Susan Kelly Susan Gregg

Meet Susan. And Susan. Susan Kelly and Susan Gregg Gilmore have more things in common than their first names. They are both Southern gals. They both like to garden. And they both have new novels out this summer. Susan (Kelly)’s new book is called By Accident. Susan (Gregg Gilmore)’s is The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove.

Susan Kelly to Susan Gregg Gilmore:

KellySK: I thought I'd start the conversation with no script whatsoever...

First of all, can you write me a phonetic pronunciation of Bezellia? In my mind, I massacred the name every time I came across it. As a Susan, it drives me wild if someone calls me Suzanne, so let's get it right for future readers. 
Depictions of recent history are tricky.

SGG: “BA - ZILL – YA.”

SK: Did you feel any trepidation in taking on aspects of the Civil Rights movement? 

SGG: I never felt that I was "taking on" the Civil Rights Movement. I was only wanting to tell the story of a young girl who was desperately trying to be loved and love other people and struggling to find ways to do that with some compassion and integrity.  Bezellia is not an activist or a hero, far from it.  She only tries to be more heroic than those who stumbled before her.

With that said, I do think it is my responsibility as a writer to bridge the gap between what I have observed and experienced and what I can put on paper.  In this case, I was writing about a period of history that I had seen firsthand as a child growing up in the South, specifically growing up in Nashville.  I was simply writing what I knew.

But I would never assume what it meant or means to be an African-American in the American South.  I can, however, honestly look at the culture in which I was raised and share that imperfect world with others.

SK: For that matter, and on a much smaller scale, did you feel any trepidation in taking on the social strata of Nashville? (laughing)

SGG: No, but then again I'm moving to Chattanooga this summer!  

Truthfully, I met a woman named Bezellia (although I believe she spells it differently) at a dinner party shortly after moving to Nashville.  I was intrigued, OK, a bit surprised by her name.  She quickly admitted that she was a fifth-generation Bezellia.  Even more impressive!  So yes, I stole her name, that’s for sure.  But I rooted this book in many people and many memories that are part of my personal story as well as the greater Southern narrative.

SK: After completing The Improper Life... it occurred to me that the novel can be read as a coming-of-age novel. Was this an intent or just a happy coincidence?

SGG: I never have any specific intent other than to write a well-told story, and I hope I've accomplished that here. I think as a mother of three girls, and one of three girls myself, I am always drawn to the journey of a young woman into adulthood. So I guess the correct answer would be coincidental intent.

SK: Of course, the question must be posed: what are the autobiographical bits? 

SGG: You know I think it would be hard to pluck those out. There are many small memories that are woven into the book, but this is NOT my story. It is truly Bezellia's.

Susan Gregg Gilmore to Susan Kelly:

accidentSGG: Susan, your novel deals with a lot of loss — children lost, friendships lost, marriages lost. Would you share with me what led you to write this story?

SK: As usual for me, a confluence of events build organically into a full story. I was indeed travelling to the beach caravan-style with a child in another car beside me, and had a moment of panic during a storm when I lost sight of him in the rearview mirror. That was the first extrapolation of loss. Fiction gives you the license to imagine the unimaginable. I'm more boisterous than melancholy, but every one of my novels deals with a theme I've termed "necessary sadness," which I define as letting go while holding fast. Loss and sadness are endemic to living, but the characters are better, stronger people after they deal with or confront it. I actually include the term somewhere in every book. 

SGG: You can tell you have a great love and respect for the environment. And the more I thought about it, even though you write about this very gently, I'm wondering if it was your intent to represent the environment also as a victim of great loss?

SK: I'm indeed a gardener, hiker, bird watcher, rosarian... though I'll take my childhood BB gun to a squirrel on my feeders in a minute. What I wanted to represent is the randomness of nature. Feelings are not involved—nature does not love or respect us back — no matter how much love or respect we have for the environment. Hurricanes kill people, volcano eruptions strand people, people freeze to death in snowstorms. By Accident deals with human blame and fault and guilt after random events, but nature suffers none of those — and suffers no fools, either. 

SGG: We've both written about the cities in which we live — let me ask you the same question you asked me — any trepidation writing about your hometown?

SK: No trepidation, no. Once you decide to write, you pretty much take off all your clothes anyway, so the rest is just adjustment to being naked. Greensboro comes off pretty well. Mostly I feel sorry for my poor neighbors, who have to contend with assumptions that they're characters. My mother is an eternal good sport, claiming that she'd have "done a few things differently" if she'd known I was going to "grow up and be a writer." I have more people assume I'm a Midwestern writer than a North Carolina writer. Go figure.

SGG: And I imagine you're getting ready to hit the road. Tell me a little about life on the book tour. And specifically, what is your favorite fast food item - the one comfort food that keeps you going on the road??

SK: (Susan, put this in as one of my questions for you — since you've logged 18,000 miles, and since there's a question you don't want to answer — or is there another you had in mind that you'd like to get a word in edgewise?)

SGG: I love hitting the road, and having logged 18,000 miles with Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, I can honestly say I know every truck stop, McDonalds and Starbucks on 81, 75, 59 and 40! But there is no better way to get to know the people who read and sell and buy your books. Some may disagree with me, but I really think writers have a responsibility to spend that kind of time with their reading family. Now, it does seem that I have an innate ability to attract thunderstorms and tornadic activity, but other than that I love every single mile of the book tour. And I have made some great friends along the way who have welcomed me into their communities and invited me into their homes. And when offered an invitation to dinner, I do come!

SK: I've done the jet-set in-house publicist book tour and the drive-myself-around book tour and prefer my own fire-engine red mini-cooper dodging 18-wheelers on the interstate to airports. I try to keep a few clementines and apples rolling around on the floor among the Google map printouts, but my go-to is the Lance White Cheddar Cheese popcorn and a Diet Coke - fountain, please. I'm so covered in chemical cheese when I arrive that I have to change clothes.

Susan Kelly’s new novel is By Accident (Pegasus Books, $24): By Accident portrays a year in the life of a woman after the accidental death of her teenage son. Laura Lucas is numbed by the loss, a loss that is paralleled in the spate of upscale construction-and attendant destruction-in her starter-home neighborhood. It's about Laura's relationship with a young tree surgeon who slowly becomes a replacement for her son-but also an object of desire. The story reveals the delicate nexus where solace becomes sex; the role of men and women as unmarried friends; and examines grief in a marriage. It portrays the pain of change and the poignancy of acceptance through Laura's eyes, and occasionally, through the quirky outlook of her ten-year-old daughter. And before the story ends, another brutal, random accident will redefine Laura's life once again.

Susan Gregg Gilmore is a STARS author. Her new novel is The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove (Shaye Areheart Books, $23 on sale August 17, 2010)