When it is your next book coming out?
As Husbands Go will be out in either Spring or Summer, 2010. One morning, the lovely and chic Susan B. Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten, a floral designer, wakes up to find that her loving, successful plastic surgeon husband did not come home the night before. Her perfect life, at best, is on hold: Susie is now sole parent to four-year-old triplets, needs to know more than she can find out from the police. As Husbands Go, then, is a mystery with lots of humor, suspense, and some profound sadness. But it’s also a coming-of-age novel; the age just happens to be thirty-five. Can someone like Susie, who showed no sign of having guts or a sense of ethics develop them this late in the game? And if she can, will she put her boys-and herself-in danger?
Where do you get your ideas?
Since I’ve been answering questions about writing, I don’t think there’s been a time that I haven’t been asked this. Although some authors dismiss this with a remark or a lame joke about Kmart, I think this is a perfectly legitimate inquiry. I hope my answer is enlightening, though I don’t know if it will be helpful. That’s because each writer’s inspiration is as unique as his or her fingerprints.
My “ideas” come to me as characters. Before I wrote my first novel, Compromising Positions, I was reading a dangerous number of mysteries a week: three or four. Suddenly, a character popped into my head. Like me, she was a housewife on Long Island with two young children and a husband who commuted into Manhattan. Unlike me, she wanted to find out who killed… Well, I had no idea who was murdered, but since she seemed to be hanging around my head, I decided to figure out a mystery for her to solve.
The same holds true with my novels that aren’t mysteries. In Shining Through, a legal secretary came into my head, wanted me to tell her story – about being in love with one of the law firm’s partners, even though social class differences supposedly put him out of her league. I wanted to give her some way to prove the worth, to herself if not to him. But it wasn’t until World War II popped into my head, a time in which ordinary people often displayed extraordinary courage.
Other writers use the big What If. Something arouses their curiosity and they ask themselves: What if a savvy businesswoman turned stay-at-home mother starts to believe her house is haunted?
Some authors may get intrigued by a story or situation they hear about on the news, or just in casual conversation. Henry James is said to have gotten the idea for Washington Square from a story he overheard at a dinner party. Just a phrase or a word might get the creative juices flowing. “Seduced and abandoned.” “Poor little rich girl.” “Won the lottery.” There are writers who give a new spin to old works; fairy tales like Cinderella or the biblical story of Job.
Finally, a would-be writer or an old pro can wonder “What’s the book I most want to read that hasn’t yet been written.
Where were you born?
In Brooklyn, New York.
You look familiar. Where did you go to school?
PS 197, Cunningham Junior High (both in Brooklyn), Woodward High School (during a three-year sojourn in Cincinnati), Forest Hills High School (in Queens), and, finally, Queens College.
Did you always want to be a writer?
No. As a child, I wanted to be a cowgirl. Perhaps that seems odd for a kid growing up in Brooklyn, but even then I had the ability to be anyone I wanted to be – in my head, if not in reality. Writing was always something I did reasonably well, but it didn’t occur to me that I could make a living from it. After college, I worked at Seventeen magazine simply because it was the only job available at that time. I began by writing advice to the lovelorn, and after a few years went up as a senior editor. After I left Seventeen to raise my children, I worked as a freelance political speechwriter. But it wasn’t until my second, Elizabeth, was two that it occurred to me that I wanted to write fiction.
Of all the books you’ve written, which is your favorite?
There’s a writers cliché about books being like children. Well, it’s true. You love all your children, even the goofy ones.
Do you write longhand or use a computer?
A computer and, more recently, speech-recognition. I sit there with my headset and dictate. To me, it’s a boon because I speak faster than I type. Also, for some reason, I focus better using this method. Naturally, there’s a downside. The program I use doesn’t seem too comfortable with a New York accent, even with the extra training I gave it. So when I had the protagonist of my new novel say “I opened the door,” what I saw on my monitor was “I opened the Torah.” Ultimately, I don’t think it matters what method a writer uses. Longhand, typewriter, quill and ink: They’re simply tools.
Do you know the whole story before you start writing? Do you make an outline?
For me, making an outline is a way to work out the plot since, with me, the characters come first. Also, it’s easier to see the structure of the novel that way, and I have the security of knowing where I’m going. Sometimes the outline is a snap. I guess that’s when my subconscious has already done the heavy lifting. However, on a couple of books, including Lily White, I took almost a year to work out what was going to happen. Naturally, I was petrified the whole time that I was losing my marbles and/or having the world’s most unconquerable writer’s block. However, I know many authors who don’t bother with an outline, who feel it’s too constraining. There is no one right way to write.
Are any of your characters based on people you know?
No. At least I never consciously try and pick someone I know and put him or her into a book. The fun of writing, as well as the agony, is in creating a new universe and populating it. Also, I don’t want to get a lot of grief from Uncle Joe or my down-the-street neighbor that I didn’t portray them in flattering light. (Often though, people get convinced that their friendly, local novelist has put them into a book. I say “No, it’s not based on you.” Sometimes they believe it, more often they don’t seem too. After all these years of being a novelist, I have learned that for some people a novel is a book to be read and, for others, a kind of Rorschach test onto which they read whatever is going on in their minds.)
How do I find an agent?
First, finish your novel. Three chapters and an outline may do for nonfiction, but no publisher is going to buy a first novel that is not complete. Anyway, if you want to be a novelist, you have to write a complete work; if you don’t, you’re merely a chapterist. There are some books on finding an agent that you might try. You can also look in The Practical Writer, a handbook based on articles from Poets & Writers magazine. [Full disclosure: I am chairman of the board of the literary organization Poets & Writers. Their web site is www.pw.org ] If you have a name, check to see if that person is a member of American Authors Representatives – often a good sign – and see that group’s web site, www.aar-online.org.
Now, think to yourself: I spent a year or two writing this book. Now I have to put in a lot of effort and creativity into finding someone to sell it. For example, if there is an author whose sensibility is somewhat similar to yours, find out who his or her agents is. You can look to see if there is an Acknowledgments page in a book; often an agent will be thanked. Or see if you can get that information out of the publisher. Work on a splendid, one-page-only query letter. Remember, it is this letter that will represent you and your book. Finally, I’ve made it a policy not to recommend agents to people. The reasons for this are many, but to name two: I have no idea what a particular agents is looking for at any one time, and also, I have no way of knowing the style and quality of a writer’s work.
Note from Susan: While we’re at it, here are some terrific questions I was asked by the people at the Barnes and Noble Book Club. (I’ve edited it a bit because I’ve had some new notions.)
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
For a couple of months during college, I was wowed by H. L. Mencken’s book of essays, Prejudices. Its influence was both positive and negative. I loved the author’s iconoclastic instincts, his razzle-dazzle language, and his contemptuous take on the assorted idiocies of American politics and culture. My infatuation could not last longer than a couple of months because the more I read, the more I noticed of Mencken’s off-the-cuff racist and anti-Semitic asides: How could anyone that smart be that stupid?
In any case, while in Mencken mode, I wrote an essay for the college newspaper defending the fraternity/sorority system. (Fortunately, I can find no trace of this piece and thus can avoid confronting my younger, dopier, and more arrogant self.) The response was, to me, astounding. More pats on the back then I could count and, on the other hand, a stunning number of outraged letters to the editor protesting what I had written. A grand fuss, but it brought me little pleasure. True, I loved the attention, but it didn’t take me long to realize both the applause and the fuming was not for me, but rather, for my competent imitation of H. L. Mencken.
A little more than a decade later, when I began writing my first novel, I started to realize that all I had as a writer was my own voice. Sure, I could imitate Mencken or, for that matter, Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde. But that was just a clever college-kid trick. Mencken and Austen and Wilde were far better Menckens and Austens and Wildes than I could ever be. Besides, why would any reader bother with an imitation when they could read the real thing? All I could be, for better or worse, was Susan Isaacs.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
# Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen – My two favorite Austen novels. I love her characters, the relationships, her genius for the telling detail, as well as tough-mindedness side by side with her compassion. And of course her brilliant wit.
# Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – Jane is my favorite example of a complex and heroic female character, a brave dame. She has high moral standards, stands up to injustice and is willing to leave civilization and face the wild, even death, rather than do wrong.
# Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – Dickens pulls off a double whammy here, offering a brilliant view of the different classes of British society while creating wonderfully memorable characters. I’ve always been fascinated by climbs up and down the social ladder. My novel Any Place I Hang My Hat (note to the subtle way I’ve insinuated myself alongside Charles Dickens) is a 21st-century look at such a climb: When you are able to fit in anywhere, from the visitors’ room at Sing-Sing to the dining room at the Harvard Club, where do you truly belong? Everywhere? Or no place at all?
# I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith – With its first sentence (“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”), I was hooked into what I consider one of the most luminous coming-of-age novels. Its narrator, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortman, is incredibly smart and appealing. Dodie Smith wrote this novel in the 1940s, but its chin-up heroine is an up-to-the-minute girl who becomes a woman in the course of this book.
# Sophie’s Choice by William Styron – Styron’s novel about a Christian woman who survives her ordeal in a concentration camp juxtaposes the bright light of American innocence with the dark knowledge of Europe under the Nazis. The writing is superb, the characters unforgettable.
# The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Okay, Fitzgerald’s novel is on just about everybody’s Top Ten list, and with good reason: while at first it seems simply a first-class snapshot of East Coast types at one moment in time, it really is a profound and complex work of art about what we Americans long for and what we actually wind up with. Gatsby and company hold up Fitzgerald’s mirror in which we readers see our optimism, naïveté, hypocrisy, and casual cruelty.
# The Stand by Stephen King – Here’s King’s take on the brightness and darkness in American life, a huge, apocalyptic novel that, like nearly all of the author’s work, is compulsively readable.
# All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – Woodward and Bernstein’s book about how they broke and then followed the Watergate story reads like a cross between a noir whodunit and one of those scary, dystopian novels about the undermining of the democratic system, like Sinclair Lewis’s It Can Happen Here. These two then-young reporters had the guts and the brains to trace what looked like a cheesy burglary all the way up to President Nixon’s White House.
I’m an avid reader of nonfiction, too, so I have to add:
# The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 by William Manchester – The first volume of one of the best-written biographies ever about one of the rare aristocrats who actually was aristocratic. What a giant he was! Compared with him, every politician today… better yet, let’s not compare.
# Singin’ in the Rain – The best musical ever made. (I love Chicago and Dreamgirls, too.)
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
# The Lord of the Rings trilogy – This is one of the rare times that a film adaptation faithful to the novels on which it’s based really works. Having slogged through big movies from Lawrence of Arabia to Troy, I loved its grandness and many of its larger-than-life characters, although Gimli the dwarf reminded me of a Mike Myers routine and Frodo kept bringing to mind my friend Barbara from high school, but without the wit. Anyhow, I loved the books and I loved the movies.
# All About Eve – When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I watched this great Bette Davis movie and said to myself, Wow, this is sophisticated. I still think so. It celebrates the glamour of the theater and its actors, directors, and playwrights while keeping tongue in cheek and eyebrow arched.
# Bullets Over Broadway – Woody Allen’s film evokes the mystery and magic of the creative artist-a playwright in this case. Why are some loathsome human beings so gifted, and some decent people whose only desire is to make art such lousy artists? There isn’t one frame of the film that is sentimental, but its sentiment for the theater is wise and loving, and its comedy brilliant.
# Rashomon – Kurosawa’s movie about the murder of a man and the rape of his wife, as seen from the points of view of four different people, is a classic in every sense: It asks the big questions (What is truth? Is there an objective reality?) while breaking new ground in the telling of events. Through the camera’s eye we see not just of four different versions of these two crimes but four different worldviews of the characters.
# Citizen Kane – Orson Welles’s finest work is indeed the great movie it’s touted to be, but I love it for Welles’s extraordinary portrayal of a man’s journey from decency to corruption, along with another of my favorites, The Godfather, in which Al Pacino made a similar journey.
# Seems Like Old Times – This is a brilliant Shakespearean comedy that happens to be written by Neil Simon.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you’re writing?
If even a radio were playing in the house across the street, I would not be able to write. When I’m inventing characters and creating a universe, that of my novel, I can’t have any distractions from the universe I’m living in.
My knowledge of orchestral music composed between Mozart and Gershwin is close to nil. As for opera, give me melody – Puccini, Verdi, Bizet. I am a word person: The music I enjoy most has lyrics. So I love the standards, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and so forth. For me, they are best sung by performers with the intelligence and sensitivity to get at the meaning of the words without sacrificing the music. Give me Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington, and that most underrated of singers, Louis Armstrong. And of course I love rock, although what I enjoy most is the music of my childhood and teenage years. So it’s Bill Haley and the Comets through the Beatles.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Well, right now I’ve been listening to an unabridged recording of Anna Karenina. Over the years, I started it a couple of times but for some reason always gave up. Yet here I am most afternoons, sneaking off for time alone with Tolstoy. So my book club would feature books I’ve given up on which everybody else says are a must-read: Even if I still detested the book, I would read it in the hope of getting elucidated by my fellow book club members. Some possibilities: Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give – and get – as gifts?
Whatever strikes me. A bestselling novel, a worst-selling novel that looks intriguing, a big fat coffee-table book with photographs of bats, or French couture. A biography. A book on the development of language, or the thousand best recipes for cheesecake.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you’re writing?
What I have on my desk is usually a mess. Looking down right now, I see a pair of sparkly red, blue, and aqua clip-on earrings that felt too tight a few days ago, a micro drive, malachite beads I brought home from Africa and plan to give to an old family friend, an empty eyeglass case, and a folded-up copy of Chapter 7 of my current novel, Any Place I Hang My Hat, with a footer that indicates it was printed out on July 31, 2003; my shopping list and “Ann and Al’s anniversary” is scribbled on it. Near the lamp, there’s a CD sent to me by a buddy, a Vietnam vet who has lately fallen in love with World War II love songs. It includes guaranteed tear-jerkers like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Something to Remember You By.” And an empty Coke Zero can.
Many writers are hardly “overnight success” stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
No real horror stories. I was able to find an agent fairly quickly, and Compromising Positions was sold within a couple of months. It was only later that she told me it had been turned down by four or five publishers. The reasons were as varied as the publishers: The novel was too comic for a mystery; no one wanted to read a whodunit with a Long Island housewife as the detective; it might make a good paperback original published by somebody else; it was too different.
If you could choose one new writer to be “discovered,” who would it be?
What I’m interested in is any new, original voice. I was so happy for the chance to choose a novel for the Today Show Book Club, because having read Matthew Sharpe’s The Sleeping Father, I said to myself, “Hey, this is an extraordinary talent, someone who can interweave humor with great sadness.” I felt that same “what a unique talent!” thrill when I read Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Most of all, keep writing. If you have finished a novel and have done everything you possibly can to make it good (no waiting around for a dream editor to work with you), then began another novel. Also, if you spent six months or four years writing, it should be worth a few weeks of your time to research finding an agent and also to work up a brilliant one-page query letter to be sent to agents.