“My neighbors are all drug dealers; they’re good at what they do. And I’m good at what I do. Seriously, that’s the way life goes.”
Making people cry. That’s what Susan Straight is good at. And she isn’t an enforcer for her drug-dealing neighbors. She’s an author, and a really good one at that.
“Sometimes people say, ‘I read your book and it made me cry. Damn, you’re really good at that. What a strange thing to be good at,’” Straight said. “And it’s true, I’m really good at making people cry. And that’s an odd job to have, but since I was 3 and learned to read, that’s what I wanted.”
Straight, award-winning author of “Between Heaven and Here,” has published 10 books, is a mother of three daughters, has chickens and a dog, cooks for her family and neighbors and lives to write and read.
Straight does not live an overly luxurious life. She and her husband do not live in a big fancy house or in a ritzy neighborhood. In fact they live in Riverside where Straight was born and raised and where she said she will most likely die.
She spent many years on the road traveling for book releases and signings all over the country. One of her three daughters would always accompany her, taking turns for who would go next.
Straight was constantly writing and reading, even when traveling. She writes whenever she has the chance and will use whatever medium is readily available. More often than not when on the road, she would find herself writing in her car at night because it was the only place she could. She noted how she also wrote three whole pages of a novel she published on the back of a Disneyland ticket while visiting the theme park.
“I don’t do much of anything else. I read, I watch TV, I take care of my kids, I cook a lot for a lot of my neighbors, they cook for me, and then I write fiction. It’s simple. But at night, I’m reading. When I’m in the car, I’m reading.”
This past Tuesday, Straight visited Pasadena City College (PCC) as a speaker for the Writers in Residence program. She taught a workshop and gave a short lecture. During the lecture she touched on what is probably the most important aspect of being an author: to get your story read.
“I don’t do math, because I don’t have to,” Straight said. “I am a blonde person. I know how to balance my checkbook; I know how to cook really, really well. I can’t count money, but I don’t have to do anything else. So I don’t have to draw a graph for you. I just know that here’s what you want out of your story, this is very simple math too: your story succeeds if what happens? If someone finishes your story, it is a success.”
English Professor Kathy Kottaras, was excited to have Susan Straight come to PCC to enrich the minds of her students.
“As a prolific author and creative writing teacher, Susan Straight brings a wealth of experience to our students.” Kottaras said. “Her writing focuses on local stories, marginalized voices, and issues of social justice and equity.”
She moved the students and lit light bulbs in their heads. She walked them through the ABC’s of being a successful author.
“A, you finished it,” Straight said. “B, you sent it out somewhere. C, it was published. And D, someone e-mails you out of the blue and says ‘Oh my God. I read your story and I couldn’t stop crying. And I thought about it for a week.’ Ultimate victory, as far as I’m concerned.”
It isn’t about the money. It’s about reaching the audience. If an author can get one person to read a story, finish it, and be moved by it, that is the greatest success they could achieve.
“If someone buys your book, or picks it up at the library, and stays up until 3 o’clock in the morning to finish your book,” Straight said. “Your book is a huge success. I don’t care about the money. It doesn’t matter. You’ll have the money, but let’s say you write one bestseller, ten years go by, what do you have now? You had a bestseller ten years ago, that’s cool. But I wanna publish. Everything has to do with success, in terms of reading. If someone finishes your story, and walks around thinking about it, can’t get it out of [their] mind for a week, don’t you think that’s the best success you could possibly have?”
Probably her most important part of the lecture, however, was how to develop a book. Whether it’s a short story or a full novel, there is one very crucial part to creating your story. The character.
“Here’s the best piece of advice I could give you,” she said. “Who’s in charge of the story? Are you in charge of your story? Nominally. Just as much as you can be in charge of your kids…You are actually in charge, just of the writing part of the story. But who’s in charge of the story part? Your characters. Let them do what they’re gonna’ do.”
She ended the lecture on that note. Being an author will never be about the authors themselves. It is always about telling the character’s story.
“It’s their [the character’s] story.” Straight said. “It’s not about you.”