Magical thinking and different kinds of danger: A conversation with Suzanne Greenberg
There would be no more sitting alone on the benches that bordered the blacktop of the playground in the punishing afternoon sun while mothers all around her were busy with their gossipy conversations and fundraising packets. There would be no more waiting for her daughter to wander out of her classroom, always last, her sweater left behind, some important notice stuffed into the depths of her backpack, where Beth would find it only when whatever crucial date had already passed.
There would be no need to explain to Mrs. Miramir that her husband had left them both two weeks ago, so please be patient if Jennifer seemed not quite herself.
–Excerpt from Lesson Plans, by Suzanne Greenberg (Prospect Park Books, 2014).
LESSON PLANS is a Library Journal Editor’s Spring Fiction Pick and was chosen by Readers Digest as “One of Seven Books from Small Presses Worth Your Time.” Cai Emmons recently took some time to chat with Suzanne about the process of writing Lesson Plans, the challenge of creating interlocking narratives, and fellow writers who inspire.
CAI EMMONS: I love the way each chapter in Lesson Plans can be read as a discrete story, and yet all the chapters together converge into a novel which also has an arc. There is a unity created by the fact that all the characters are homeschoolers and by the Southern California location. This made me wonder about how the novel began. What was the original kernel?
SUZANNE GREENBERG: I’m not a native of California, but I’ve lived here for 18 years now. When my children were small, I spent a lot of time outdoors at playgrounds, and I was intrigued by a family I ran into often at my favorite park. They were progressive and smart and fun to talk to and had two young children who ran around the playground happily wearing boys swim trunks, their dark blond hair uncombed and matted. It took me weeks to figure out that one was a boy and one was a girl. When I began Lesson Plans, I found that these two children had morphed into David’s three “ducklings” in the first chapter.
I was also inspired in part by how overwhelmed I was by the amount of work it took to get my kids through elementary school. Not helping them with their schoolwork–that was the easy part. I’m talking about all the papers to fill out for field trips and picture days. The bring-a-flower-for-your teacher day, the special hat days and donut days and wrapping paper fundraisers. So much to keep track of, so many ways of failing as a mother. I imagined a character who just decided to drop out of the whole thing, which, for her, meant taking her daughter along with her. I think these were my initial inspirations for Lesson Plans, along with just a kind of general interest in what seemed to me more and more people talking about homeschooling their children for a huge variety of reasons.
CE: You have done a wonderful job of interweaving the viewpoints of five different characters. This is a real balancing act. Can you speak to some of the challenges of structuring a novel with so many different points of view? Did you conceive of it being this way from the beginning, or did you add or subtract viewpoints along the way?
SG: I had fun with the different points of view. I think because I was a short story writer long before I tackled writing a novel, I thought of each chapter as having its own arc and voice. So approaching chapters in different voices felt fairly natural to me. I’ve always enjoyed taking a perspective very different from my own when writing fiction. When I first began writing stories, I often wrote them from the point of view of a man or a female character who was much older or younger than I was. There’s great freedom in that for a writer. I see that in your work, too, Cai!
While I thought the varying points of view were fun–and I hoped effective–I toyed around with cutting a point-of-view or two during the revision process, but I ended up leaving them all in. I did move the chapters around, which required me to shift the order of some of the storytelling and plot points. Similar to balancing out a collection of short stories, the novel had to balanced in terms of voice and perspective.
CE: Yes, I think shifting point of view can spin a story in interesting ways, and it’s so useful in terms of pacing. One of your viewpoint characters is a child, Jennifer. I love the point in the book where she surmises that Eleanor’s life has been exchanged for hers, a great example of the wonderful magical thinking of childhood. Can you talk about how you were able to find access to her way of thinking.
SG: It seems to me that children are both burdened and gifted with the belief that the world centers around them. Of course, some adults never quite outgrow this perspective! Jennifer feels responsible for her parents’ separating and for her food allergies. She believes that she should be able to control her reactions to food, also a kind of magical thinking–one she shares with her father, at least until he’s proven wrong.
CE: You write with a wonderful tongue-in-cheek humor, and some of the situations your characters find themselves in are delightfully wacky, such as the underwater wedding that Keith is supposed to photograph. Are these ideas that come to you spontaneously, or do you go in search of them?
SG: There’s something heartbreaking and charming to me about people wanting to be unique. It is just wacky. I remember seeing a teenage girl tap dancing without any background music on a little platform overlooking the ocean in Laguna Beach once, her little brother filming her. It was probably for some social networking site, but maybe it was part of her application to college. Who knows? I love moments like this. No need to seek them out–if you live in Southern California anyway.
CE: The tone at the end of the book is neither upbeat or downbeat, much like most of life itself. One character is dead, several characters are disappointed in love, but everyone seems to have something to hope for. How much conscious manipulation did this take on your part?
SG: I realized I had a set up a lot of situations that were full of different kinds of danger, and I knew something awful eventually had to happen to one of the characters. Without giving away too much, I did think carefully about who might die and who might be forced to adjust and grow. I found myself going back and making changes to earlier chapters once I wrote the ending, adding in some hints or clue that would make the ending make sense and still be a surprise.
I guess the book does in some ways reflect my view of life. I know in the past I’ve spent time worrying about a situation that turned out fine and have been caught off guard by something else I perhaps should have worried about all along. As I get older, I worry less, but, like Beth, one of my characters, there was a time in my life when I believed my worry actually kept my world afloat. Now that’s definitely magical thinking!
CE: Who are some of your writer heroes?
SG: There are so many writers I admire and learn from constantly, but I always come back to Michael Cunningham. His first novel, A Home at the End of the World, sentence by sentence, never fails to move me. I was lucky enough, years ago, to take a workshop with him. He was a great teacher, too–not always the case with great writers.
CE: I love hearing this, as he is one of my heroes also. In addition to being a wonderful writer, he is gracious and giving to others. I have no tolerance for writers who are unwilling to help other writers. We definitely need one another!
Suzanne Greenberg is the author of Lesson Plans and the award-winning Speed-Walk and Other Stories, which won the 2003 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. She is the co-author of two novels for children, Abigail Iris: The One and Only and Abigail Iris: The Pet Project as well as the book Everyday Creative Writing: Panning for Gold in the Kitchen Sink, and has published her fiction, creative essays and poetry in a number of publications. She teaches creative writing at California State University, Long Beach.
Cai Emmons is the award-winning author of His Mother’s Son and The Stylist. Her essays, stories, and reviews have appeared in Arts and Letters, Narrative Magazine, The New York Post, Portland Monthly, and The Oregon Quarterly, among other publications. Originally trained as a dramatist, Cai has also written and directed for stage, film, and television. She lives in Eugene, Oregon and teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon.