Today on the Debutante Ball, we’re chatting with another debut novelist, Susan Rivers, who has a remarkable road-to-publication story below, but first, let’s learn about her novel, THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY.
When Major Gryffth Hockaday is called to the front lines of the Civil War, his new bride is left to care for her husband’s three-hundred-acre farm and infant son. Placidia, a mere teenager herself living far from her family and completely unprepared to run a farm or raise a child, must endure the darkest days of the war on her own. By the time Major Hockaday returns two years later, Placidia is bound for jail, accused of having borne a child in his absence and murdering it. What really transpired in the two years he was away?
Inspired by a true incident, this saga conjures the era with uncanny immediacy. Amid the desperation of wartime, Placidia sees the social order of her Southern homeland unravel as her views on race and family are transformed. A love story, a story of racial divide, and a story of the South as it fell in the war, The Second Mrs. Hockaday reveals how that generation–and the next–began to see their world anew.
I love stories based on true incidents, and this one sounds great! If you agree, which I’m sure you do, and you can enter to win a signed hardcover by retweeting on twitter:
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Now, on to the interview!
The road to publication is twisty at best — tell us about some of your twists.
How much time do you have? My road to publication is so twisted you’d need Dramamine to follow it all. On the way there were rockslides and a couple of bridge wash-outs, but as corny as it sounds, I wouldn’t do it over any differently. I’m a better writer now than I was in my twenties, and I believe that’s largely due to the obstacles I’ve faced and the miles I’ve racked up. I own that road!
I didn’t start out planning to be a novelist; I was going to be a playwright. Theater was a formative part of my young adulthood (especially since I picked up my husband during that period, a very talented director), but as I reached thirty, my perspective began to change. One summer I was at a theater festival in the Rockies, watching actors and writers waiting to use the lodge phone to call their children who lived thousands of miles away with their exes. I realized that one cannot work full-time in theater and expect to have a normal life. Family life. Doing theater is a life lived out of a suitcase.My husband and I gave up
My husband and I gave up theater and took “real” jobs while I continued to write, mostly freelance pieces for regional publications and also some short fiction. We had our daughter and lived in a four-room house in the fog beside Golden Gate Park. These were happy times, but when my husband was offered a job in North Carolina we jumped at the chance to go. We longed to experience an authentic world that was unlike anything we’d known in our lotus-eating land of the Left Coast. We wanted to be challenged. But less than a year after resettling in the small town of Wake Forest, the company that had convinced my husband to move out there downsized him.
Did we rush back to California? We did not, not even when Hurricane Fran plowed up our neighborhood a month later and a sweet gum crashed through our bedroom ceiling. Roads out of town were closed and we had no power for a week. But here was a twist I didn’t expect: by the time the roof was fixed and the AC came back on we realized that the south had bewitched us in all its paradoxical complexity. Tragic history, beauty, refinement, profundity, darkness, heat, poisonous snakes, towering talents and catastrophic energy: here the sacred and the profane are inextricably bound. Actually, I was hooked the first time I went to the farmer’s market, held up a cantaloupe and asked the man loading bins if his melons were sweet. He answered me without straightening up from his work: “Thass as sweet as my mama’s blood.” I thought: I’m making this my home for the rest of my life just to hear the truck farmers speak in breath-taking metaphors. It’s been twenty-two years and counting, and the things people say still take my breath away.
After my daughter went to college I continued to work as a freelance writer while earning my MFA in Fiction Writing at the low-residency program at Queens University in Charlotte. Then, in 2009, the Great Recession kicked our butts to the curb: took our jobs, our health insurance and our house. The whole messy meltdown. My husband and I moved to a small cottage in a small town in South Carolina and worked long hours as adjunct college instructors to keep the lights on and pay down our debts. And here’s the irony: in the town where we washed up I was collecting stories that blew my socks off. I was feeling very inspired to write. I finally finished my first novel and sent it to Susan Ginsburg, who became my agent. She coached me through several rewrites and I revised it again and made massive cuts and then she sent it to publishers. But the book didn’t sell.
At this point I expected her to say “See ya!” But instead she said, “Susan, I think you’re going to be one of those writers who is successful with her second novel, not her first. Go work on that book.” I didn’t see any way I was going to get another book written. I had my Alzheimers-afflicted mother to look after and I was teaching a full load of English classes to college students. (Anyone who’s been an adjunct instructor knows how all-consuming that work is.) And yet, in the summer of 2014 I decided to take a second look at an historical novel I’d been trying to write on and off for some years. I took my notes to the tiny library near my house and in their archives I stumbled across an account of an inquest from 1865. It concerned the death of a baby who was dug up at the end of the Civil War on a remote southern farm. The teenage war bride who bore the infant was charged with his murder. Inspiration hit me like a Category 4 hurricane. That was the genesis of the novel I finished by the end of the summer, THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY. I mailed it to Susan and she told me she was sending it out. That was it.
A month later I was at the university eating a sandwich during my break between classes and I saw I had three messages from Susan. I called her back and she told me there were a couple of editors who wanted to chat with me by phone. I figured she meant that they wanted to tell me how to rewrite the book. “Susan,” she said, cutting to the chase, “make those calls as soon as you’re free! We are selling this book by the end of the day!I didn’t know it was possible to projectile-weep, but I did so that day: the phone to my ear,
I didn’t know it was possible to projectile-weep, but I did so that day: the phone to my ear, sandwich at my feet, students staring open-mouthed at the English teacher losing her shit in the Wellness Lounge. I was going to be a published novelist. Not only that, but Algonquin Books, a publisher I had respected for many years, was going to be putting out the novel. This was the final twist: all the years of writing and working and surviving hurricanes, recessions and Comp 101 papers were paying off in that two-minute call. See? Mondo-twisty.
Jenni: Susan, I adore your story. You most certainly owned that road!
What’s your next big thing? (new book, project…)
I recently finished a draft of my second novel, tentatively titled FLY FROM ALL SORROWING. At one time there were literally hundreds of textile mills in the upstate region of South Carolina and in North Carolina’s piedmont, including at least two mills in the town where I live. The men who built these mills made enormous profits in the days before income taxes and federal labor laws came along to spoil the party. Their energy sources — the rivers that flow down from the Appalachian mountains — were free to exploit, and their labor pool of desperate white tenant farmers and impoverished mountain folk cost next to nothing, especially since children could be employed well into the 20th century. All of these “lintheads” were easily replaced if one of them lost an arm in a carding machine or was scalded to death by exploding plugs on a boiler. The culture that rose out of the mill communities and the values held by the workers who lived and died in them have persisted in this region with amazing tenacity. One of my students taught me the local saying that set this novel in motion for me: “don’t worry about the mule, just load the wagon.” Naturally, my question in response to that was and continues to be: how’s that working for the mule?
I don’t want to say too much about the book because it’s still in a somewhat fluid state, but I will say that I’ve worked with two igniting incidences based on historic local events. The first is a double lynching that took place in an upstate mill town a hundred years ago. Two black bootleggers were dragged out of jail by a mob and were hanged in retaliation for an alleged sexual assault against a white man. The “victim” was a millworker, as were the killers, none of whom were ever prosecuted. The second event is a catastrophic flood that swept away three mills on the nearby Pacolet River in 1903 and killed over sixty-five people. My protagonist, Calla Goforth, is a woman who works in the mill and is closely involved in both these events.
Courage, adversity, survival; everything I write seems to come back to those themes. I’ve always loved that poem of Yeats with the verse that reads: “Bred to a harder thing/ Than triumph, turn away…” If triumph isn’t on the agenda, you have to find a way not to be broken by circumstances. Southerners have turned not-being-broken into an art form.
Jenni: I love those themes and Calla sounds like she’s going to a very strong woman in your novel!
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Forget Hemingway’s old saw to “write what you know,” and instead, follow Henry James’ advice to “be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.” He encouraged writers to carry a notebook at all times and write down everything heard or seen that that has the ring of veracity or stimulates the imagination. I never go anywhere without a scrap of paper and a pencil in my pocket (and my smartphone is not the preferred medium for this). Pieces of overheard conversation, scenes, images and sayings like the one about the mule which I’ve collected in my various notebooks have sometimes been the origin of fictional narratives, or, at the least, have provided authentic details to fill out characterizations and anchor plot points.
In 1895, Henry James attended a cocktail party where the Archbishop of Canterbury told him a ghost story concerning a country estate with which they were both familiar. James jotted down some notes, went home and wrote Turn of the Screw. And we all know how well that turned out!
Jenni: Great advice! I’m constantly leaving myself little notes, typically by emailing myself.
Thanks so much for joining us, Susan!! Both you and your book are amazing 🙂
Susan Rivers was awarded the Julie Harris Playwriting Award for Overnight Lows and the New York Drama League Award for Understatements. She is also the recipient of two playwriting grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and has had short fiction published in the Santa Monica Review. She currently teaches literature and writing at University of South Carolina Upstate. The Second Mrs. Hockaday is her first novel.
For more information about Susan and her book, please visit susanriverswriter.com.