Author Interview: Susan Woodring (Springtime on Mars)

Look, an author interview! A while back I was contacted by — or maybe contacted, I don’t remember — by Mary Lewis of Book Stop Blog Tours. Time and events passed as they usually do, and soon enough I was sent a marvellous book of short stories to review as part of the author’s blog tour.

Behold: Springtime on Mars by Susan Woodring. (The title will take you to Amazon; the author name to her personal website).

After I read Springtime on Mars, I straightaway asked whether Susan would be available for interview purposes. She most definitely was:

1) So, who are you? Introduce yourself to us.

I am a homeschooling mother of two: Abby is almost 6 and little Aiden is almost 2. My stepson, Paul, will be 15 this summer. In addition to Springtime on Mars (Press 53, 2008), I am the author of a novel, The Traveling Disease (Main Street Rag, 2007). I live in western North Carolina with my kids and my husband, Danny.

2) How did these stories come into being? Were they written as a set, or written higgledy-piggledy and then amalgamated into one collection? Are there certain ones which mean more — or less — to you? Were there any stories that were particularly hard or particularly easy to write?

The stories in my collection were written over a period of about four years. I didn’t set out to write a collection, but was pleased to see a few common themes emerging among the stories I was working on. Once I started to see the book coming together, I wrote one final story, “Morning Again” specifically for the collection. Two of the stories, “Radio Vision” and “Inertia” seem to have almost written themselves. They just came out in a terrific burst and, though there’s always at least a little revision required, these two took less of it than most of what I write. The rest were labored over in many drafts and revisions. They are each very important to me, for different reasons. I’d say, though, that the title story and “The Core of Planet Earth” are maybe a bit more important to me for the ideas about fear and love, and loss and faith they represent.

3) The events of “Zenith, 1954” take place before those of “Radio Vision” but their order in Springtime on Mars is reversed. I think that was the right order to put them in; is it the original order? Did you conceive of these two stories separately, or as one tale that was later halved?

Yes, I wrote “Radio Vision” first, but was then compelled to go back and spend a bit more time with those characters. I wanted to re-envision them in the early days of their marriage, to disentangle them a bit and go back and see their beginnings. I wanted to see where Joe’s obsession with both God and science came from, and I wanted to see Marianne on the brink of motherhood—through writing “Radio Vision” I caught a glimpse of what being a mother meant to her, and I wanted to go back and see it more clearly. I’ve never written linked stories like this, but it was a very interesting experience. I think it can be a beneficial exercise for any writer to envision his/her characters at a different point in time, to figure out how their lives came together.

4) In short fiction in particular, it is the unmentioned details that make stories poignant. In “Morning Again” we are left to imagine what Liza’s trouble is, or why, exactly, Harold keeps his past life so secret. In “Beautiful,” the action seems to stop at the climax of the story—there’s no denouement. Most of what is going on behind-the-scenes stays there. As the author, do you feel like you know what’s happening underneath the surface of these stories? Or are they also mysteries to you?

Yes and no. When I am drafting a story, I believe most of the subtext and underlying themes are being pieced together through my subconscious. Ideas and concepts are coming together in ways I’m only half-aware of at that stage, and it’s never anything I really plan. Then, when I’m revising or doing subsequent drafts, I can see some of the underpinnings of the story, and I trim and elaborate portions or aspects of the story to bring it out maybe a bit more, though I truly value subtlety and try to be careful not to “tell” too much.

5) Talk to me about lightning.

First, let me warn you: it’s dangerous! And very beautiful, too. It was an important image to me in my story, “The Neighbors.” I was very interested in the idea of one being “struck” by a sudden turn of fortune; in the same story, another man is “struck” with sudden wealth. In writing that story, I was really interested in showing how quickly a person’s life can change in a lasting, far-reaching way.

As far as my journey as a writer goes, using lightning in this story was significant in that it was the first time I allowed myself to use a phenomena, or a bit of the strange, in my fiction. Though “The Neighbors” is the last story in the collection, I actually wrote it first. Before, I had written stories that were grounded in ordinary life and kind of stayed there. With this story, I stepped out of that a bit and began writing stories where the extraordinary and the ordinary intersect. I think it’s an important moment in the life of a writer—when you finally sort of let go, and just push through, cultivating your imagination.

6) A lot of the stories in Springtime on Mars take place around the 1950s-1970s. What, for you, is the appeal of these particular decades?

These decades, for me, represent such a balance of optimism and hope versus pessimism and an unsettling foreboding. On the one hand, it was during this time that our country experienced a great deal of growth. Economically, we became a wealthy nation. Also, technology and advances in science were grand on a scale beyond anything we’d seen in our history. Yet, there were so many downsides to all of this. Looking back, we have an advantage of perspective. The prosperity of the fifties gave way to a new brand of materialism. Materialism often breeds a vague sort of emptiness—the feeling that something is missing, but not really being able to pin-point what’s lost. I think there were many during this time who felt this way, especially when you think of how many of those who were adults in the ‘50’s were children during the Depression and came to age during World War II. The advances in science and technology gave us so much in terms of entertainment, convenience, and medical care. However, our technology also gave us, as the century marched on, new ways to destroy ourselves and more to fear throughout the Cold War Era. And, during the same era when we mapped out DNA and traveled to the moon, we, as a culture, adopted secularism on a much larger scale than ever before. We were beginning to grasp how amazing and vast our universe and the very elements of life were, and at the same moment, we dismissed God. We brought ourselves to a new height of wonder–and were utterly alone there.

7) It is clear from many of these stories that your faith as a Christian has influenced your writing. Does it work the other way around? Has your writing influenced your faith?

I think my faith, my writing, and my being a mother all work together to cultivate a sense of wonder. Everyday life—my kids, nature, the very complex and fascinating facets of thought and life and love—is in itself a miracle, a reason to both celebrate and contemplate, cause for both thoughtful introspection and outward expression. As a writer, I’m constantly training myself in the art of observation, both in the physical world around me—oh, how to capture the particular blue of this particular sky—and in the people around me, noting the tiny gestures, the insecurities, the doubts, and the glints of brilliance and doubt that flicker in and out of every lilt and sway of voice, every slight shift in expression, every word uttered. All of these observations give me a glimpse of what life is about, the sheer miracle of it, and more: about the one who created it all.

8) One last question: if you were trapped on a desert island, what three books would you NOT take with you? (Or, what do you think are the three most boring books in the world?)

When I was in high school, I suffered through The Fountainhead, and I don’t think I’d care to recreate that experience, but that doesn’t mean that I really shouldn’t read it again, or that I wouldn’t gain something from another go-through. Books, like everything else, are so subjective. I think the only true test of a good book is this: if the reader is compelled to turn this page, then the next one, that book has completed its task. I can learn something, as a reader and as a writer, from any book—I truly believe that. And besides, maybe I’d want a boring book on a desert island—a really good, engrossing book would just go by too quickly, wouldn’t it?

(End of interview).

I don’t have much more to say about Springtime on Mars besides the above — and I think what Susan wrote is more interesting than what I’d say, anyway. But if you were to take Springtime on Mars and apply any of the following adjectives: really good, engrossing, compelling, amusing, bittersweet, enlightening, sad, compact, delicate, regional, strongly characterized, utterly re-readable; that application would surely not be inappropriate.

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