Debut novelist Susan Froderberg caught the attention of fans of Southwestern fiction with Old Border Road, an atmospheric story set in rural Arizona. Froderberg took the time to answer our questions about the novel, sharing her influences, writing theories and more.
This is your first book to be published, so to start, congratulations! Can you tell us a little about what prompted you to write a novel and what it was like trying to get it published?
Old Border Road began as a short story, published in a literary journal and later anthologized. I went back to the story because I believed there was still more to be said. I had found a place where I could wander about, and with it a way of speaking that was coming to me pretty easily. So I wrote a first chapter, “A Home to Go Home To,” which was published as a new short story. There was enough to keep me going after this, and I carried on. From there it was a matter of patience and will and discipline.
I had written a novel before, but put the thing into a drawer thinking it not worthy of publication. I was satisfied enough with Old Border Road to read parts of it over the telephone to my friend Gordon Lish when it was finished. He encouraged me to send it out, and I took his advice and did. My agent was the first person to read the book.
You lived in Arizona during your high school years, and you set your novel there as well. Although you have since lived elsewhere, and now live in New York City, why did you choose to set your novel in Arizona? Did you feel you had some unfinished business there?
It was more that I still had feelings for the place. I was 16 years old when I moved to Arizona, a time of acute memory, and with it lots of adolescent daydreaming and yearning. I wanted to be an artist at the time, more than anything. My mother advised me to think about finding a job, as mothers are wont to do. I went to nursing school, and soon after graduation left Arizona and moved back home to Seattle, where the rest of my family was living.
At times, this novel is a fairly harrowing read. As an author, do you find it difficult to put your characters through such hardships.
No, for two reasons. First, characters are words, not people. Second, human existence is filled with hardship. Every epic or dramatic poem or great novel is about a struggle of some kind; it’s a striving for happiness, it’s about someone trying to get something. There are endless wishes and wants. Unless we’re able to strangle all desire and thereby achieve nothingness, or Nirvana, there remains to us a state of being in which one desire necessarily follows another. If there is no such thing as lasting contentment or absolute happiness, how could it be a subject of art? I am with Schopenhauer here.
One piece of advice that is frequently offered to aspiring authors is that you should write about what you know. To what extent would you say you apply this principle to your own work?
Sure, it helps to be familiar with the subject matter you’re delving into. Melville’s experience on a whaling boat gave him the authority to write about whaling. On the other hand, I don’t believe Melville necessarily threw a harpoon or survived a sinking ship, just as McCarthy did not scalp Indians or make love to dead bodies in order to write what he did. As for myself, it’s true I have run barrels, and have even tried to throw a rope to heel a calf, however inexpertly. But I lay no claim to ever preparing for any kind of rodeo, except for that of hollering bystander.
As an author, what is harder to write when it comes to a book: the first sentence or the last?
I would say they are equally difficult, or equally not difficult. Trying to find a rhythm or a meter specific to the telling of a particular story, and keeping on with it beginning to end, is the trickier thing.
Are there any particular authors who inspire you or that you feel have had a notable impact on your own writing?
Certainly Schopenhauer, as I mentioned earlier. And absolutely Emerson. Add to the list Frost and Stevens, Joyce and Beckett, O’Conner and Robinson, among others. To my mind, there is no greater American writer alive than Cormac McCarthy. All of us, as writers—as artists—come out of some Petri dish, and I will admit to coming out of his. There is no such thing as the innocent eye, or the innocent ear, no matter what anybody tells you. On the other hand, we are each of us necessarily what no one else can possibly be.
Do you find your philosophy background has enriched your writing?
Probably, as the opportunity to study philosophy has enriched my life. But I’m happier being a writer than I would have been if I were doing philosophy work, as writing has set me free in a way that philosophy—specifically, Western philosophy—could not have. For in Western philosophy you must follow formal logic—if A, then not B. In fiction, you may have both A and B, if you so choose. You can be exhausted and you can be exhilarated at the same time: one state need not negate the other. Or you can be derived and you can be unique, without contradiction. This is not to say we can do away with logic: there would be no language without it. But in writing, it’s possible to bend language toward a more Eastern way of thinking.
Also, I would say my background—both practical and educational—has been so various that philosophy is only a part of it. My time as a critical care nurse enriched my life: sometimes, I consider it the most important work I’ve done, though at the time I was too busy to realize it. My undergraduate degree (after nursing school) was in economics; that too opened me to a better way of understanding the world. And my Ph.D. was a joint degree: I was in Columbia’s School of Public Health as well as in the Philosophy Department. It was the era of interdisciplinary studies, and I was lucky to have been able to invent mine—no one there before had formally done anything in Medical Ethics.
What are you working on next?
Another novel, this one also inspired by a particular landscape, though it isn’t set in the desert. I know where I am, but I have no idea where I’ll end up. It’s a voyage of discovery. I’m setting forth, trying to leave things behind.
Read a review of Old Border Road