The Five-Minute Interview: Novelist Susan Richards Shreve
Posted: August 23, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am
Photo ©David Carmack/carmackphoto.com
Susan Richards Shreve, Mason’s writer in residence, has taught fiction writing at Mason for more than 30 years and helped start the university’s nationally ranked graduate creative writing program.
She is the author of 40 novels: 13 for adults, including “A Student of Living Things,” and 27 for children. This summer she published a memoir, “Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR’s Polio Haven,” a first for Shreve.
Those who have studied or worked with Shreve might be surprised to learn that she contracted polio as an infant and walked with the aid of leg braces. At age 11, she was sent to Warm Springs, a rehabilitation center for polio patients in Georgia, which was founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt after he sought treatment at the mineral springs for his own polio. There she endured surgeries and physical therapy to help restore the muscles in her legs.
Of the book, a reviewer at the Boston Globe wrote: “Wrenching but entirely lacking in self-pity, ‘Warm Springs’ is both funny and revelatory, its narrator emerging as a thoroughly endearing girl poised on adolescence who had grown up long before.”
After numerous works of fiction, you’ve written your first memoir. What prompted this switch to nonfiction?
First, because I’m old enough. I never imagined writing a memoir, but this one covers ancient personal history between the time I was 11 and almost 13 living in a polio hospital in Warm Springs, Ga. It occurred to me that the place itself, the happily-ever-after 1950s, racial complexities in the south and finally my solo journey at Warm Springs without my parents had life, and I wanted to tell this story before I couldn’t remember it. Not only is Warm Springs an entirely different place than it was, but I was struck by the fact that I lived in a hospital without my parents for two years off and on — something that wouldn’t happen today. I did some crucial growing up traveling solo.
What were the specific challenges you faced writing a memoir that you hadn’t encountered with fiction? What did you find easier?
I love fiction because I make it up. That said, the memoir was much faster in the writing because I knew the story and the principal characters. The hard part was the bargain I made with myself to be honest and uncompromising.
The book attempts not just a portrait of a person but also a portrait of place —and ultimately a place larger than the Warm Springs of the title. How did you balance writing your personal history against writing about the larger history of the United States during these years?
I was not interested in writing a memoir about my own life without including the context of the world in which I lived — and my intention in structuring the book was to include not just the particulars of my story, but the larger context which I believe defines us all in time and place.
In one newspaper interview, you spoke about going to the library to do research for the book. What kinds of things did you research?
The main research I did had to do with Roosevelt, the beginnings of Warm Springs, the history of polio and simply the culture of the 1950s, which is so different from today.
Does having people read about such a difficult part of your life and a physical disability make you self-conscious?
I would have been incredibly self-conscious to write about polio when I was younger. In fact, I did write about it when I was 18 in a dreadful novel, unpublished, called “Wooden and Wicker” and featuring an insipid, annoying young heroine. Now, so many years later, it wasn’t difficult to write about myself in those years, but I wouldn’t dare write about the ones after 16 — not because they were difficult, but rather the people involved are living, so I’d be uncomfortable arriving at the truth.
As a part of a Fall for the Book panel on memoir writing last fall, [Mason English professor and author] Kyoko Mori said she always felt like her fiction revealed more about her — things she didn’t intend to reveal — than her memoir did. Do you find that to be the case with your work?
I agree. This is also why I wouldn’t venture to write a memoir covering the years when I am older — those belong in fiction when even I don’t know what I’m revealing.
Do you anticipate writing more nonfiction or is it back to another novel now?
I have no plans to write another memoir. I’m writing a novel called “Left at Wichita” — it may be about the mystery of community, but I haven’t gotten there yet. [I am also] continuing to work on a prequel to the novel I wrote [under a pseudonym] called “Believing in the Mercy of the World.” I plan to finish the first by late winter, the second maybe sometime, maybe never.
In your novels for children, you often write about adolescents at about the point you were at when you went to Warm Springs. Coincidence? Or is there something about this time in a person’s life that resonates with you?
Such a great question about adolescents. I love the years of “change” in our lives — not to live them necessarily, but to write about them. Change is at the heart of fiction and I think resonates with me because it’s at the heart of life as well — change and what a person does with it.
During this year’s Fall for the Book festival, Shreve will read from her memoir on Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 4:30 p.m. in the Grand Tier of the Concert Hall.