Do you have an official biography?
Yes, here it is:
Susan Breen teaches fiction classes for Gotham Writers' Workshop in Manhattan. Her stories have been published by a number of literary magazines, among them American Literary Review and North Dakota Quarterly. She lives in Irvington, NY with her husband, children, two dogs and a cat. In her free time, which she has none of, she likes to read.
How do you find time to write?
The problem is not finding time to write. The problem is finding time to do anything else, like the laundry, or cleaning the bathroom. I decided when my kids were little that something had to give. My children would be my primary focus, but the minute they were asleep, or at school, or watching TV, I would sit down and write. The result is that we live on pizza and none of our socks match and there are sections of my kitchen that really are a biohazard. Also, I never answer the phone during the day and I don't watch TV (except for 24 and American Idol.)
I have an idea for a story. What should I do?
You have to write it down. You have to work on it. There is a very big difference between having an idea and having a manuscript and it's usually about two years.
You mention a lot of books in The Fiction Class. Who are your favorite authors?
There are some books that I love because when I read them I feel like I am in a class with a wonderful teacher. In that group I would include David Copperfield, Crime and Punishment, Catch-22, Moby Dick and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. Other books comfort me and reassure me that the world is a good place. In that group I would include To Kill a Mockingbird, Three Junes by Julia Glass and anything by Richard Russo. Sometimes I read a book and feel a personal connection with the author, which is what I felt when I read V.S. Pritchett's collection of short stories. Then there are the books that feel like old friends, and that would include anything by Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer.
Did you base your book on real students in your classes?
There are certainly things that happen in The Fiction Class that have happened in the fiction classes that I teach. For example, I have had several people go running out of my class because they've had anxiety attacks. Also, it's quite common for students to begin to dress differently as the class goes on. But the thing to keep in mind is that I have been teaching for more than five years and have had more than one thousand students, so the behaviors that I write about (even Byron's) have been exhibited by more than one student. This is an important point to me because I feel strongly that my students have trusted me with their stories, and I would never single one of them out because to me that would be betraying a trust.
Have you ever had a student who had no talent at all?
When people think about writers, they tend to focus on people who have a facility with words. Naturally. So there are always some people in my classes, and they are often British, who can string together words so beautifully that everyone else feels like a failure. But this is not the only thing that makes a writer successful. Maybe you are really good at plotting, you can think of fantastic and surprising twists. Or you might be especially insightful when it comes to character. Maybe you have a good ear for dialogue. Generally, every student has a strength in some area and I try to nurture that strength. Have I ever had a student who didn't have a single strength? Yes, but just a few, and I don't think they realized it, so let's keep that a secret.
Was your mother like Barbara Hicks?
I certainly had my mother in mind when I created the character of Barbara Hicks. They share a number of qualities, among them courage, humor, self-absorption, a preoccupation with death and suffering, a passionate devotion to their husbands, stubbornness, and vanity. But there are also some major differences between my mother and Barbara, chiefly that my mother never did any of the things that Barbara did. She never went to Mexico, never met a fortune teller, never wrote a short story, and, most importantly, never expected a miracle. This is what writers do. We take what we know and then we ask, What if?
Do you think your mother would have liked this book?
I hope so, but I don't think I would have written this book if she were still alive, because even though I didn't set out with the intention of writing anything hurtful, I can see how this might make her feel exposed.
Are you like Arabella?
Well, she's 38 and single. I'm 50, married, and have four kids. So there are certain dissimilarities. However, one thing we share is a similar sense of humor. So you could say that she and I see things the same way.
What about Chuck Jones?
Chuck is a complete figment of my imagination. I never had a student like him and I don't think I've ever met anyone like him. He started off as an idea. I had to think of someone who would drive Arabella completely crazy, and I thought about how important suffering had been in her life, and from there I thought, What about a man who has never suffered at all?
How did you get your book published?
The long answer to that question is in the bio section (go to the button marked About Me). The short answer is that I went to the March 2006 Pitch and Shop Conference in New York. I met my editor, she loved my book and she bought it.
Where do you get your ideas?
I tend to write about the things I worry about. Often I begin thinking about a story way before I ever write about it. In the case of The Fiction Class, I knew for some years that I wanted to write a story about a woman and her mother, but it was not until after my mother died, and I realized how much our discussions about writing had meant to me, that I understood how to frame my novel.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I have always thought that being a writer was the most glamorous job in the world, and because of that I never really thought I could be one. Somehow I thought you had to be tall and thin and neurotic, and I am none of those things. (Maybe a little neurotic, but no so much as to be interesting.) So I always hoped I would do something involving words, such as journalism, but I never dreamed I would be a novelist. It wasn't until I was in my thirties, and home with my kids, and trying to figure out what to do with all this insane energy that was bubbling inside of me that I realized that I did have one quality very important for an author-I had something to say. My first published story concerned a baby shower gone very wrong, and I would sort of cringe when I told people about it because it seemed so small compared to war and peace and life and death and Hemingway and Fitzgerald. And then I happened to read a short story by Fitzgerald about a baby shower and I thought, Well. All right then.
Do you have an MFA?
No. I have an M.A. in International Affairs, with a specialization in Russian economics, from Columbia University. It is now completely out of date, but at the time I got it, it helped me to get a job at Fortune Magazine. I think it's good for writers to have broad interests. I've learned a lot from my job as a reporter, from having four children, from being married, from being a daughter. I believe that writers must engage in life if they are to write about it (though obviously there are some major exceptions to that rule).
Would you speak at my book club?
I would love to. Send me an e mail and we will try to work it out.
Can I preorder your book?
Absolutely. Just follow this link.