The Sweetest Debut: Susan Rivers on Her Historical Novel, Trump

Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a regular instalment in which we reach out to debut fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Susan Rivers’ The Second Mrs Hockaday is a historical novel about the aftermath of the Civil War. It is, per Kirkus, “a compulsively readable work that takes on the legacy of slavery in the United States, the struggles specific to women, and the possibilities for empathy and forgiveness.” Rivers, a playwright making her first foray into long fiction, talked to Flavorwire about the current political situation, gardening as inspiration, and her inability to binge-watch TV.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

It’s 1865 and the Civil War is over, but the suffering’s just begun for a South Carolina soldier’s bride who birthed a child and buried it while her husband was in a Yankee prison. Will she hang for the crime? Or will she save herself by destroying the man she loves?

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What do you tell your relatives it’s about?

It’s a southern love story, but it’s not Gone With the Wind or Cold Mountain. I’ve got infanticide, miscegenation, racism, heroism, torture, loss, and redemption.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

It took about four months from the initial idea to the first draft, but recently I realised that it actually took me 20 years and four months. The first 20 years were spent living, learning, and researching in the South.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

I can’t. Whenever they print those pieces about required books that everyone hated to read in high school or college, I’m reminded of how many of those books and authors I love. Moby Dick? Bring on the whale. Henry James? Give me that long-winded Portrait of a Lady. I read once that John Irving’s favourite novel is Mayor of Casterbridge and I thought, Yes! Hardy! Love that gloomy guy. Did you read the one where the kids hang themselves in the wardrobe?

What’s a book you’ve read more than two times?

Jude the Obscure.

What’s your favourite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I don’t binge-watch. My Calvinist forbears are always in my head, judging me and tsk-tsking when I’m idle or experiencing pleasure. It’s not a genetic package I’d wish on anyone.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Folksy, southern roots-music, heavy on the fiddles. Carolina Chocolate Drops, Mark O’Connor, John Prine.

Who is your fashion icon?

My what?

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

I once stumbled on the website listing for the cottage on the Isle of Jura where George Orwell wrote 1984, and it was for rent. I thought that would make for an unbelievable getaway: the waves crashing, the sky, the rocks, no cell phone reception, and because I’m a cheap drunk who can’t tolerate much liquor (unlike Orwell) I wouldn’t be tempted to spend most of my time at the distillery. I need more money and more time, however, before I can head for the west coast of Scotland.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

Shortly after my mother became ill and came to live with me and my husband and daughter, we were belting out Christmas carols. She commented on how strong my lungs were, and I said, “Don’t you remember, Mommy? I wanted to be an opera star when I was little.” She looked me up and down before saying, “Oh Susie, were you ever LITTLE?”

Did you have a New Year’s resolution for 2017? If so, what?

To sell enough books to enable my husband to cut back on his workload. Thanks to Wall Street and the Great Recession which eliminated his corporate job, this man labours in the academic sweatshops of America, teaching between 10 and 12 sections per semester at three colleges for which he is paid less than most people pay in a year for Amazon Prime. Karl Marx deserves another look.

What freaks you out the most about four years of Trump as U.S. President?

First, that I’m going to lose my healthcare, along with millions of Americans including the people in my South Carolina county who voted for him. I went without healthcare for six years because we couldn’t afford it; thank God the ACA took effect when it did or I’d be dead. Literally.

Secondly, I’m wondering how many pussies he’s going to grab while denying that he ever touched the woman. His supporters will go on talk shows to accuse the CIA of fabricating videos of the assault and the videos will be replayed endlessly on cable television while international crises, climate change and the flood of refugees from the third world to the first intensify without our country’s attention or concern. If you ever considered getting rid of your TV and other electronic devices, now might be the time.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Since it’s a ten-mile drive to the nearest coffee shop, that’s not an option. And my local library isn’t silent. Anyway, there are two kinds of writing for me: “thinking-writing” and “writing-writing.” Thinking-writing is when I’m going through scenes in my head or setting up situations, making connections, wool-gathering. I have to be doing some kind of manual labour when I write that way. This isn’t usually a problem because I have a massive garden at my house I tend on my own so I am always out there when I’m home, hacking down dead things or planting new ones. Didn’t Robert Frost say his mind worked better when he was working? I’m sure Faulkner said something like that. Neither Faulkner nor Frost had cellphones, however, and I’ve discovered that mine has to stay in the house when I go in the garden. Solitude can be such good medicine.

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

If I’m not doing thinking-writing but writing-writing then I prefer late at night. Really late. I like the feeling when everyone in the house is asleep and everyone in the neighbours’ houses is asleep and there’s nothing interfering with my brainwaves but the noise of the ice machine up on Highway 29.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

It depends. I wrote The Second Mrs. Hockaday in a fever, without much editing. I finished Part 1 and gave it to my husband to read while I went ahead with the next section. He came into the room where I was working and said “Where’s Part 2?” So then I wrote faster, with even less editing, to get the story out before I lost it.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

Along with my husband, I toil in a variety of academic sweatshops. It doesn’t actually pay the bills, however. I’m open to suggestions.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I’m always chasing after time without catching it, so writing has to go on even when there is no time for it at all. The women in my family have always survived on very little sleep, so I guess that’s how I manage.

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