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While daintily nibbling on a grilled cheese sandwich at the Bleu Squid in Olde Mistick Village, author Susan Kietzman is asked what sort of novels she writes. After thinking for a moment, she smiles across the table and says, "I write fiction."
It's a damned refreshing response in an age when virtually every product in the universe must be labeled and filed by subject and sub-classification. In the world of publishing, such genera include thrillers, mystery, literary, fantasy, horror, sci-fi, romance, historical fiction, and on and on.
"Categorizing books into various genres seems to be the way publishers market their wares," says Kietzman, whose second novel, "A Changing Marriage," is out today from Kensington Books in New York. "I guess this is helpful for the reader, in terms of finding the perfect book to read next. My publisher thinks of my work as women's fiction. (But) while fiction readers are more likely to be women than men, I think of my books as just fiction."
Kietzman celebrates the publication of "A Changing Marriage" with a release party Thursday in Mystic's Bank Square Books, and she will follow up with several events in the next few months including March 11 at R.J. Julia in Madison and March 12 at Avalon Health Center At Stoneridge in Mystic.
The protagonistic couple at the heart of "A Changing Marriage," Bob Parsons and Karen Spears, share equal billing - and readers of both genders will recognize and appreciate the wonderfully rendered positives and flaws of each character. This is another way of saying Kietzman is adept at portraying real-life situations - and has written a novel that works not only as a bit of a cautionary tale, but also as an engrossing story with characters we care about.
"This book came out of conversations with friends, especially those who, like me, were home with young children," says Kietzman, a Mystic resident who is married and has three sons. "We were all pulling in two directions, wanting to be the ones to raise the children and also wanting to fulfill our career goals. I think it's very difficult to do both well simultaneously."
In "A Changing Marriage," Bob and Karen meet in college, fall in love, get married, and happily aim for the future. Both have great jobs and want kids - but when the children arrive, Karen feels the need to stay home. Over time, Bob's career success breeds even more on-the-job responsibilities and even more ambition, and Karen begins to resent the situation - which in turn causes Bob to react with bitterness. It's a cyclonic situation, and neither party is quite sure their solution is best.
"I couldn't have written this book when I was 30 because I was in the middle of it - married five years with two children under 5," says Kietzman, 52. "Looking back 20 or so years later, I can see more clearly what those days felt like for me, as well as for other young mothers home with their children. If it weren't for 'Sesame Street,' I'm not sure where I'd be right now!"
Interestingly, Kietzman had no comprehensive outline for the book; originally, she just had the idea of Karen, who would then meet Bob in college. Only when she started writing did the characters begin to organically develop - dragging Krietzman along with them.
"I rarely feel I'm in charge," she says. "I might have a basic storyline, but the better I know the characters, the more they dictate what they say and do. I'm not a conduit, but I do sometimes say to myself, 'Where did that come from?'"
Kietzman, a Connecticut native who grew up in Fairfield, graduated from Connecticut College and has a master's in journalism from Boston University. A longtime reporter for the Westerly Sun, she now writes grants for Mystic Seaport. Her first novel, "The Good Life," about a shallow, successful Midwestern family whose lifestyle is disrupted when the wife's elderly parents are forced to move in with them, was published last year after several finished but unpublished manuscripts.
"I was delusional," she laughs. "I started writing fiction around the house when the kids were little. I just figured I'd finish a book and a publishing company would make an offer!"
While she never stopped writing, Kietzman credits a chance meeting with author David Klein, who was signing books a few years ago outside Bank Square Books in Mystic. Kietzman stopped, bought a copy of his latest novel, which was about the sort of family situations she'd been writing about. On impulse, she sent Klein's agent a query and, after submitting the manuscript that would become "The Good Life," received an offer of representation.
"I was so happy when she said, 'Yes, I'll take you on,'" Kietzman says. "She's been so great, and she personifies the tough New York City agent. She tells me what I need to hear. It's hard sometimes when she's critical, but she's also dead on."
Women's fiction or not, there's nothing formulaic about her books. In fact, her editor at Kensington, John Scognamiglio, was initially attracted to "The Good Life" precisely because he didn't like the main character, Ann.
"(Ann) is very self-centered and vain, yet at the same time, she goes out of her way to make room in her life for her elderly, ailing parents," Scognamiglio says. "Why? That was the question that propelled me to keep reading. As I kept turning the pages, Susan kept peeling away the layers of Ann, getting us to understand why she was the way she was so that by the end of the book, we understand her ... Susan is an extremely polished writer."
Indeed, Kietzman recently signed a new, two-book deal with Kensington. She's already at work on the first of those novels, a family story that takes place at a shoreline cottage over the course of two summers 30 years apart. It's due for publication in spring/summer 2015.
Meanwhile, as Kietzman gears up for the publicity duties in support of "A Changing Marriage," she's excited, nervous and happy.
"Sometimes, it's hard to believe anyone outside my family would know I'm a writer," she says. "When someone does buy a copy, I'm always overwhelmed. 'Where did you see it?' 'How'd you find it?' But people reach me through my website. There's no particular reason anyone should read my book and, when they do so - and then take the time to email me - that means so much."
Who: Mystic novelist Susan Kietzman
What: Launch party for her latest book, "A Changing Marriage"
When: 5-7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic
For more information: (860) 536-3795, banksquarebooks.com, susankietzman.com