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For the week of March 28 through April 3, 2001

Novelist Susan Straight to read

Express Arts Editor

One of the first things novelist and teacher Susan Straight said to me when I called her at home in Riverside, Calif., was, "Someone hit my car again. They left a note saying ‘I hit your car and ran away, but now I feel guilty.’ I’ll go outside later and see if I can figure out which dent is new."

Straight, who will be at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts Thursday evening for a 7 o’clock reading and reception, lives three blocks from the Riverside hospital in which she was born. She is white, the single mother of three and a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside.

And none of that information gives you much insight into her fiction. For Straight has written novels about a black firefighter struggling with the responsibilities of fatherhood while his friends fall prey to drugs and guns; a large black woman in swampy South Carolina; and, most recently, a Mexican woman who meets up with and has children with a methamphetamine freak.

All of this perhaps speaks to the point that the depth and truth of fiction is limited only by scope of the author’s sensibilities, which in Straight’s case are considerable.

Straight grew up in Riverside, then went to U.S.C. and, as she said, "went home every weekend." At the age of 24 she received a Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. With the first snows at Amherst, she found herself turning the heat of her apartment up to 80 degrees and writing about tumbleweed and crows. "I knew then I wanted to write about home."

Though she was lonely and living in a foreign geography, Straight found the experience valuable. "I had time to work and figure out what I [wanted] to write about. Sometimes you have to be lonely so you can feel yourself." After graduation Straight went back to her hometown.

"I tell my students that the hardest time you will have is after you graduate. Right about then my friends started dying and going to jail…I was struggling." She worked for the Job Corps, taught and counseled gang members. She was sending her stories to the New Yorker with some positive feedback. "They liked them, but they said my world was just a little too grim for them. Well… yeah, it was for me, too."

After a while, she stopped submitting stories for publication. Then a professor from graduate school, Jay Newborn, called her up and took her to task for not sending her stories out. Slowly, Straight began to get stories published in literary magazines. She subsequently won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, which provided her the opportunity to publish a collection of short stories entitled, Aquaboogie.

Publishing her second book was quite a bit easier. It was a novel, I Been In Sorrow’s Kitchen And I Licked Out All The Pots, and was bid upon at auction by five publishers.

Even with that experience, though, Straight has a fairly sober attitude about her profession. "Nobody is going to wake up and say, ‘write me a story today.’ "

Nonetheless, Straight does get up every day and write. She wrote and published her second novel, Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights, in 1994. And her third novel, Highwire Moon is coming out in August. This is all on top of teaching a full load of classes at U.S.C. Riverside, volunteering in prisons and youth workshops and raising three children, aged 11, 9 and 5.

"I used to like to get a first draft for a new novel done before I went out on book tour with the previous one, but with the third child that sort of went out the door," she said.

As far as writing goes, having children has made Straight "more disciplined. Once you have kids, you can’t drink coffee and wait for the muse to strike. When the kids go to bed, you’ve got to get going."

Straight, who just turned 40, has been teaching for 13 years. "I really like my students. I like to see what they are writing about, what they are saying." And she doesn’t ever bring her own writing into the workshops, except peripherally.

She relayed a story she told her students a while back. It had to do with writing her last novel. "I thought all along I knew who the killer was," she said, as if there were other forces at work she didn’t entirely control. "I told my students that there has to be a mystery and a passion there when you write." The implication was obvious: if it isn’t there when you write, it certainly won’t be there when someone finally reads it.

Straight’s reading, part of the Sun Valley Center’s program West Word: Fiction from the New West, is free and open to the public.




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