Thursday, August 9, 2012

Author Interview - Susan Gabriel

Hey all, as part of my self-proclaimed "Indie Week" I would like you to meet Susan Gabriel, author of Seeking Sara Summers and The Secret Sense of Wildflower.  When presented with the opportunity to review The Secret Sense of Wildflower, I jumped. I am a huge reader of all things Southern, maybe because as a Northerner, it is an area I find fascinating.  One of my best friends is a transplant from New Orleans, and it is something we talk about, North vs. South. (without all the fighting)  I had the opportunity to get to know Susan Gabriel a little better through my author interview, and I know that you will enjoy reading what she has to say about writing, and her books as much as I did.  My review of The Secret Sense of Wildflower will be coming out soon.

What can you tell us about your upcoming release, The Secret Sense of Wildflower?

The Secret Sense of Wildflower is southern gothic fiction, set in the Appalachian mountains in 1941. It’s the story of Louisa May “Wildflower” McAllister whose life has been shaped around the recent death of her beloved father in a sawmill accident. While her mother hardens in her grief, Wildflower and her three sisters must cope with their loss themselves, as well as with the demands of daily survival. Despite these hardships, Wildflower has a resilience that is forged with humor, a love of the land, and an endless supply of questions to God, who she’s not so sure she believes in anymore. When Johnny Monroe, the town’s teenage ne’er-do-well, sets his sights on Wildflower, she must draw on the strength of her relations, both living and dead, to deal with his threat.

How did you choose the genre you are writing in?

As a southerner, I swore I would never ever write southern fiction. I had enough crazy characters in my gene pool that I didn’t want to spend any time there. But never say never, as they say. In some ways it feels like southern fiction chose me, instead of me choosing it. But it turns out I’m pretty good at it. To me, the thing that makes southern fiction “southern,” is not only that the characters are down to earth and sometimes bigger than life, but also that the land plays a big part in the stories. The landscape is often its own character and plays a central role.

I also write contemporary fiction (that isn’t southern), children’s books and poetry.

Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?

I had a huge debate over this with a screenwriter once. She swore that none of her work was autobiographical, but my argument was that your work can’t help but be autobiographical, simply in terms of what you notice as a writer. I notice sounds and smells and see things in a way that is totally unique to me. My imagination is the instrument I use to tell a story, so it can’t help but be a reflection of me in some way. Length of paragraphs, turn of phrase, word choice, my choice of metaphors are all, in a way, my tiny fingerprint. That said, Wildflower’s story is not my personal story.

Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck blew me away the first time I read it. I wanted to be able to write like that some day. And, of course, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird. I wish so much that Harper Lee had kept writing. My fantasy is that she did continue but it was under a pen name and someday we'll discover the connection.

Do you work with an outline, or just write?

I am a very intuitive writer. The Secret Sense of Wildflower, started with a voice, eleven years ago, at four in the morning, a voice that woke me up from a deep sleep. It was the voice of a girl who began to tell me her story: “There are two things I’m afraid of,” she said. “One is dying young. The other is Johnny Monroe.” A day or two before, I had visited the small cemetery located in the southern Appalachian Mountains where many of my family were buried. I spent an afternoon walking among the final resting places of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as ancestors I had never known. Had I accidentally brought one of them home with me, who needed her story told?

Rest assured, mental illness does not run in my family. But for a fiction writer, to get the voice of a character so clearly is really good news. I, however, wanted to go back to sleep. Who wouldn’t, at 4 o’clock in the morning? For a time, I debated whether or not to get up. I ultimately decided that if I didn’t claim this moment, the voice might find someone else to write her story.

Needless to say, I turned on the light, picked up a pen and a pad of paper and began to write the story of Louisa May “Wildflower” McAllister. It took months of listening to her and seeing the scenes of her life play out in my imagination. Then it took years of revising and revisiting the story to polish it and get it ready.

I have seen photos of famous authors offices where they write, and stood in Hemingway's' office. What is the environment like where you write?

I live in the mountains of North Carolina, so everywhere I look are oak trees, wild dogwoods, birds and an occasional deer. In the winter I can see seven mountain ridges from my office. In the summer, it’s just a blur of green. My office has two giant windows and just off my office is a screened in porch, so lots of times I have sliding glass doors open to the outside. I am very lucky that I live in a beautiful place. It’s a humble place, but the setting is amazing and inspiring, which really helps since I spend a lot of time at home writing.

Laptop or desktop or Ipad?

Laptop for writing something new. Desktop for putting in changes. Various chairs around the house depending on the season, both inside and outside. I follow the sun in winter and seek out shade in summer. Also, I have a couple of favorite coffee shops that I escape to whenever I want to get out of the house.

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author?

I don’t know any writer who doesn’t have critics. I had a woman email me recently who told me that I had totally failed with the Johnny Monroe character. She said I hadn’t said enough about how he got the way he was, which was basically a predator. However, the book is from Wildflower’s point of view, so she only sees him in a one-sided way: as a threat. I actually did write several things that hinted at his background and how he came to be the way he was (I won’t go into detail here so I won’t reveal the story too much to your readers). A careful reader will find those.

What has been the best compliment?

Readers give me a lot of compliments. I’m pretty accessible through my website and blog so people email me and tell me how moved they were by the book and how Wildflower’s courage gave them hope in their own lives. That means a lot. If they take the time to email me, it is usually because they really liked the book and they’ll tell me why. I’ve had people say about both novels that they couldn’t put them down. That’s always a really good sign. It means the story kept them engaged. That’s a huge compliment to a writer.

On a professional level, to get a starred review on Kirkus reviews was a big deal for me. I’ve been writing in utter obscurity for so many years and been rejected a zillion times, so to have such a respected reviewer say that The Secret Sense of Wildflower was “a book of remarkable merit” and “A quietly powerful story, at times harrowing, but ultimately a joy to read” was an unexpected gift. This kind of praise will keep me going for years. But truly, reader’s comments mean even more than I can say.

What project are you working on now?

I am revising a novel that I wrote a few years ago that I just love. It will be a joy to revisit the characters. I’ve missed them. It’s set here in the mountains of North Carolina on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. It has a wise woman in it and her grandson who finds a priceless star ruby in the roots of a tree and must decide what to do with this treasure.

What do you do when you are not writing?

I hang out in coffee shops with my mate and talk philosophy and current events. I take my dogs for walks, have lunch with friends, all the usual stuff. I also spend a lot of time reading…no surprise…and watch a lot of films. I enjoy listening to professional storytellers when I have an opportunity, as well. I love stories in all forms.

Finally, for fun, chocolate or vanilla?

Definitely chocolate, preferably with almonds. Yum.

Tea or Coffee?
 Organic assam tea, loose leaf. A part of my every day writing ritual: make myself a pot of tea.

Paris or London?

How about London during the day and Paris at night, with a stopover in Italy, where my first novel was set? If I had to choose one, though, I’d probably say Paris. I've never been there and I would love to experience it.

Erin, thanks so much for the opportunity to answer these questions and talk about the book. Writers are nothing without readers. Y'all are the best!

You are welcome Susan! I enjoyed your book and getting to know you better through the interview. Thanks for answering! I am glad you were unable to keep your vow about southern fiction, because I sure enjoyed reading your southern gothic!

Ways to connect to Susan Gabriel:

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I love hearing from people, don't be shy! I would love to hear what you think! I always reply back, although it takes me a bit longer these days due to the little guy.