Nonfictionist: Susan Kushner Resnick

Today, I am pleased to introduce you to Susan Kushner Resnick, author of Sleepless Days and the forthcoming Goodbye Wifes and Daughters, which is coming out on March 1 from The University of Nebraska Press. Sue took the time out to share some thoughts about her writing process, her motivation, her first book and more.

Your site says you learned about this coal mine disaster while on vacation in the town. Did you really just go start interviewing right away? What was that like?
Yes. We were at this restaurant/saloon/pig racing place. I left my family at the outside pig racing track and went to the bar. I distinctly remember not even getting a drink because I didn’t want to say something stupid to the people there. You know – little New Englander among Montanans, one of whom was actually wearing a cowboy hat. I honestly don’t remember the first person I queried, but they were all very nice and forthcoming. The town is so tiny that the town historian was at the bar and the mayor’s wife was one of the bartenders.

At what point did you know this was something you needed to write a book about, as opposed to just an essay or article? Was there a tipping point or did you just know from the start?
I think I knew from the start, once I realized no one had ever written a book about it. Besides, I think it takes about as much energy to propose and write a book than it does to get an article into a major magazine. And, usually, the book publishers don’t arbitrarily decide to kill the story after all that work.

I love the soundtrack post on your blog. (I make soundtracks for everything!) How does music figure into your writing life?
I do a lot of “writing” while I’m running or driving around. Meaning ideas and scenes come into my head when I’m not thinking about writing. Both activities are always accompanied by music, so I guess there’s a synergistic thing going on there.  I never play music while I actually type.

I noticed the title says “wifes” rather than “wives.” I imagine there’s a story there. Can you tell us about that without giving away too much?
Two stories. Five of the miners lived for 90 minutes in the mine before dying. They pulled boards off boxes that held explosives and wrote farewell notes to their families. One of the notes was this: “Goodbye wifes and daughters. We died an easy death. Love from us both. Be good.” One of the men wrote the same message on his helmet. The second story involves that grammatical error. I didn’t want the families to think I was pointing out their relatives’ ignorance by using “wifes,” but I knew the exact quote would show who these men were. I also worried about people thinking I was stupid or my publisher was really bad at copy editing. We had lots of editorial discussions about it, but the majority believed the misspelling would make the cover more compelling. I still worry…

This is not your first book. Tell us about your experience writing Sleepless Days.
Sleepless Days was my Goucher manuscript. This was way back in 1999, when the MFA program was new and rather raw (pre-Patsy). My mentor liked the story idea (the book is a memoir of my experience with postpartum depression, something no American had published before) and encouraged me to use my first few assignments as material for a proposal. Then she let me send it to her agent, who picked it up right away and immediately sold it to her best friend, who had just started a publishing imprint with her very established husband. I had a contract before I graduated. But all that ease didn’t last. The first publisher folded before the book came out and the second had no investment in the project. My sales were terrible.

Since Sleepless Days is a memoir and Goodbye Wifes and Daughters isn’t, how different were they to write?
While I had postpartum depression, I took lots of notes. Being a journalist, I knew I might want to use the material later. We’re always on duty, even when going crazy! So, writing the book basically involved transcribing all those notes and prettying up the writing. I don’t mean to brag, but it was easy. Wifes, on the other hand, required years of research, which I love, and organizing interviews and data into a coherent narrative. Much harder than just telling my personal story. I really had to use the bird-by-bird technique so I wouldn’t get overwhelmed.

What do you consider your strength as a writer? What comes naturally?

First person. For years, I wanted to be a daily newspaper columnist. But I guess that wasn’t my “path.”

And on the flip side, what do you have to work on most in your writing?
Suspense. Again, as a  journalist (I got my B.A. degree in magazine journalism from Syracuse’s Newhouse school), I’m used to putting the crux of the story up top. And I have trouble keeping secrets, so I just want to blurt out the good stuff right away. But holding back and pacing is so important. I don’t think I’ve ever learned it in a classroom. But reading good fiction helps. I just finished Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. In the first scene, a kid is riding to the hospital with his severed hand next to him. I didn’t particularly love the book, but I could not put it down until I found out how he lost that hand! And the author teased for about 3/4 of the story before giving it away, by which time I was hooked. It was brilliant and I will definitely use that technique in my next book.

Anything else you want to share?
Go Gophers? Ok, here’s a serious addition: I sometimes write letters to writers I admire but don’t know, either to compliment them on how their work has touched me or to ask for guidance. Most don’t even respond. I think that’s mean-spirited and snobby. The few who have responded (Mary Karr, Homer Hickam and Garth Stein) are good souls. I think we should all aim for that. Everyone who’s had a little success should reach back and help fellow writers.

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