Susanne Davis is the author of The Appointed Hour (Cornerstone Press 2017), a linked short story collection and her first book. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where her thesis won the Hemingway First Novel Award. Davis teaches creative writing at the University of Connecticut and via the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT. Her stories and essays have appeared in American Short Fiction, Carve, Feminist Review, Harvard Law Bulletin, and elsewhere, including as a Special Mention story in Best American Short Stories 1998. She also self released the instructional writing book A Writer’s Voice: Indelible on the Page (Amazon Digital Services 2013).
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
To the nuns I say my characters are people in the pricker bushes so to speak, Farmers, strippers, carpenters, tattoo artists—even a nun, Mother Agnes, who gave up Hollywood fame to marry God. They are all trying to make meaning of their lives. And I would tell them Mother Agnes was the last character created for my linked short story collection The Appointed Hour. With her authentic love for humanity, she tries to make a dramatic save in a corner of rural Connecticut where the wound of violence done in their midst hasn’t fully healed.
To the penguin, I would say I write about the environment and that my writing has a strong sense of place. The environment means a great deal to me and I would ask the penguin, who lives much closer to the humming tune of the earth than I, what more I can do to help? What stories need to be told that aren’t being told?
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
In my story collection, The Appointed Hour, a handful of stories have rural characters struggling with drugs and alcohol addiction and a sense of despair that brings them to the brink of self-destruction. The stories illuminate the damage done to others as a result. Often, though, in rural America, manual labor jobs and jobs on the land itself are like a redemptive act for those in the midst of struggle with addiction.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
My brother died on the family farm two years ago of his drug and alcohol addiction. We were inseparable growing up, until he got into drugs. He had the most gentle heart of anyone I know. We buried him in the old cemetery on the farm, my father leading the way along the edge of the cornfield, carrying my brother’s ashes as we processed to the high knoll where a giant slab of granite from the farm now marks his grave. But in leaving this earth, my brother is closer to me in spirit now than during the many decades when addiction had him in its grip. I feel him with me always. Two weeks after burying him, my book of stories was accepted for publication.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a story? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
For a long time, I thought the thematic concern of the drugs and alcohol in my writing was about love and forgiveness, people using drugs to escape their pain and forgiveness all the way around all the associated relationship dynamics: with people who might have caused the original pain to the addict that they use alcohol and drugs to escape, or the pain the addicts cause to others or both. But after my brother’s death, I saw there was more to it. A farm hand overdosed on the farm and then a year later my brother died. I saw despair and anger, not just of solitary fictional characters struggling with personal issues, but the cultural reality of despair in rural America. Those two deaths, my brother’s most closely, widened the lens of my vision to see the cultural crisis in rural America. The opioid crisis is a crisis of despair for many. No jobs. No hope. No future. Without the experience of losing people I love and care about to drugs and alcohol, I would not have this clarity or the conviction to witness uncomfortable truths in my fiction.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
This widening of the lens of my vision stems from the pain of losing my brother and yet, feeling a deeper spiritual connection with him. It has led me in my current novel (second draft revision almost complete) to write a story from that wider lens, of characters/people waking up in America to the needs of those whose voices are barely heard, if at all.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that a story from The Appointed Hour gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which story is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
“The Painted Lady”! It’s a story of a tattoo artist struggling to be accepted for his art. Willy is one of my favorite characters in this book of twelve linked stories and characters, for he returns in “Merciful Like the Father,” the final story with Mother Agnes, the nun mentioned earlier. Willy risks his life with no thought for his own. He is a character with a loving heart.
The song? Tracey Chapman’s “All That You Have is Your Soul.” I love the song and my characters have helped me believe it is true. Maybe that would be the song Willie would sing diving into the Quanduck River.