Susan’s twelfth novel, As Husbands Go, will be released in paperback on April 5, 2011.
She began as someone for whom bravery was defined as electing to wear wide-leg pants in a season of skinny crops. Was there a way for such a woman not only to think courageously, but to act it? Or was it simply too late?
I’ve got a license to daydream. Being a novelist is the adult version of a kid creating a make-believe world. But unlike a child, a writer of fiction has to come up with a structured story, one that has as much meaning for others as it has for her.
There is no “right” way to begin a novel, but for me, plot has to wait. The character comes first. Some new person comes strolling into my head asking I write his or her story. If I ignore them they insist. If I mutter, I don’t think so, even the quietest ones get pushy: Just do it! They’re convinced they picked the right writer for the job and they don’t like resistance.
I guess I picked them too — no matter who they are or how unlikely a character-author pair we seem at first. Slowly, we form a working relationship. They begin to confide in me. I listen, ask questions. Gradually, it becomes a conversation that continues throughout the writing of their (fictional) memoir.
Having said all that, As Husbands Go didn’t happen that way. The would-be protagonist who came striding into my consciousness made me want to plead with her For God’s sake, find some other novelist! But I couldn’t whip up the courage because – I’m almost embarrassed to say it – this new, ultra-cool character in my head was too intimidating to challenge.
Not that she seemed hostile, loathsome, or even unlikeable. In fact, she was the 2010 version of the American dream, female division: devoted mother (of four-year-old triplets, no less), loving wife. She had a successful, non-husband-threatening career as a floral designer, along with great looks and enviable body. Money was no problem. Oh, and she had sublime taste. She stirred up every idiotic insecurity I’d experienced between sixth grade and my fiftieth birthday. Looking at her, my mind’s eye flickered uneasily. Talk about statuesque! I noted her height and model-sleekness were enhanced by Jean Paul Gaultier jeans and Louboutin stilettos. My normal protection against such blatant elegance would have been to embrace the Me=Genuine, She=Superficial defense, which allows me to congratulate myself for not being the sort who’d spend eight hundred dollars for shoes.
What kept me interested in her was a puzzlement. Why was some empty suit (albeit a Prada) bothering me? I was a novelist, after all, not a stylist. And why did I need her? Did I want to spend the next two years growing progressively wearier of her ‘tude, sublime appearance, and overt self-confidence? How could I explore the depths of a character when there seemed to be only shallowness?
Still, she got me wondering (not for the first time) what it must be like to be able to get along on your looks. Is it a perpetual high? Do women like this character merely glide through life, never experiencing the rough patches necessary for developing moral fiber? Were the people she charmed so preoccupied with her surface that they never challenged her ideas or values — letting her remain an exquisitely wrapped but empty package? Or were beautiful people no different from everybody else – aside from being capable of finding pleasure when shopping for bathing suits?
Our culture now places more emphasis on the visual than ever before. I needed to check out whether our greater than ever fascination with beauty, fashion, celebrity — style in general — keeps us from looking below the surface.
In case you’re wondering, my being intrigued and somewhat daunted by this character did not arise from some lifelong I look like Quasimodo with a wig anguish. I’m okay. Nevertheless, “gorgeous” would never appear on any Top 10 List of Adjectives Most Frequently Applied to Susan Isaacs. Furthermore, I couldn’t imagine writing a novel about someone who had that “g” word, along with “stunning” and “chic,” on hers.
One microsecond later. Or maybe it was two weeks. Hard to tell as my Susan-the-novelist mind often does its work on its own while Susan-the-person carries on with what non-novelists refer to as real life. However long it really was, when the beaut next appeared in my consciousness, she was no longer someone to be intimidated by or condescended to. She was clear to me. Amazingly, I liked her. (Not that you need to like or even respect your protagonist. I can’t imagine Dostoevsky thinking, Gee, that Rashkolnikov is a total sweetheart.)
I knew my protagonist’s name was Susan B Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten and – surprise! – she was going to show everyone the stuff from which she was made: a lot more than sugar and spice and La Prairie makeup. I couldn’t wait to write about her.
Best of all, I wasn’t observing her from the outside. I was inside her head. Not only was I comfortable in there, I felt at home; Susie and I had undergone that magical author-subject merge. We’d become one (though not to the point of my being able to wear her clothes).
From the inside looking out, I comprehended what it was like to be self assured and pretty, just a tad away from beautiful: It felt good. Okay, that sensation was not enough to create a fully-realized protagonist. But I now understood Susie’s preoccupation with appearances was the key to her inner life. Her own prettiness and presentation was always a work in progress. The world beyond herself was subject to similar scrutiny. She’d been born with a sense of order and style. For me, seeing the world with that artistic eye was so challenging. I’d never been the sort who instinctively knew which car or chair or abstract expressionist painting had intrinsic worth. I rarely had the urge to rearrange anyone’s furniture.
What was it like to be supersensitive to fashion, art, or people’s appearance? I had my own supersensitivity — to nuances in language and behavior — but I wanted to experience the world through the eyes of someone who had the Eye.
After I had that insight into Susie, the rest of the novel fell into place fast. Her background: She’d been born into a rather boring, mildly depressed family — a swan among ugly ducks. I could see her growing up in a dreary Brooklyn apartment, yearning for some quality in her life. Okay, some of that yearning turned into banal social ambition, the desire to be in a position where she could own the lovely things she believed were necessary for fulfillment and status. But Susie also needed to create beauty for others who didn’t know how. I got a flash of her arranging roses in a bowl, inhaling their sweetness, getting pleasure from the process as well as the results. Bingo! She became a floral designer.
And who would be the man of her dreams? Jonah Gersten, a plastic surgeon, a man who also had The Eye, the aesthetic sense, as well as the need to make things beautiful. And since life is never perfect, Susie’s backstory included a struggle with infertility that did have a happy ending: as the novel opens, she and Jonah are the exultant though frazzled parents of four-year-old triplet sons.
Backstory is dandy, but I needed a front story. I later realized it had been waiting for me from the moment I took on the voice of someone who is all about surfaces. What would happen when something occurs — something potentially shattering — to demolish a gorgeously-constructed existence? Could Susie face the truth, no matter how awful? She might be willing, but would she be able to stand up for this truth, fight for herself and her family? Was there substance beneath the style?
Also, with all the current chatter about values, family and otherwise, few people truly have to put up or shut up. But here was my protagonist, thirty-five years old, someone who’d never given morality a thought beyond the vague understanding that it has to do with the 10 Commandments (of which, maybe, she could recite 5). Facing what might be a major injustice – the wrong person being convicted of a crime – could she act? Was it even her responsibility, considering that all the authorities considered the prosecutor’s case a slam-dunk? Can someone whose lifetime thinking about morality probably totaled two minutes develop a sense of ethics, along with the courage to actually do the right thing?
So that’s how I began. I joined with my new companion, Susan B Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten, saw through her eyes, thought her thoughts, comprehended all she was up against. Now I could finally do what she’d asked of me: set down her story.
Today, the official publication date of As Husbands Go, I’m going to Joan Smith’s flower shop on Main Street in Port Washington for a Newsday photo shoot. Well, “photo shoot” sounds kind of four-pages-in-Vogue, and for all I know this could be a teeny black and white accompanying the paper’s review of my novel. But the point is that Joan matters. On the Acknowledgments page, I thanked her for teaching me what I needed to know about floral design. Not for life, mind you: for my protagonist, Susan B. Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten, who co-owns an upscale flower business.
I had a fabulous time learning from Joan Smith, a woman so vibrant she seems to be living two lives simultaneously. But this was Flowers for Authors 101 – just enough knowledge to create part of the background for the character who will be the foreground. I didn’t (and couldn’t, of course) learn everything Joan knew. I didn’t need to. All I have to do was to feel comfortable enough with a container, floral foam, and the green stuff to convince myself I knew what I was talking about. Only after I did the research could I convince the reader.
Okay, let’s talk about research. One pal of mine – a really good writer – came up with some intriguing information in one of his books. “Hey, I never knew about XYZ,” I said. “You really must have done a lot of research.”
He looked amused in his noir-ish way (which is to say the demi-smile of a man not utterly undone by an absurd universe) appeared for an instant. “I don’t do research. I write fiction. I make it up.”
Well, that’s one way of doing it. Make up your facts. As the god creating a new universe, it is your divine right to plunk down the Champs Élysées in Kansas City or poison a tyrant with diathalene chloride, a lethal compound I formulated three seconds ago.
The obvious problem with this kind of invention is that whether nine-tenths of your readers are scratching their heads over why a French boulevard has moved to Missouri or whether merely a lone chemist/reader is muttering “Wha’?” an error of fact has caused the universe you’ve created to lose its gravitational pull on the imagination. The reader is yanked back into the real world as he or she wonders whether the author was merely sloppy or had some obscure literary purpose in including such a misstatement. So? Is one fiction-reading chemist really such a major deal? Is it worth an hour or a week’s time finding the perfect poison?
I’ll tell you why I think so: The more you know about a substance or a character’s means of getting and dispensing that substance, and whether that substance kills without a trace or causes an agonized, “He’s been poisoned!” death, the smarter your writing will be. By “smart” I mean authentic. It will feel real because you’ve made yourself an omniscient god with the power to bring every aspect of your universe to life. I needed to go through the experience of “greening out “ a container before adding the flowers.
So today, when the temperature is supposed to hit one hundred, I’ll be mascara-ed and flat-ironed to a fare-thee-well, at my photo shoot, thanking Joan for teaching me enough to make me believe – if only for the time I was writing – that I was a master of the botanical universe.
Happy pub date!
Susan’s twelfth novel, the tragic-hilarious As Husbands Go, will be published by Scribner on July 6, 2010.