“This is what it means to be part of a family. There are no maps and the territory is continually changing. We are explorers,
traveling in groups.” ~ From Stiltsville
Seconds after I read the first page of Susanna Daniel’s debut novel, Stiltsville, I closed the book quick. I was in the middle of the after-school hustle (homework, dinner, baths and bed), and after taking in the opening paragraphs, I thought, This is gonna be good. I didn’t want to start the story until I could do so with the least amount of interruptions.
I should back up. The cover of Stiltsville is what hooked me first, with its beautiful image of a house on stilts — a dream-like vision of something mystical and maybe unreachable. Daniel’s story inside follows suit. Stiltsville is a tale of relationships and marriage, and the house on stilts serves as the backdrop, as a reminder that much in life is magical, and sometimes fleeting. Daniel writes about this sense of place with authority and vivid detail, so that I felt not like a reader looking in, but as if I were actually present.
I loved so much in this book, from the beginning when Frances and Dennis first meet, through to the end when I became witness to endearing moments between husband and wife. There are passages in the book, like the quote at the top of this post, that gave me pause and insisted I read them again. I am honored to interview Susanna Daniel here today, where she talks about her novel and writing.
(For a chance to win a copy of her book, leave a comment at the end of this post. I’ll draw a winner on Tuesday, March 15th.)
CC: Your biography on the back flap of your novel mentions that you spent much of your childhood at your family’s own stilt house in the Biscayne Bay, and the setting in your novel plays a strong role in the story — both literally and metaphorically. How much of your experience with the real Stiltsville informed your novel?
SD: I think often with first novels, the most vividly autobiographical element of a novel is the setting — and this is true of STILTSVILLE. As a child, my family visited our stilt house monthly, for the weekend, and I had many of the same experiences there that the family of a novel does: jumping off the porch at high tide, slinging water balloons at sailboats, walking the flats in old shoes and avoiding all the dangers that lurk there, sleeping on the porch, watching storms from inside, and so on.
CC: In an essay you wrote for Slate.com, you talk about the time it took to get Stiltsville from its “conception” to its place on the shelves, “a staggering 10 years.” Now that you are working on your second novel, has your writing process changed? Are there any new techniques or rituals that you practice?
SD: The actual act of sitting down and staring at the computer screen hasn’t changed much, the gritty work of laying down the story — but with the first novel I earned the luxury of time, at least for a little while. So instead of squeezing my writing sessions into the mornings before work and late nights, I work regular hours, four days a week (my son is home with me the fifth day), and on the weekends, I usually manage to let one good session in when my husband takes our son skiing or sledding or errand running.
I don’t think writing one novel taught me much about writing another, but it did give me some confidence that I’m able to do it, at least. I am better organized this time around, and I have a stronger grip on where the story is headed at any given time. With STILTSVILLE, I had written several chapters late in the novel before I’d written the second or third. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it meant that I was doing a lot of gutting of the manuscript that, if I’d written from start to finish, I might have avoided.
CC: Writers work in isolation, but we thrive in communities, local or online. Where have you found the greatest community of writers who support and encourage your work?
SD: For a lot of writers, there’s a fine line between too many cooks in the kitchen and too few. I have one close friend from graduate school who has published extensively, who is invaluable to me as a reader. I also participate in a small writing group here in my adopted hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, which is home to many excellent published novelists — these women act not only as my readers, but as a support group as we navigate the pressures, disappointments, and jubilation of publishing.
CC: What are you reading these days?
SD: I’m reading Karl Marlantes’ excellent MATTERHORN, a classic South Floridian historical potboiler called A LAND REMEMBERED (this is research), and Leah Stewart’s wonderfully compelling HUSBAND & WIFE. I’ve been writing a lot, which means my reading is slower than usual.
CC: Do you have any advice for writers on the rise?
SD: My advice, always, is not to worry at all about publishing, and to concentrate completely on the story you want to tell and the voice in which you want to tell it. Find a workshop or graduate program or trusted reader — whatever one suits you — and get as much feedback as possible from other writers. Be ruthless with yourself.
To enter the drawing to win a copy of her debut novel, DON’T FORGET to leave a comment here. The winner will be announced on Tuesday, March 15th.