SPOTLIGHT: SUZANNE GATES

 
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Suzanne Gates began writing historical crime fiction after listening to family stories about her great-uncle, a gangster in 1930s Los Angeles. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine, and she lives in Southern California. THE GLAMOROUS DEAD is her first novel.

How does it feel to release your debut novel, THE GLAMOROUS DEAD, out into the world? 

It's a relief. The build-up to my launch date was stressful, even though now that it's over, I don't remember doing anything difficult. It was the idea of the book's publication that floored me. Now that it's out there, a done deal, I'm fine with it. I did see the book in a store and my stomach flip-flopped, but I guess I'll get used to it. Since the launch I've been to several bookstores signing stock, but it still kind of freaks me out. The name on the book is my name, but it doesn't seem like me.

 

What was one of the most surprising things you learned working on THE GLAMOROUS DEAD? 

I learned that the old list I'd made of writing "nevers" was complete baloney. I'd written this long list of what I'd learned from other writers, things like "never use 'ly' adjectives," "never use the word 'suddenly,'" stuff like that, and after writing and rewriting THE GLAMOROUS DEAD, I came across that list and saw that I'd broken almost every rule I'd set for myself. When I went back and checked those places in the manuscript, I didn't change a thing. 

 

Have your feelings about writing or the writing process changed since you first started writing THE GLAMOROUS DEAD?

Yes! I have never been someone who plots, but when I wrote the first draft of THE GLAMOROUS DEAD, I tried to plot it out. I ended up throwing away that entire version, 400 pages. It was flat, both in writing and in story. I guess I'd thought that to write a novel, a good, true novel, one had to have some map of where to go.

Next, I wrote a draft that began with me sitting in a chair, having no idea of what words would come out. This is funny to me, even as I'm writing down my thoughts now, because the story I'm currently writing is entirely dependent upon a map, and I had certain plot points that had to be included.

What's changed, then, is that I have realized I'm always in service to the story. Always. The story directs how it wants to be told, and it's my job to work on craft, keep working on craft, and listen to the story.

 

From idea to publication, how long did it take you to write THE GLAMOROUS DEAD? If you could go back, is there anything you’d change about that process?

I would skip that first useless draft! I'd go right to the part where I began listening to the story. As it was, the book took me a good ten years. Part of that was the time it took to sell the book.

My wonderful agent never gave up on a story she believed in, and kept shopping the book--through 47 rejections! But--and here's the point of it all--the 48th was not a rejection. The editor who bought my book believed in the story as strongly as my agent. 

 

“Our ideas often come from the stories that wrap our families, and that's certainly the origin of my current project.”

 

What project are you currently working on? Can you give us a sneak preview or any details?

I'm writing a re-visioning of TREASURE ISLAND, that essential adventure story by Robert Louis Stevenson. My version is set in 1934 Los Angeles. The "island" is the historic core of downtown L.A., and the "pirates" are gangsters.

It's the story of a boy who leaves his family of migrant pickers to take a summer job as a "runner" for the gangster Jelly Jones. The boy hopes the move will change his life, and it does--but not in the way he expects.

Sounds like YA, doesn't it? Yet, I'm writing to an adult audience, and I have all kinds of historical figures popping in and out: Al Capone, John Dillinger, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, and even Pancho Villa make appearances.

For me, this is a story that honors my own father, whose family were migrant pickers during the Depression and "followed the fruit," as they used to say--picking whatever was ripe up and down the Sacramento Valley, to Oregon and back. My father's bleak childhood came alive when his gangster uncle would visit and tell him stories of Los Angeles. Our ideas often come from the stories that wrap our families, and that's certainly the origin of my current project.

 

What challenges or fears do you face in your writing routine and what steps have you taken--or do you take--to overcome them?

I have one fear and one challenge.

The fear comes when I haven't written for a while and I need to get back to it. Then I feel the fear physically: sick stomach, tight muscles especially in my neck, shoulders, and arms. If I keep writing, even a bit a day, I don't feel that fear.

But this is where the challenge comes in, because I also work full time and I cannot write for weeks at a time. There's no remedy for a home mortgage except work, so that's what I do. It's my challenge.

The result: Every few weeks or months I have to kick that fear and write anyway. I don't have a way around this. I force myself to sit in my chair, and I start each session by writing a journal entry. I have pages and pages of short paragraphs filled with nothing but describing how my body is feeling as I write, and then somehow I transition from a focus on my body to a focus on story. It happens every time.

It turns out that I overcome fear of writing by...writing! 

 

“I can only be in service to the story if I have sufficient craft to tell that story.”

 

What were the highlights of your editorial work with Free Expressions or attendance at a workshop? How would you describe its overall effect on your professional/creative trajectory?

I have been to many Free Expressions workshops. I've traveled to Houston, Seattle, Portland, and Austin to attend them. Each time, the highlight has been my one-on-one time with Don Maass.

I'm humbled by his ability to get at the heart of a story. He is a great teacher--and I say that having taught for over twenty-five years. Some people are born with the ability to bring out the best in others, and he has that gift. His early encouragement of the concept behind THE GLAMOROUS DEAD gave me the strength to dump my first draft and begin again, working on character depth and developing historical figures as important voices within the plot.

One of the most important characters in THE GLAMOROUS DEAD is the great actress Barbara Stanwyck, and I'd been afraid to give her a storyline and dialogue. After all, she was a real woman with a very distinct personality. In my one-on-one with Don, he wouldn't accept my excuse. We discussed the ethical boundaries of developing historical figures as fictional characters. Don said to develop her personality, and so I did. I now think her character is one of the highlights of the book.

 

What advice do you have for writers in terms of seeking out editorial services or determining what workshops or conferences would best suit their needs?

Best advice: Go to a Breakout Novel Intensive. Then go again, working on the same book. Then go again, with a different project. I've been to the week-long intensives several times, and each time I've been able to strengthen and deepen my writing.

Other than that, the best conferences I've been to have been the annual Romance Writers of America conferences, even though I do not write romance. There are always several craft workshop threads, appealing to writers at differing levels of writing strength and career advancement. I don't go to many of them now, but in the past, I have never been disappointed. 

 

What does your dream writing retreat look like?

An ocean view, lots of iced tea, a comfortable chair, and nothing but surf sounds. And no laundry. 

 

“Writers hold out two hands, one to touch the writers who come before, one to reach the writers who come after. We honor both.”

 

What outside hobbies or interests feed your writing?

Nonstop reading. I read before I go to sleep. I remember being told by one of my college professors that writers hold out two hands, one to touch the writers who come before, one to reach the writers who come after. We honor both. I had not read many mysteries by women writers, and I could feel that absence in my own writing. Last summer I read nearly everything Agatha Christie wrote, and then I read all of Dorothy L. Sayers' books. Now I'm beginning Dorothy B. Hughes' masterpiece, IN A LONELY PLACE. After that, I'm focusing on Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson. 

 

What compels you to write in a particular genre?

I began writing mysteries because of a murder committed when I was in my twenties. A grade school friend of my own best friend became a victim of a serial killer.

We were all raised in the same working-class neighborhood, and when Maureen's body was found in Oregon's Molalla forest, my friends and I kept asking this question: Why her, and not me? Why did she, and not me, step into the wrong car? We were stunned by her death. Absolutely stunned. Why not me?

There is a simple answer, and a complex answer. The simple: I did not become a drug addict, and Maureen did. This was luck, as I had ingested my fair share. But the complex answer is why I keep writing. It's because I don't know the answer, and by excavating the past and layering on mysteries, I keep trying to figure it out.

 

FAST FACTS

What are you currently reading?
Currently I'm reading Eleanor Roosevelt's YOU LEARN BY LIVING. She wrote this book three years before her death in 1963, addressing her grand- and great-grandchildren who might gain from what she learned throughout her life. She discusses eleven life lessons, though I've only read through two so far. The first lesson is on pushing through fear, and timely for me, as I'm facing a hefty revision of my second book.

If you could enter the world of any novel, which would it be?
Put me in Dorothy L. Sayers' GAUDY NIGHT! This is her masterwork, set in a rare women's college in late 1930s Oxford, a mystery with rich discussions of what it means to be a woman in education, and the social implications of giving up dreams of family for academic achievement. All this, with a rising background of fascism in Europe and the protagonist's own dilemma of what marriage would mean to her autonomy as a woman and as a writer. I want to button up my academic regalia and follow Harriet Vane.

Do you write to music, or do you prefer silence?
I prefer silence. I do like hearing the dishwasher rumbling downstairs, because that makes me feel like I'm getting things done.

Is there a specific food or drink that fuels your writing?
I can drink iced tea all day long. On a cold day or if I've got a cold I'll drink hot tea, but all that varies is the type and temperature. Tea, tea, tea.

Find out more about Suzanne and her book on her website. You can order THE GLAMOROUS DEAD from Barnes and Noble.

 


UPCOMING EVENTS

STORY 360
Tampa, FL
March 24-25, 2018

Wellington, FL
May 5-6, 2018

Houston, TX
July 14-15, 2018

BREAKOUT NOVEL INTENSIVE
Hood River, OR
April 9-15, 2018

Tampa, FL
September 9-15, 2018

EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION
Philadelphia , PA
November 2-4, 2018

BONI GRADUATE LEARNING RETREAT
San Diego, CA

February  26-March 4, 2018


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