Connecticut author Susanne Davis celebrates first short story collection

Susanne Davis (Tara Doyle)
Susanne Davis (Tara Doyle)

Editor's note: Due to weather concerns, Susanne Davis' schedule book signing Wednesday at Bank Square Books in Mystic has been postponed until April 3.

Writing quality grad-school fiction and quarterbacking the ol' alma mater to a fourth quarter comeback in the Fiesta Bowl are two very different things. But there's a metaphor that just might work: If a young author gets accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, it's very much like being a top-five pick in the NFL draft.

"It was such a dream come true. I just cried," says Susanne Davis, who is describing the moment she found out she'd been admitted to the IWW. "Getting to be part of it? It changed my life. I don't think I understood writing as something I could do — in the way I'd always dreamed of doing it — until that moment."

Davis grew up on her family's Norwich dairy farm and remembers being six years old and telling her father, who still runs the farm with one of her brothers, that she wanted to be a writer. She got her BA in English at the University of Connecticut and now lives in Glastonbury, and is indeed writing in a professional and artistic context.

She was scheduled to appear Wednesday in Mystic at Bank Square Books to discuss and sign "The Appointed Hour," her moving debut collection of short stories, but the event has been postponed due to weather concerns. The signing will now take place at 6 p.m. April 3. Davis also teaches creative writing at both Trinity University and at UConn. But the path to book publication hasn't been a quick or easy process.

It took Davis 10 years to assimilate the dozen stories in "The Appointed Hour" and, as is the norm for any published collection of short fiction, most of them initially surfaced in small literary magazines. That's virtually a requirement to get a short story collection published, and even then it's a longshot in an industry where the gold standard for commercial success is the novel.

That sort of reality doesn't resonate with Davis.

"The truth is, if I were a practical business person, I wouldn't be a writer," she laughs. "I write what I write when it comes to me. The stories were individual efforts and not part of an overall plan. Plus, while I love teaching, it's very demanding. Containing the world of a short story in my head while I'm teaching is easier than containing the world of a novel. But even that sounds strategic, and I can't even say I've done that. The work itself is what's important, and that's what I don't really have control over."

At a certain point, the accumulative if incremental success with individual stories in small periodicals started to provide Davis with a bit of literary cache. Over that decade, Davis' work placed second in the American Short Fiction competition; was a finalist for Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award; was short-listed for Raymond Carver Award; and was designated as a "distinguished story." When enough published stories had accumulated, Davis' agent sold the collection to Cornerstone Press, a small but respected independent house that serves as a teaching facility as the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

To those who read "The Appointed Hour," the success of those works or that they are published won't be surprising. Set mostly in Asheville and Belaport, small fictional towns in eastern Connecticut very loosely based on Sterling and Norwich, respectively — the stories explore the lives of everyday folks who deal with life's realities in a variety of very human ways. What that means is that "everyday folks" is actually a misnomer. Nothing is routine about life, despite appearances, and Davis understands and examines this with heart, wit and empathy. These characters are astonishing and distinctive, and the situations, settings and narratives are haunting, vibrant and irresistible. There are carpenters and small business owners; husbands and wives; best friends and neighbors, strippers and tattoo artists; dreamers and those who are simply resigned ...

There is a definitive tone of melancholy throughout "The Appointed Hour" that seems perhaps oddly consistent with Southern literature — one that connotes a sense of acceptance and even beauty that can be found in sorrow.

"I've had people mention the southern melancholy in my writing," Davis says, "and, to tell you the truth, when the stories were individually published, almost all of them were in southern publications. It creates an interesting situation since I'm in Connecticut and the stories are set here. If they were set in the south, the mechanism of southern literature would know what to do with them.

"That sort of tone is established down there. I try not to pay too much attention to it, and I haven't actually spent enough time in the south to know it well, but I do think there's a rural connection that's important. I grew up in the eastern part of the state and have always been interested in how rural our part of New England is — as opposed to the (Gold Coast) of the rest of Connecticut."

To explain the sense of sorrow that runs through the collection, Davis sends an email response. "I really don't know why, but it is there, rising up from the earth, into the very air the characters breathe, and painting the landscape with its sad beauty. But they don't run from it. In its midst, their resilience shines and by melancholy's weight they understand all that sets them free."

Many of the major characters in "The Appointed Hour" appear in more than one story and in situations that intertwine with characters from other stories, which provides a through-line and spirit of continuance. 

"I wasn't really thinking they were all going to be connected," Davis says, "but they kept coming back. It was never going to be a novel, but I can see why someone would ask about it."

Davis has in fact written novels. One, "Lay Me Down to Sleep," her thesis at the Iowa Writers Workshop, won the Hemingway First Novel competition. No less than the late George Plimpton judged the contest, and part of the award was representation from a literary agent. That agent, who no longer represents Davis, submitted the manuscript to six publishing houses without success. As per the normal agency strategy, the novel was set to go out on a second round of submissions when Davis decided to pull it.

"It occurred to me that I wasn't actually ready for it to be out," she says. "The story was a little too close to the bone and I wondered how my family would feel about some of the material in there." Davis ultimately decided not to pursue that book at all but think of it as a learning experience. Davis has completed two newer novels and her current agent, Rena Rossner of the Deborah Harris Literary Agency, is formulating plans for submission. In a not infrequent bit of author's superstition, Davis prefers not to talk too much about too soon.

In the meantime, Davis continues to write. "I guess part of what's instinctual and fun about what I do right now is that I can write anything without anyone waiting for it. I think it's within the core of my being to write, and I try to do so every day. I don't take it for granted."

Davis describes "many angels in my life who made writing possible." She describes family friends who found her a high school job that helped her pay college tuition; and a boss at a post-undergrad job as a news director at Harvard Law School who gave Davis a computer and a five-week leave of absence when she wrote the stories that ultimately resulted in her acceptance at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

And she credits her students. They teach her a lot, she says.

"At Iowa, I remember sitting down for the first time and in came (the late Pulitzer-winning short story writer and MacArthur Grant recipient) Jim McPherson. He shuffled in wearing bedroom slippers and he was so quiet and unassuming and polite and brilliant. And he sat down and said, 'You guys have a lot to teach me.'

"A lot of the other students were, like, 'What?! Then why are we paying tuition?' But I thought what he said was brilliant and it lit a fire in me. It's the fiction writer's job to tell us what it's like to be human. That's what McPherson was trying to get across. We never stop exploring what our own lives mean and the lives of others. We never stop learning. And writing gives me permission to explore this."

If you go

Who: Connecticut author Susanne Davis

What: Signs and discusses "The Appointed Hour," her debut short story collection

When: 6 p.m. April 3

Where: Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic

For more information: (860) 536-3795, banksquarebooks.com, susannedavis.com

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