The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #84: Susan DeFreitas

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Picture this: a curbside juggler with a rose between his teeth. That’s the opening image of Susan DeFreitas’s powerful debut novel, Hot Season. Vivid (and sometimes strange) images strike again and again, conjuring ponderosa pines, cafés, old houses, and new characters.

The book is firmly set in the fictional town of Crest Top, Arizona, and follows a group of activists—some budding, some radical—trying to save the beloved Greene River from being drained in the name of a new housing development. The book is about many things, and it follows a handful of characters from varied backgrounds, but it is expertly bound by this common thread: A place can be hallucinatory—and sometimes perverting—and unexpectedly powerful, flipping or challenging or rejuvenating or reorienting your ideals.

Susan DeFreitas is an editor, author, and educator. Her work has appeared in The Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, and Story Magazine, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016), the chapbook Pyrophitic (ELJ Publications, 2014), and holds an MFA from Pacific University. Her short stories are available through Patreon.

I chatted with Susan via email over the course of a few months.

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The Rumpus: Hot Season seems to be so many things—bildungsroman, political satire, eco-thriller, love story. Just when you think you get a handle on the book, it swerves. The prose, too, can go from crisp and minimal to lush to jazzy and back in a matter of a single page. Can you talk a little about the confluence of style and subject matter? Was there an image or character that brought it all together for you?

Susan DeFreitas: I think the range is due to the fact that the foundational chapters of Hot Season started off as short stories. “The Circus on Second Street” was a character study; “The Underground Waterfall” was all about voice; “Pyrophitic” was about a house I shared in Prescott, Arizona, with a series of younger roommates; and the title chapter was an exploration of aesthetic.

I think the process of finding your voice is both a function of who you love and who you actually are. In undergrad, I fell in love with top-shelf authors like Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Louise Erdrich, and Ralph Ellison. But when I sat down to write that kind of stuff in grad school, I wound up sounding more like the guys I read as a teenager, people like Richard Brautigan and Tom Robbins—not names you generally find in an MFA syllabus. In the process of writing Hot Season, I began to understand that whatever my taste might be, whoever I might wish I were, this is who I actually am.

I also began to understand that setting and aesthetic are as important to me as plot and character. And when I say setting, I don’t just mean the town or the landscape where a story is set—I mean the actual buildings. I have a lot of love for some very specific spaces, including the activist center depicted in Hot Season as The Black Cat.

Rumpus: Rell, the protagonist, seems to self-discover vis-à-vis these places. She almost acts as a mother figure to her housemates—she has extraordinary insight into their lives but lives in a kind of emotional and romantic limbo, un-self-aware to a certain extent. The land, the heat, and the basalt ridges seem to speak to her more profoundly than people do. Does land speak to you in the same way?

DeFreitas: Rell fell in love with her ex-boyfriend during a backpacking trip along the Greene River; she fell in love with the Bradshaw Mountains during the years she shared a cabin with him in the foothills outside of town. The Black Cat is where she, like many others in Crest Top, joined the fight to save the river, and the low-rent wonder in the barrio where she’s forced to move after the breakup is where she “grows up,” in part by becoming a kind of older sister to her roommates.

All of these places are tied to people for Rell, to strong emotional experiences. I feel the same way about the landscapes and spaces I love: these places hold the charge they do because of the history I have with them.

Rumpus: Do you think your moving around has contributed to that stylistic range we were talking about? I know you grew up in Michigan and then spent some time in Arizona, and now you’re in Portland, Oregon. I love how Vonnegut says he trusts his writing most when it sounds like someone from Indiana, which is where he’s from. Do you trust the sound of one place over the other?

DeFreitas: I grew up in West Michigan, in a sort of back-to-the-land community. In many ways, we had the steadfastness, the farm culture, and the connection to the natural world of the small-town Midwest, but also a sense of freedom and nonconformity that isn’t the norm there. Growing up, I consumed the libraries of the parents in my co-op, and to this day, if I walk into someone’s house and find In Watermelon Sugar or Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—or The Dispossessed, or Soul on Ice—I’m predisposed to think they’re cool. Opening up a book like that is like walking in on a conversation; nobody’s trying to explain the starting point. I think that, in many ways, is what I trust most in my own writing and that of others—a voice that’s going to talk to me as if we were part of the same tribe, as if we already share some of the same history and concerns.

As for the Southwest, it’s a land of extremes, home to the both far right and the far left. To say I’ve known some colorful characters is an understatement; it’s an environment that breeds tall tales, often with a surrealist slant.

It’s also home to landscapes so visually stunning that I had to seek out authors who had hammered out the language to describe them, people like Ed Abbey, Mary Sojourner, and Barbara Kingsolver. I looked for literary voices that could speak plainly about wonder and wilderness and the long struggle for justice, environmental and social, that is the story of the West. That too is the kind of voice I trust—one genuine enough to take the natural world seriously, as a source of mystery, and to grapple with the holocaust being perpetrated against it.

Those places taught me to speak, but Portland taught me to hear. On the one hand, we have liberals so overwhelmed by emotion, whatever it may be—outrage, anger, sadness—that the emotion keeps anyone else from feeling anything at all. On the other, we have hipsters so insulated that no emotion will stick—everything they love or hate, they love or hate ironically. Right in between are some brilliant authors who can make you laugh while you’re crying, comprehend the horror of reality even as they render it beautiful—authors like Monica Drake, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Rene Denfeld. Their voices, to me, are like the high C on the piano; if I have them in my head, I can pick out the song I want to sing.

Rumpus: The three roommates in Hot Season—Rell, Jenna, and Katie—have vastly different sets of privileges. Katie comes from an affluent family and has the most cushion to fall back on, which allows her to take the biggest risks. Rell is somewhat estranged from her middle-class family, so she has to sweat and work hard, and she spends a great deal of the book yearning for a job that will match her ideals and pay her rent. How much was class on your mind when you wrote Hot Season?

DeFreitas: In my own life, I’ve seen the way class plays into the risks we take—even in something like leaving a bad relationship, there’s a lot more at stake for someone who doesn’t have their family behind them, who doesn’t have any financial cushion should they fall. Class influences the way we see the world, the way we treat people, the way we present; as a writer of fiction, I consider it a chief concern, if not the chief concern, of character.

But that makes it sound as if it’s normal for us as Americans to consider class, which of course it isn’t. Growing up, I was no exception; I don’t think I really “got” class until I went to Prescott College (the school that Deep Canyon College is based on). The tuition was expensive, and I knew I was asking a lot of my parents, so, like Rell, I always worked, sometimes more than one job. Which made me feel like I was pulling my own weight, especially as compared to the sort of students who did not work, the ones who had all the nice new outdoor gear and the new 4Runner in the parking lot.

But in the course of various food-service gigs, I also met people who had grown up in the community—people who, though they were smart, couldn’t even entertain the notion of attending the sort of school where students did field research on the Baja Peninsula. And when it came down to it, every freshman I knew who was trying to put themselves through PC without the financial support of their parents dropped out. So you could say PC was where I became aware of class in America—the way it can determine both your options and your ideas about your options.

Rumpus: All the characters here are trying to save the Greene River, but for different reasons. Did you want this to read as a sort of “13 Ways of Looking at Activism”?

DeFreitas: Hot Season is the first book in a trilogy about the fight to save this river, and as such, I want to examine the struggle through a variety of POVs. I consider the kaleidoscopic approach germane to the subject; the story of a place can never be just one person’s story.

The militants out in front of a cause might be the most sensitive, the most broken, the most “allergic to society”—the characters like Dyson, the outlaw activist at the heart of the book, and his girlfriend Michelle (and, in the end, perhaps Katie, the senator’s daughter, as well). Closer to the mainstream are people like Rell, who could parlay their good grades into a comfortable living but choose, instead, to embrace leaner lives in the nonprofit sector. And finally, you have people like Jenna—she’s smart enough to do whatever she wants, but she’ll likely wind up fulfilling her fantasies of a life at the margins, off the grid. I think of these different approaches not just to activism but to world-changing in general as necessary and complementary.

Rumpus: People seem to be putting this book onto the “eco-lit” shelf. How do you feel about that?

DeFreitas: I’m happy to sit on this shiny new shelf, which includes books from small presses I admire, like Ashland Creek and Torrey House. However, I love the fact that the books editor of the Portland Mercury placed Hot Season alongside recent books by Jonathan Franzen and Nell Zink in terms of literary fiction centered around activism (I would add Sunil Yapa‘s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist to this list). While “eco-lit” might equally embrace an absurdist romp like Float or a climate-science mystery like Cold Blood, Hot Sea, my desired depth of field has always been that of literary fiction.

Rumpus: You work as an editor. Is it ever difficult to turn off your editor’s brain and get messy?

DeFreitas: Honestly, I found my MFA more detrimental to my writing than my work as an editor, for reasons entirely my own—after I graduated, I realized that for the first time since I began writing fiction I had begun to dread it.

So I stopped drafting on a computer, opting to compose by hand. I let myself write in small snatches of time; I zeroed in on obsessions (such as the one I have with specific buildings). You could say all of these are strategies for turning off the inner critic, which I found had grown too strong in the course of graduate school.

After new work is drafted, though, those critical faculties are an asset, and as an editor, I keep them in good repair. Fiction is a deep and endless art form; I learn something new every day.

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Author photograph © Andrea Lonas.


Josh Cook is a fiction writer, editor, and teacher. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Iowa Review, the Washington Post, the Millions, the Rumpus, Sugar House Review, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, among others. He received his MFA from Pacific University and teaches at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. More from this author →