No Standard Way: Five Questions for Susanna Daniel
The protagonist, Frances Ellerby, and the other women of Stiltsville are such strong characters; the decisions that hold these families and relationships together often fall squarely to them. Meanwhile, the men are the ones who lose their jobs and break up marriages, whose bodies fail them. That’s a gross oversimplification, but were you interested in this decline of the traditional male in family and society, what other people are calling the “end of men”?
As for the “End of Men,” I enjoyed the Atlantic piece, but I just can’t buy the idea that as women rise, men fall. It would take more space than we have here to enumerate why it’s impossible for me to believe that girls face fewer obstacles today than boys, even while they’re more successful in the workforce and in college than ever before (and, by the way, why wouldn’t they be?).
I have a young son, and I’m pregnant with a boy, and I’ll be honest: the notion of raising a girl scares the hell out of me, and I’m relieved not to be doing it. The hostility toward individuality, the pressure to conform, the repellent moral messages and role models—as far as I can tell, this is all worse now for girls than it’s been in my lifetime, even as opportunities are greater. I know there will be messages I’ll need to counterbalance, raising boys, but I don’t believe these will be as overpowering, widely held, or insidious.
Near the close of the “End of Men” piece, there’s mention of the slovenly, neurotic, downtrodden, unambitious bachelor archetype we see so often. This guy appears to have nothing going for him except that he’s the main character in a popular film or book and knows a few big words and has a cute head of hair.
I’ve wondered many, many times why this guy is so often chosen to bear the weight of an entire narrative on his unworthy shoulders. But the thing is, that guy always gets the girl. And the girl is not only devastatingly beautiful, she’s also funny, educated, successful, loves sports and beer, and is great in bed. Now who here is the winner?
And I hate to be contrary, but I disagree that Stiltsville’s male characters are weaker. The main marriage of the novel is a traditional one of my mother’s generation; the men are the ones who occasionally lose their jobs because they’re the ones who provide for their families. Dennis, the narrator’s husband, lacks the professional ambition of his peers, but he’s vital to his family. Even Stuart, the son-in-law and least likable male character, shows passion and courage when he’s needed. And as for the bit of philandering in the novel, it’s done by both sexes, and one of the characters who makes the most disloyal choices is the narrator’s sister-in-law and close friend, Bette.
Maybe this is a little off-topic, but more interesting than the see-sawing of the sexes, to me, is how the modern family—any kind of family—evolves as women gain footing and men lose some. There is now no standard way to raise children or care for them, no standard practice for dividing or combining assets, no standard way of spending free time. As far as I’m concerned, this is progress. Domestic life is more freeing, more supportive of the individual, than ever.
In my peer group, there are as many family situations as there are families. And it seems to me that to order your domestic world in an unprecedented way, the relationships in that world have to be stronger than ever. Not just marital relationships, but also parental and in-law and sibling and friend relationships. How we communicate with the people close to us even as we lose common ground—that’s what interests me about modern life.
What you describe in your essay, “What Took You So Long? The quiet hell of 10 years of novel writing,” must be something a lot of people can relate to. Was there ever a point where you thought you just might give up writing altogether? And have you heard from people that say you inspired them to get off the wagon and dust off the novel they’ve had tucked in a bottom drawer somewhere?
I never thought I’d give it up, but there did come a point when I could see how that might be a logical decision and a great relief. That was a scary moment. Because the experience of writing/not writing a book for many years was such a lonely and aggrieved one, it was astonishing how many people felt like I’d written their story. (Interestingly, I received the most mail from Ph.D. candidates at work many years on their dissertations, not fiction writers.)
A lot of people who wrote seemed a little hesitant to align themselves fully, since they hadn’t yet neared the double-digit mark. If I inspired them to avoid hitting it ever, I’m pleased, though in my experience, there’s really no magic bullet to help someone get the work done. It’s a matter of discipline and character, yes, but there’s more to it. Some of us need a level of faith in ourselves that doesn’t come naturally. We need to be able to posture, basically, for as long as it takes.
With these years of experience behind me, I can now posture for a couple of productive weeks at a time before my faith falters, and the page goes blank for a while. I hope my average will continue to improve.
But I’m pages away from finishing my second novel, and Stiltsville has done better than I could have ever expected—witness this interview!—and still I find myself shoring up for a day of work, muddling through a tightly held belief that I just plain can’t do it.
You weave these very unexpected (and real-life) events and tragedies into your novel—hurricanes, race riots, even the campus serial killer. Is that something you intended to do from the start: build the narrative around these touchstone events?
I included real events for two reasons: because the story would have been incomplete if I hadn’t, and because the setting of the book is the setting of my childhood, and I had first-hand experience to share.
Stiltsville covers three decades, and this period in Miami was a remarkable one for the city. Raising a family in Miami during this growth and change meant taking on some issues that weren’t relevant in most American cities. Many people of my parents’ demographic just up and left. Staying became something close to a political statement.
I remember watching from our stilt house as smoke rose over Miami during the McDuffie riots. I remember my father circling our house on land, locking the doors. I remember boating out to to see Christo’s strange pink islands. And I remember what it felt like to watch through the screen glass doors as Hurricane Andrew hit my neighborhood.
The Gainesville murders went on for almost a week and were horribly grisly. I was younger, but I knew a dozen people enrolled at UF at that time. While the murders were happening, I kept thinking: My God, what are the parents of these kids going through? The novel gave me a chance to explore that question, as Dennis and Frances wait by the phone for days on end, thinking their daughter, Margo, might be the next victim.
There’s a lot of attention paid to the debut novel, and there’s often a focus on the autobiographical factor: How much of a debut novel is true? Of course, it depends. My narrator is menopausal and a wife and mother, and I was none of these things when I wrote most of the story, so I’ve been cushioned from the accusation of autobiography.
But I think that most often, the part of a story that’s true, in debut fiction and in fiction in general, is the setting. This is certainly the case with Stiltsville. Stiltsville’s characters are not based on members of my family (my late mother would have not cared for Frances, the narrator, in fact), but the setting of their lives is the setting of my childhood.
There was recently another essay in Slate about what students should expect or seek in the MFA programs they attend. As a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, what advice would you give to those considering an MFA—be it top-ranked or not? What advice would you or do you give to your own students as they finish their degrees?
I no longer teach, but I get the idea that as MFAs become more popular, they’re becoming a little more like businesses or training programs, where entrants have specific expectations and bring a critical eye, like an employee evaluating a boss in a performance review. That’s overstating things, I’m sure, but in entering my program, I was wide-eyed, unpublished, and astonished at my luck.
MFA programs are—I cannot overstate this—primarily a way to write. Not to foster connections, not to publish, not even to learn (though I did learn, thank heavens). My advice is to MFAs is to try to remember this. Some people travel Europe to write, some people write on breaks between a shift as a barista and a shift as a waiter, and some people enroll in a program that funds them, at least nominally, and foists them into a community of writers, and reminds them they not only can do it but should.
I’m grateful for the MFA. It suited me, and it was good to me. I would venture a guess that pretty much any MFA in the country—there really aren’t that many—has something to offer. My advice to people who decide on the MFA is to ignore the inherent competition of such programs. It’s a waste of energy, and many—even most—of the people they believe they’re competing with won’t be writing ten years after graduating, anyway, for myriad reasons. (This is good practice for after publishing, when it’s useless to spend energy feeling competitive with other writers.)
The MFA doesn’t prepare you to write in the post-MFA world, so that’s up to you, and I think it’s smart to think about post-graduation logistics along the way—again, I mean writing, not publishing, which in my opinion has no place in the MFA curriculum. I can’t say: Live in New York! or Don’t live in New York! or Get a Teaching Job! or Avoid Teaching! (I received all of this advice and more; it’s impossible to say what’s best for a person.) But I will recommend keeping in touch with your colleagues after graduation; trusted readers will be imminently valuable, and outside of a program, they can be hard to find.
Were there any debut works of fiction you’ve come across in your own reading this year that you were impressed by, or that you were surprised didn’t receive more recognition?
Too many to name. But my favorite debut this year was from Danielle Evans, my co-recipient of this award. I’m so honored to share it with her.