Some authors might dateline their novels from London and Paris, but Susan Straight writes by hand while parked in her car, waiting to pick up her daughters or escaping her house crowded with friends and family. Fitting, because she sets much of her work in the town of Rio Seco, a parallel world to her hometown of Riverside, located sixty miles east of downtown Los Angeles. A land where, she writes, “the land and sun and smog and violence and people could be forbidding, but the same land and sun and people offered survival and love and tungsten-hard loyalty to each other.”
Her latest novel is the last in the Rio Seco trilogy she worked on for fifteen years. A Million Nightingales (2006), tells the story of Moinette, a beautiful mixed-race slave and her journey to freedom. Take One Candle to Light a Room (2010) follows Victor, a present-day descendant of Moinette. The young man falls into trouble on the fifth anniversary of his mother Glorette’s death. Between Heaven and Here returns to the night of her murder. Each chapter, told by different character, reveals the mystery, pain, and beauty of Glorette and Rio Seco.
You’ve written about Rio Seco for decades. But Sarrat, found at the end of a long dirt road, over the Rio Seco canal, and through a grove of orange trees, is unto itself. These settlers from Louisiana cane country take care of their own, and in Between Heaven and Here, they bury their own. What drove you to write about this subculture? How are subcultures important to portraying place, no matter how insular, inward they seem?
Rio Seco is my stand-in for Riverside, in the same way Santa Teresa is Ross Macdonald’s stand-in for Santa Barbara. But this time, when I began with a story about Glorette being found dead in a shopping cart in an alley, I realized she was different, she wasn’t from the Westside neighborhood I wrote about in the other novels, or Treetown, which I wrote about in The Getting Place. There were Louisiana-migrated people in those two neighborhoods, but I grew up around the orange groves, and I remember some grove properties that you just didn’t go into at all. My brother lived the last ten years of his life on a twenty-acre grove down a long gravel road behind a big gate, and you had to tell him beforehand you were coming. That’s the kind of place I wanted to write about. For reasons of their own, the two men who bought the grove and own the small houses consider that place theirs, with their own laws.
Please share how your search for the origin story of Sarrat and its people led you back through the decades, to postwar, Jim Crow rural Louisiana, the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, and to slavery in the early 19th century. Did the story ever start to feel never-ending? Have you imagined what has happened even further back, and into the future?
The stories older people in our neighborhoods have always told me led me back. We could be sitting around a barbecue, or even just sitting in a driveway on a completely ordinary night in summer, around a card table, and an older person would tell a story about a lynching, a rape, a woman killed on a dirt road by someone who ran her down in an old jalopy in the 1920s, or an older man would mention that his own mother taught all eleven of her children to cook, sew and clean – boys and girls – and then mention his grandmother’s back being covered with scars from bullwhips. From slavery. Those stories are embedded in our lives and in my mind while I’m writing. The story of Moinette, whose mother was brought from Senegal when she was five on a boat with her own mother, is something I imagined for years. My father-in-law’s grandmother told stories of her own mother during slavery. As to the future, that’s a great question that no one has ever asked me – and I wrote a short story for The Oxford American featuring Alfonso, a key character in Between Heaven and Here, the only one who witnesses Glorette’s death, and the best shot with a rifle even as a kid. In the story, it’s 2030, and floods have swallowed much of the south, while drought and drug trade have made the west too dangerous to live – and Alfonso is a survivor in Louisiana with a gun making his own bullets, something my ex-husband used to do in our garage.
Between Heaven and Here is grounded with gritty details about the drug trade, prostitution, and murder, yet the sense of myth is also strong. A flood, a white bogeyman rapist, and a golden-skinned woman of awesome beauty haunt the characters. Can you talk about the novel’s contrasts, how they heighten each other, how they are found in each other: violence and love, struggle and wonder, the ugly and the radiant?
I think we can find the lovely every day, even when times are hard enough for me to still have relatives who use and sell drugs. Rock cocaine is a part of life, even now, for a lot of people I know. Powder cocaine is suddenly popular again in college. Bogeymen are everywhere. But I think the wonder of seeing the moonlight on a palm tree, or watching seven hummingbirds fight over a pink silk floss tree in elaborate battle patterns as I did this morning, given that tree was planted by my brother who has been gone for eleven years, means I can reconcile the two. Most days.
Glorette has an untouchable beauty that also makes her unknowable to the characters around her. Like a moon, she exerts her pull on everyone around her, yet remains at a distance to all but her son, Victor. In the chapter, “Poinciana,” we finally hear from Glorette. What was it like to write from her perspective? Did you work on her voice late in the process of writing the trilogy, or earlier and then set her aside while you explored her impact on the people around her? Did you ever consider telling a novel from her perspective?
I wrote that chapter early on, in 2003 maybe, and I felt I knew her so well, from listening to women who wandered through their days and nights mildly regretful, dreamlike, and yet sometimes with an aching sense of humor. Glorette was permanently sad, when I wrote that, because she thinks the man she loves abandoned her while she was pregnant and 17. But it turns out, I realized two years later, that he’d been killed himself, and she was mourning something she didn’t even know. I didn’t think she could tell her own story for the whole novel, because she was such a dreamer.
You’re known for expertly inhabiting the voices and thoughts of a range of characters, male and female, who vary in occupation, class, and education. How do you immerse yourself into their perspectives? How do you transform anecdote into character? For example, your neighbor, Mr. Gainer told you the story about killing a pig with a hammer when he was seven years old, and that became the basis for a shocking flashback in Between Heaven and Here.
Mr. Gainer died the day my book was delivered to my house. He told me that story of the pig while he sat on my front porch, and I kept thinking of how hard he had to be, how desperate but also how determined to eat. I believe some writers think of scenes for years, turning them over and over in our minds, while we wait for the right moment, and when I saw a photograph of children huddled on the levee during the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, I suddenly knew what had happened to those boys.
The characters Felonaise, Marie Claire, and Enrique are steely, loving grandparents who are far from sentimental: in the schoolyard, Felonaise spits on the mother of a child who has insulted her grandson; in her living room, Marie Claire prepares Glorette’s body for a funeral; and Enrique stalks Glorette’s killer with a gun. What can you say about this generation of people, “the people who left,” as you put it, compared to their children and grandchildren, who ended up close to home?
The elders we grew up listening to had the right to discipline anyone in the street, even those children not their own. They’d grown up under really harsh circumstances, and they had no trouble with punishment, retribution, revenge, and hard physical labor. My friends and relatives who are 40-50, like me, are the generation who had to know most of that, and yet we raise our own children “softer,” according to them. It’s true. We stayed home, and so maybe we’re half-tough, and our own kids are not as hard as we are. But we’re okay with that.
Felonaise is tough, as she’s had to be since she worked in the canefields and saw her husband die because someone made him drive a tractor when the earth was mud. Marie-Claire knew she was next to be hunted by a serial rapist. And Enrique is like men, older men that I watched when I was young, and men who are now my age whom I imagine my daughters watch me in a certain way, trimming trees and baking and hanging up laundry.
You call the books in this trilogy not sequels or prequels, but “companions.” Are you finished with these characters, or do you foresee any of them making a minor or major reappearance again? What can you share about your next project?
I wanted them to be companions in the same way Marilynne Robinson called Home and Gilead that – books which are connected in inextricable ways but do not have to be read in any particular order. I began with beauty and sadness and murder, then wanted to know how that family began back in 1778 in Louisiana, and ended realizing Victor would always love his mother, and suddenly last summer when I wrote the last chapter, I knew the trilogy was really about tribe and survival and still, beauty.
I miss them all a lot. I can’t imagine never writing about them again. I am writing about the big earthquake which will happen, inevitably, here, and I kind of think some of these characters will show up after the shaking stops and the battle for survival begins.