About Suzan Still
Suzan Still holds a masters in art and writing and a doctorate in depth psychology. A retired university professor, she also taught creative writing in a men’s prison, where she became increasingly concerned with issues of social disenfranchisement. She lives in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains with her husband and an assortment of rescued fur children.
You can visit Suzan at http://suzanstillcommune.blogspot.com
Could you please tell us a little about your book?
Commune of Women explores what happens to six women, mostly strangers and extremely diverse, trapped together in a small room. The circumstances are life-threatening and terrorizing. In order to pass the time and calm themselves, the women begin to tell their life stories. These tales offer windows on the outside world and a relief from their claustrophobic confines. A seventh character is trapped in another small room, alone, and she has a different set of struggles but ones that are equally challenging.
I wanted to put my characters in a pressure cooker and then raise the heat, to see what would happen; how they would react; what decisions they would make; whether they could pull together in order to survive and prevail.
Did something specific happen to prompt you to write this book?
Terrorism is a hot topic, these days, and a deep concern, worldwide. I wanted to explore what happens to both victims and perpetrators of a terrorist act. I taught creative writing for five years in a men’s prison and I came to understand that criminal activity is very often the result of social and economic disenfranchisement, so I wanted to explore the lives of the individual terrorists, to see if this was true for them, as well. Also, terrorist acts are not focused on a specific victim and so I wanted to explore just how diverse a cross section of the populace could be affected. It’s our worst nightmare, isn’t it? You’re an innocent person, going about your daily activities and then, suddenly, you’re caught up in a web of horror. I think we’ve all wondered how we would behave in a critical, life-threatening situation. The seven women of Commune of Women are an attempt to answer that question.
Who or what is the inspiration behind this book?
I grew up in the foothills of the Sierras, in an area still influenced by the Gold Rush of 1849. As a child I knew some real characters—miners, an ancient Chinese woman who had been bought to work in the mines, Miwuk Indians, loggers, gypsies, drifters and cowboys, along with migrants from the Dust Bowl. It was a rich, fascinating mix and I think that early immersion in human variety stimulated my desire to write characters that are full-bodied, sometimes perverse, but always complex and fascinating.
Who is your biggest supporter?
Without a doubt, my husband, David Roberson. He has been unfailingly supportive, through thick and thin. I think the man should be canonized, frankly. Living with a writer must be the next best thing to donning a hair shirt!
Your biggest critic?
I’m pretty hard on myself and my writing. I hate it when I get lazy and fall short of my own expectations, either for production or in quality.
What cause are you most passionate about and why?
As I mentioned earlier, I used to teach in a men’s prison. When I started I had the usual attitude toward crime, one that placed all the blame on the criminals. But in the spirit of “write what you know,” I had my students start writing about their lives and the most incredible tales of want, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, discrimination and social dislocation began to emerge! After five years, my attitude had changed completely and I was amazed that most of these men were even sane, let alone the willing, eager and dedicated students I knew them to be. Ever since, I’ve been interested in the back story, the hidden, molding and shaping influences in people’s lives. I find that so much of what perturbs society, today, is the result of social disenfranchisement of whole segments of the population. I wrote my doctoral dissertation, Dark Persephone, on the prison phenomenon, have published papers and done public speaking on it, am a mentor to some of my former students, and will continue to research and write on the topic.
In the last year have you learned or improved on any skills?
Certainly my abilities as an editor have improved. I tend to be wordy and I’ve learned to pare a sentence down, to reveal its essence.
Do you have any rituals you follow when finishing a piece of work?
Not unless you count the mantra, “You can do just one more page, I know you can,” endlessly repeated, while doing galleys!
Who has influenced you throughout your career as a writer?
I was very fortunate that my parents taught me to read very early, at age three. And my mother read aloud to the entire family, every night, sometimes adult non-fiction or fiction and sometimes children’s books, like Wind in the Willows or Treasure Island. So good literature is a part of me, right down in the marrow of my bones. There are certain writers who feed my soul and to whom I return, again and again, because I love their unique voices: Hemingway, Faulkner, T.S.Eliot, Laurence Durrell, Carl Jung and Steinbeck, chief among them.
What is the most important thing in your life right now?
All my life I’ve had the same focus: to develop my potential as fully as possible. This is not simply an egoic urge but much more of a spiritual calling. I feel that life is a tremendous privilege and opportunity. I don’t want to waste a moment of it!
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on my next novel, Fiesta of Smoke, a love story that covers fifty years, set against the backdrop of the coming revolution in Mexico. I’ve been working on it for over thirty years and, every time I think I may never finish it, the protagonists, whose love for one another is deep and enduring despite many setbacks, seem to demand that I move their story forward, again. I hope to have it finished within a year.
Do you have any advice for writers or readers?
To both I would say, read the classics. Immerse yourself in beautiful language, expertly crafted passages, incisive dialogue, rich descriptions. Don’t just read for plot but to enjoy the depth and richness of the English language.
Is there an author that inspired you to write?
Years ago, when my friend Kathleen Meyer first published her book, How to Shit in the Woods, I was impressed. Here was someone I knew and admired who had made the break into print. It got me to thinking: why not me? Kathleen is a pioneering woman, in many respects, and I owe her a debt for inspiring me to put my own writing out there. Her book is now in its third edition and has become an environmental classic. Write on, Kathy!
What are some of your long term goals?
Many of my long term goals revolve around writing. I have seven different fiction manuscripts in various phases of completion and three of non-fiction, as well. Other goals involve the earth: we keep bees, have fruit trees, vegetable, herb and flower gardens, all with the intent of becoming more and more self-sufficient. Our goal is to leave the earth a bit better than we found it. Also, I have causes to which I want to give increased support. One that is dear to my heart is my friend Sister Mary Sean Hodges’ Office of Restorative Justice, which houses recently paroled inmates and helps them find work. And, of course, I will keep working on myself, to see what I can accomplish, physically, mentally and spiritually, in the coming years.
What do you feel has been your greatest achievement as an author?
I knew from the start that Commune of Women would have to take an experimental form. Because I wanted to get as close to the consciousness of each of the characters as possible, I needed to continually shift the point of view. Thus, the format looks a bit like a script for a play. It wasn’t easy to write that way and in addition, there were people who absolutely hated that format! I actually lost a good friend over my insistence that I was going to write from multiple points of view! So I guess that the actual achievement is in sticking to my original vision, despite the difficulties and the disapproval; in mustering the courage and summoning the confidence to write what was really in my heart.
What do you feel is your biggest strength?
I’m not afraid to take on big challenges. I always say that my outlook towards life is Gothic, because I take on projects that go on for months or years, as if I were building a Gothic cathedral. In order to accomplish such long-term goals, I’ve had to overcome my tendency to procrastinate and to learn to develop my willpower and focus my intention.
I spread myself too thin. I have lots of interests and I’m always in danger of becoming a jack of all trades.
What do you feel sets this book apart from others in the same genre?
The structure of Commune of Women is unusual. Rather than using an omniscient voice, I wrote each character separately, in intimate third person. I wanted the reader to get as fully as possible into the mind of each character. In format, this looks almost like the script for a play. It was very challenging to write that way but I think the outcome is worth it.
Also, I’ve taken on some controversial topics in Commune of Women. I wanted to look boldly at contemporary issues like terrorism and the global abuse of women and to see if, through fiction, some very real issues might get an airing.
You know the scenario – you’re stuck on an island. What book would you bring with you and why?
A book I’ve returned to again and again over the years—actually, a suite of books—is The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell. One event is viewed by four different characters in ways so divergent that one scarcely recognizes them as the same happening. That kind of psychological relativity fascinates me and inspired me to attempt complex points of view in Commune of Women. I enter into the labyrinth of Durrell’s writing, again and again, with a sense of wonder.
If you could go back and change one day, what would it be?
I don’t put much energy into regrets. Everything that has befallen me in this life, everything that I’ve done or chosen or created, has been a learning experience. Maybe some things weren’t much fun, at the time, but in retrospect some of the hardest experiences turn out to be life’s greatest lessons and most radiant gifts—so I doubt I would change anything.
Are you a different person now than you were 5 years ago? In what way/s?
I do set five- and ten-year goals and my goal, five years ago, was to publish a book. At that point, it seemed impossible. I was fully involved in teaching at the university and my life was centered around my subject and my students. I was just starting Commune of Women but my duties as a professor kept the book from becoming a central focus. When I retired a year and a half ago, I leapt into fulltime writing with rejoicing! The advent of Commune of Women is proof that focusing one’s intention is a crucial first step in any important endeavor.
What is the most important lesson you have learned from life so far?
I believe that life is an act of imagination. We are able, far beyond what we generally believe, to create ourselves and our lives and to express enormous freedom in doing it. I have always encouraged my friends and students to imagine the highest goals for themselves and then to set about making them reality. To be alive is a thrilling opportunity!
Is there anything you regret doing/not doing?
I suppose it would have to be not realizing sooner that I could alter my life through the creative act of imagination and the focus of intention and will. I might have done so much more in life, if I’d known that sooner. Now, I approach every single day as a doorway into a fuller, more creative life.
What is your favorite past-time?
I love to garden, whether fruit, vegetables, herbs or flowers. Being in the garden is the most tranquil and relaxing part of any given day. The beauty of the plants, their willingness to grow and produce, the smell of flowers and moist earth, the visits by birds, butterflies and bees—all those things are like living inside a beautiful and sensual poem, for me. And it’s very grounding, which is important because so much of a writer’s life is spent in mental pursuits.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Commune of Women is my first novel but it won’t be my last. I’ve been working on a number of manuscripts, over the years, and now I intend to bring them to completion. The next book is Fiesta of Smoke, a love story that spans five decades, against the backdrop of the coming revolution in Mexico. The main characters have a very unusual and problematic relationship but their deep love for one another keeps drawing them back together, again. I’ve been working on this book for over thirty years! I never give up on it because their love is so deep it seems to demand that I attend to it and move it forward. I’ve been traveling in Mexico for over thirty years, as well, and have a deep love of that country and its people. It’s a mystical place and I hope to convey that to my readers.
I guess that, in conclusion, I would like people to know that my love of storytelling will continue, God willing, for many years to come!
About Commune of Women
On an ordinary Los Angeles morning, seven women converge upon LAX for various purposes. Suddenly, in the midst of the crowded terminal, disaster strikes. Each woman spies her only chance at survival and races into the tiny staff room that is to be her home for the next four days. By the first night, they have rudimentary knowledge of one another: Sophia is a powerful, 60-ish woman who is unaccountably adept at the arts of survival; Pearl, an ancient bag lady, part-Black, part-Choctaw, is resourceful and unafraid; Erika , a top executive, has had her business trip cut short by a bullet in the shoulder; Heddi, a Jungian analyst already stressed by marital problems, knows she must use her psychological skills to help the others; Betty, an overweight, histrionic, 50-ish housewife, can’t stand the sight of blood or the thought of how she’s driven her entire family away; and Ondine, a sylph-like, 40ish artist, wealthy, unhappy and neurotic, has inherited a home in France. For four days, united by their common will to survive, the women learn to cooperate and to both entertain and sustain themselves by telling their life stories, which grow darker and more intimate as the days pass.
Meanwhile, Najat, the sole female among her group, the Brothers, has been abandoned by her male companions in a control room with a bank of monitors giving a view of the entire terminal and of televised rescue efforts, where she struggles between her own conscience and the dictates of her group.