you to become a better writer?
SRW: bsolutely. There is nothing like having two years during which your only real responsibility is to write. The danger with MFA programs, I think, is that you can start writing for your little bitty circle of readers and forget that there is a larger audience out there who might not have the same preferences as the small sample of people in your writing workshop. But all that means is that you learn to take criticism with a grain of salt, which isn’t a bad skill to develop if you want to be a professional writer.

Q: Will you tell us anything about what you are working on now?
SRW: I am writing a story about a modern-day patched together family who, through tragic circumstances, gets ripped apart. It is a comedy. (Just kidding! But it does have its funny moments.)
A Conversation with Susan Rebecca White, Author of A Soft Place to Land

What inspired you to write A Soft Place to Land? How did you choose to include real-life events, such as 9/11 and the plane crash on the Hudson? Did you begin with the end in mind, or did those elements simply find their way in?

Frankly, I was inspired to write A Soft Place to Land because my mind is filled with morbid “what ifs.” These morbid thoughts especially come to play when I’m on an airplane. Now on a rational level, I know that air travel is actually the safest form of transportation. And on a spiritual level, I think travel is a sublime practice—it’s important to experience new places, new cultures, new foods. But these are all thoughts my mind only allows on the ground. Once airborne, my rational thinking flies right out the pressure sealed window. I think it’s because airplane crashes, while rare, are so dramatic. Usually everyone on board dies, and the last few moments are a horror. Add to that the fact that if parents are on the same plane, a child’s family can be wiped out in one swoop. And what if those parents had daughters and the daughters were actually half siblings, and one still had a biological parent living . . . ?

I’m going to jump ahead to the third question and then work my way back to the second. I had no idea what the ending of this story would be when I started writing about Ruthie and Julia. All I knew was that I was going to tell of half siblings who were split apart after their parents died in a plane crash. In fact, initially I had four siblings in the story, but the more I wrote, the more I realized I needed to boil the sibling relationship down to its essence: that it needed to be about a particularly intense relationship between two sisters. I knew, too, that after the crash the girls needed to land in very different places, and that those places needed to have a profound impact on who they would become.

In terms of incorporating real life events: well, 911 occurred during the time span of the book (1993–2009), and it was such a terrible and defining event with such long reverberations. I don’t think there was any way not to include it. Especially because the actual day of September 11, 2001, was one where so many former grievances seemed petty. It was a day when people reevaluated their lives.

The “Miracle on the Hudson” was, for lack of a better expression, a strangely happy accident. (Not to diminish the horror experienced by those on the plane as it went down; still, the outcome was astonishing.) I first heard about US Air Flight 1549 while driving in my car. They were talking about it on the radio, how a plane had crashed but it looked like everyone on board might survive. I burst into tears while driving. It was just so poignant. Here was this hope, this proof that doom was not always inevitable. It was such a powerful story; I couldn’t stop thinking about it. (Who could?) And then it occurred to me: let Julia be on that flight! That way she could experience what her mother went through in the last moments of her life, an experience that would allow her to try for true reconciliation with Ruthie.

I know that you have a sister; can you tell us a bit about your relationship? Are there any parallels between you and your sister and Julia and Ruthie?

I actually have two half sisters and three half brothers. I have many memories of being the youngest of all of those kids, being caught in the giddy and chaotic swirl of a big family. But my oldest sister Lauren and I did have a special bond. She was, simply, a great deal of fun, and she and I spent an enormous amount of joyful time together. So yes, I absolutely based the love and intimacy that Julia and Ruthie have in their early years on Lauren’s and my relationship. Lauren was a fantastic inventor of games and stories, and I wanted to create that sense of childhood play on the page. (Full confession: Lauren and I did play “Biscuit and Egg,” and if she were beside me now she would insist I tell you that she was the one who made it up.)

That said, Ruthie and Julia are invented characters. And they change so much after they are separated by thousands of miles. So pretty much once the Grand Canyon crash occurs, and the girls are split apart, the resemblance between my fictitious sisters and Lauren and me evaporates.

You include great descriptions of both Atlanta and San Francisco. You grew up in Atlanta, and currently live there. You also spent time living in San Francisco. Did you need to do much research for the settings of your book, or were you already well versed in these cities?

Though I know mistakes happen, I really strive for verisimilitude in my stories. My feeling is that if I want my characters to seem as if they are made of flesh and blood, then I need the world they inhabit to match the world as it is, or as it was during the time the story takes place.

While drafting the book I didn’t do much research about Atlanta, but I did go to San Francisco for about a month, just to reconnect with the feel of the city. During that time I spent a couple of afternoons at the San Francisco public library, researching newspaper headlines from 1993, mainly so I could figure out what Mimi and Robert might discuss during dinner. After I finished a draft of the book I did a ton of research, to make sure that I was accurately describing the way Atlanta and San Francisco would have been over fifteen years ago. It’s amazing the changes that a decade and a half bring.

Here’s a minor example: initially when I wrote the book I had Dara and Ruthie meet at Peet’s Coffee on Market Street in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. (This is the scene during which the two friends play “Who the Hell is He?”) But then I called my friend Ellen Sinaiko, who has run a café in the Castro since the early eighties, and I casually asked whether or not Peet’s had been there in 1993. I was fully expecting her to say yes. But it had not! So I had to change the location to Café Flore, which, in fact, I think works better as a meeting spot for the two girls. So serendipitously, by fact checking I actually found a better place to set the scene. Or maybe serendipitous isn’t the right word, maybe this minor example just proves how good things will come from sweating the details.

There are great descriptions of meal preparations in the book. Do you cook? Did you invent Ruthie’s signature dessert, “Elvs”?

I love to cook. I think of it as my second passion, behind writing. I read cookbooks for pleasure, and spend time imagining which foods might taste good together.

I did invent “Elvs,” but I was greatly influenced by two sources: 1) the “phatty cakes” at Cakes & Ale restaurant in Decatur, Georgia, which are sandwiches of two spicy ginger cookies with a mascarpone cream filling, and 2) a dessert I had at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta. I don’t remember the exact specifics of the dessert, but I know it included caramelized banana, caramel sauce, and bacon crumbles. It was both earthy and sublime.

You’ve mentioned that you have a fear of flying. What made you decide to tackle that fear by incorporating two plane crashes into A Soft Place to Land? What do you imagine your last thoughts would be?

Wow, I wish I had tackled my fear of flying by writing this book. Unfortunately, I have only intensified it, especially after researching the details of the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight. That said, I think it’s important for me not to give into the fear, so I’ve learned to deal with it by 1) getting a prescription for Xanax for flights, 2) adopting the mantra, “It’s probably going to be okay,” and 3) making sure I have a charged iPod before I go to the airport, because listening to familiar music really soothes me on the plane.

I have some idea of what my last thoughts might be because I was once on a pretty intense flight that I thought was going to crash. Now, granted, I have an active imagination. Probably we were just going through severe—and I mean severe—turbulence. But there was a moment in the midst of the turbulence—I was hyperventilating, mind you—when the plane must have dropped 1,000 feet and I suddenly became very calm. I thought, Oh. This is it. This plane is actually going to crash. And suddenly, I was more or less okay. I was distantly sad that I was going to die but I realized that—as Julia says—it happens to everyone. I was glad that I had experienced such a great love with my husband, Alan, and I hoped the crash wouldn’t make the rest of my parents’ lives too sorrowful.

Eventually the turbulence subsided, and I realized we were going to be okay, and I felt panicky all over again, felt like I had to get off the plane that instant even though it was an international flight and we had about six more hours to go. But in those few moments when I honestly thought my death was imminent, I experienced a strange and comforting peace, which I allowed Julia to have during her own experience on Flight 1549.

Julia’s memoir incorporates personal details that Ruthie would rather not share with the world. Julia’s writing seems to be cathartic for her, but it has almost an opposite effect on Ruthie. Do you believe Ruthie is right to want to hold back details she remembers about their childhood? Which sister do you side with?

I don’t side with either. I absolutely understand why Ruthie felt betrayed and I absolutely understand why Julia included the detail about Ruthie’s past abortion, especially because in her memoir she never refers to Ruthie by name, only as “Biscuit.” My showing both sides of the story was probably my way of wrestling with what it means to be a writer.

Have you ever considered writing a memoir?

While I love my life, and feel immensely grateful for it, I’m not sure it warrants a memoir. Basically all I do is read (a lot), write, teach, cook, eat (a lot), walk the dog (not as much as she’d like), spend time with my husband, and eat meals with friends. And do laundry. In the summer I garden. Occasionally I go to the movies. And I’ll take any opportunity I can to escape to New Orleans or New York for a few days. (And in New Orleans and New York what do I do? I read, I spend time with my husband, I eat meals with friends . . .)

Which is all to say that the stories I make up are probably more interesting than my own life.

What are you working on next? Would you ever write a sequel to A Soft Place to Land?

I have just started working on my third book, and while I’m not yet ready to talk about the details of the story, I will say that cooking plays a huge role in it, and a good portion of it is set in New York City during the late 1940s.

Right now I’m not planning on writing a sequel for A Soft Place to Land, but who knows how I’ll feel later. I certainly imagine I’ll continue to explore its themes in my writing.