Hi Susan, Welcome to The Reading Frenzy.
Hi Deb, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Tell us a little about your latest novel The Secret Sense of Wildflower.
The Secret Sense of Wildflower is southern, it’s historical and it’s a coming-of-age story. The main character is thirteen-year old Louisa May “Wildflower” McAllister who is feisty and smart and has a resilience that is forged with humor, a love of the land, and an endless supply of questions to God, who she’s not so sure she believes in anymore. When Johnny Monroe, the villain of the story and the town’s teenage ne’er-do-well, sets his sights on Wildflower, she must draw on the strength of her relations, both living and dead, to deal with his threat.
Where did the idea for the novel come from?
The Secret Sense of Wildflower started with a voice, eleven years ago, at four in the morning, a voice that woke me up from a deep sleep. It was the voice of a girl who began to tell me her story: “There are two things I’m afraid of,” she said. “One is dying young. The other is Johnny Monroe.” A day or two before, I had visited the small cemetery located in the southern Appalachian Mountains where many of my family are buried. I spent an afternoon walking among the final resting places of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as ancestors I had never known. It felt like I had accidentally brought one of them home with me, who needed her story told.
For a fiction writer, to get the voice of a character so clearly is really good news. I, however, wanted to go back to sleep. Who wouldn’t, at 4 o’clock in the morning? For a time, I debated whether or not to get up. I ultimately decided that if I didn’t seize this moment, the voice might find someone else to write her story.
Needless to say, I turned on the light, picked up a pen and a pad of paper and began to write the story of Louisa May “Wildflower” McAllister. It took months of listening to her and seeing the scenes of her life play out in my imagination. Then it took years of revising and revisiting the story to polish it and get it ready.
According to your bio you’ve had a very eclectic career background. How has this benefited your work as a novelist?
To be honest, it never occurred to me that I might be a novelist until I was in my late thirties. Like most people, I hadn’t a clue what I really wanted to do. I suppose it was in the back of my mind somewhere that I might want to write a book someday, but life just didn’t allow the time for it. I was a single mom from the time my daughters were ages 1 and 3 and when you’re trying to be a good mom, there isn’t a whole lot of energy for creative pursuits like writing. However, I did play flute professionally for a while, but to make ends meet, so to speak, I needed to do something a little more reliable and got a degree in education and taught at-risk kids in the elementary schools. Then I attended school at night to get my counseling degree. I became a licensed professional counselor and then a marriage and family therapist for a decade, where I like to say I studied “characters” in depth.
It was in my counseling office that I had this kind of early midlife moment where I realized that I could die being a beloved therapist in the community, but I would never have done what it was that I felt I needed to do, which was to write. If I didn’t do it, I knew I would die with regrets. I changed my life after that, simplified, moved to the mountains and began to write.
Susan on the homepage of your website you have a subheading that says “Novels of courage & transformation.” Why is this important to you to emphasize?
One of the things I learned from my clients is how incredibly resilient people are. They would come to me with these horrendous stories of things that had happened to them and yet they had the courage to tell me about it and then try to make changes in their lives to make them better. That’s heroic in my view.
It was only recently that I realized that of the 8 novels I’ve written—2 are published, 1 is represented by a literary agent who specializes in children’s books, and the others are either being submitted to other agents, publishers or in various stages of rewrites—they all have courageous main characters who, in one way or another, are able to transform the tough situations they find themselves in. In a way, it’s a nod to my former clients. In other ways, it’s just what interests me.
I’ve found that Southern authors have very distinctive “Southern Fried” voices in their work. Does yours? Why do you think this is so?
Well, I grew up in the southeast and except for a few years that I lived in Colorado, I’ve lived here my entire life. For years, I swore that I would NEVER write southern fiction. I had too many “characters” in my gene pool, but as they say: NEVER SAY NEVER. It turns out I’m kind of good at it. At least Kirkus Reviews thought so, as you mentioned above, and gave The Secret Sense of Wildflower a starred review (for “books of exceptional merit”) and it was voted a Best Book of 2012. It still shocks me to have received that honor, but I am trying to claim it as well deserved
Although it’s a great honor to be in the southern genre with Harper Lee, who I’ve been compared to, and Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Reynolds Price (et al) and currently Ron Rash (who lives just over the next mountain ridge from where I live in the mountains of North Carolina), I’ve never really thought of myself as a southern writer. My job as I see it is to write stories and sometimes those stories have southern characters and sometimes they don’t. However, I seem to be writing about the south more and more. Perhaps I’ve finally made peace with my ancestors.
You were a professional flutist before becoming an author. Do you still play?
To be honest, I don’t play that much anymore except for my own pleasure. Writing seems to have fulfilled a creative need that playing music used to fill. Also, I began to lose some of my hearing early on and it is really hard for a musician to lose that ability. Now my words say what my music used to.
Susan congratulations on your Kirkus (books of remarkable merit) for 2012 award. That’s quite a coup. What was your reaction when you got the word?
Like I said earlier, in some ways I’m still in shock. My partner-in-life cried, knowing how long I’ve been struggling to breakthrough (well over a decade now). When I got the email, I thought there must have been some kind of mistake. A switch-up in books or something. The starred review came out last summer and then in mid-December it was voted a Best Book of 2012. I couldn’t believe that, either. I wondered if they just gave that to everybody, but they don’t. I don’t realize what an honor it is until I see it stamped on books I admire. Then I think, “Wow! How cool is that!”
What are you working on now?
This summer, I’m working on a non-fiction manuscript. Something I’ve never tried before. It is an intentional change of pace after intense revisions earlier in the year on another southern fiction novel (a humorous one this time) set in Savannah called Temple Secrets. (I love to write about secrets!)
Being a relatively new author what advice would you give to a promising talent having trouble breaking in the biz?
This is a hard question because publishing is in such turmoil right now. I think anyone with promising talent needs to be willing to sign on for the long haul. If anyone had told me 17 years ago, when I began to write, that I would still be trying to gain ground this many years later, I’m not sure I would have had to guts to keep going. It requires a lot of sacrifice and you have to be really clear that this is what you need/want/must do because there are so many obstacles that can discourage you. It truly does take a long time to develop the art and craft of writing. Probably as long as it takes to become a professional musician. So you’ve got to be dedicated. You’ve got to find ways to not get distracted and you’ve got to write and write A LOT. Every day if you can.
We all know that writing is not a get-rich-quick plan. It is the get-rich-really-really-slow or not-at-all plan. You have got to do it because it feels like your calling, your destiny, or like something greater than you requires it of you. Otherwise, it’s just too hard of a profession. Of course, there are people who prove to be the exception. You just never know.
So you’re in the zone, in your writing cave. Does everything and everyone else disappear?
You ask such great questions! Yes, of course, this is one of the things I love about writing. I am what we call in the biz an intuitive writer. I don’t use an outline, I just let the story take form. With Wildflower, it was like watching a movie. In my imagination, I saw her walking through her life. I saw the story playing out like a film and simply wrote it down. I love it when stories come that way. Of course, the editing take 10 times longer than the first draft! If not more.
Susan will you be attending any events in the near future?
Most of my events these days are online. I do author readings and book clubs here in my neck of the woods, but I also do Skype calls and drop in on book clubs around the country. The way writers meet up with readers is changing so rapidly, it’s amazing. A lot of readers find me on Goodreads or on my facebook author page, or they find me through an interview like this one or by reading reviews. I’m happy to connect with them any way I can.
Thank you for answering the questions. Good luck with your newest novel and all your future endeavors too.
Thanks for your interest, Deb, and thanks for having me here on The Reading Frenzy. You have been a wonderful host. If any of your readers have further questions they can contact me through my website at www.susangabriel.com.
The Secret Sense of Wildflower is available on my website, as well as Amazon (paperback, ebook and audio), Barnes & Noble (paperback and ebook), ibooks, audible.com and any bookstore can order it very easily
The Giveaway: Register at The Reading Frenzy for the giveaway for one signed paperback copy of the novel and one ebook copy. ALSO, IF YOU SIGN UP FOR SUSAN’S MAILING LIST ON HER WEBSITE YOU WILL BE ENTERED INTO HER CONTEST FOR BOTH HER BOOKS. GOOD LUCK AND THANK YOU, SUSAN!