We’re happy to return with the fourth installment of The Mentor Series, featuring Vanessa Hua and Susan Straight.
Vanessa Hua is the author of the best-selling debut novel A River of Stars, just released in paperback, and the forthcoming reissue of the debut story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities. A columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Hua interviewed her mentor Susan Straight.
Straight is the author of eight novels, including Highwire Moon, Between Heaven and Here, and A Million Nightingales. Her new memoir, In the Country of Women, was released earlier this month from Catapult. She has been a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the National Magazine Award. She is the recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement from the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Edgar Award for Best Short Story, the O. Henry Prize, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her stories and essays have been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, Granta, McSweeney’s, Black Clock, Harper’s, and other journals. She is currently Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.
I hope you enjoy their conversation about the writer’s life.
– Monet Patrice Thomas, Interviews Editor
[Don’t miss our special Rumpus signed book giveaway of Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars, available through August 31! Details here. – Ed.]
Vanessa Hua: The first time we met in 2007, I had just entered the MFA program at UC Riverside, which you co-founded. I loved your work, its sense of place, its tenderness and insight. I was thrilled to be studying with you. Beyond those vital lessons of craft, character, and setting, I also learned much about literary community and the never-ending juggle of family and the writing life.
You created a class called “The Writer’s Life,” which remains vivid in memory: Screenwriters, playwrights, poets, novelists, small press publishers were guest speakers, and we also discussed about how to query letters to literary magazines and agents—an invaluable education. We learned the importance of the “charming note”—a practice you credited to critic and author Carolyn See—sending correspondence to those we admired.
You taught us that we were in this together; that is, that we all start at the beginning, and we can help one another develop and come up. You said something along the lines of, “You have to hook each other up.” We had to care for each other—to show up to each other’s readings, buy each other’s books, to commiserate and celebrate. Could you speak further about fostering and cultivating literary community, and how we can take part, no matter what stage in our careers?
Susan Straight: I was born here in Riverside, California, as I often told you all in class, and the only famous person to ever come speak to my high school was Muhammad Ali, for whom we waited on the track bleachers for two hours in the hot sun. When he arrived, he told us, in his inimitable resonant voice, many times, “Don’t do drugs! Don’t do drugs!” We were kind of famous for drugs.
I had been reading for years at the public library, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, James Michener and Agatha Christie. But when I got to college and read Joan Didion, I realized how little I knew about the world of writing. I was going to be a sportswriter, so my mother, who was born in Switzerland and immigrated to Canada at fifteen, and to America at twenty, could meet Vin Scully, whose broadcasts taught her to speak good English. (This is an immigrant story told all over southern California!)
In the MFA program at UMass Amherst, I could write stories but had no idea what to do with them. I was twenty-two, married to my high school sweetheart, who worked nights at a correctional facility an hour away. All night, I typed on a little Smith Corona. The two professors who encouraged me, James Baldwin and Jay Neugeboren, talked about submitting to literary magazines, about editors and etiquette. I sent my stories out as they counseled.
When I eventually founded the MFA at the University of California, Riverside, with other faculty members, I created the foundational course “The Writer’s Life.” I loved having agents, editors, poets, playwrights, and film producers come visit our class. You have a good memory, and are such a great colleague—along with my former students Michael Jayme, Alex Espinoza, Sara Borjas, Victoria Patterson, and Kate Anger—to keep encouraging new writers.
Hua: Years before I had children of my own, I learned from your example, how you balanced your writing and teaching with the demands of motherhood. I remember sitting in your minivan, getting advice before you headed off to your daughters’ after school activities. (The minivan is a minor character in your memoir!) You told us how you worked while sitting at a basketball game, or waiting at pickup, and it made me understand that writing in those in-between moments does add up—no matter how much a writer may want oceans of time free of other responsibilities.
In recent years, various authors have asserted in public that one can only have X number of children, and no more, or that each child represents one less book you’ll write. Perhaps that’s the case for them! What advice could you offer to writers thinking of having children, or with children already?
Straight: It’s astonishing that this is still an issue, right? But it is. I got married at twenty-two, got pregnant with my first daughter when I was twenty-seven, and had three girls in seven years. I was told over and over that meant I’d never be a writer, by women and men in publishing and academia. I published four novels during that time. I did write in my car, even while my husband was working on the brakes. I wrote on sidewalks, parking the stroller in the shade when my babies slept. I wrote at Del Taco. That part wasn’t hard.
What was hard was the reaction of other writers, especially writers who hadn’t come up working-class, as I did. They’d imply that because I wrote about working-class black, Latino, and white characters, whose lives were filled with violence and work and family, these novels were somehow “easier” to write than something “more intellectual, less plot-driven.” Those are actual quotes from writers I’d meet at events. And as a single mother, I couldn’t believe that when writers did start having kids, and mine were already grown, male writers were celebrated for being able to work through fatherhood. Hilarious.
Hua: You used to tell us that no one in your family cared much about your life as a writer. Similarly, when my boys get the local paper, they flip past my column to get to the comics or else turn to the Sports Page. First and foremost, I’m their mother to them.
In your beautiful memoir, In the Country of Women, you write about generations of women in your family, and address the book collectively and individually at times to your daughters Gaila, Delphine, and Rosette. You capture the aching beauty of motherhood, the wonder and the fears, and the fleeting nature of your time together that remains intense in your memories. Now that they are grown, moved away and starting their careers, has that changed their view of your work? That’s been the case with me, with my own mother, especially after I had children of my own—I began to see what life must have been like for her.
Straight: My daughters told me that reading the memoir was sometimes shocking for them, because they had no idea life had been that hard for me, not only in my childhood, but when they were very small. I loved writing about the intense heat in my old house, with no air-conditioning, and taking them to sleep outside, hearing the possums and nightbirds in the dark. But I also loved that time, even though it was a crucible of womanhood and work, because I always found the lyrical, as my brain was trained to love language. Those of us who formed our lives around books, to me, have imagination to save us.
Hua: In your memoir, you also write about your mentor, James Baldwin, and the friendship and love he offered you and your husband while you studied with him in grad school at the University of Massachusetts. “It is always the secondary characters who save us,” he told you, advice that takes on great meaning in your fiction and in your life, in your “massive black and mixed-raced family” and “quirky, deeply embedded white family.” On a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, you also mentioned Carolyn See, and the mentorship she provided over the years. So too Joyce Carol Oates. It seems to me that you’ve considered your influences very deeply. How does that sort of reflection shape your practice as a writer and teacher—and as a person too?
Straight: I find myself thinking about scenes in books, all the time, in the strangest ways, and maybe that’s a testament to the writers whose work shaped me, and then several of those writers were wonderful mentors. I vacuum and see John, in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, sweeping the rug in the Harlem apartment with dreamy futility. He taught me so much about character, and how to say something truly profound in one sentence, and his elocution echoes in my head even today.
I trim the Cecile Brunner roses in my yard, tiny pink pepper-scented old blooms, and see Carolyn See laughing while her mother hits her near those flowers, in her California. She was a great influence on me, and her laugh is how I comfort myself when I worry. She’d say, “Oh, who gives a damn what they think?” and laugh like an aria. Joyce Carol Oates wrote about girls who had to survive terrible homes, and when I met her, she was so kind, that I understood our ability to form story meant we could be generous, even if not forgetting the past. I hope that’s what I give to writers, and readers.
Hua: When I was working on my MFA thesis, I remember you told us to cherish this time, when no one was looking over our shoulders—no one was expecting something from us. Back then, I desperately wished to be on the other side of it—to be wanted, so to speak, to be a published author. Now that I have two books out, and am working on my third, I am incredibly grateful and yet at times I long for when I didn’t know so much about publishing and I could be alone with my characters. With your long career, I was wondering what advice you might have about how to ignore—or put aside all those expectations, internal and external—and write?
Straight: This is something we never expect—that when we get what we wanted, in terms of publishing and being out in the world, our days and hours are distracted by thoughts of writing as business, as work, as expectation. Right now, I am driving from Canada to California, home from a trip, and though people think I’m crazy for driving thirty-five hundred miles with only my dog for company, it is the best way for me to free my mind into the realm of my new novel. I mean, it’s insane to drive nine hours or more each day, but I stop every few hours to walk, and I have my dog, and a small notebook, and in Walcott, Iowa, yesterday, I walked along cornfields and saw swaths of starlings bursting from cottonwood trees and swirling in the sky like flung pepper. I can write when I’ve been out in the natural world, even at a truck stop! I can think while on the highway. When I’m home, working and teaching and taking care of countless people, it’s hard, so I make sure and walk by the Santa Ana River with the dog each evening. There, homeless people greet me as they are with their dogs, and they tell me stories, while coyotes start laughing in the tumbleweeds. Really, what I’m saying is that our characters must be the rulers of our imaginations, for story to work, and only when we think through them can we relax enough to write.
Photograph taken at L.A. Times Festival of Books by Elijah Mendoza and provided courtesy of Antoine Wilson.
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