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Some fast facts on her:
- Lived in Conneticut except for when she attended college in New Jersey, and a year in Florida.
- Loves horses and rides in horse competitions.
- Her dad was a race car legend, and founded the NASCAR team Moroso Racing.
Amie Flanagan: Night Blindness is a book with lots of depth and striking plot twists that can leave a reader breathless. Did you outline this book prior to writing it?
Susan Strecker: Sometimes I wish I had outlined the book before writing it, but that’s not my style. I changed plot points, characters, and details so many times that it may have been a smoother process if I had planned what I was going to write beforehand. However, I am not certain it would have been as strong of a book. I truly didn’t know what was going to happen from one scene to the next, and that turned out to be a really fun part of the process. Not having any of the plotline planned out in advance allowed me to be as creative as the book needed. I wasn’t restricted by any preconceived notions of where I thought the novel should go.
AF: One of the most moving aspects of Night Blindness is the incredible three-dimensional character you’ve created with Jensen. What advice do you have to create such depth to your characters?
Susan Strecker: After I wrote the first draft of Night Blindness, I went through it and took notes on each character. I did that for two reasons- first, to make sure details such as eye color were consistent throughout the book. But, also, that allowed me to see where each character needed more. I envision my characters as caricatures. I try to give each one enough personality to make them all memorable. Sometimes I give one a little too much and then I have to scale back a bit. But, I start with thinking of a list of colorful qualities that I want a character to have. Even if I don’t use the traits, it helps me get an idea of what each character would be like in real life.
AF: You’ve done an incredible job not forgetting the secondary characters in this book. Did you have to remind yourself to give them more dimension or did you have them planned out before you wrote this book?
Susan Strecker: I had to remind myself every time I encountered any of my characters to give them more depth. They say the devil is in the details, and for me, that is the truth. I have a tendency to know each character pretty well, and while I’m writing I forget that my readers don’t live in my head (thank goodness for them), and thus don’t automatically know what’s going on with each one. So, I try to read as if I don’t know the storyline. Then, I add more details as I go.
AF: One of the things that really struck me about this book is that I could literally feel Jensen’s guiltier grief beautifully. How did you infuse such raw emotion in the story?
Susan Strecker: Don’t be scared, but I kind of became Jensen while I was writing. I understand that TV shows aren’t real, but it doesn’t stop me from crying when something sad happens. Likewise, I knew Jensen was borne from my imagination, but her pain was real to me. It didn’t feel real, it was real. When I wrote the scene where Sterling was in the hospital and his organs were failing, and Jensen thought he was dying, I cried so hard I had to stop writing. I knew the story wasn’t over, so there was no way Sterling was going to die that night. But, Jensen didn’t know that. And therefore, in a way, neither did I. That scene was difficult to write because it was so emotional for Jensen and therefore me. Likewise, I had a really hard time writing the scene when Jensen and Mandy were in the shoe store and Jensen finally told her what really happened to Will. As I was writing it, I started to think about what it must have been like for her to carry around half a lifetime’s worth of guilt and shame. This poor girl had lost everything because of one tragic mistake that she never meant to happen. The sense of “what could have been” was the hardest for me to come to peace with for Jensen, and made that scene hard to write. I found myself emotionally drained while writing the more intense scenes and would often have to walk away for a little while and take a breather.
AF: How did you make the dialogue so real and natural?
Susan Strecker: My eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Hershnik, told my class to write like we speak. Because of him, I will talk out loud while I’m writing dialogue to make it feel as natural as possible. After I write it, I then read it out loud so I can listen for hitches and anything that might it sound forced. If I’m really stuck, I’ll ask my husband, Kurt, to talk with me about what I’m trying to write. Sometimes I’ll transcribe our conversations as we’re talking, then tweak them a little. So, I guess the short answer is that I use real conversations to create dialogue.
AF: Did your background in Marriage and Family Therapy help you write this story and if so, how?
Susan Strecker: My MFT background helped so much while I was writing. One of the main things I learned in school is that grief is singular. No two people, even family members grieve in the same way. That’s one of the reasons why so many marriages don’t survive the death of a child. It can be difficult for one person who can’t (or won’t) express their grief to be with someone who copes best by vocalizing their feelings. It was important to me to explore Jamie and Sterling’s relationship after they lost Will. Sterling was definitely a more likable character than Jamie (to me, anyway). But, I wanted to explain why she did what she did. That it wasn’t all her fault. That she needed to remember Will and it was too hard for her to be with Sterling when he couldn’t talk about Will at all. Having gone through years of training really helped with that dynamic.
AF: You have such a lyrical style of writing. How did you determine the best metaphors or word choice to help tell this story?
Susan Strecker: I wish I could say I have a great formula for writing. But, I don’t choose my words, they choose me. Sometimes I’ll go back and read a scene several days after I’ve written it, and I’ll actually be surprised at what I’ve written. I get in a zone when I write and I truly don’t think about it. As a matter of fact, if I start to spend more than a minute or two on word choice, I’ll skip it and come back to it later. I find that when thinking too much about word choice, it never works out well.
AF: You give interesting visual clues about Jensen’s mindset that seems to also echo in the plotline. One such example is: “”I felt like I was walking sideways, and all the rides and games were slanted at odd angles.” Do you feel setting should mimic a person’s point of view?
Susan Strecker: Um, honestly, this is the same as the metaphors and word choices. I think somewhere in my unconscious I’m aware of pairing setting with a character’s frame of mind. But, while I’m writing, I’m not aware of it. I would say that when it happens, it means that I’m in sync with the scene that I’m writing, but it’s not something that I plan.
AF: Your descriptions of the setting and characters are vivid. What do you choose to be the most important elements to tell when it comes to descriptions?
Susan Strecker: I learned in graduate school that the sense most tied to memory is olfactory. As strange as it sounds, when I’m trying to describe something, I think of the way the setting would smell, or what a character might be smelling, then I go from there. So, with Night Blindness being set on the Connecticut shoreline, I started a lot of descriptions with that low-tide marshy smell. That right there is summertime to me, and it takes me back to any given summer of my past. From there, writing the descriptions of people and places flowed.
AF: What advice would you give to new writers?
Susan Strecker: Much like with any business, it’s important to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and know more. I wrote a version of a book, didn’t know what to do with it, and then met a fabulous development editor. She is pure genius and taught me so much about style and structure while I was writing the novel that would become Night Blindness. Novel writing is a craft like any other skill, it takes experience and schooling. My first bit of advice is to go find yourself a wonderful development editor. Next, and this one is still hard for me, I’ve learned to let go of characters, plots, scenes, paragraphs, and ideas that I love, but just don’t work. I think it was Faulkner who said we must, “kill our darlings.” I didn’t really understand that adage until I had to get rid of a priest named Patrick in Night Blindness. He was the coolest, jeans-wearing, bad-word saying, man of the cloth out there, but he cluttered the story. I was sad to say goodbye to him, but he needed to go. Lastly, and this one will probably sound silly, but read your work out loud. Read your work out loud. One more time- read your work out loud. It’s much easier for me to hear the cadence and rhythm of the story when I read out loud. It’s especially helpful for dialogue. I catch repetition of words and phrases that don’t sound quite right when I read aloud. It’s also easier to for me to pick up on typos. Fortunately, I don’t mind people thinking I’m a little nutty, so I have no problem reading my work out loud in public places. People probably just think that I’m talking to myself.