Susan Breen’s debut novel, The Fiction Class, was published in February of 2008. Here’s Susan’s official bio as noted on her website:
Susan Breen teaches fiction classes for Gotham Writers' Workshop in Manhattan. Her stories have been published by a number of literary magazines, among them American Literary Review and North Dakota Quarterly. She lives in Irvington, NY with her husband, children, two dogs and a cat. In her free time, which she has none of, she likes to read.
After reading her book, I wanted to know more about her. She kindly agreed to an interview for the blog. And here it is.
Hey, Susan. Tell us about yourself. When did you start writing? What’s it like being a debut novelist?
I started writing fiction in third grade, but then I stopped in fourth grade, I think because someone criticized something I wrote. In my twenties, I focused on non-fiction, working as a reporter for Fortune Magazine and then for the Foreign Policy Association, and it wasn't until I turned 31 that I started to take fiction seriously.
Being a debut novelist is just as wonderful as you probably imagine it would be, except there is more stress than I anticipated. Will I get a good review? Will my sales be good enough? But the stress is nothing compared to the pleasure. It's been five months since my book came out (which in this business, is a long time) and I still feel thrilled every time I see The Fiction Class in a bookstore or library.
I know on your website you talk a lot about creating The Fiction Class, how it is slightly autobiographical. What really made it come together for you as a story?
It took a long time for me to think of the title, which sounds sort of silly because the title sounds rather basic. But even a simple title takes a lot of thought and one day, after months of thinking, the title literally popped into my head and it was then that I realized how all the strands of the novel could come together.
What was your process writing and publishing The Fiction Class?
I'm a very disciplined writer, probably because I worry that if I don't give myself a deadline I won't do anything at all. So I get up every day and write five pages until I have a complete first draft. Then I revise and revise. The publishing part of The Fiction Class had much more to do with serendipity than discipline, however. I happened to go to a conference (Pitch and Shop in NYC) and met an editor, pitched my book. She loved it and bought it. Life isn't always so simple, but fortunately, this time it was.
How did you get started at Gotham?
I saw an ad in the back of Poets & Writers, applied, interviewed, interviewed again, and was hired. The interview process was nervewracking because I had to give a sample lecture to my boss and if you ever want to feel foolish, you should try to sit in a small office and give a lecture on voice to someone you barely know.
I have to confess, I’m still in the process of reading your book, but so far I’m enjoying it immensely. One thing I liked is that you include the writing exercises at the end of each chapter. Are these actual lessons you teach at Gotham?
Yes, these are the actual exercises. I'm always impressed by how well my students do with these exercises; there's something about having to focus for brief bursts of time that makes you forget about yourself and insecurities and just write.
What are you planning to do next? Are you working on any new projects?
I've finished the first draft of a new novel and now I'm revising, revising. It's very different writing a second novel because I have much greater expectations this time round. With The Fiction Class, I wanted to write the best novel I could and get published. With this novel, I want to write something that no reviewer will have anything bad to say about, and even though I know that's impossible, and probably not even healthy, I can't help myself. Then I try and force those ideas away and not get distracted from the story, but my mind is jammed up.
Tell us, what’s your wildest writing dream?
This isn't too wild, but what I'm really hoping is to have TFC go into a second printing. I guess my wildest dream would be to see it as a movie and have Kate Winslet play the part of Arabella. To tell you the truth, it still seems like such a miracle to me that my book is in stores, that I feel as though I'm living my wildest dream right now.
What do you think makes you unique as a writer?
I think I have an accessible voice. When I write, I imagine myself talking to my reader and I hope that readers imagine they are talking to me. I also think that because I am 51, and have been around for a while, I have lived through a lot of things that my readers have lived through too. I love it when I read a book and feel like the author knows what I'm talking about, and, based on the e mal I get, i think there are a lot of people out there, many of them women my age, who feel as though I know what they are talking about. So I think I am unique in having that type of connection. Also, I think that my novel is funny, especially given the subject matter, and that relates to my own way of seeing the world.
In your book, one of the students goes against Arabella’s advice and quits his job to start writing full-time. What is one thing you wish you could knock into the heads of aspiring novelists?
It is important to tell a story. Don't get so distracted by writing beautiful words that you forget to move your characters around a little bit. Give them problems to deal with. Also, think about your readers. No one wants to read your self-analysis for 300 pages.
Is there anything you’d like to add that you haven’t said already?
Don't be afraid to dream. Sometimes when I read the newspaper I get the feeling that all the new novelists have gone to fancy MFA programs or they're gorgeous or both. But if you want to get published, it's really not necessary to do anything but write a good book. Don't undercut yourself by imagining that it's impossible or everyone is against you.
Also, if you'd like to go to my web site, at www.susanjbreen.com, you'll see I'm running a writing exercise contest. (It's free.) Try it out. If you win, you'll get a free autographed copy of my book.