An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in The Utne Reader, Story Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016) and a contributor at Litreactor.com. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as a collaborative editor with Indigo Editing & Publications.
What is your advice for someone setting out writing their first novel?
Number one: Don’t keep returning to the start of your manuscript and trying to “get it right” so you can go forward. You have to get your first draft down before you can even really see what it is you’ve got (unless you’re Zadie Smith, who tinkers meticulously as she goes and still somehow manages to reach The End). I did this for many years with my “novel in the drawer,” and I see that sort of compulsion now as something that kept me from actually tackling the real issues, which lay with the story itself.
Number two (and this is speaking as both a writer and an editor): Unless you’re writing something highly experimental, you need both a plot arc and a character arc, so if you don’t have a good handle on those two things, it’s time to hit the books. (Don’t get overwhelmed by all the other elements covered in discussions on craft, though.)
What did you learn after finishing your first novel?
I learned that perfection in a manuscript is like the speed of light–the closer you come to it, the harder it is to accelerate! I’m speaking largely about typos here, but also about the story–there will always be more you could do to improve the book. At some point you just have to settle for the best version of what you’ve got.
What did you learn through writing the first draft?
I learned, well, how to write literary fiction–short fiction in particular, as the chapters of Hot Season started off as short stories I worked on with my mentors and in my workshops in the course of my MFA.
What did you learn through editing?
I learned how to create a novel out of a collection of linked stories. It’s not a niche with a whole lot of interest, in terms of creative writing instruction, but man, I am an expert in it! Ask me anything. =)
How much of an idea do you have before you begin writing?
My practice has evolved a lot since I was in school, so there are ways that I interrogate an idea now before I write that I didn’t know how to early on. I’ve also gotten a lot clearer on who I actually am as a writer and what my central concerns are. Here on the three main questions I ask myself before I begin a story:
1) What kind of story is this?
(What is the form?) Is it a ghost story, a confession, a death by misadventure? A losing-a-parent-in-old-age story, a trying-to-find-your-new-apartment story, a first-day-at-a-new-school-or-job story? A tale of the uncanny? A picaresque? Whatever you’re writing about, it has been approached before in fiction; knowing the form of the particular type of story you’re working with–which may arise from literature or from the sort of stories we tell each other all the time–helps to give a story an intelligible shape, one that the reader will recognize. Also, knowing the form you’re working in allows you to write against it, should you desire.
2) What’s the aesthetic attraction?
I think of these sorts of things as “fetishes”–things that I, as both a reader and writer, just like to find in my fiction–who knows why! For instance, I like knowing the specific buildings my stories will be set in, the particular landscapes, as certain buildings and landscapes have a very particular resonance for me, as well as an internal web of associations I can draw upon in creating imaginative work. In Hot Season, the house the three roommate characters share is, to me, almost a character in an of itself, and the high country of Arizona is a place that, as an expat living in the Northwest, I enjoy returning to in my work.
3) What will be emphasized in the story?
What’s the upshot? What are the themes and patterns that will convey what the story is all about? In creative writing instruction, I think we’re quite wary of any talk of meaning in fiction–but to my mind, if the events of the story and the character’s inner issues don’t align in a meaningful way, it isn’t a story, it’s just a sequence of events. And though this approach is unusual for academic creative writing programs, I’ve found a lot of validation for it in the emerging body of brain science associated with reading fiction.
Do you advance your novel while you’re out working or walking around? Do you advance its plot or its characters?
[By “advance” I’m assuming you mean something like working on the novel in your head?]
Of course! When I’m working on a piece, I’m always working on it. Insights often arise in the course of a Saturday hike, conversations with friends, lying in bed at night–you name it.
What form do you write in most? Do you write novels most?
What’s your writing process?
I draft by hand in pencil. When I return to the work, I edit the previous page, using proofreader’s marks for deletions and insertions and including alternate words, phrases, and sentences in the margins. When I type in the work, I take or leave from what’s on the page as I see fit. From there, I revise as much as is necessary to create something that feels shapely and satisfying–if I’m lucky, that’s maybe two or three revisions. If I’m not–well, significantly more.
I wrote Hot Season and the two books that follow it in the Greene River trilogy as three sets of linked stories that were themselves loosely linked to each other. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and I’ve since decided to turn each of those three sections into a novel of its own. Which is to say, the process with these books has been quite unique, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever pursue this particular process again.
Right now, I’m working on short stories, which will eventually form a collection called Dream Studies. I’m enjoying the process of working with similar themes across these stories without necessarily having anything that overtly links them (in terms of character or plot). I’m enjoying the process, which seems a bit simpler than the kind of work I did with Hot Season–but creative work always seems simple in its early stages, doesn’t it? =)
What guides you in your writing? How do you pick what to follow and what to leave aside?
I’m driven by the need to share what moves me–the love and the beauty, the travesty and heartbreak, the landscapes and people and places that are the riches of my lived and imaginative existence. I am driven by the desire to bear witness to what I have lived through and what I have seen–even when my work borders on the speculative, it is almost always based in my own life experiences. In many cases, I am driven by nostalgia, as well as the need to derive meaning from the past.
As for what to leave aside, that’s up to the story. You can have grand ideas and strong compulsions as an artist that just don’t work in the sort of thing you’re trying to make. You have to learn when to let go of those things and let them find their way into the other work. Like Stephen King said, “The story is the boss.”
Do you ever feel tricked or led astray by an idea or a character?
More often it’s the other way around–I feel tricked by my own ideas for a story, because sometimes I dedicate a lot of time to them before I realize that they’re not going to work. (See above.)
Do you start knowing the end? Do you keep your beginning?
The first beginning is almost always not the real beginning, because the real beginning of a story exists in conversation with the ending. As for the ending itself, sometimes I know what image or note I’m driving toward, but sometimes the ending doesn’t become clear until a revision or two in–and in either case, it always requires some finessing upon revision.
Susan will be at Powell’s City of Books on Thursday, December 8 @ 7:30 PM to talk about her debut novel, Hot Season.
In the tinder-dry Southwest, three eco-minded roommates – students at Deep Canyon College, known for its radical politics – are looking for love, adventure, and the promise of a bigger life that led them west. But when the FBI comes to town in pursuit of an alum wanted for “politically motivated crimes of property,” rumor has it that undercover agents are enrolled in classes, making the college dating scene just a bit more sketchy than usual. Katie, an incoming freshman, will discover a passion for activism that will put her future in jeopardy; Jenna, in her second semester, will find herself seduced by deception; and Rell, a senior, will discover her voice, her calling, and love where she least expects it. Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions) is the debut novel from Susan DeFreitas.