In interview with Sue Guiney.
Though born and raised in New York, Sue Guiney has lived in London for twenty years where she writes and teaches fiction, poetry and plays. Her work has appeared in important literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and her first book, published by Bluechrome Publishing in 2006, is the text of her poetry play, Dreams of May. Her first novel, Tangled Roots, was published in May ‘08, also by Bluechrome. Her second novel, A Clash of innocents, was chosen to be the first publication of the new imprint Ward Wood Publishing and was published in September, 2010. Sue is also Artistic Director of the theatre arts charity which she founded in 2005 called CurvingRoad.
Questions about A Clash of Innocents.
CD: One of the first hooks for the story was the mysterious appearance of Amanda. How did you come up
with this character?
SG: I started with the theme of volunteers that stay on in a place, who they are, why they do it. And I knew that the character of Amanda already existed – her wedding opens my first novel, Tangled Roots. After her wedding, she went off with her new husband to join the Peace Corps, and then I left her story unfinished. So she was an obvious link.
CD: In March there is a great scene on ...housework. I like the way you contrast housework in the Children's Home with Deborah's earlier life. This is not something that comes up very often in novels but it works very well. Can you say something about the genesis of this idea.
SG: This was one of those moments which writers live for – the idea that seemingly comes out of nowhere. I didn’t go looking for this. It just arose, but it made perfect sense. The Home in the novel is not only a charity but a real working family home, and I very much wanted that to be seen. Deborah isn’t a volunteer working with kids, she is their mother and needs to do all the things that mothers do, including housework!
CD: In April we meet 'The Baby'. Does this come from anything you encountered in Cambodia?
SG: No, nothing specific, but the threat of it is everywhere there. Horrible things happen all the time and lives can seem disposable, though of course, when you look at it on a personal, individual level, they can never really be.
CD: May brings a change in season. The weather is a really important feature of the book, and I was especially struck by your mention of the unusual conditions. Were there any experiences of weather in Cambodia you would have liked to have included in the book, but in the end did not?
SG: No, I think I got it all in, and more. The weird February freeze of that year really did happen and I loved the way that that meteorological event brought home the fact that weather there really can run lives, more so than here in the rather temperate city of London (despite all our constant complaints about it). It just seemed to me that you can’t tell a story set in a place like Cambodia without dealing with the weather. I think you must have found the same thing when you wrote about Patagonia. The harshness of the weather there was such an important part of your book, “A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees.”
CD: I particularly liked the passage describing Kyle’s birthday in June. Did this come from your experience? How long were you in Cambodia?
SG: No, once again I made this up. But I realized as I was writing that if I was going to take the story through most of a year someone would have to have a birthday eventually and Kyle’s birthday fit in the best. I was only in Cambodia for 10 days so I didn’t witness any birthdays while I was there. That added a bit to the research I had to do – and that always makes me happy. I love doing research.
CD: In July there is a change of setting to a new hospital for a very sad scene. Was this based on a real place in Cambodia? Is medical care the most pressing concern in Cambodia at the moment? Or are there other things too?
SG: Yes, this hospital was based on a real existing place there, and we’ll all be seeing a lot more of it in the next book! Medical care is a pressing concern, to be sure, but there are plenty of other ones too – like sex trafficking, land mines, governmental corruption, and unbelievable poverty.
CD: I particularly like the Dance sequence in August. Have you ever tried this yourself?
SG: Now this was something I stole from my own life (though guess that means it isn’t actually stealing since it was mine J ). I did watch a dance lesson in an orphanage that I volunteered in while I was there. And yes to everyone’s astonished hilarity, I did ask if I could give it a go. Believe me, it wasn’t pretty.
CD: Finally, in December, there is a good sense of resolution for Deborah. Was she based on a real person and why did you decide to write in the first person from her point of view. Was it a conscious decision - or did it just happen?
SG: I think Deborah was a conglomeration of different people I’ve met throughout my life, not all associated with Cambodia. Her physicality came from one person, her voice from another, her feistiness from a third. Then I put them all together to create Deborah. Of course, none of that was conscious. It never is, I suppose. But the choice to write in 1st person was. Choosing between 1st and 3rd is an on-going struggle for me (I’m planning on writing a blog about it, actually). Whenever I start to write in 3rd person it turns into 1st. I seem to get hung up on the question of who this narrative voice comes from. If it isn’t one of the characters, then who is it? Me? God? Crazy, but I do struggle with it. The book actually began as Amanda’s story, but I didn’t want to write it in Amanda’s voice. I wanted her story to be seen from someone else’s eyes and Deborah became the obvious choice. But she’s such a pushy broad, she barged in and made it a story as much about her as about Amanda, didn’t she?
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
SG: My first connection with them was of some on a plate sitting in a pool of butter. Then it was the trail they leave on the paving stones in my garden. And that’s about as much of a connection as I want to have, to be honest. Sorry.
CD: What is your proudest moment?
SG: My proudest moments have to do with the amazing things my kids accomplish and there are too many to narrow it down to one, or even one per child. Honestly.
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
SG: Yes. My five-week-old son died of cot death and that changed everything. That was now 23 years ago, but still everything is changed by it. But I will say, not all the changes have been bad. Another child came after that, and I think in a strange way, my determination to be writer is wrapped up with it, too.
CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
SG: As above.
CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
SG: Ha! My height. Just a few inches more. That’s all I ask (I’m barely 5’1”).
CD: What is happiness?
SG: Sitting in a restaurant with my husband and sons and laughing. We get silly and become the loudest people around and I love it.
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?SG: I’m ashamed to say – check my blackberry for emails. Even before I put on my glasses.