Susan Kelly, a writer under control

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 8, 2011

By Deirdre Parker Smith
If you ever needed a professional organizer for your writing projects, Susan Kelly would be the one to call.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the Friends of the Library at Rowan Public Library, she breezed through an interesting and revealing talk about writing and how she does it.
She’s full of quick quotes like, “There’s as much heroic in getting out of bed in the morning as in the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey.’ ” And “I’m as fascinated with what’s in people’s carts in Costco as what makes them tick.”
A tireless observer, she does what most of us do not — she sees, she writes it down, she files it and she uses it in some form in her next book.
“I’m a huge library rat,” she said, “I live at the library.” She explained her agent made her get on Twitter, and now she’s always posting, things like which books she read at the library. If she likes the book enough, if she needs it enough, she will buy a copy.
Her most recent book, “By Accident,” came out in 2010, with the paperback version coming soon. It’s what she calls her grief book, about a mother whose son dies in an accident as they’re on the way to the beach.
The mother, Laura, becomes paralyzed by grief. She begins to question everything in her life, and is particularly disturbed that her neighborhood is being torn down to build McMansions. She meets a young tree man, and comes to realized he’s either a replacement for her son or an object of desire.
What follows is a series of betrayals that will change her forever.
“Domestic realism” is what Kelly calls her books, which usually are about relationships, particularly women’s friendships. “By Accident” is a little different; she calls it “a study of grief, loss and recovery.”
The change in theme is a “study of change — forced change, required change, accidental change, intentional change in each character.”
There’s a phrase she uses in all her books, “a necessary sadness.” It’s “very hard to describe, but I know it when I see it.”
She assures the audience that the book is not autobiographical, thank you very much. And we found out later that her husband and adult children do not read her books.
Her husband likes non-fiction, history, philosophy; her children aren’t that interested. In fact, no one reads her books before she submits them to her agent. “I’m too high on control. … I don’t need all those different opinions.”
Kelly says “all of my books are coming-of-age books, in that the main character has to confront a situation” which will lead them “never to look at life the same way again.”
Kelly’s character, Laura, loses so much, but she learns so much at the same time.
“We absorb pain and continue to go on,” Kelly says.
The details in “By Accident” are autobiographical. “We really did go skitching,” she says. On snowy or icy roads, they tied a rope to a car, sat on a cookie sheet with rope in hand and careened wildly along the streets.
She actually saw a wreck as she and her family were on the way to the beach and looked in her rearview mirror to check on her son, who was driving separately. She couldn’t see him at first, and was terrified. She experienced a severe storm with a microburst which flattened everything around her, blew out the car windows and left her without power for three weeks.
“So I used the trees that came down, that were a jungle of spiraling branches.”
It’s all in the meticulous files she keeps, labeled, cross referenced, with topics like mother, father, the fair, and names — “You can’t do Bo and Rob and Pat and Ann,” she says. “You can’t do Molly and Kathy and Sally,” all too similar for readers to remember.
Her then-young son let a balloon go once and said, “Send it back, send it back.” Another of her children had to write a report about the Sioux “not making a comeback.” These phrases ended up in a file. She even scribbled “new wallpaper smells a lot like Band Aids.”
Before being a writer, she says she was a knitter, then laughs. She was also a litigation paralegal who summarized depositions. “I loved it.”
But Kelly does not read non-fiction, except for The New Yorker.
John Updike is ner No. 1 favorite author because of his realism. She’s recently read “Room,” by Emma Donoghue, and loved it. She liked “Cutting for Stone,” anything by Alice Munro or Ian McEwan; she just finished Kate Atkinson’s “Started Early, Took My Dog.” She likes Stewart O’Nan and especially Joanna Trollope.
As organized as she is, Kelly doesn’t just write and revise — she revises six times. She starts by writing a chapter or three, single-spaced, in sequence. Then she redoes it double-spaced, makes a hard copy and hits it with a red marker. Then it starts all over again.
“I like to vanish into someone else’s world,” she says. “I like characters I can relate to. … My greatest hope is that” readers will say “I know exactly what she’s talking about.”