Interview with Susan Strecker, author of “Nowhere Girl”

What inspires you to write?

I get inspiration from strange places. Years ago, I was listening to the radio in my car with my kids. A Red Hot Chili Peppers song named “Scar Tissue” came on and I thought it’d be a fabulous name for a book. I vowed that day to write a book and name it SCAR TISSUE. It was kind of a silly reason to write a book. I mean, I had no plot, no characters, no beginning, no middle and no end. But I had a great title. I spent about a year writing SCAR TISSUE and loved the end result. I delivered it to my publisher (Thomas Dunne Books) and received good and bad news. Good news- they loved the manuscript. Not so good news, they thought it needed a stronger title. So while the finished product ended up being called NOWHERE GIRL, its beginnings came from that amazing Chili Peppers song.

I love the story of how my third book came to be. In 2009, my family and I moved to the quaint and quiet town of Essex, Connecticut. Downtown is so charming, we often refer to it as a hamlet. Located on Main Street are about seven antique stores (seemingly open from twelve to twelve fifteen on alternating Tuesdays) and one funky kitchen store called The Wicked Kitchen. As I mentioned, Essex is a fairly conservative town, so I was pleasantly surprised by the name of that shop. Wicked can have many meanings, especially in New England where it is often synonymous for very. It can also mean evil or of wiccan origin. I was so enamored by the name of that store that I started thinking about using it in a book. When NOWHERE GIRL went to production in the spring of 2015, I began writing my third book with the notion that the main character would have a candle store called Wicked. Of course there is a backstory to the shop, but the whole book came to be because of this little kitchen store in downtown Essex called The Wicked Kitchen.

About a month after I completed the first draft of NIGHT FALLING (the working title for book three), my kids and I were riding our bikes downtown. We came to a stop sign and I looked over, as I have countless times before, at the store that inspired the book. Something seemed off, so I glanced at the sign again. Imagine my surprise when I realized the fancy script actually read, The Weekend Kitchen. Oops! I maintain that if I had known the true name of the store before I had started the manuscript, that that book never would have been born.

Years ago I watched a TV show called Sex and the City. The main character had a boyfriend who was solely referred to as Mr. Big until the very last episode of the series. I thought it’d be fun to write a book that had a minor presence only referred to as Whatshername. That is how my fourth book got started.

My fifth book’s inspiration is a mixture of a Law & Order: SVU episode and a Death Cab for Cutie song. And my sixth book comes from the idea of a mental health professional who is educated enough to know she’s losing her connection with reality. It was, in part, inspired by a Peter Gabriel song.

How often do you write?

I have two kids who are currently almost eleven and twelve years old. They’re both very active with school activities and sports, and it’s important to me to be with them when they’re not in school and to be present at all of their games. Because of that, I write from the moment they get on the school bus in the morning to the moment they get off. We have a small wooden bench at the end of our driveway and when the weather is nice, I sit on it and write while I’m waiting for the bus. I pick Cooper and Ainsley up at school one day a week. There is rarely a place to park unless I get there about forty-five minutes before the bell rings. So I always have my computer with me. When it’s warm, I sit under a tree on the front lawn. When it’s cold or raining, I either work in my car or in the school’s library. I write during the seven minutes of halftime at lacrosse games. I write while my kids are taking their riding lessons. I write at the dentist’s office and in the morning before everyone else wakes up. The good news or bad news (depending on how you look at it) is I’m a terrible sleeper, so I can get a few hours of work in during the summer before my kids get up. As long as I deliver on time, my publisher doesn’t care when or how often I write. So far it’s worked out nicely that I work like crazy when my kids are at school or at friends’ houses. And I am home and focused on them when they’re not in school.

Do you complete a set number of words or pages each day?

I make myself write at least a thousand words a day. Generally speaking, a published book has about three-hundred words per page. So a thousand words sounds like it should be super easy- it’s only between three and four pages. Indeed, some days I can write four thousand words. But, other days I’m editing so much that it takes about three thousand words to get to my minimum of one thousand. And then there are the days when I have nothing to say and writing a thousand words feels as difficult as writing a million.

Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

I have no idea what’s going to happen in any of my books from one moment to the next. I’ve never written an outline, and I have no notion of how I want my books to end before I actually get there. I had three major rewrites of the ending to my first book, NIGHT BLINDNESS. My second book, NOWHERE GIRL, is a bit of a mystery (I call it my accidental mystery) and I must have written seven different endings to it because I couldn’t figure out who killed Savannah. I kept changing how she died and who killed her until it finally felt right. Sometimes I think it would be more efficient to plan an outline of how I want the story to go. But, there are two problems with that. First- I don’t actually know where I want it to go, which makes writing an outline impossible. And second- I believe it would crush the natural cadence of my books. I let the characters guide me. It’s their story to tell, I’m just writing it down.

Have you ever experienced writer’s block?

I’m going to take a wild guess here and say that any writer who answers no to this question is fibbing. Because I don’t work from an outline or even a list of plot points, I never know what I’m going to write about, which I guess, by definition, is a form of writer’s block. There are very few days that I sit down to write with an idea for a scene already in my head. So I guess the most honest answer I can give is that I often have writer’s block.

Any tips you would like to share to overcome writer’s block?

I make myself write during my designated writing times no matter what. Even if I have nothing to say. Even if I am totally and completely devoid of any decent ideas. I make myself write. I write until I at least meet my thousand-word minimum. Sometimes as I’m writing I know what is on the page is so dreadful that most, if not all of it, will get deleted the next day. But, at least I’m making myself do it. If I can salvage one thought, sentence or idea from a bad day of writing, then it’s all worth it. On days that I’m well and truly stuck, I will pull out one of my favorite books and open it to a random page. I will take an image or a thought from that page and make it the beginning of the scene that I will be working on that day. My best piece of advice is to write no matter what. Even if you have nothing to say. Just write. And never worry about making it perfect. That’s what editing and revising is for.

Do you read much and if so, who are your favorite authors?

I read about a book a week. The more I am writing, the less time I have for reading, but I always have a book with me to read for two reasons. First- I love reading. Second- I believe that by reading the novelists I admire most, I will become more skilled. After all, what’s a better example than something that is expertly done. My one true love in the writing world is Pat Conroy. I’ve read everything he’s written multiple times and leave each book feeling both more fulfilled and empty for having had my journey with that group of characters end. THE PRINCE OF TIDES is seven hundred pages of sheer brilliance. I also love Jodi Picoult, Nelson DeMille, Jennifer Weiner, Wally Lamb and Patricia Cornwell.

Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it?

The short answer is both. My eighth-grade English teacher, Mr. Hershnik, was fabulously talented and taught his students two rules that I practice to this day. First, he implored that after proofreading and editing, we read our work out loud. The cadence and rhythm of written words sounds very different out loud, rather than when I’m reading in my head. I always catch mistakes after I read my work out loud, even after I think I’m done editing and proofing. He also had us free write for thirty minutes, then cross out every other word and read the piece to the class. Inevitably, the essays still made sense. That exercise proved that we use too many words. Why use a thousand words when three hundred will do.

I edit and proof as I go. When I think I am finally, finally done and have the most polished piece possible, I put it away for four days, then come back to it. When I do, I read it out loud. Sometimes I will repeat that process four or five days later.

I also have an editor assigned to me by Thomas Dunne Books. So even while I am editing and proofreading my work, so is my editor at TDB. In addition to her, I also have a proofreader, a cold proofreader, a copy editor and a fact checker. However, I don’t pay them. They are provided to me by my publisher.

Have you ever let any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?

Three out of my four current books I worked on from start to finish. However, my fourth one is a different animal. It was supposed to be my third book, but it just wasn’t working for me. My agent suggested that I put it aside and start a new one (since I already had an idea for it). I took her suggestion and wrote what is now book three (NIGHT FALLING) in six months. It was by far the easiest journey I’ve had as a novelist. Now that it is done, I’m back to working on the fourth book (which I am calling ONE FOOT ON THE PATH) and, although I’ve made some progress, it’s still not easy. So yes, I have let one book stew for six months while I took on a new project. I’m back at it and have changed everything about it many times- it’s had three different titles and the whole plot has shifted significantly four or five times. It’s definitely better than it was, but it’s far from complete. I have ideas for my fifth through eleventh books and I am tempted to put this book aside again while I begin another project. But, I am afraid if I do that, I’ll never come back to it. While it is difficult, I do believe it’s a story that deserves to be told.

What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title?

Despite that saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” we all do. An appealing title and a catchy cover can make or break how well a book sells. They are both hugely important. When roaming through a bookstore, I may pick up ten different books. But, I very rarely read the jacket description if I’m not sucked in by the title or cover graphics. I’ve read many books including, TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME, GODS IN ALABAMA, BACKSEAT SAINTS and SISTERLAND because I liked the titles. Those four happen to be among my favorites.

How would you feel if no one showed up at your book signing?

Well, that actually happened once with my second book. NOWHERE GIRL. The event was scheduled for St. Patrick’s Day night and the bookstore’s website is under construction, so there wasn’t a whole lot of communication to patrons. It was my second time at this particular store, and the owners are lovely. So, I really didn’t mind. They had gone out of their way to put out a nice spread of food and drinks. The three of us spent some time together talking about the book and what it means to me. They felt the more they knew about me and my motivation for writing NOWHERE GIRL, the easier it will be for them to sell it. That’s a very synergistic way of looking at it, so it was time well spent.

With only two books published so far, I’m still a newbie in the book world. I don’t expect to sell out events like Jodi Picoult or Nelson DeMille. My view of every event I do, is even if only two people show up, it’s two people who I have connected with and who will (mostly likely) read my book, who may never have read it if they didn’t come to the event. Every little bit helps get my name and my books out there. I do many events besides bookstores- book clubs, library events, lecturing at schools, teaching at colleges, speaking at national conventions and other things. Each experience is unique. Also, it’s something I really love doing.

Do you read and reply to reviews and comments from your readers?

I respond to every single email, letter, message from my website, tweet from Twitter, Facebook message and Facebook post. However, I don’t respond to reviews that readers post on amazon or goodreads. That is their domain for posting whatever they want to, and I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to interfere.

Does a bad review affect your writing?

No. No one has ever written a book that every reader loves. While some readers might hate one aspect, it might be that very same thing that another reader loved. So, if I changed my writing style to try to suit one critic, there may be ten more people who would no longer like my writing. Also, if I change what I do to try to please someone else, I will no longer be true to what I believe.

Do you read any of your own work?

I read all of my work for two reasons. First, after spending time away from a book while it’s in production gives me clarity and space. So, when the book is first published in hard cover and I read it, it’s usually been eight or nine months since the last time I picked it up. In many ways, it’s like reading it again for the first time. I always find places where I would make changes if I was able. Finding those flaws makes me a better writer. I also read my books when they are published for the practical reason of finding typos. Any mistakes that I find in the hard cover, I report them to my editor so they can be corrected when the book comes out in paperback.

How much of yourself do you put into your books?

I do a lot of lecturing in schools. Teachers almost always tell me that they’re constantly working with their students on incorporating everyday life into their work. Because of that, I have gone through both my published books and marked anything word, thought, sentence or passage that came from real life. By the time I was done, I had about two hundred of those little sticky things people use to mark signature places in each of my books. That’s not to say that I took a major event from my life and wrote about it. On the contrary, it may be how someone stands with one hand on their hip or using the name of a street I used to live on. It’s fun for me to plant tiny bits of real life into my writing so that close friends recognize those passages.

I’ve been told that one aspect of myself that shines through in my work is my voice. All my books are written in the first person. While each of my main characters is very different from me, I will confess that we are all sassy, sarcastic people with a lot to say.

Are there any books that you are currently reading and why? 

I am always reading. I love it. I could never be a novelist if I didn’t enjoy reading. By reading authors who I admire, it makes me a better writer. I am currently reading JUSTICE by Dominick Dunne. A friend gave it to me after we did an event together because he knows that Dunne is one of my all-time favorite authors. I’ve heard good things about a couple new books, so those are one my list when I’m done with JUSTICE.

It is often believed that almost all writers have had their hearts broken at some point in time. Does that remain true for you as well?

I think that statement applies to every person in the world over the age of fifteen. Of course I’ve had my heart broken. It’s a rite of passage.

Who are your books mostly dedicated to?

My first book is dedicated to my mom. She has been so supportive of me my entire life and I wanted her to know how much she means to me. My second book is dedicated to my husband, Kurt, and my two kids, Cooper and Ainsley. They are the most important people in my life and I am a better person because of them. My third book takes place in an elementary school. By the time Cooper goes to middle school, he will have been at the elementary school for seven years. When Ainsley goes to seventh grade, she will have spent nine years there (she did two years of preschool in addition to kindergarten-sixth). The school, its staff and students have been such a huge part of my family’s life for so long. They have made my kids’ education an amazing experience and I’m so grateful to every person who works there. Because my third book, NIGHT FALLING, takes place in an elementary school. I will dedicate it to the staff at Essex Elementary School.

People believe that being a published author is glamourous, is that true?

One of the many things I love about my job as a novelist is that I work from home. Because I don’t have to travel to an office filled with people, it doesn’t matter what I wear. I joke that I rarely get off my couch and often write in my pajamas. Okay, it’s not much a joke, especially in the winter. The hardcore, everyday part of writing certainly isn’t glamorous. I think that notion comes from the idea of having hundreds of fans flock to bookstores to have their books signed and being famous like JK Rowling. While there are certainly wildly successful authors out there, they are the great exception rather than the rule. I do get a thrill out of getting fan mail and when people come to bookstores to listen to me read and speak. I especially love it when bookstores seek me out, rather than my publicist having to make contact with them.

Is it true that authors write word perfect first drafts?

Hah! No. If they did, then they’d be final drafts. A first draft is meant to be sloppy, to incorporate every possible idea, plot and character trait into it. It should never be perfect. The nature of the beast of being a first draft automatically means it’s not the best that it can be. Writing is a craft. The more we do it, the better we get. Every single thing that is printed and published needs to be edited, proofread, revised and rewritten. There’s no such thing as a word perfect first draft.

Do you enjoy book signings?

I love book signings, speaking at schools, joining book clubs for an evening and everything else I’ve done. I enjoy reading my work and answering questions at bookstores and the relaxed settings of hanging out with a group who are all friends in a book club. People ask me a lot if I get nervous speaking in public. That’s the easiest part of my job. I mean, who doesn’t like to talk about themselves for an hour or two? One of the things I like the most are the interesting questions people ask at signings and in other groups. I’d be happy doing bookstore and other events every night of the week (as long as I got to go home to my family afterwards).

Do you need to be in a specific room or place to write, or could you sit in a café full of people and write?

My writing schedule revolves around my kids and their activities. Because of that, I make myself write anywhere, anytime and in any place when I have the time. I’ve gotten exceedingly good at blocking out noises, music and conversations. I write at coffee shops, dentists’ offices, horse shows, school libraries, playgrounds, airports, horse barns and any place else where I can bring my computer. My publisher is so lovely and is only concerned with me delivering my manuscripts on time. So, I get to make my own schedule. To ensure that I am available for my children and deliver my manuscripts to my publisher on time, I write every opportunity I get no matter where I am.

How often do you go on book tour?

I go on book tour after each book is released. My events begin the day the book is launched and I do about twenty events a month for the first three months, then several more in the following months. My current book, NOWHERE GIRL, was launched March 1st, 2016 and I have events booked through the middle of December. Although the events get fewer as time passes, I will continue to do any and all events presented to me even a year after each book is released.

Do you encourage your children to read?

Absolutely. Not only is reading educational, it’s also a great way for kids (and adults) to learn about different cultures, pass time in a productive and enjoyable way and expand their vocabulary. Both my kids are great readers and will plow through their favorite authors’ books in just a few days.

Do you blog?

Yes. My blogs can be found on my website at http://www.susanstrecker.com/how-a-novelist-survives-suburbia/. Most of my blogs are very funny and usually originate from an unfortunate experience I’ve had. They’re a fun way to laugh at myself and sometimes others!