Today’s interview is with writer Suzanne Rosenwasser who has released her debut novel, DON’T YA KNOW, a novel about the changes on a fictional island in the 1900’s. Suzanne has also published two wonderful memoirs, which I highly recommend.
First, some background on her:
My father told crazy, mixed up stories when I was a child. That’s what he called the classic stories he cut with real tales of his growing up in Texas. I’d sit in my New York home wondering how magical this place called Texas must be where boys got caught in trees as big as Jack’s beanstalk and firemen came to fetch them on ladders made from Rapunzel’s hair. When my father died suddenly in my youth, I began to tell his stories to myself in a notebook. I didn’t want to lose that part of him. I never did.
I was a high school English teacher for 25 years and worked with wonderful stories. During a ten year break from the classroom, I was on the staff of a Long Island newspaper telling the stories of a small community. All those years, I wrote my own stories and sent them to publishers who politely said: “No, thanks,” until the New York Times said: “Yes.”
SARETT: Don't Ya Know introduces the fictional world of Corycian Island, NY in the 1900s, which has seen an elegant hotel, a Christian campground, and a Catholic convent replace older industries. The island's natives are forced to redefine friendship, family, courage, love, and legacy. What was the source or inspiration for it?
ROSENWASSER: Islands have attracted me for a good part of my life. I’ve visited many and lived on three: One that houses the busiest city in the world; another that is one hundred miles long; and a third, a mere four miles wide and six in length. Each has enchanted me, and the fictional Corycian Island expresses that sense of place with a mystical ether breezing along its coastline from Calliope Point to Sirens’ Beach. Corycian is a place the natives call the Eye’land of the Gods.
There’s plenty of sense memory in Don’t Ya Know. Places have that effect on me and local color is an important part of any story. The Founders’ Cemetery in Don’t Ya know is a real place, but it’s on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia. We visited a friend’s historical, family plot. I built on that image for Corycian Island’s cemetery.
As for the title: I grew up with a friend who inserted it in place of the unutterable. She’d say: “I rode my brother’s bike to the store and when I hit a bump, the crossbar hit my don’t ya know and it hurt like crazy.” Or: “That’s the way to do it, don’t ya know!” I never knew what was expected as a reply.
SARETT: Your new novel takes place in a fictional island off Long Island. How much real historical research did you incorporate in the novel?
ROSENWASSER: I love research. I started paying attention to my Long Island history when I read The Great Gatsby as a teen. Since the novel's protagonist is from a splintered tribe of Algonquins who mixed with Barbadian slaves and Quaker refugees, I had to learn about those groups. In an early draft, readers felt that there was too much history. I pared it down, but there’s a list of works to which I refer at the end of the book.
SARETT: You’ve written memoir and now, fiction. How hard was it to make the transition? Were there aspects of memoir-writing that you had to throw away?
ROSENWASSER: When I wrote Manhasset Stories, I knew the outcome ahead of time; with Don’t Ya Know, the story told itself to me as I wrote. I was the first to be surprised by its ending.
Tracking change was my biggest issue. I worked on a 100-year timeline for two years. Then, I spent another two years writing the novel into 28-years. Aligning events, people, and social mores into a smaller time frame was a mess.
SARETT: Novelist Jonathan Franzen (confession: haven't read him) said that fiction is a messy business -- and that it's dangerous for a writer to be too perfectionist. I'm wondering how you respond.
ROSENWASSER: I heard 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr say he had to reach a point where he let his work go because he couldn’t stop finding things he wanted to change. For that reason he’s never read any of his bound books. I had to heed his advice. In general, I gave up trying to be perfect when I became a parent. Life has been much easier ever since.
SARETT: When you’re developing the novel, which comes first -- story or character?
ROSENWASSER: Character. Every story has arisen from the inspiration of some human. Or something I humanized. When I was a kid, I used to write stories in the voice of bugs who inhabited my older brother’s messy room. As a teen, many of my stories (in the mid-60s) were about my aunts and uncles, first generation Irish-Americans who grew up on Manhattan’s east side. I submitted unsuccessful variations of the same story to the Seventeen magazine writers’ contest every year until college. I rode the New York subway to work for five years, so I was provided with fine character studies. Then I taught high school. Characters galore!
SARETT: Did you have any literary muses that influenced the way you approached this novel?
ROSENWASSER: I was a high school theater director for most of my teaching career. I loved the quirkiness of the characters in George Kaufman’s “You Can’t Take It With You,” the innocence of Thornton Wilder’s people in “Our Town,” and the failings of the saints and sinners in Neil Simon’s “God’s Favorite.” The rhythm of all that dialogue was a great learning space.
As a teacher, I had the rich experience of studying seminal works of western civilization with budding readers year after year, from Homer to Shakespeare, Twain to Salinger, Rowling and beyond. It was an honor to use those words to inspire young minds, and I couldn’t help but be inspired. I want to go all the way back to the effect Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had on me as a kid, but I’ll restrain myself.
SARETT: What’s next?
ROSENWASSER: Remember those 72 years I cut out of the original 100 year timeline of Don’t Ya Know? Well, I have begun to rewrite them into the next 30 years on Corycian Island (through the 1950s). The sequel is called: Healing Properties.
You can follow HER on:
Goodreads : www.goodreads.com/suzanne_rosenwasser
Pre-order ebook from Amazon now by clicking here