A Conversation with Susan Straight

For the past two years, award-winning novelist Susan Straight has been serving as Inlandia’s very first Literary Laureate. A post of distinction, this position was created to highlight the talented author’s of Inland southern California by bringing their work to the people on a very personal level. To that end, Susan has been sharing her deep connection to the region and love of literature with the Inlandia community through writing workshops (to which she sometimes brings her own homemade cupcakes) and a new essay series for KCET, Notes of a Native Daughter, in which she documents places around the Inland Empire that are personally meaningful to her.

As Susan Straight’s two-year term as Inlandia’s first Literary Laureate comes to a close, we at Inlandia: A Literary Journey wanted to take the opportunity to ask her some questions about her work and her relationship with this region that many of us call home.

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Inlandia: A Literary Journey: As a novelist and essayist, all of your work seems informed by ‘place’; to what do you attribute your strong ties to the Inlandia region?

Susan Straight: I was born here, as you and many readers may know, and every single day that informs my life, and my writing.  I was born at Riverside Community Hospital, went to University Junior High, North High, Riverside City College, then went to USC.  I began writing fiction and essays when I was sixteen, in an RCC Creative Writing class with a wonderful professor named Bill Bowers, who passed away before my first book came out.  But I didn’t really write well about my place until I went off to Massachusetts for graduate school, already married, living in the snow in Amherst, and missed my landscape with a passion.  I wrote most of my first book, Aquaboogie, during those two years, and then during five years after I returned and was living in a series of apartments downtown.  Walking around downtown, going to the library, teaching at RCC, mailing my first stories at the downtown post office to literary journals, I came up with Rio Seco.  I spent a lot of time in the orange groves and at the Santa Ana River, writing.

I.L.J.: Your fiction routinely mentions real place names, like Mecca, a remote census-designated area of the I.E., while others are fictionalized, like Rio Seco, a dead ringer for the real city of Riverside. Are there advantages to mixing real & fictionalized places? Or, how did this strategy come about for you?

S.S.: I named this area Rio Seco so that I could move around geography and make it a fictional place, like William Faulkner did for his Mississippi area.  But neighboring places, like San Bernardino and Pomona and Mecca, should stay what they are, I felt.  For Highwire Moon, I invented a fictional Tourmaline which was modeled on Garnet and Cabazon.  But my vision of The Salton Sea and the vineyards of Mecca were based on many visits there.

I.L.J.: During your term as Inlandia’s Literary Laureate, you conducted a workshop through a local elementary school who read your novel for children, The Friskative Dog, a story set in Rio Seco, as well as a workshop for teens who read Highwire Moon, set in various places in the I.E. including Rio Seco and Mecca. Do you find that the young people can identify more easily with the work if it is set in a familiar locale?

S.S.: I think young people in our area haven’t seen stories and essays about this place, or people like them, very often, and so I think they really connect with characters like Elvia, who lives in the desert, was raised in a foster home in Rio Seco, and then travels to Mecca, because they see themselves or their family and friends represented in her.  Serafina, the mother, is from Oaxaca, and countless teens in LA, Riverside, and other counties have told me how much she is like their migrant mothers.  Younger schoolkids have said they liked The Friskative Dog because it’s about a girl who lives in an apartment, like they do…

For my new novel, Take One Candle Light a Room, which has settings in Los Angeles, Rio Seco, the orange groves and Santa Ana River, as well as Louisiana, I’ve had people all over the country tell me they like the idea that some of us stay forever where we were born, and some of us leave, and the characters who struggle with that are interesting to readers.

I.L.J.: You have also been writing a series of essays for KCET, Notes of a Native Daughter, which takes the reader into places unique to the region. There is such an immediacy to the details in your essays that readers are instantly transported. Do you physically go to these places to write, or what is your method?

S.S.: I love this new series for KCET.  I always go physically to these places – Doug McCulloh is sometimes with me, and sometimes he goes separately.  We drove to Hemet for “Sierra Dawn”, and to Nuevo to see the sheep ranch we wrote about.  We went to Anza Narrows for that piece, and to Agua Mansa for the essay about that astonishing cemetery.

I.L.J.: Finally, you’ve lived in the Inland Empire all of your life. Do you have any favorite places, places that you feel most at home, or that may be under-appreciated or virtually unknown, that you’d like to share with our readership?

S.S.: I love the Santa Ana River, walking along the paths with my dog, thinking about what I’ve learned from Katherine Siva Saubel’s work about the Cahuilla people who lived near Mt. Rubidoux for hundreds of years, and who hunted along the river.  I think about Anza and his party crossing there, and my brothers and I pretending we were Indians and collecting acorns, and the smell of the willows, and the sound of the coyotes at dusk.  I love the orange groves everywhere, including Redlands and the lovely avenues of tall palms.  I love Forest Falls and Mentone, the rocky washes where I like to hike.  In San Bernardino, I love driving down Baseline or Mt Vernon, and I love remembering White Front, the store where my mother used to take us!  Next week, I’m going to Mecca and Thermal and Oasis to write about the desert, another favorite place, and I can’t wait to have a date shake – my mother always took us there, too.  I feel incredibly lucky to have this Inland landscape all around me.

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Susan Straight has graciously agreed to sit on the jury panel to determine the next Inlandia Literary Laureate. Check back for an announcement in April.

Thank you, Susan, for all that you do for Inlandia.

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Susan Straight was born in Riverside and still lives there with her family. (She can actually see the hospital from her kitchen window, which her daughters find kind of pathetic; most days, she walks the dog past the classroom where she wrote her first short story at 16, at Riverside City College, which they find even more sad.) She has published seven novels and one middle-grade reader. Highwire Moon was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001; A Million Nightingales was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2006. Her short stories have appeared in Zoetrope, The Ontario Review, The Oxford American, The Sun, Black Clock, and other magazines. “The Golden Gopher,” from Los Angelas Noir, won the Edgar Award in 2007; “El Ojo de Agua,” from Zoetrope, won an O. Henry Award in 2007. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, Harpers, The Nation, and other magazines. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on Highwire Moon, and a Lannan Prize was an immense help when working on Take One Candle Light a Room.