Susan Jackson Rodgers is the author of the new novel "This Must Be the Place" and two short-story collections, "The Trouble with You Is" and "Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle Six." She teaches creative writing at Oregon State University.
In this conversation with The E, Rodgers talks about her love for coming-of-age novels, "The Wizard of Oz" and other topics. (For a longer conversation, check out the online version of this story.)
The E: In some ways, this book is a coming-of-age story.
Rodgers: I do love the coming-of-age genre (but) ... we think of coming-of-age more as the teenager. This young woman (Thea, the lead character in "This Must Be the Place") is 22. But to me, those early to mid-20s, that is such a ripe time. ... That’s a really difficult time of life where you think you have to have all the answers, you’re afraid that any move in any direction is going to lead you on the wrong path and so that’s what it was for me. It was a very difficult time. So I’m interested in that as story-worthy material.
The E: When did you start work on the novel?
Rodgers: I started that book longer ago that I would almost care to divulge. The first draft of it was written over 10 years ago. ... I was only writing very short fiction, very short fiction, flash fiction at that point, and I wanted to see if I could sustain a longer narrative. I decided I would write this story about a young woman in Kansas, I was living in Kansas at the time, and I sort of paraded out a cast of characters and wrote this story about all these people who are house guests at the same house in Kansas. But when I picked it up a year later to look at it, I recognized all these parallels to “The Wizard of Oz,” which I had not intended, mostly in the characters. So there was a wicked witch type, there was a good witch, there was a scarecrow, there was a tin man. I couldn’t believe that all these characters were parading on the page. So when I picked it up again later, I started thinking about what would it mean to have a character who, instead of fleeing Kansas for adventure, ends up in Kansas for adventure.
The E: Do you use different muscles to write a novel than when you write short stories?
Rodgers: The short story, the draft of a story, I can write in a sitting. Now, it might take me months to rewrite it, weeks, days, whatever. And so the muscles for writing the novel are completely different. Once I felt committed to it, I enjoyed that process. I loved it. I loved going back every day knowing what I was going to work on. I loved the idea that you could take a single aspect of the novel, a single character, motif, event, and you could work on it up and down through the draft. ... With short stories, it’s pretty much the impact of a single moment. Once you understand what the moment means in a story, it’s going back and doing some layering too, but in a different way. You can’t work with as many scenes or moments; you’re just kind of directing it at that one thing.
The E: After such a long lapse, what brought you back to "This Must Be the Place?"
Rodgers: It was really because I kind of missed hanging out with (the characters). To me, they’re fun people to hang out with. I don’t know if you’d want them as your friends, maybe, in real life. And especially Thea ... I found that I could really hear her voice and her self-deceptions and her insights. ...
The E: I can almost picturing you shaking your head as she acts on those self-deceptions.
Rodgers: Saying, "Don't do that."
The E: Right.
Rodgers: But she does. She has to. And that’s the other thing: You have to have these characters who are flawed because they have to act in ways that cause problems, because that’s plot.
The E: They have to be people.
Rodgers: Yeah. And they have to have secrets and lies. Secrets and lies are both great engines for fiction. They cause problems in life, but in fiction they do some good.