Susan Gilbert-Collins is author of the recent novel Starting from Scratch (see the Banner review) and a member of Rochester (N.Y.) Christian Reformed Church. A native of Brookings, S.D., she earned an English degree from Oberlin College and an M.A. in English as a Second Language from the University of Minnesota. She and her husband, Tim, just adopted their second son, Joshua, who is getting lots of attention from his big brother, Sam. She is also working on her second novel.
Q. How long have you been writing?
A. I've loved writing my whole life and knew I wanted to be a writer by the age of 12.
Q. I know that Starting from Scratch is your first published novel; is it the first novel you've written?
A. As an adult, yes. I wrote a terrible trilogy when I was in high school.
Q. What surprised you about the process and accomplishment of becoming a published author?
A. I was very surprised when the galleys showed up a second time. I had thought the writer only reviewed them once. I was ready never to look at the manuscript again!
Q. I heard author Silas House say once that the people he knows tend to look for themselves in his heroes, but they never recognize themselves as the villains. Are your family and friends trying to find themselves in your novel?
A. Mostly I find that anyone who knows my family wants to know how much the characters are based on this or that real person. I think people are unable to keep from wondering how much I've "stolen" from my real family. One friend was very disturbed by one event in the novel and wanted to know if it had happened to anyone we know; I was glad to reassure her that it was entirely fictional. That said, the three siblings in the novel bear a strong resemblance in some ways to my two real siblings.
Q. Have you ever experienced tension between your faith and staying true to your characters? Do readers expect a “good Christian message”?
A. I think if you start out with a "good Christian message" in mind, there's a real danger of writing bad, didactic literature. I've never been interested in targeting Christian publishers or even Christian readers. I don't want to preach to the choir, for one thing. I hope to portray faith, if more subversively, to a larger audience who might have written it off in the past. I once had a writing professor observe that I must be a person of faith, not because of anything obvious in my short stories, but because of a certain wholeness she saw in some of my characters.
Q. You mentioned in your blog that you were at the Oberlin Conservatory and you admitted to a friend that you hate to practice. Do you play a musical instrument? Are there any commonalities between playing music and writing fiction?
A. I play the piano, and for the first half of my life, it was a defining thing about me. I was conflicted throughout college because I was learning that ultimately I'd rather write than play music, and I knew people expected me to be in music. Making music and writing fiction both require creativity and courage. As a pianist, though, I was always interpreting someone else's composition; I never composed music. In writing I'm the composer. I didn't have the right sort of courage to love performing. I love what Anne Lamott said about being published: you can get so much attention without having to actually show up somewhere.
Q. Between your novel and your blog, it is obvious that you like to cook, read, and write. Cooking plays a main part in some recent popular novels: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, The School of Essential Ingredients, and The Cookbook Collector to name a few. Can you tell us some of your favorite "foodie fiction" titles?
A. I haven't sought out foodie fiction, actually. One novel I loved and was enormously impressed by was Five Quarters of the Orangeby Joanne Harris (Harper Perennial). It's a beautifully written story set in France during World War II, told mostly from a child's point of view. It's much more than a foodie novel, but the food aspects are fascinating.
Q. Do you ever write stories for your sons?
A. I have never written them down, but I've made up many stories about Sammy the Duck and a few stories about things like the Lentil Monster. Believe it or not, that gets Sam to eat his lentils! Could I be on the cusp of inventing a new type of food fiction?
Q. What comfort food is your favorite to cook?
A. I love homemade chicken noodle soup, like my main character Olivia. I also make a lot of homemade pizza because that's my husband's favorite.
Q. Are there any foods that you want to be able to cook but you haven't yet mastered?
A. I'd love to know how to make really great oven-fried chicken, but I'm not sure that there is such a thing.
Q. Any words of wisdom for those of us who like to eat but aren't really into cooking?
A. There are so many great cookbooks out there, but nothing beats having a home cook show you what to do. Ask a good friend who's a good cook to take you under his or her wing. Last summer I ended up with some great homemade canned pasta sauce that way.
Q. Costco, Whole Foods Market, or farmers’ market?
A. Great question! If we lived near a Whole Foods, I'd be an addict. Farmers’ markets are wonderful, but it's hard to keep track of small children there.