Presenting “A Conversation with Susan Straight, Author of Mecca,” conducted by our very own Rebecca Paredes! In this interview, Straight and Paredes discuss their shared landscape in Riverside, CA, along with the inspiration for Straight’s characters and other valuable insights into her writing. Dive in below.
Susan Straight is the author of ten novels, including Highwire Moon, Between Heaven and Here, and Mecca. She is a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and a longtime resident of Riverside, a city in inland Southern California. Her body of work focuses on this region; in her novels, Riverside is Rio Seco, a name that not only defines the dryness of the inland desert but also the way it feels to be from this part of SoCal, known as the Inland Empire (IE): barren stretches of desert bordered by lush greenery just past the riverbed. Susan was my professor at UCR, back when I first started writing stories based in my hometown in the IE. Susan was among the first people who validated for me that a story doesn’t have to happen in a big city for its characters and setting to matter. On a cool Friday night in Riverside, I sat with Susan on her porch to talk about writing about place, the inspiration for her characters, and why reading widely is the most important skill a writer can practice.
Rebecca Paredes: One of the things I appreciate most about your work is how your characters act and sound like people I’ve met. In Between Heaven and Here, I still remember the way Glorette looks at Sidney when they’re talking at the taqueria. I’m really interested in how you develop characters that read like real people. Is this something that happens in revision, or do they come fully formed on the page?
Susan Straight: When somebody talks, I’m just always listening. People tell the most amazing stories, especially sitting right here on this porch. My friend Louie—who’s actually the model for Johnny Frias in Mecca—he’s been sitting on this porch for twenty-five years, telling me stories. It took me a long time to write some of them down because they’re so scary.
Right now, people stay inside. They never go out. They do a lot of stuff online. But in a life like mine, you’re out. Everybody is telling you stories all the time, and you have to be a good listener. When I sit down to write those stories, it’s often years later. I can’t write about what Louie told me about 4th Street in Corona. I ended up writing about when he told me about trying to become a CHP [California Highway Patrol] officer when he was nineteen, and he was moreno, and he was from Corona. It was the late ‘70s, and they were like, “No. We’ll arrest you before we’ll let you be in the academy.” The hurt in his voice was the beginning of the whole trilogy that I’m working on.
For me, just listening to how people talk and watching them, it’s easy to make the characters. It’s always plot and structure that are the harder parts for me. How does this part of the novel move naturally into this part, and how does this part lead to this part? Those are all the things I think we still struggle with. Don’t you?
Absolutely. It’s a thing that I personally struggle with because there’s a lot of value in having a character that feels like someone that you know, but then you have to figure out their world. Do you find that the qualities of these people tend to radically change as your plot develops?
My concerns are different, usually. Mecca was my tenth novel. I’m working on my eleventh novel. The hardest part is that I’ve been writing about some of the same characters for a long time. My first book was published when I was twenty-nine. I had a kid and was pregnant with another kid. That was Aquaboogie. There are characters in Aquaboogie that still show up, even now. You talked about Sidney and Glorette. Glorette’s cousin is in Mecca. Her cousin, Lorette, and another cousin, Cherise, are characters in Black Star Canyon. My problem is that I know the world so deeply, that when I think about someone in LA or Chicago or New York reading it, I realize how impenetrable it might be to them.
Everyone has their own language, like you said. If we say, oh, that definitely happened at the taqueria up the street, there’s just a shorthand that we know from being in the IE. I find that my world remains foreign to a lot of the mainstream, so I don’t worry so much about the characters moving through their own lives. I worry about how someone else will understand it.
I’ve never watched Sex and the City. I’ve tried. My youngest one used to really like that show, I’m just like—I don’t know anything about these people, and I just can’t figure out why the characters do certain things. Why would she do that? And I realize, other people might feel that way about my work. They’re like, “Wait, why is his first instinct to do this?” It is a function of having grown up in this world, where I know exactly what somebody would do.
I read so widely, as you know. I’ll read anything. I read John Steinbeck’s The Pearl last night because somebody left it on the fence library. I’m teaching Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho right now and I’m loving that book as well. I like reading everything to see how everyone else’s characters are.
I think the main two things that people forget is that you have to read. If you want people to buy your stuff, you should go out and buy theirs. The other thing is that you have to not worry. As in, okay, I know my characters pretty well. I know what they’re going to do.
If someone asks, “Wait, why would he take a drink before he did this? Isn’t he worried about getting a DUI?” I’d say, not this guy. This is the guy that literally is going to drive with a beer can between his knees and go all the way from Riverside to Perris.
That’s my brother-in-law. He says, “I can’t drive unless I’ve got a Corona right here.” And we say, you cannot keep doing that. You have to stop. And he’s like, “I ain’t gotta stop until I stop.” And I’m like, okay.
I think if we’re true to our characters, even if they do something appalling, we have to figure it out in terms of plot: how does that work?
It’s interesting that you bring up mainstream readers and whether or not the decisions that these characters are making are accessible. When I was a younger writer, I would have been really worried about that. But now I’m like, they can figure it out. Yes, there is a shorthand that’s deeply related to the way we think about characters from this space, but that’s what they do.
When I read things, especially bestselling novels about California, it is a completely different California than the one I live in. So, again, I’m reading that as a foreign world, but I’m not trying to say, “Explain it to me.” Which is interesting. Everyone always brings up “The Californians,” that weird Saturday Night Live thing where they make fun of the freeways. Everybody does.
[My neighbor] Mario and I have a running competition. It’s been going on for seven years. I’ve never won. We both come home at nine at night. And I go, “Man, I’m tired. I had to drive from Orange County. It took me an hour and a half to get home.”
And he goes, “Susan, I was in Brawley, and then I was in Calexico, and then I went to Desert Hot Springs, and then I came home.”
I’m just like, “Dude, why you gotta win everything?”
Just think about it. We both got home at nine. He left at four in the morning. I left at nine. He does that every day.
The stereotype of Southern California is that we all have it easy, that we jump on the 405 and go wherever. That’s not how it works out here. That’s not how it works when you’re going home from LA to Lake Elsinore. You’re driving for two and a half hours because you wanted to buy a cheap house with five bedrooms so you can have three generations living there.
That’s how my family ended up in Lake Elsinore.
When you get to a certain point, you’re just like—this is what I want to write about. This is my thing. This is my song that I want to sing. I think you can’t worry about translating it for anyone else. They can’t worry about your vision.
I think that once you start changing your characters so that they can be more accessible to a wider range of people, then you lose some of the things that make those characters who they are.
I think so, too. They’re your characters. The people I’m writing about are from here-from here. They’re from Santa Ana or they’re from San Bernardino, where there are all these touchstones.
Tonight, I’m going to a Valentine’s love jam from six to nine. Last week, we were all hanging out. This old school band played all the oldies. There’s this one guy Bobby, he’s from Pomona. He’s seventy, and he’s a Vietnam vet. I introduced him to this dude Ray Ayala. He’s also from Pomona, and he’s fifty. They both went to rival high schools—and they were still talking smack to each other. We have to celebrate that particular thing and not change it.
Do you feel like your relationship with place has changed with the span of the novels you’ve written about this area?
There are so few writers right now who were born in a place, stay in a place, and write about that place. Toni Morrison was from Lorain, Ohio. That was her fictional medallion. She wrote about Lorain for the longest time. She lived in New York. She was an editor. She had two kids. She was a single mom. I remember reading a great interview with her. I still have it in my office. It’s from 1984, from the Massachusetts Review. I kept it like this talisman. She talks about place. Like, this was the place where she always wanted to write about. It was her place.
There are other writers that you can think of—Richard Russo always writes about his area in New York. Paul Harding, who wrote Tinkers, always writes about Maine. Michael Jaime Becerra, our beloved colleague, always writes about El Monte. I think it’s so unusual now because everyone goes to graduate school or they feel like they have to move to Brooklyn or Los Feliz or San Francisco to be a writer. It’s odd that I’m sitting right here and somebody will go by and honk.
I don’t think I’ve changed in my concept of place, but I’ve definitely changed in my ability to tell a complicated story. My first novel, Aquaboogie, was a novel in stories because I didn’t know how to write a novel. Then I wrote four novels, and then I went to Between Heaven and Here. That was another novel in stories because I just love that form.
Here’s one of my favorite writers who has always written about her place and who I learned the most from: Louise Erdrich. Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and Toni Morrison’s Sula sit right by my desk. Always have. Always will. Because those two books are like the essence of storytelling that doesn’t have to be this straightforward narrative arc, but it’s a chorus of voices. When you grow up in a place like ours, it’s a chorus of voices. How can there not be? If you don’t know everybody, who’s gonna take care of you when the earthquake comes?
The phrase “write what you know” can be positive and negative—positive because it empowers writers to lean into their lived experiences, and negative because it can feel limiting. What are your thoughts about that phrase, and what would you say to young writers who are told to “write what they know”?
It’s so hard. It stays in my mind all of the time because my undergrads talk about it all the time, too. We were just reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. People got really mad later on because Mark Haddon is not on the spectrum. But they were like, “But he did a great job.” What does it mean, though? How do we look at it?
You’re sitting here talking to a tiny blonde woman who’s lived in the same place her whole life, but who else writes about Riverside? Who else is gonna write about Temescal Canyon? I don’t know if we have the right to do anything. People take pictures of total strangers and profit on it all the time. Back in the day, I remember seeing examples of white writers who did a very bad job. I still see it. The American Dirt thing was just written about again in the New York Times, and it caused a huge outpouring where all these people were like, “But if she did a great job, then she’s allowed to do that.” And people were writing: she did not do a great job. She did not write about Mexico in any way, shape, or form in a way that was real or recognizable. She has a character from Acapulco, who’s rich, and yet she takes la bestia. Why would this rich lady from Acapulco who’s a bookseller take the train? And ride on the roof of it? Why would she do that? She would just fly.
If you’ve done your thinking about your characters, you have to know them pretty well. But where does the imagination come in? It’s “write what you know,” or “write what you imagine.” I think it’s a combination, always. Don’t you?
I agree, and I think it’s also more reason to read widely.
Absolutely. I read everything, and I teach everything.
For years, my favorite James Baldwin book was If Beale Street Could Talk. James Baldwin was a great mentor to me, and he said all these things to me about how, when you’re writing a book, it feels like this weight you’re carrying. It’s this thing you carry inside you. He said, “It’s what I imagine a woman feels like when she’s pregnant, and she’s ready to have a baby, and she can’t have the baby yet.” When I read If Beale Street Could Talk again, after having known him, after he passed away, I thought, he is so deeply inside this young woman’s mind that who would ever say, “Oh, James Baldwin was a gay man. How could he imagine being this young woman, pregnant and deeply in love with her fiancé who is imprisoned?” Because he listened. He cared. He was us. He was constantly listening to how people spoke and looking at what people did and what they wore. He was a master of that, too.
I think it’s a really hard question. I do. Especially for somebody who looks like me. I think for whatever reason I got put right here. My mom came here from Switzerland. She’s 4’11”. She showed up here, and she didn’t speak any English. She wasn’t a citizen. She married my dad, the con man. She learned to speak English from Vin Scully. Now that we’re talking about it this way, I think my true subject is always SoCal. Not Southern California. It’s SoCal. It’s Califas. It’s Cali. It’s our California. So whoever is in that California is who I want to write about.
James Baldwin was raised in Harlem, and he wrote about Harlem like nobody else. Louise Erdrich—I mean, the whole world knows about Louise Erdrich’s landscape in North Dakota because of her. That’s just what we do.
You’ve been at UCR for a while, and I’m wondering if the experiences you’ve had with your undergraduates there have impacted the way that you think about your characters and your work—or even vice versa.
This is my thirty-fifth year. I was twenty-seven when I started, which is pretty crazy. I was twenty-seven, I got the job, I had three short stories being published in literary magazines, and we bought this house, which was trashed, and started working on it with my brother. So in the beginning, I had some great students. One of my very first students was Rigoberto Gonzalez, who’s super famous. He was seventeen. He’s from Coachella. He wanted to write in Spanish and English. He was super quiet. He didn’t say anything. He wanted to do poetry and fiction. And he was good at all of those things. I remember being like, knock yourself out, man. He was super talented. And I just enjoyed reading his work.
Then I had other students who were talented but lazy. I had other students who really wanted to write stuff and they hadn’t read enough. I’ve taught low-res stuff. I’ve taught all kinds of different groups. I’ve taught workshops in prison. I used to teach at CYA, California Youth Authority. I taught only kids who were M numbers, which means they were in for murder. They were between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. And when they turned twenty-five, they would walk across the street to Chino and do the rest of their sentence. We worked together for a year and we published a literary magazine called Phoenix, like rising from the ashes.
There’s always going to be like five-percent of the students who are just so talented, and you’re like, wow. It’s fun to watch you guys. And then there’s the middle group that’s got talent and works really hard, but then there’s just some people that just want to mess around and write fun stuff. I think, no matter whether I’m dealing with prison inmates or undergrads, it’s all about reading. What puts you up over somebody else, wherever you start, is this ability to read well and to absorb how a sentence becomes a beautiful sentence.
There’s this beautiful phrasing in Helena Maria Viramontes’s book [Under the Feet of Jesus]. “The amputated trees at the corner…” Remember? They’re not pruned, they’re amputated. Then you have a beautiful short passage of dialogue where they’re like, “Como?” Then you have another long, lyrical passage where she’s in the barn, and you have her comparing the stars at night to daggers that are piercing her heart. All of those things, you learn by reading, the same way that a musician has to listen to music.
The deciding factor in all of that, having taught for thirty-five years, is that I can always tell when someone is absolutely in love with language and reading. I can tell when someone is just like, I want to do that.
But this is my favorite thing: I used to have all creative writing majors. Right now, these two seminars I’m teaching have a really great reputation in the sciences because they’re upper-division electives. I have this great student right now. He is Korean American and he’s a bio major, and he’s working on fiction, and he’s so excited because he wants to be able to figure out how to write with Korean and how to make that accessible to English language readers. He’s obsessed with it, even though he’s a bio major. We’re having so much fun. And then I have another student, he’s working on a jet propulsion rocket, and he’s super excited to write fiction. I love that people are coming to the classes where I don’t make them just write essays. I let them write twelve pages of fiction instead of essays. I’m like—you have to write something that’s got family life in it, or that’s got a roadtrip in it, or that’s got a young narrator in it. And they’re over the moon. It’s super fun.
Interviewed by Rebecca Paredes