Elizabeth Leiknes talks about what inspired the name of her new novel, Black-Eyed Susan.
1. Can you tell us more about your novel, Black-Eyed Susan?
Black-Eyed Susan is a novel I wrote while on maternity leave with my second child. (I wrote my first novel,The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns, during my first maternity leave, and for a while I was convinced that I would only be able to write novels while either gestating or nursing babies. It turns out that’s not true, which is great, because I’m super happy with two children!) This story is essentially about rewriting your life, the ultimate redo when you think you have nothing to lose, which is probably how we should approach each day.
2. Where did you get the inspiration for the novel?
For most of my books, the inspiration usually comes from some emotion — curiosity, shame, fear — but this book it truly began with a title. I was driving in the car and as I was contemplating a new character, I tried to think of female names that also could be objects. Black-Eyed Susan popped into my head, and when it wouldn’t leave after a few days, I knew she was staying. After I had her name, which implied that only one of her eyes was dark, the idea of multiple anomalies took shape and then the storyline began to write itself. I made a list of all of the possible weird things that one person could possess, and Susan Spector was born.
3. If you have to pick one favourite character from the book, who would it be and why?
I’ve always loved Calliope’s character. First of all, I have very little in common with Calliope, so she was fun to write about. She is adventurous, a little caustic with her words, and despite being damaged, she is still fearless. My favorite thing about Calliope is that at the heart of her character, is the notion that second chances are possible. She reinvents herself, and although it isn’t easy, she bravely follows through and begins a new life. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever written a book where the idea of second chances isn’t an important theme. I like the idea that we can all start over if we have to. There’s something beautifully hopeful about that.
4. Do you have a set daily writing routine?
My daily writing routine truly depends on the day. I am a full-time English teacher and mother to two almost-teenaged boys, so the only time I have to write is VERY early in the morning before everyone gets up, starts foraging for food, or looking for school items that have mysteriously disappeared in the nighttime. Most of my difficult writing — the germs of ideas, character development, funny dialogue — actually happens in my head as I’m going about my day. I have written four books partially on used napkins in my purse, Target receipts, and sometimes on my hand if I’m really busy and desperate.
5. What is a great book you’ve read recently that you would recommend to others?
Oh, there is no way I can comment on only one book — that is just criminal! My favorite three in the last few months have been Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette (so damn funny), Nathan Hill’s The Nix (smart and entertaining social satire), and Fredrik Blakman’s A Man Called Ove (love, love, love this book!)
6. Who is your favourite fictional hero or heroine?
Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a strong favorite. She’s sort of my ideal woman — strong, smart, but not lacking in heart either. Another of my favorite female characters is from a lesser known young adult novel called A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck. His Grandma Dowdel is just a fabulous example of a someone who values actions over words and does so without apology, which is so refreshing.
7. What was the most difficult part about writing this book? And what was the most fun part?
Well, the most difficult thing about writing this book was finding out that my sister was gravely ill about half way through finishing it. Here I was, writing a book about a woman with a non-operable lung tumor, only to find out that my sister unexpectedly developed a non-operable lung tumor. The two events were totally unrelated, yet the coincidence haunted me for a long time. I truly have no words to describe my emotions during that time. Guilt. Grief. Anger. Despair. All in equal amounts. Needless to say, this book is dedicated to her. I hoped I’d never get the chance to dedicate it to her, but unfortunately, I did. On a more positive note, the fun part about writing this story was definitely the radio game—letting the game dictate the journey was really fun and something I’d love to do in this lifetime.
8. When did you decide to write and what prompted you to start?
I think I’ve always, deep down, wanted to be a writer. The first story I ever wrote (written at my brother’s wrestling meet when I was about seven) was a really bad one-page story about a sad pumpkin. All of his pumpkin buddies were getting picked at Halloween, but he was left alone in the pumpkin patch feeling inadequate, whatever an inadequate pumpkin looks like. Later on in grade school I started a homespun newspaper that I delivered by bicycle to every member of my small Iowa town (population 72!) In college, I bought my first Lorrie Moore short story collection at Prairie Lights in Iowa City and that is probably when I first thought of seriously trying to be a writer.
9. What message do you want readers to take away from your novel?
Maybe that we all have a soundtrack to our lives if we listen close enough, and that soundtrack can be revised in any way, at any time.
10. What’s next for you?
What’s next? More teaching. More soccer games with my boys. And lots, lots more writing.
Susan Spector – a collection of anomalies and improbabilities–belongs to the half of one percent of the population which is both female and colorblind, has two different-colored eyes, and overcame a one in one-thousand, five-hundred and six chance of being born on February 29th. And she’s just been diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer, leaving her with only two months to live.
Now all she wants is more time.
A whimsical take on The Wizard of Oz, Black-Eyed Susan follows the unique and hilarious Susan Spector on her journey to fit an entire lifetime into a few weeks. With the help of a philosophical ex-exotic dancer, an out-of-work actor, a dachshund well past his prime, and a well-known talking frog, Susan finds the courage and motivation to live the life she was always too afraid to live, the kind of life she’d only ever heard about in songs.
Elizabeth Leiknes spent her childhood obsessed with tornadoes, rainbows, and what might be on the other side. She has a secret soundtrack running in her head 24-7, and her bucket list includes traveling cross-country using random songs on the radio to guide the way. This would be really cool if she didn’t have a full-time job. And two kids. And a husband. And a mortgage. And horrible map reading skills. Like her protagonist, she can’t decide if she’s dreamer or just plain ambivalent. Or whatever.