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Becoming FinolaShelf Life
Suzanne Strempek Shea

e-interviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

(August, 2004)

According to her publicist, Suzanne Strempek Shea is 'A lively storyteller who peppers all of her books with her natural grace and humor'. This year's memoir, Shelf Life, is amusing, sometimes passionate. Shea writes of working in a bookstore, that it's like being 'a sugar freak in a candy store', and that one of the bonuses lies in being able to promote her own books.

Regarding her novel, Becoming Finola (another 2004 release), her publicist suggested to the author 'The setting of this book is a big change for you, a story in Ireland rather than in Massachusetts, or your native Polish-American community', to which Suzanne responded, 'Novelist and columnist friend Tanya Barrientos suggested I start something totally new, set somewhere different, with characters other than those I normally write about ... got me thinking it would be great to set something in Ireland, a place I love to visit, so that opening the laptop each day would be like taking another trip there.'

Let's see what else Suzanne Strempek Shea has to say about her writing ...

Q: Which authors and subjects have influenced your career as a writer? And why?

A: Subjects: A few would be relationships, fate, emmigration/immigration, nature, travel, personal experience. Writers would be, first and foremost, Elinor Lipman, who didn't know me at all when she asked to look at a story I was writing. She ended up sendng those pages to a friend who was an agent, and to her own editor, and both of them ended up accepting the work, which became my first novel Selling the Lite of Heaven. (Pocket Books, 1994) So in a very real way, without that act of out-of-the-blue kindness, there's every chance I wouldn't be doing this for a living now. It's very, very tough to get published, and her help was truly and literally lifechanging. As both a reader and a writer I get a lot from the work of Roddy Doyle, Anne Lamott and the late Raymond Carver. I could fill up this screen with the names of authors and books I admire, but those four people spring to mind.

Q: In your latest, Becoming Finola, you touch upon the 9/11 tragedy. In your travels outside the United States, have you been approached about the happenings of that day?

A: I have, and now with the war, there are more comments and questions. I am struck by many foreigners' deep levels of concern about and knowledge of our political situation - I wish more Americans were as interested and informed.

Q: Do you have any new book themes in mind for the near future? Are there themes that you have sitting on a "back burner" which you might do or feel you should have done?

A: I am working on short stories centering around a trip to pick up a dog adopted on the internet. I always have tons of ideas. If there's anything I feel I "should have" done, there is still, I hope, time to.

Q: Do you have a specific methodology in your writing habits, e.g., the ending is known to you even before you begin, or you work on more than one chapter at a time?

A: I start with only what I call a "TV Guide synopsis" of the story. A woman is dumped by her fiancÚ and sells her ring through the classifieds. Then I go from there. I don't know really anything about what the story will be, including the ending. I work from page one on. I try to write at least two pages a day, hitching onto what I wrote the day before. Every 50 or so pages I print everything out and edit, put in the changes, then keep on going. It's a sort of 9-5 job, with a break from 12:30 to 1:30 for lunch with The Young and the Restless.

Q: Have you ever considered a sequel to any of your books, or doing a series?

A: When I am working on something, I'm thinking two or so stories down the line, looking to get started on something new. So revisiting a place or plot isn't something that's been big interest so far.

Q: You really get into the characters in your stories ... what they feel and think. Do you study individuals you know, have known, and/or "make up" what the character's mindset should be in scenarios?

A: I don't know if you'd call it studying, but I do observe. I was a reporter for 15 years, and that's a lot of what you do. Take things in. My college experience was art school (a place now called the Maine College of Art) and for four years I was learning to see. I think all that has made me a better writer. I might take parts of people I've known or seen, snippets of conversation, sensory stuff I've collected in memory, then it goes into the Waring blender that you can use when you're writing fiction. Though I might need a nasty person or a gullible person, I don't force personalities on the characters. As you write them, they become who they are, and they enter the scene at the right time - there are days when they do the work and all I do is type. I know that sounds weird, but it happens.

Q: Have you ever considered writing a mystery, intrigue, or a historical novel?

A: I haven't. I'm not a huge reader of mystery or intrigue, and there'd be research required for an historical novel and what I love about fiction, after the non-fiction and research of reporting, is that I can make things up.

Q: If you were ever to co-author a novel, who would be at the top of your list as collaborator(s)?

A: I guess the living favorites listed above, but there are plenty of others whose work I admire. I don't know that co-authoring is something that really interests me - we all have our own ideas and ways of working - but certainly if a shero or hero came calling I wouldn't say no.

Q: Did you ever see one of your stories as a movie in your own mind? Do you think Becoming Finola would make a good film, and is that likely to happen?

A: I see all of them as big-budget record-setting-grossing blockbusters. But so far no one in Hollywood agrees! There have been options on Selling the Lite and on Hoopi Shoopi Donna, and screenplays have been written, but no progress beyond that. I have to say that I am a visual person and see the stories as happening as I write them - I wouldn't know how else to write than to "see" thing happening. I don't hold my breath for a film, but it's fun to talk about.

Q: Is there anything particular you would like to share with our readership?

A: I'd like to thank them for reading, my books or anyone's. If no one were reading my books, I wouldn't get to do this for a living. If they don't know of the books, they can visit my website, at
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