Friday 26 August 2016

A Conversation with Susan Beale

Susan Beale was raised on Cape Cod, lived in Belgium and France, and now lives in the Wells, Somerset. Susan has worked as a journalist and editor in the US and Europe. She is a former competitive figure skater. She is a recent graduate of the Bath Spa MA in Creative Writing.

The Good Guy is her first novel.

'Extremely well-written, intelligent and perceptive, this also happens to be a novel that slips down like ice-cream on a hot day. I absolutely loved it' — Shiny New Books

Ted, a car-tyre salesman in 1960s suburban New England, is a dreamer who craves admiration. His wife Abigail longs for a life of the mind. Single-girl Penny just wants to be loved. After a chance encounter, Ted becomes enamoured with Penny and begins inventing a whole new life with her at its centre. But when this fantasy collides with reality, the fallout threatens everything, and everyone, he holds dear. The Good Guy is a deeply compelling debut about love, marriage, the pressure to conform, and what happens when good intentions and self-deception are taken to extremes.

The Good Guy is inspired by Susan’s life. Susan was adopted as a baby and only reconnected with her birth mother several years ago. The inspiration for the book came from her adoption files. The papers include interviews with her mother, grandmother and one with her birth father. As well as helping Susan understand why she was adopted, the papers paint a portrait of America on the cusp of the sexual revolution. It’s a time of unprecedented prosperity and conformity. Young people enjoy new freedoms, but gender roles remain clearly defined and expectations of morality and purity are strictly, and sometimes cruelly, enforced. It’s a world about to be shaken to its core.

This is an extremely evocate, powerful and well-written novel that has truly captured the essence of 1960s suburban, New England. It's been an absolute joy to feature Susan's debut novel and we'd like to thank her for taking part in A Conversation...

Tell us of your journey as a writer

I always wanted to write fiction but I didn’t think I was smart enough, or talented enough. I became a journalist after university because it was a trade not an art. I wrote fiction on the side. Terrible fiction, that further convinced me I lacked the necessary goods. Journalism was a good fit for me and I probably would have continued with it forever, but when my kids were young, the combined demands of work and family pushed me to the breaking point. My son’s sock got misplaced at day care, one day, and my life unravelled. I simply didn’t have the spare five minutes it took for them to find it. I took a work break that ended up lasting fifteen years. When it was time to think about returning to work, the industry was severely disrupted by market forces and any contacts I’d had were long gone. There was no reason not to go for the moonshot of writing fiction. I’d kept at it over the years, and noticed glimmers of improvement. I took some courses and got better still. Four years ago, my family and I moved from Brussels to Somerset and I got the chance to do the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa. That’s where I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Good Guy.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I see the role of any writer as being a truth teller, not necessarily about facts and events, but about human nature and what it feels like to be alive. What fiction offers, that nothing else can, is a chance to step into another person’s skin, to see their thoughts, unfiltered. We get to understand their emotional baggage, their prejudices, beliefs, and misconceptions. As writers, we get to dream up whole people and decide their fates. It’s like playing God. What’s not to like?

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

All the time. I think having empathy is a key requirement for a writer. Society has a tendency to assume that people who do terrible things are unfeeling monsters, but very few actually meet that definition. Even Hitler loved children, and doted on his dog. Besides, a purely evil person makes for a one-dimensional character, the answer to every probing question being: ‘because he/she is evil.’ Human beings are an incredibly complex species, full of passions, desires, and contradictions that must be balanced against the wants and needs of those we love. We try to choose our own paths, but circumstances bump us in directions we don’t necessarily want to go in. Life demands that we make choices, some of which we’re bound to regret, so we have to find a way to manage that, too. The individual struggle is what makes a story.

Last year, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

For me, that’s every character because every person on the planet faces his/her own unique challenges and struggles, with his/her own sets of gifts and curses. We’re all striving to fulfil a goal, deliver on a promise.

I do see part of my mission as a writer as giving voice to groups that have been historically marginalised by society. In The Good Guy, that’s unwed mothers in 1960s America. These young women were forced into hiding, shamed into silence, and then airbrushed from the picture. When they were mentioned at all, they were generally characterised as uncaring, unfit and deviant.

As is probably true of all stories about America, The Good Guy has race issues woven into its fabric. It opens in 1964, when congress was passing of the Civil Rights Acts. It’s set in New England, which thinks of itself as superior to the south on issues regarding race. Relatively speaking, I guess, it was, but only because the south set the bar so damn low. One of the main characters, Abigail, causes a stir at a cocktail party when she says blacks ought to be able to live in their tract housing community. For her, it’s basic principle. She loves American history and takes the Declaration of Independence literally: ALL men are created equal. In her mind, only an ignoramus could think differently. At the end of the book, racial tensions are on the rise as Boston begins court-ordered busing to end de-facto segregation of schools and whites are fleeing to the suburbs.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why? 

My idea of paradise is a small place, close enough to the shore to see, hear, and walk to the ocean, but far enough away so that I don’t have to worry about getting washed out to sea in a hurricane. If I’m actually going to get some writing done, the place ought not to have wifi or internet access. I can scan news websites until my eyeballs melt. Every time one of my favourite newspapers or magazines puts up a paywall, I feel a little bit relieved – one less distraction – and yet I always manage to find more sites.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Anne Tyler’s Digging to America. Its themes of adoption and culture shock resonate with me, since I’m both an adoptee and an American who’s lived much of my adult life in Europe (the UK, France and Belgium). The multiple points of view – almost every one of the main characters gets a turn as narrator – are a testament to her skills as a writer. Each voice is authentic and unique and each character looks different depending on whether they’re being viewed from the outside or the inside. Events look different depending on who’s speaking about them and, remarkably, every version seems equally valid. The book’s structure helps drive home the over-arching theme of foreignness – of being on the outside looking in. Tyler understands what it is to be human, and can describe it with awe-inspiring understatement. In one scene, a recently widowed man tries to organise a spare room, only to end up making more of a mess. He sits on the floor saying, ‘What’s the point? What’s the point? What’s the point?’: it’s a perfect distillation of grief.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

To read and write relentlessly and to embrace failure. Fail big, fail often, fail audaciously until, one day, you fail at failing.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m exploring the themes of loss and a sudden change of circumstance.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Lizzy Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. I love her wit, her pert comments, as Caroline Bingley would say, her joy at the absurdity of human nature; most of all, I love that she isn’t perfect and that by the end of the novel she is a big enough person to recognise and acknowledge her own faults.

The Good Guy is published by John Murray.

Thank you to John Murray for the review copy.

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