Thursday, December 13, 2007

Writer's Corner

Susannah Felts

There is a place in time that writers travel to when finding inspiration, the unconscious flow, that hidden voice, that allows them to write a novel. It is a time of extreme creativity, emotions, and discovery. From the late teens to the early twenties numerous life changing (or so they seem) events take place, and it is the savvy writer who can twist them in such a way to bring forth the universal appeal and truth behind them. The stories spawn complex questions about growing up, friendship, and life in general.

Birmingham writer (former Chicago writer) Susannah Felts is preparing to release her take on this part of life on March 1st, 2008. Her debut novel is called This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record, and will be released by Featherproof books.

Recently, Susannah was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, and in the process delivered some exciting news.

Orange Alert (OA): What can you tell us about This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record?
Susannah Felts (SF): Hmmm, what can I tell you: It’s set in Nashville, Tennessee in the summer and fall of 1989, and it features a cast of high school students, most significantly the narrator, a 16-year-old named Vaughn Vance, and her new friend Sophie Birch, who lives across the street from Vaughn until she moves in with Vaughn’s family temporarily. And everything starts to fall apart and get reaaalllly complicated – the way life so easily becomes insanely complicated (or so it seems) when you’re in high school and figuring out who you are and what matters to you.

The book’s a good read for mature teens, but I believe/hope (as does Featherproof) that it will also appeal to older readers—twenty and thirty-somethings like myself. I think that if you were a teen in the 80s, you’ll enjoy some of the music references (like the title, ahem). Or, if you’re twenty-something right now and you’re nostalgic for a decade you lived through but didn’t really experience (too young), then you’ll also warm to it. And really, anyone who was ever a teen at any point (um, all of us) should be able to identify with aspects of the narrative—the angstiness and joy and freedom of youth. It is, after all, a coming of age story.
But it is specifically a coming of age story about an artist. Vaughn’s a budding photographer. I like to think that the book dips subtly into some of the issues surrounding documentary photography (an interest and occasional hobby of mine), so it has that somewhat cerebral dimension, too.

On the flip side, there’s enough drug and alcohol use and swearing in this book to make me nervous about my extended family and parents’ friends reading it (I suspect they already think I’m odd and questionable enough!), but really, there are some very positive (dare I say wholesome?) messages for the finding in there too, I believe. It’s just real. And though it is grounded in the actual—Dragon Park, where the kids hang out, totally exists—it is almost entirely made up. I did not live these experiences; Vaughn is not me, thinly disguised; I never knew a Sophie. I did grow up in Nashville, but not in the neighborhood where the girls live, not by a long shot. We lived out in the country, more or less—the boonies by my friends’ standards.

OA: How long did it take for you to complete your novel? What is it like to hold the finished product in your hands?
SF: Urgh. Too long. I started working on this book in earnest in the summer of 2003; before that, it was a 20-page short story I wrote during my first semester of graduate school. I finished a draft by January 2005. Then there was a long period during which I thought a book deal was around the corner. Turns out it wasn’t. Some revisions happened. Then nothing (but gnashing of teeth and despair, etc.) for a while. Then Featherproof’s interest—hurrah!—and further revisions. And here we are, almost a full five years later.

Re: the finished product: You know, when I received these questions I didn’t have the actual, printed book in hand yet, so I was planning to make up something cute to say here….But last week, a box of the completed books arrived on my doorstep, and one is gracing my desk right now! How is it? Honestly? It’s like, “Wow, cool; it’s done, here it is!” But when I first got it I also felt almost afraid to look at it too closely, for fear of finding a typo (or six or seven). I still fear that. I haven’t found any yet, but I’ve no means read through every page. Anyway, besides that anxiety—which, mind you, is less a reflection on Featherproof than my own bad-luck history with several of the stories and essays I’ve published having been printed with some sort of error(s)—there’s a sort of quiet hum of pleasantness about the whole thing. Every so often I pick one of the books up and page through it happily. The paper smells great and it feels substantial. And if that’s not a good reason to buy a book I don’t know what it is. It smells good; what more could you ask for, people?! Also, the font is elegant (thanks, Zach!), and I couldn’t be happier with Diana Sudyka’s amazing cover design. It’s beautiful and way cool—all of it. It’s been a long time coming and having the ‘end product’ in hand is really just the next step in a very fun, ongoing process.

OA: I'm a big fan of the quality products Featherproof has been producing. How did you decide to go with them for your debut?
SF: They offered me a really fat advance, plus a nice gift card to a spa and a box of Vosges truffles. How could I resist?!

Ah, kidding. Though I’m sure Jonathan and Zach will be giving me all of that once the book sells out its first press run…right guys? Ha. Um, there’s not much more to say than: Jonathan and Zach read the manuscript, said they liked it and wanted to publish it, and I said, “Yay! Let’s go!” In full disclosure, I should say that they had previously published my husband Todd Dills’s debut novel, Sons of the Rapture, and Jonathan and I were in a writing group together; he was familiar with my other work. There were connections, is what I’m fessing up to; they didn’t pick me off the slush pile. Anyway, it’s a very happy ending to what had almost become a very sad story. I had a high-powered agent for a while and thought the book was going to sell to a big NY house. Well, a bunch of editors passed on it (though some said very nice things), and then my agent became, shall we say, a wee bit distant. Obviously he was sending signals, you know, the way guys do when they’re just not that into you anymore. Eventually I got the hint. After that I was afraid the book might never find an audience…and then Jonathan expressed interest.

OA: Do you plan to do a book tour or any specific readings to promote this release?
SF: Absolutely, as much as I can. I’m 16 weeks pregnant right now, so as the release date nears pregnancy will be ever larger (ha) an issue, but hopefully it’ll put just a barely-discernable crimp on promotion. Jonathan and Zach are convinced that we can use this prego thing to our promotional advantage, heh. (I say sure, why not, although I’m not quite sure what they have in mind…) The thing is, we’ve learned that with YA titles, touring and reading in bookstores and bars is just not the standard or most effective way to get the word out. School visits and entering contests are what it’s all about, apparently. So we’ll be doing that. But, as the book is also geared to older readers, I very much want to get out there and read from it. We’re planning release parties in Chicago, Birmingham (where I currently reside), and Nashville, and there’s been talk of a mini-Midwest tour in February. Beyond that, no details yet. But I look forward to reading in support of this book, if for no other reason than to drag my husband to each and every one! Lord knows I’ve attended enough of his readings. Ha. They’ve all been a blast, of course.

Perhaps I will even attempt to read about teens smoking pot and so forth with my baby in a sling across my chest. Now that could be a first in the world of performative reading.

OA: Who are a few of your biggest literary influences?
SF: This one is surprisingly hard. I just don’t think in terms of influences too much. But there are plenty of writers whose work I deeply admire. Joan Didion’s always the first to come to mind. Raymond Carver. Aimee Bender (especially The Girl in the Flammable Skirt). Amy Hempel. Lorrie Moore. Alice Munro. Really, I could go on and on. You may note that I haven’t listed a single YA author. I certainly read a lot of YA growing up, but I have to admit I’m woefully undereducated about contemporary YA greats. I do love Sarah Dessen’s work, so there’s one. But there are so many YA titles I need to read. I’m hoping to begin to remedy that in the coming months.

OA: What's next for Susannah Felts?
SF: This tempts me to wander into a swamp of existential self-questioning—where I spend far too much time—but I’ll spare you (you’re welcome). What’s next immediately is:

promoting this book in any way that I can
catching up on some reading for pleasure
writing and revising some short stories, and/or taking stabs at a new novel. We’ll see what comes of the attempts: could be stories, could be a novel. But I’ve got to get some new stuff down on paper, fast.

and, oh yeah—having a baby. And (as much as I’m thrilled about that) trying not to let that keep me from doing all of the above and more. For the rest of my life, amen.

Bonus Questions:
OA: Coffee? If yes what is your favorite type of coffee and where is your favorite coffee spot?
SF: Every morning my husband brings me coffee in bed, often before I’m really ready for it. Usually it’s a sort of extra-potent espresso sludge that he makes with one of those stovetop espresso makers, with lots of hot water added to make it more like a normal, if strong, cup of joe. (He drinks straight sludge, himself.) It’s a ritual I adore, even when he tries to hand me the hot mug when I’m, like, still halfway embedded in some dream, not at all ready to sit upright, much less sip steaming hot caffeinated sludge.

In general, coffee is a big part of our lives; Starbucks gets too much of our hard-earned money. My favorite coffee spots change from time to time. Of course I miss certain Chicago ones, like I miss all things Chicago: Atomix, Humboldt Pie, Letizia’s, Milk and Honey. But right now my favorite is a brand new place in downtown Birmingham, where we live. It’s called Urban Standard and it’s completely stylish and unlike any other coffee shop I’ve ever seen, which is of course a huge compliment. And considering that there’s not much of anything in downtown Birmingham, this place is all the more exciting. It badly makes me want to work from home again so I can hang out there more. They have delicious cupcakes, too—and sausage soup!

OA: What type of music do your enjoy listening to? Does music ever affect your writing?
SF: I was going to say “lots of kinds!” even though it’s a cliché, but the truth is probably closer to “indie,” a not-very-useful descriptive. Music is hugely important to me and always has been, though (another cliché alert) it really does get harder to “keep up” the older you get. I just don’t have the time or expendable income to gobble up new bands the way I used to. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Iron and Wine, Andrew Bird, Kanye West, Of Montreal, Art Brut, and Cat Power, with whom I may never fall out of love. That gives you a good idea of what stays in heavy rotation. I’ve been treadmilling to Be Your Own Pet. Todd just pulled out the old Stars of Track and Field by Belle and Sebastian the other night and I almost cried, it sounded so good. I also have a weakness for classic rock—the stuff I grew up listening to on the radio. I know all those old songs way too well. Does it affect my writing? Not a lot or in direct ways, though when I was revising Permanent Record I’d often play tracks that get mentioned in the book (“No New Tale to Tell” by Love and Rockets, for example) over and over, sort of as mini-writing-breaks. I’d just sit at my computer and get happily lost in the music for a bit, then try to head back into the story, having absorbed the music. It was a blast to revisit all that old stuff. I hadn’t listened to Jane’s Addiction in, what, more than 15 years?—and I dug that out and turned it way up, and you know what, it still sounded good to me (except for a few cheesy tracks). Not that that is always the case with old stuff you return to…

Normally, I can’t listen to music with lyrics while I write – I’m too easily distracted. So it’s more like a reward for when I hit ‘save’ and move on to surfing the Web or whatever. I usually can’t resist singing along with stuff I like—no matter where I am or what I’m doing. Yes, I often look like a huge dork, I guess. So be it.

For more information Susannah Felt you can check out her myspace page.


kav said...

I love the Violent Femmes-inspired title.

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