Debut Novel Takes Shoreline as its Setting
Most authors dream of just a single book deal. Susan Strecker scored two-in-one. Strecker, a Madison native and Essex resident by way of Killingworth, signed a two-book deal with St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunn Books based on the publishing company's interest in her debut novel, Night Blindness.
Strecker celebrates Night Blindness's October release with a series of engagements around the state, which is fitting since the novel takes place on the Connecticut shoreline where she grew up. Strecker's personal history also shapes the plot of Night Blindness. In it, a young woman named Jensen Reilly flees her hometown following her brother's death, only to return when her father, Sterling, is diagnosed with brain cancer. In real life, Strecker's own father suffered the same fate, and she developed a close relationship with his doctor during Sterling's treatment. In Night Blindness, that doctor is re-imagined as the younger Ryder Anderson, who happens to be both Jensen's former high-school boyfriend and a top surgeon at Yale. Jensen and Ryder's relationship is complicated by the fact that he is the only other person who knows what happened to Jensen's brother, Will, years before.
Living spoke with Strecker late last month about her experience as a first-time novelist and her approach to her craft.
How did you become a writer? Have you always enjoyed writing?
"My first experience with writing was when I was little. My father had a big sport-fishing boat [that we used to take on vacations]...I did not like the water, I did not like fishing, and I did not like fish, so my mom would bring a notebook and tell me to write about my adventures [to pass the time].
"Writing was something I always liked to do. I took some creative writing classes in high school and I wrote some truly horrible stories...Then I chose to go to Drew University because it was the only school that I applied to that had a creative writing minor...When my kids were old enough to go to school, that's when I started writing Night Blindness."
How did Night Blindness come about?
"I started writing Night Blindness in 2009...It was a way for me to work through my grief [following my father's death from terminal brain cancer]...I met a fabulous development editor, and when I gave [the manuscript] to her, she said, 'It's great, but this is a memoir; it's not a novel,' and I had wanted to write a novel...so I kept the name but changed everything else...The two young adults [in the plot]-that was just pure fiction in my mind...To add more depth and interest to the story is how I added Jensen and Ryder together...I wanted to explore the world of 'what if'-to explore the theme of what could have been. And what's worse than losing your first love? It's something everyone can relate to.
"But Night Blindness was [initially] inspired by my dad, who is the greatest person I've ever known."
You set Night Blindness on the shoreline. How does that impact the story?
"It was originally set in Boston, but then I changed it to any given Connecticut shoreline town-let's face it, all the towns are the same-and I ended up really liking it that way. I think New England and Connecticut have so much character. It's such a great place to grow up, and I really wanted to pay homage to my upbringing and the life that I got to experience because I think that it's a wonderful place to be."
What was it like to navigate the publication process as a first-time novelist?
"I never really expected to become a published novelist and to make this a career, although I am thrilled with how this worked out. It's been a great learning process...I started by looking up agents of favorite authors and reading acknowledgement pages...[After] a year and a half and 63 rejection letters, Lisa Gallagher, one of the first agents to respond when I sent out [agent] queries, [performed] nothing short of the most glorious acts of altruism-because she didn't know me-[by suggesting edits]. We went back and forth with edits for about a year...[Ultimately there were] five publishing houses bidding on [Night Blindness].
"[The book's reception] has been great...Lisa and my publicists have sent out galleys to a bunch of critics and to hordes and hordes of booksellers, and I've gotten no fewer than 15 really lovely reviews from booksellers and critics all over the country...I've also just found out that there's a website called Goodreads...and there are 11 great reviews on it [from readers]-when push comes to shove, it's not the critics who determine the success of a book; it's the readers."
How do you approach your writing? Do you follow a schedule?
"I try to write where I can, wherever I can-that includes school pick-ups...I have to get to [my child's school] an hour early, so I will bring my computer with me...or I write at the end of my driveway waiting for the bus.
"My only rule is if I have the time to write, I write, even if I don't know what to write or it's terrible; I will come back and fix it later."
What advice would you share with aspiring writers?
"Really the best thing I ever did was get hooked up with my developmental editor, Suzanne Kingsbury. I'm a good writer and I was a good writer before I met Suzanne, and I became a much better writer after Suzanne...Because everyone writes all the time, people assume it's something everyone can do, but it's a craft. You may need schooling in it...Find a developmental editor and eat, live, and breathe that person."
Susan Strecker's debut novel, Night Blindness, is available at local booksellers and on Amazon.com. To learn more about Strecker, visit www.susanstrecker.com. Upcoming appearances include a talk and booksigning hosted by Breakwater Books at Ballou's Wine Bar, 51 Whitfield Street, Guilford, on Thursday, Oct. 9 at 7 p.m.; and a talk and booksigning hosted by Essex Books at Essex Library, 33 West Avenue, on Thursday, Oct. 16 at 6:30 p.m.
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