Monday, July 25, 2011

An Interview With Susan Coll

by Rebecca Shaw

Hello, my name is Rebecca Shaw. I am a Political Science Major and Creative Writing Minor at Bryn Mawr College, which is located outside of Philadelphia. This summer, I am interning for Kyle Semmel at The Writer's Center. As part of the internship, I had the opportunity to interview Washington D.C. writer  and the newly appointed Editorial and Programming Director at Politics and Prose, Susan Coll. I read her recently published novel, Beach Week, while spending a week-long family vacation at a beach in Delaware.  

Here is Susan's bio from her official Web site

Susan Coll is the author of the novels Beach WeekAcceptanceRockville Pike, and She has worked as a travel and feature writer, and has also written a few op-eds and book reviews, published in such places as The Asian Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Washington Post, and “Fire Safety Week,“ a short story set in New Delhi, was broadcast on the BBC World Service. She once wrote an essay about overscheduled kids and parents in the Washington Post. She is the Editorial and Programming Director at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC.

I found it intriguing that you used multiple points of view to tell the story. When writing Beach Week did you always plan to write the story from different points of view?

Certain of the point of view choices in this book were deliberate: I knew from the outset that I wanted the perspectives of a mother and her teenage daughter, for example, and I also knew that I wanted to offset this story of suburban excess with something darker, hence the disturbing Noah character. Charles, the father, was never meant to have a direct point of view; his voice appears at a relatively late stage in the book and I fretted about breaking convention, yet the unexpected shift seemed to inject new energy into the narrative, or at least into the author. Originally the book began from Noah’s POV, but I was told this was too dark an opening, that I shouldn’t begin a book called Beach Week from the POV of a mentally disturbed peeping Tom. Too dark is probably the most consistent comment I get on my work from editors.

Noah is the co-owner of the beach house rented by the teens in Verona. Because of a novel his ex-wife, Clara, wrote, he is perceived negatively by society. Her novel was based on a real experience in which Noah was caught spying on a neighbor. Do you believe when you or any writer produces fiction, such as this novel, you base some of the story on reality? Do you (or other writers) distort the truth because it’s a work of fiction?

With Beach Week, as with my previous novel, Acceptance, I did use real events as the springboard for the stories I wanted to tell, but because the characters are complete inventions I hope I avoided inflicting the sort of damage that Clara did to Noah. I set out to document, as well as satirize, the way we live, and parents, in contemporary affluent suburban Washington. Beach Week was actually inspired by a legal contract, and I used a fictionalized version of this in the narrative. Similarly, much of the humor in Acceptance was drawn from actual statistics. The industry of college rankings inspired that book, and I did a fair amount of research and reporting. So yes, in the case of these two books anyway, the stories are based in reality, but distorted for the purposes of fiction. But to answer your larger question, I think there’s no way around the fact that fiction is filtered reality, even if it’s pretty thoroughly refracted and then channeled through vampires or trolls.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel stemmed from how the Verona parents cared mostly about legal liability and contracts when planning beach week rather than being realistic on how the Verona teenagers would behave, despite the contracts. It highlights the disconnection between the parents and teenagers. How important was this dynamic between the parents and teenagers when writing the story?

This question goes to the very heart of what I set out to capture. My intention in writing this book was to highlight the fundamental disconnect between a group of highly educated, liberal-leaning, philosophical-minded parents who pool their collective wisdom and just want to do the right thing. But they are completely misguided, and in the end they are pretty clueless about their kids, and about the ability to control teenage behavior generally. They are also, for the most part, oblivious to the fact that they are enabling their kids to behave irresponsibly by giving them too many luxuries and too much freedom while thinking they can compensate by legislating their behavior.

Can you talk about your new role at Politics & Prose. What will you be doing there?

I’m still a little giddy about having a job where I’m being asked to think about books all day. The new owners of Politics and Prose are full of creative ideas about ways to keep the store vibrant in this changing climate of bookselling, and they have hired me to work on building additional programming and events, and to also work as part of a team to develop a new web strategy. The store is similar to the Writer’s Center in that it plays a role beyond its essential function: in many ways the bookstore doubles as a community center, and I hope to expand the ways people feel connected to the store.


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