Tomorrow night at 7 pm, you can find Susannah Felts at The Bottletree reading and signing her new book This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record. The book is all about developing an identity as an artist among the culture of the New South. In anticipation of the book’s release I traded a few emails with Felts, to see what all the buzz was about…
She said that the release is the end of a long creative process.
“It started as a short story I wrote in grad school in 1998,” she said. “I picked that back up in 2003 and decided to turn it into a novel. I finished a draft in January 2005. Then a long lull, some revision, and some disappointments with an agent and editor; I won’t bore you. Featherproof showed interest in early 2007, and I finished a final draft last spring. I loved the moments when I’d take a short break during writing and listen to the old songs referenced in the book, letting the feel of them sink in. I cranked up “No New Tale to Tell” on iTunes I don’t know how many times. Also, just the long, slow process of getting to know the characters along the way. They evolved, and it was fun to observe that happening.”
Though she considers herself a Chicago-transplant (she moved to Birmingham with husband Todd Dills of THE2NDHAND fame), the book is set in Dragon Park, which is a real park in her hometown of Nashville, TN.
“When I was in high school way back when, it definitely had a rep as a place where punks and other kids would hang out at night,” she said. “I wasn’t among them, but I knew about the place and was fascinated by it from afar. I guess that fascination stuck.”
The park was also central to the title as it was originally slated to be Around the Dragon. She said the idea of changing the book’s title came late in the writing process and yielded a flowing verse that’s fitting to the novel as a whole.
“I liked the idea of a music reference, because the music the characters listen to is a fairly large element in the book, though not the focus,” said Felts. “Early on in the book, the two main characters Sophie and Vaughn listen to the Violent Femmes, and that’s a band that’s so associated with the late 80s for me (the story takes place in ’89), so I had some fun revisiting their songs…and there I found the title: it’s a lyric from the song “Kiss Off.” (Some people have gotten the reference so far, though not as many as I would’ve thought.) It was especially perfect because it worked on multiple levels: It also taps into a fear we all have as teens — not even just as teens! — that something we say or do is going to haunt us forever and screw everything up. So I’m using it in an ironic, playful sense. And finally, the book is all about the urge to document, to preserve memories in some sort of permanent fashion, e.g., photography.”
The book has a ‘coming of age’ lean to it, as it follows a girl who is coming into her own as a photographer and dealing with all the artistic and social constraints any artist might. Felts said that the story’s setting and character’s interest in photography are both pulled from real-life.
“I started with the main character Vaughn, and I knew I wanted to explore the mind of a girl who prized her solitude,” she said. “But in the short story I began with, she was younger (14) and not yet a photographer; that came in later–and it was like, “shazam!” I couldn’t believe I hadn’t made her a photographer from the get-go. That’s drawn from my life, though little else in terms of events in the book is. I got very into photography in high school, and stayed pretty active with it through college. I wish I was more of a photographer these days. (I keep thinking that someday, someday, I’ll pick it back up in earnest.) I guess I should say, too, that thinking about female friendship in general was a big inspiration for the book. I’ve always had very conflicted feelings about female friendships; they’ve never been super-easy for me, though I’ve had (and have) girlfriends whom I adore. So I wanted to explore that very universal tension.”
With author events here in Birmingham and Chicago, Felts says she’s anxious to move forward and see where her writing takes her.
“More writing, and more promoting this book,” she said. “And Todd and I are expecting a baby girl in late May, so life’s about to change pretty dramatically. We have to learn how to change diapers.”
It appears that tomorrow night’s free Bottletree gathering is as much a musical literary event as it is a book release party.
“I’ll read from the book (and I might read another short-short that’s set in Alabama), Chris Lawson will read from his work, and my husband Todd and Nadria Tucker and Emily Self will all be reading short pieces that riff in some way on the title of my book,” said Felts. “After that, Jody Nelson, of local band Through the Sparks will play an acoustic set.”
Synopsis of the book:
When the school year at tony Nashville Arts and Science ends, Vaughn Vance ditches her upper class friends for a summer of solitude. Content to be alone and work on her photography, Vaughn’s seclusion is disrupted when she meets her new neighbor, Sophie Birch. The two form a tentative friendship, hanging out at Dragon Park with the rest of Nashville’s teens. There, the relationship deepens: Sophie becomes the subject of Vaughn’s artistic experiments and Vaughn becomes the subject of Sophie’s social experimentation as she pushes Vaughn to loosen up and let down her guard. After a fight with her mother, Sophie moves in with Vaughn and her academic parents who embrace Sophie’s wild side — until the girls push each other a step too far. In her debut novel, Susannah Felts perfectly captures the feel of growing up Southern-style, the universal push-pull of adolescent limit testing, and, above all, the intoxicating power that comes with burgeoning creativity.