This interview series features original
conversations with folks around the world who are in the thick of
literary culture -- the passionate writers, editors, critics, readers,
translators, publishers, bloggers, designers, booksellers, poets,
performers, journalists, and instructors who are bringing vibrancy and
joy to the world of words. More than a rehash of things you have heard
familiar names natter on about before, this series will turn its
attention beyond the bounds of the usual suspects and the usual issues.
This series is committed to a dynamic exploration of
ideas, craft, language, literature, and culture with the people who are
committing their lives to it. See the previous interviews with Daniel Pritchard and Anne Trubek here and here.
Susanna Daniel has published her debut novel, Stiltsville, this month with HarperCollins. Ten hellish years in the making, the novel is now a "Discover Great New Writers" selection from Barnes & Noble, and a "vacation must-read" pick from Redbook. Daniel is a native of Miami, Florida who spent much of her young life in the real-world Stiltsville. She went on to graduate from Columbia University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was a Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and still lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
I sought out a review copy of the novel after being entranced by an excerpt of Stiltsville that was published in One Story. Typically, I'm loathe to read excerpts and abridgments, but in my defense, I didn't realize this was an adapted chapter of a novel until after I finished it. Also: I liked it. As a full novel, the narrative takes us into the person of Frances, a twenty-six year old Atlanta woman who, one afternoon in 1969, finds herself unexpectedly visiting a house set on stilts in the Biscayne Bay, off the shore of Miami. The house is owned by Dennis, and here, things change. The story follows the relationship of Dennis and Frances through the mid-1990s, revealing the epic in the intimate, the strangeness in the usual, the natural wildness in urban South Florida, and the heavy beat of love across the current.
Discussed in our conversation: haunting landscapes, narrative drive, Carl Hiassen, the Midwest, shipwrecks, older men and women, biography, Miami, and dueling realities.
One of the most surprising aspects of Stiltsville is that it is sustained, over the span of decades, by the first-person voice of Frances -- who is the sort of quiet character that I rarely see centered like this. Was it a struggle to craft this inward voice into fuel for an expansive novel?
My old teacher Frank Conroy called it narrative drive --
the tension created in a story by the strength of voice and
perspective. Maintaining narrative drive was always my goal, and if you
have that, there's no reason it can't be sustained for decades. Frances'
point of view only becomes sharper as she ages and grows more
comfortable in her skin.
Especially with that need to craft a consistent narrative drive, how did you choose the moments to settle in on for full scenes and episodes? That is, the story certainly is driven by Frances' perspective of a life that unfolded in over years in South Florida -- rather than driven by traditional cause-and-effect plot. When I finished a section that was set in one year, I had no idea in what year I would land when I turned the page and started the next section. The novel is ordered more or less chronologically, but it's refracted through the narrator's near memory of a deep relationship. Among all that Frances would remember, all the possible moments of potency in that relationship, you chose these particular ones ... and I'm curious about how you filtered this.
I chose to land on moments of change in the lives of the characters, and milestone moments South Florida's history. The changes that happen in each chapter force the characters to readjust their expectations and visions for the future. By the end of each chapter, they are recalibrating and redefining the goals they thought they'd set.
Overall, it's not a terribly unconventional structure -- episodic narratives are a dime a dozen -- but it definitely requires that the reader engage at the sentence level instead of always hanging on for the next thrill or spill. I enjoy a good conventional story as much as the next reader, but I wanted to tell a story with a wider wingspan, a story of a marriage in its entirety (without, of course, writing a 1,000-page tome). If the narrator has been asked, essentially, to convey the meatiest bits of her twenty-five-year marriage, where does she begin? Which parts does she include and exclude? This was my challenge.
I suspect a lot of readers are tempted to try to see your biography through this novel, especially given your own connection to Miami and Stiltsville -- not to mention the fact that this is a first novel. How do you feel about that?
It's interesting, because I feel kind of insulated from that assumption because the novel's narrator and I are so different demographically. I'm at the start of my marriage -- only five years in -- and have one son, a toddler, so I guess I don't worry that people will assume I'm telling my own story. But I do wonder if people will assume this is my mother's story -- which it is and isn't. She came from a small town in East Texas to live in Miami with her new husband, who was born and raised there, and like Frances she grew into her own in this place that had been completely foreign to her for much of her life. Like Frances, my mother left her own family behind. On the one hand, Frances and my mother are very similar -- but on the other hand, my mother was much warmer than Frances, who has a cool streak, a measure of distance from the world.
I think autobiography often exists at the layer of
setting, which is certainly true of Stiltsville. It's incredible to me
that no writer has ever set more than a scene or two there. It's the
perfect setting for domestic fiction, in my opinion. I wish I could set
every novel I write there (but I won't).
I wonder if more fiction hasn't been set in Stiltsville because it embodies the fantastic itself; it's so strange and beautiful that perhaps many people believe that it IS the story, and would therefore overwhelm any story that is merely set there. Do you know of other landscapes that are peculiarly untapped as fictional settings?
Carl Hiaasen has set a few scenes at Stiltsville -- including using it
as a hideout for a villain who has a weed whacker as a hand, which gels
with your take on it. A fantastic place indeed. But also an island, and
island fiction has a long history. I recently heard of a novel set on
Mackinac Island, which is off Michigan in Lake Huron -- and it occurred
to me that the Great Lakes haven't inspired as much fiction as I would
think they would have, considering how spooky and vast they are, the
history of shipwrecks and storms and icy winters, all the tiny island
towns with their rich histories, and so on.
As a gal who grew up on Lake Michigan and now lives in Detroit, I hear
you about the Great Lakes. I'm constantly surprised by folks elsewhere,
especially while I was living in Boston, who picture the Great Lakes as
wave-less puddles that you can see across, rather like the little lakes
that people boat around in on vacation. The actual spookiness and
expansiveness is utterly untapped in fiction -- though one of the rare
spaces I've seen it is actually in that great ode to the oceans,
Moby-Dick. A character introduced as a sailor of Great Lakes ships
inspires Ishmael to a passionate testament to these inland seas ... I confess, I loved it.
I wonder how you've noticed differences in the responses of readers and reviewers of Stiltsville who are local, or are personally acquainted with the actual place, compared to people (like me) who never knew it existed until reading your novel --- and who don't know Miami at all either. How is a cultural mythology of a particular place built -- by stories that are embraced locally or elsewhere? How do the two intersect, and nudge each other along?
Generally fiction is tethered by few rules with regards to realism, but when you're writing about a particular place and time, you want to hold yourself accountable. Relatively few people are personally acquainted with Stiltsville, but the response from Floridians in general has been so positive. My biggest fear was that Floridians would find it unfair or unrealistic -- I can't only claim my own experience of Florida, after all -- which hasn't been the case. But actually I've found the demographic that most identifies with the novel isn't Floridians but older men and women who are long-married or widowed -- this surprised me. I can't tell you how many people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s have written me saying, "This is my story." That is hugely flattering.
Miami has been so battered and bruised by its own
cultural mythology that it's very difficult to separate the place and
people from the stories. I mean, I had a fairly content and unremarkable
childhood -- but still when I was twelve there was a grisly
murder-suicide down the street, and I remember taking the long way to
elementary school to avoid rioting. Which reality is real? Both are, but
somehow only the ugly or sensational bits of Florida seems to make it
into the wider public consciousness. I think many people read my book
and realize that their understanding of Miami is only part of what makes
the place -- which is, of course, true of many places, including the
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a novel about a woman whose husband reveals a secret that
completely changes the direction of their lives, and forces her to make
a decision about her own future, which she'd never planned to make.
How does the relationship ground that you explored in Stiltsville inform this new novel? If it does at all...
Stiltsville is about a basically, though not exclusively, successful marriage, which is true of the marriage in the new novel as well, except the definition of successful is very different for the husband than for the wife. I'm more interested in what people say to each other when they are done fighting than the fight itself -- when the direction of your relationship has changed, how do you continue to move forward without drifting apart? In Stiltsville, Dennis and Frances manage mostly because Frances forces herself to become a flexible person. If she weren't, then what would happen? The marriage in my new novel is more modern, which in many ways means less flexible, though that can also mean less adventurous.