Interview: Suzanne Feldman

Interview by Nathan Leslie

Suzanne Feldman graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1981 and received a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University in 2004. Her three science fiction novels, Speaking Dreams (1992), Hand of Prophecy (1998), and The Annunciate (1999)  She received a Nebula Award in 2001 for her short fiction and the Editors Prize for fiction in 2005 at The Missouri Review. She has had stories published in Narrative Magazine, including The Lapedo Child which was selected as one of the year’s best (2013). Her short story collection, The Cure For Everything was awarded the International Rubery Prize for fiction, 2014. Her novel Absalom’s Daughters (Holt, 2016) received a starred review in Kirkus.  Her short story The Witch Bottle (Gargoyle Magazine 2016) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  She was a Walter Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2019. Her latest novel, Sister of the Great War, (Mira/HarperCollins, 2021)has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. In 2022 she was awarded a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council, and won The Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize for her short story collection, The Witch Bottle (forthcoming 2022).

Nathan Leslie: Greetings, Suzanne. First of all, congratulations on winning the 2022 Washington Writers’ Publishing House award for Fiction for your collection of stories The Witch Bottle and Other Stories.  You must be thrilled. Did this come as a surprise to you?

Suzanne Feldman: Thank you so much! It was the best kind of surprise—the pandemic appeared to be waning and I got The Call! That was back in January—it was a great way to start the year. I found out at about the same time that I’d won a Maryland State Arts Council Grant, so it was a pretty euphoric month!

Nathan Leslie: You show a wide and impressive variety of writing styles and genres in your previous books. How do the stories in the new book differ?

Suzanne Feldman: I like to try everything, in terms of writing. I’ve written Science Fiction, Literary Fiction and Historical Fiction. I like a challenge, and the challenge with The Witch Bottle and Other Stories was to stay ‘literary.’

Nathan Leslie: You have written a number of novels previously. How does the mindset differ in writing short stories?

Suzanne Feldman: For me, writing short stories is like seeing how long I can hold my breath under water. My short stories are longish, but I usually write them in three or four days, then go back and revise. The ideas usually present themselves in full, and I have to hurry to get them down. My goal is to write a thousand words a day (and sometimes I do), so in about three days, I have a story. Then I come up for air and look at it with a bit more of a critical eye.

Nathan Leslie: There is an authenticity of detail and realism in this collection that really grabbed me. For instance, the story “Lapedo Child.” Talk a bit, if you can, about your methodology in developing such a believable world, though it may be different than the one in which you live.

Suzanne Feldman: The Lapedo Child was made up of thoughts I had after I finished Absalom’s Daughters, which came out (after a decade of writing it) in 2016. The world of the deep south was already in my head—I was immersed in it. I just needed characters to do their thing against that backdrop.

Nathan Leslie: One of the themes which appears in the book is that of art, specifically the plastic arts and struggling artists in stories such as “Self Portraits.” What inspired this particular subject matter?

Suzanne Feldman: Well, I went to art school for my bachelors, and I’ll never forget the day I was walking down the street with two of my best art school friends and realizing, as I was about to graduate, that I had absolutely no job skills. I went on to become a high school art teacher for almost 30 years, so I did, in fact, luck out, jobwise. And it was a good thing too, because I’m not much of a painter, and the art world is one big landmine after another. I know artists who have never had a day job, and the struggle for them to live off their work is absolutely real.

Nathan Leslie: We have labored through several years now of a pandemic. Has this been helpful for your writing and creation or did it bog you down?

Suzanne Feldman: I’m retired, and so for me, weirdly, the pandemic wasn’t much different for me. I walk the dog in the morning, write for a few hours, walk the dog again and fix dinner. Those are my days, and the pandemic made that pretty normal. I did write a novel in the first year, which was an angry, unsellable thing, so I kind of think it affected me more than I realized.

Nathan Leslie: Your stories are fully formed and dramatized and do not resort to trickery or gimmicks. Talk a bit, if you can, about your approach to literary style and perhaps even voice.

Suzanne Feldman: I’m a straightforward person, and I like to write straightforward stories that don’t depend on frilly language or strange stuff thrown in for unknown reasons. My wife once asked me, years ago when I was obfuscating with Language, “what do you WANT to say?” It was a question that really made it clear to me that I needed to say what I meant.

Nathan Leslie: What is your perception regarding the state of publishing these days? It seems to be in an interesting and precarious position—although perhaps that is nothing new.

Suzanne Feldman: I have no clue what’s going on in publishing. I just hope I can sell my books. I’m writing exactly what I want to write, and this may be a sweet spot where some publishers like what they see from me.

Nathan Leslie: I know you will be busy soon conducting readings for the new book. However, I’m curious to hear what you might be working upon this summer?

Suzanne Feldman: This summer I’m working on edits for a novel I just finished about three young women in art school—two students, and the model for their classes. So far the feedback is good! Hopefully it’ll be ready for my agent in late June. I’m also starting on a kind of experimental thing called ‘Sebald for Beginners,’ which I hope will be both hilariously funny and deeply profound.

Nathan Leslie: Suzanne, thank you so much for chatting!

Suzanne Feldman: Thank you so much!!