Every once in awhile, Novel Matters will highlight a writer we enjoy. Susan Fish is one of those writers. She's penned a lovely, moving novel called Ithaca that hit shelves in early October. We think you'll want to get your hands on this book. Spend some time today getting to know this writer.
Novel Matters: Susan, welcome to Novel Matters! Tell us about your latest novel, Ithaca.
Susan Fish: For 39 years, Daisy Turner has been a professor’s wife, typing his notes and helping out. The centrepiece of her life is a weekly community dinner she hosts—one that always features soup. The sudden death of her husband leaves her unmoored. Then, suddenly, Daisy finds herself entangled with a man whose wife is disabled, mothering a young activist-farmer, and swept into the controversy about fracking that has begun to concern their small Ivy League town. Ithaca explores what happens when a quiet, almost sedimentary life meets the high-pressure forces of a small town. How do you rebuild after life as you know it is suddenly turned upside down—or is fracked?
NM: Fracking. Uh. . . help us out here.
SF: Fracking or hydraulic fracturing is a new method for drilling for natural gas and oil. Rather than digging a well and getting a gusher (à la Beverly Hillbillies), fracking involves an intense injection of water, sand and chemicals into shale rock in such a way that the rock gets fractured and then all the tiny deposits of natural gas that were trapped between layers of rock are sucked out.
NM: Oh, that sounds simple and clean, and couldn’t possibly have any adverse effects on the environment. I’ve read the novel, Susan, and I know this isn’t an “issues” novel—
SF: Whew. That was obviously my hope, too. I didn’t want this to be an afterschool special type of book.
NM: And it totally isn’t! If I were pressed to classify the story, I’d say it’s a literary novel examining complex relationships between people, roles, and expectations about life. Two thumbs up for avoiding the soapbox! In fact, you don’t serve up easy answers about any of the issues you tackle in Ithaca. Still, the idea came from somewhere, what was the inspiration?
SF: I visited Ithaca, New York in the summer of 2011 and saw all sorts of signs up that said “No Fracking.” I had no idea what fracking was, and it was months later that I looked the word up.
NM: A summer trip to NY, and signs about fracking. How did that meld into story form for you?
SF: When I found out about fracking, I was already in the early stages of a novel about two older women who lived together, creating a sort of family. I knew that one was widowed and the other was recently retired. When I started thinking about fracking, it felt like in many ways fracking paralleled my characters’ experiences—their lives had been suddenly and potentially dangerously been fractured from all that had been settled and good.
NM: I think many people can relate to that. To having something happen in their life that breaks apart the solid foundation.
SF: I think because fracking became a metaphor for sudden loss and change, balancing the story with the issues of fracking came easily.
NM: Oh, please don’t tell me writing for you is easy! Pretty please! Tell me there were hard parts about writing this lovely novel.
SF: Oh, don’t worry. There were hard parts. What I found most challenging with this book was figuring out how my character would respond to the issue in a way that was true to who she was. I spent a lot of time with index cards figuring out the process.
NM: Your main character goes through a kind of growing up—maturing—even though she’s past middle aged. Was she one of those characters that arrive in the writer’s mind fully formed, or did she come at you in bits and pieces?
SF: I knew a lot about Daisy very early on and her voice was really clear to me. I knew that she hosted a weekly soup supper and that her husband had died suddenly. I knew that she had collections. It took me quite a while to settle on a name for her. A lot of this story came to me while walking my dog around our neighbourhood in the early evenings of autumn 2011. People had their lights on but had left their curtains open, and so I could see the stuff of people’s lives, the small domestic dramas being lived out faithfully.
NM: Yes! Novel writing via Peeping Tommery! Awesome!
SF: OK, no need to panic—I didn’t stop and watch, but it was hard not to be drawn to the scenes, as if they were small tableaux. I started imagining a woman whose house was filled with stuff that told her story, but whose life had been fractured. I should also say that I once knew a woman whose professor husband did die of a massive heart attack in a faculty meeting, but I don’t know how her story went, so it was not based on more than the facts.
NM: You and I have talked about this, Susan, and I’m dying to know what you decided: who would you want to play Daisy in the movie version?
SF: Oh, that’s a tough one. At first I thought Annette Bening and then Blythe Danner or Emma Thompson. I’m still not sure. Someone shortish and blonde and middle aged and able to be quiet, but with passion at the core. I’d love to hear who others see as Daisy.
NM: You took some risks: the novel is introspective, the main character is 58 years old, the whole issue/story balancing act. What drove you to create the novel this way?
SF: On September 11, 2001, my eldest child started kindergarten and the world blew up. That afternoon, I took my kids to a local farmers’ market and we bought corn—and then when the kids were asleep, we devoured the news of what was going on, and we shook. My actions were really deliberate because I did not want my kids to be shaped by fear. Someone later told me that this was a political act, as much as anything else I could have done. I believe in small actions making a difference, and I love reading and telling small, intimate, human stories. I really like that Daisy is a bit older and ordinary—because I think it challenges all of us as readers to see ourselves and our lives as stories, and to ask why we make the choices we do, and how we might think differently about our lives.
NM: Thinking about our lives. Let’s talk a bit about your life. How did you get sucked into the writing game?
SF: It got me early! There are two key points that mark the start of my writing history. The first was when I was in grade three and wrote a Christmas themed story about two sisters named Charlotte and Holly. My teacher liked it so much she had me write it out on Gestetner paper and illustrate it (this latter was a bad idea) and made copies for the school library.
NM: I know what Gestetner paper is, and I’m taking a moment to celebrate this fact. Woo Hoo! Okay. I’m good. What was the second point?
SF: Do you remember what the ink smelled like? I do! The second pivotal point came when I was working for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and I realized that one of my favourite parts of my job was writing letters to my supporters. No one else liked doing that. It led me to apply for work where my job was to tell stories.
NM: And you like stories that include food! Soup plays an important role in Ithaca. Here at Novel Matters, we love so many novels that include recipes as part of the story. The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister, and Jan Karon’s Mitford Series come to mind – though Jan Karon published a complete recipe book with recipes mentioned in the series. Do you plan to include your soup recipes in the novel? Or would you consider a supplemental recipe book to go with Ithaca?
SF: I so enjoyed The School of Essential Ingredients and all Jan Karon’s books! Yum! After I finished writing this book, I decided I really should develop recipes to correspond with the chapter titles (all of which are indeed soup names). My poor family ate a lot of soup last year. I decided not to include the recipes in the book but I am releasing a recipe a week on my blog (susanfishwrites.wordpress.com) this fall.
NM: Can you share one of your favourite soup recipes with us?
SF: One of my favourites is the soup Daisy serves at Thanksgiving, which is Three Sisters Soup, based on the First Nations practice of growing beans, squash and corn together. Here’s the recipe for this soup:
Three Sisters Soup
In 1 Tbsp olive oil, sauté 1 stalk celery, chopped, 4 cloves garlic 1 onion, chopped, 1 tsp thyme. Add 2 cups cooked pumpkin or winter squash, 2 cups corn (2 cobs), 1 cup black beans, cooked (or other legume), 4 cups vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer. Add a dash of Sriracha sauce (or other hot sauce) and a splash of lime juice, salt and pepper.
NM: Along with homey soup, beekeeping is also part of the storyline of Ithaca. Seriously! Bees and honey. It felt so easy and natural to the story, that it makes me wonder if you knew lots about beekeeping prior to writing the novel, or did that require research?
SF: I spent an afternoon at a retreat talking with a beekeeper about beekeeping a few years ago. Bees are utterly fascinating to me. The small community where we have spent summers (on Quebec’s Gaspe peninsula) is home to an amazing beekeeping family who sell delicious varieties of honey. I think that played an influential role too. Beyond that, I did some Googling of bee facts. My favourite bee fact is that bees only live six weeks and so they never actually consume the honey they participate in making—they eat what others have made, and leave honey behind for those who come afterwards. That seems profound.
NM: Love it. I’ll be thinking about bees all day now. We know you run an editing business, tell us about your writing schedule.
SF: I write every day and a lot but a lot of that is for my editing company or for clients. It’s easy for fiction to get shoved to the side. I decided I was going to prioritize fiction writing on Fridays, which I call Fiction First Friday. I don’t think I have a preferred time to write, or at least, I don’t necessarily have that luxury. I’m no good for anything right after lunch, but other than that, I feel like the show must go on. Planning to write fiction on Fridays, though, means that I’m ready to sit down and write when Friday comes around.
NM: With all that going on, how long did it take you to write Ithaca?
SF: It took me about a year and a half in total to write Ithaca. Toward the end of the writing process, it was winter and my paid work was slow and I wrote and wrote and wrote this book pretty much every day.
NM: After reading Ithaca, readers are going to want a new novel from you as soon as possible. What are you working on now?
SF: I actually have two other unpublished novels so maybe those will be next. I’m about to embark on writing a cookbook about our local farmers’ market. I’m also slowly working on a novel about a fascinating woman who built a castle in the 1920s.
NM: Susan, thanks for stopping by, thanks for sharing, and thanks for writing such a smart, homely, lovely novel. How do we get a copy of Ithaca?
SF: Thanks so much for having me! Ithaca is available in all the usual places—the links are below. It can also be available in your local bookstore: all they need to know is the title and my name, and they can order it in.
Grab a copy of Ithaca online at one of these links:
Kindle (US): http://www.amazon.com/Ithaca-Susan-Fish-ebook/dp/B00N59J4XC/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1413989605&sr=1-3&keywords=ithaca
Kindle (Canada): http://www.amazon.ca/Ithaca-Susan-Fish-ebook/dp/B00N59J4XC/ref=sr_1_1_twi_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1413989629&sr=8-1&keywords=ithaca
Amazon (Canada): http://www.amazon.ca/Ithaca-Susan-Fish/dp/099389030X/ref=sr_1_1_twi_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1413989629&sr=8-1&keywords=ithaca
Amazon (US): http://www.amazon.com/Ithaca-Susan-Fish/dp/099389030X/ref=sr_1_15_twi_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1413989671&sr=8-15&keywords=ithaca