Author Q&A: Susan Wiggs

In an interview with All You, author Susan Wiggs shares her inspiration for writing, plus more information on her latest book, The Summer Hideaway.

Suasn Wiggs
Can you tell us how your writing career began? Did you always want to be a writer?
As a child, I was always obsessed with writing. Even before I was old enough to know what a dream was, I was writing on the collection envelopes at church. For first 10 years after college I was actually a teacher, but I was always consistent about writing. I let go of what normal people do every night, like watching TV and having a social life, and I wrote every single night, from about 8 or 9 till midnight. Like any other passion, even if don’t think you have the time, you just make the time.

So when did your writing start to take off?
It overlapped with my teaching. The first books don’t necessarily buy the dog food and pay the rent, and I really wanted a steady predictable income. So when I started publishing I went from full time to half time at my job, and after a I had a contract with a publisher, and felt more sure about my career as a writer, that’s when I finally let go of my other job.

How do you conceive of a book’s premise, normally? Does it usually start with a setting, a character, a plot line?
Great question. A character’s personal journey defines the plot for me – where is she now and where do I want her to end up, and what that arc of growth looks like. She usually starts in a bad place. Clare’s in a lonely place and someone’s after her. I knew I wanted her to get her life back. To get from point A to point B is the journey. That defines the plot – I have to dramatize the experiences to push her along. Plotting is so hard, but they’re just the events you think up that happen to the character that push her into the places she needs to go.

Tell me about how The Summer Hideaway came to be.
Two years ago I read a story in the New York Times magazine where a reporter was invited into the secret life of people in the witness protection program. “Wow, what would that really be like,” I wondered, and then I was off and running.

With that idea I started to build the story of a women in witness protection on the state level, which is not good. She doesn’t get a lot of support, so she’s had to do a lot of thinking for herself. She can’t get close to anybody and I wanted to tell that story of how she gets out of this sad place. But I didn’t want to make it easy– it had to sustain the conflict for the whole novel.

How do you come up with the rest of the story fit into this one story arc?
Since I’m continuing the series of The Lakeshore Chronicles, I already know so much about the setting. If readers of the series are very alert, there’s a conversation at the beginning of the first book with the grandmother of the clan, Jane. One of the characters asks about her long perfect marriage, and Jane says, “You know what, not so much. I’ve had my trying times.” So with this book I thought, "How can you be married fifty years without stuff happening?" Yes, Jane must have a past that I can explore here. Then these different stories have to weave together―it’s like being a juggler, trying to get them going. But by the time you have 3 or 4 balls in the air, everything’s on autopilot―that is, if your deadline is staring you in the face.

How much time do you devote to writing every day?
I write anywhere from 4 to 12 hours a day, but usually closer to four, because once you have a career going, you have to participate in the business of publishing as well; things like readings and consultations. I like it though; it gives me a sense of balance. I can’t last on a steady diet of 12-hour writing days.

Is the experience of writing joyful for you, or grueling?
I love my job but it’s not like the sun is out 24/7 for a writer. There are some days when getting the words to come is like passing a kidney stone! On the other hand, when something turns out right you want to do pirouettes. There’s a lot of craft that goes into it, and many revisions. It’s more joyful when I feel strongly about the story and I know where it’s going. The Summer Hideaway was hard to work on initially, because of working out the two story lines, braiding together the past and the present.

Do you put yourself into your characters, or base them on people you know?
You can’t help but bring elements of yourself into all of your characters, but each one is unique, and I try to get inside of his or her skin. It’s more that I borrow little details from the people around me. Oh, my mom would say something like that… My mind is a lint trap for details. I archive expressions and moments, and they often show up in my stories.

Do you have any rituals you follow to keep your writing flow?
I like being very habitual. I write all my first drafts in long hand with a certain kind of pen and paper, and every morning I center myself just looking out and staring. I live on Bainbridge Island off of Seattle, and my view is incredible. When I’m on the beach in front of my house I’m looking at an island and Mt. Rainier. But even when I first started writing, I did the same thing, and I lived in a crackerjack box in Houston without much to look at. I don’t do any elaborate rituals―that’s risky, because what if something goes wrong? That’s also why I don’t like writing on the computer early on. I could lose it. The computer doesn’t get turned on until it’s time to edit.

What’s so moving about George is that, although he’s so likeable, you slowly reveal that he wasn’t always this wise person. And yet he’s a great teacher to everyone around him.
Of all of the characters, I worked the hardest on George’s. I love people from the “greatest generation,” the World War II years. And although he’s dying, he couldn’t be depressing. I tried to make him really human so people could relate to him and forgive him for the ways in which he screwed up in his past.

I also felt really lucky because when you tell a story on two levels --- George’s story and then Claire and Ross’― you able to have more latitude to explore different issues than you do with one story line, and you can make them work together. With Ross you can have the captain America hero who’s a really good guy, but who doesn’t find himself till later in life. With George you can see his mistakes from a forgivable distance, and it’s also a cautionary tale for Ross. George wants to reveal who he truly is to Ross, so Ross can learn something and maybe do better than he did. I love a multilayered plot with, not easy answers, but some sort of resolution in the end.

I also like that although it’s revealed that Philip is his son, it’s not acknowledged between the characters. What’s the message there?
I will get mail about that. Some things that you say in books really spark a response. Some people just hate ambiguity. In “A Lakeshore Christmas” the loose end made people crazy. In a good way I think, because it makes them want to read on. I even love it when they scold me though, because it means I have attentive, active readers, who really participate.

The message is that George’s has to learn to be bigger than his own desires, to let go of his own need for reclaiming his missed opportunity, for the sake of the family. Jane is like my own mom, very practical and “you took this path and you’re on it.” In the end it’s clear that there’s nothing more important than family.

There are lots of minor characters who flare up for a moment with great vitality, such as Jane, Ivy, Natalie and Philip. Is this where a new novel tends to jump off from?
I was a big fan of Charles Dickens, and one thing that always stuck with me about his novels was that every minor character would do or say something that stuck in your mind. As a writer I’ve always tried to make sure there aren’t any throw away characters. I try to make them intriguing as they walk across the book in their bit part. That’s the beauty of writing.

Ross’s mother is an unlikable and alienated woman. Do characters like her ever get protagonist treatment? Do you ever give them a chance to redeem themselves in a novel? That is, do writers ever have unlikeable heroines or heroes?
Yes, they do. I had a character that my readers were convinced was a villain ―Sophie Ballamy―in the thirst three Lakeshore books. She left her three kids and her husband. Book four had her as the protagonist, and boy did I have to do some fancy footwork to make her actions understandable. The difference is, instead of telling the story about them, you get their point of view. Everybody’s the hero of their own story.

What do you want readers to take away from this book?
I want them to be brave and have no regrets. Claire had to learn to be brave and to trust that life was going to take care of her. And the George and Jane story line is about coming to terms with your choices having no regrets

How do you research and prep for a book?
I had to do a little 1940s research, and read up more on the witness protection program. With the Internet, information is much more accessible. For example, I found a Green Beret helicopter pilot through a Stars and Stripes article. He saved me from myself in certain spots to get the opening chapter in Afghanistan right. My first lead on polio came from an NPR show. I knew I wanted George to have a turbulent past, and one day I was making soup in my kitchen when I heard the program on the radio. As a writer, it’s important to stay open to any kind of stimuli, and have a natural curiosity.

If you had to give writing up tomorrow what would your next career choice be?
A Librarian. I just love books and literature, and I love readers. Librarians have so much influence on people. There’s nothing like a good librarian putting a great book in someone’s hands.

Who are your favorite writers?
My tastes are really eclectic; I can’t say I have a favorite. Let’s see, I like Elizabeth Berg, I’ve always read Alice Hoffman, but I love thrillers too -- Bob Dugoni is great. YA fiction appeals to me, and even children’s books. I just finished reading an excellent autobiography by Twila Tharpe, called “The Creative Process.”

What are you working on now?
My next book is a tribute to mothers and daughters. It isn’t titled yet, but it’s already written and will be out next May. This is a departure for me ― it’s the first novel I’ve written that isn’t based on a love story!

For more information on Susan Wiggs and her other books, visit her website.