About Susan Breen

Susan Breen’s first mystery, Maggie Dove, was published by a digital imprint of Penguin Random House on June 14, 2016. The sequel, Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency, will be published on November, 8, 2016. Susan’s short stories and essays have been published by a number of magazines, among them Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, American Literary Review and anderbo.com. One of her stories was selected for inclusion in Best American NonRequired Reading. She is also a proud finalist in the Writer’s Policy Academy Golden Donut story competition. Susan’s first novel, The Fiction Class, won a Washington Irving Award from the Westchester Library Association. Susan teaches creative writing at Gotham Writers in Manhattan. She’s also on the faculty of the New York Pitch Conference and New York Writers Workshop. She lives in a small village in the Hudson Valley with her husband, two dogs (cockapoos) and a cat. Her three grown children are flourishing elsewhere.

 

Susan Breen

Susan Breen: The Q&A

How did you become a writer?

I backed into it. I knew I wanted to do something with words, but the idea of being a novelist was intimating. So I started off as a reporter.

First I worked for a local newspaper, writing obituaries. My job was to call the funeral home and ask if anyone died that week. I did not excel at the job. Each week I prayed no one would die, and if they did, I cried. Then I worked for my college newspaper, the University of Rochester’s Campus Times. Working for a daily newspaper taught me about discipline and deadlines.

From there I went to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and got a Master’s degree in East European economics. Not sure how useful that’s been to my fiction career, but I loved learning about that area of the world. I keep trying to put an economist into one of my novel and it never works, but I did make Maggie Dove’s husband an expert in Soviet poetry.

After graduating, I got a job at Fortune Magazine. My first assignment was to work on the Fortune 500. I don’t think I ever did anything that made my grandfather so proud. From there I went to work at the Foreign Policy Association, where I wrote articles about Russia and economics.

Then I started having children and began working at home and that was when I began writing short stories. For ten years I did nothing but read and write stories (and raise my children.) Many of those stories were published in a variety of magazines, and one of them was published in Best American Nonrequired Reading. After all of that, one day I said to myself: I think I can write a novel.

What was that novel and where can I read it?

You can’t. My first, second, and third novels are in a box in my closet. Each one found an agent, each one was sent out on submission, and ultimately each one was scrapped. Though you never truly give up on a novel. In one of them, for example, there was a character who intrigued me named Chuck Jones. The novel didn’t go anywhere, but I couldn’t get Chuck out of my head, and when I wrote The Fiction Class, which was my first published novel, and I needed students for Arabella’s class, I thought: Why not Chuck? The fun thing was that because I already loved him, it was like going to a party and finding a friend.

What is your writing process like?

I’m a big believer in writing every day. I feel it’s important to create a flow of words, and keep that flow moving. Being a mystery writer is a little different because you do have to stay on top of the clues, and so I have started using a very loose outline.  My problem is that I never know what’s going to happen until I write the scene. For example, in the second Maggie Dove mystery, which I just finished writing, Maggie Dove was following a suspect, and she wound up following him into a pagan bookstore. What happened once she went in there. I didn’t know until I actually wrote the scene. I had to be there, with my characters, listening to them talk. (Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency will be out on Oct. 18, 2016.)

Your novel The Fiction Class was about teaching. Do you still teach?

Yes, I teach Intro to Fiction, Novel Writing and Create Writing for Gotham Writers, in Manhattan. I love my job because I get to hear stories for a living. Also, I get to meet people from all over the world.

Does Maggie Dove have a pet?

Not in the first book. But I’m a big pet lover myself. I have two dogs (cockapoos named Buster and Bailey) and a cat (Calvin). As I began writing the second Maggie Dove book, I imagined her as someone who would rescue a cat. Oddly enough, I had just written the scene when my daughter called me and mentioned that she knew of a cat that needed rescuing. I considered that a sign from above and so Calvin entered my life and Kosi entered Maggie Dove’s life.

Maggie Dove is a Sunday School teacher who lives in a small village in Westchester. She sounds like you. Is she you?

There is certainly a lot of me in Maggie Dove and vice versa. We look at the world the same way. We have the same sense of humor, and the same temper. My experiences as a Sunday School teacher provided me with insights into her character, and a certain number of anecdotes. For example, there’s a scene in the novel where she sets off a fire alarm while teaching her Sunday School class how to bake pretzels. I did that myself, and one of the more embarrassing experiences of my life was watching the entire church file out, right in the middle of the minister’s sermon.

The hardest part of Maggie Dove to write was dealing with her feelings of loss over losing a child. Maggie’s daughter Juliet died in a car accident when she was 17. My oldest son Will died of heart failure when he was 19. The ramifications of that have rocked through my life for the last nine years, since he died. You might wonder why on earth I would want to write about something so depressing, but in fact, I found it healing. One of the things about grief is that it silences you. You don’t want to keep expressing dark thoughts, but at the same time, they grow inside you. Confronting my own grief in a fictional way, through Maggie Dove’s journey, helped me come to terms with my own struggle, and I hope it’s something that other people dealing with loss can relate to. In the end, Maggie does come to embrace joy in her life, and she helped bring joy back into my life as well.

 

Thank you for coming on this journey with me.

Please feel free to be in touch. I love getting e mail at susan@susanjbreen.com