Thursday, August 29, 2013

An Interview with Susan Aylworth, Author of ZUCCHINI PIE

I met Susan Aylworth three years ago at a writers conference, and we subsequently served together on the board of directors of LDStorymakers. I found her to be hardworking, level-headed, and funny, all necessary for getting things done.
 It’s my pleasure to introduce her and her newest novel, ZUCCHINI PIE, on my blog today.

LIZ: How long have you been writing?

SUSAN: My first novel was started on a large yellow legal pad with one of those huge third grade pencils. I was nine. If you want to count the first one I finished, that still gives me about 25 years in the business. It's what I've always wanted to do.

LIZ: Do you come from a literary background? 

SUSAN: Yes. My parents were grade school teachers who read to us (their children)  and encouraged us all to read on our own. I earned a couple of degrees in English and taught at the university level for about three decades. I love literary fiction, but I enjoy reading--and writing--in almost every genre.

LIZ: Zucchini Pie is told from several points of view. Why did you structure the story in this way? 

SUSAN: A traumatic event doesn't happen to a person. It happens to that person and everyone involved in that life. I wanted to show how Granny's death and the family situation it precipitated impacted every member of the family, each a little differently.

 LIZ: One of the points of view, Karen Burnett, is president of the Relief Society. Can you tell those not familiar with this organization what it is?

 SUSAN: Relief Society is the women's organization (also the front-line humanitarian aid organization) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Mormon Church. In other Christian faiths, it might be called the Ladies' Aid Society or something similar. The ward Relief Society president is a lay minister with most of the responsibilities that go along with ministering to a congregation, although she serves without pay and on her own time. The job is consuming in time, responsibility, and emotional commitment, and it's one of the most rewarding positions I've ever held.
LIZ: You deal with some pretty heavy themes: mental illness, torn-apart families.  Was there a reason you wrote about those themes--albeit with a light touch?  

SUSAN: Some Christian literature looks only at the smiling surface of life, as if terrible things can't happen in Christian homes among believers. My goal with this book was to look at some of the ugly things that do impact human lives, even among practicing, faithful people. Our Heavenly Father never promised us we wouldn't deal with mental illness or torn-apart families, only that He would be there to help us through and that, through the power of the Atonement, all that is wrong in our lives may be made right. I wanted to show ordinary but faithful people dealing with extraordinary circumstances--some coping better than others, but all of them making real, human choices.
LIZ: It's an interesting juxtaposition, those themes and the homey recipes. Can you tell us how you happened to do that? 

SUSAN: The two ideas arose at the same time. A friend and colleague at the university had created a writing class based on food and families. That is, students found recipes for favorite dishes that had become part of family traditions and then wrote food journals, focusing on the emotions and rituals they associated with each food. We talked quite a bit about the emotional impacts of certain foods in our lives and I went to her final presentation day where each student prepared a dish and read the journal entry that went with it. I was astonished at the deep feelings students revealed when they wrote about favorite foods.

 At the same time, I was talking with another friend about the impact of a family member's mental illness on the lives and structure of their whole family. We were recognizing that many families don't survive that strain. The idea began growing almost organically. Put together a cookbook novel with an investigation of mental illness and how members of a ripped-apart family try to cope with poor choices made by their predecessors, throw in a writer's basic question ("what if?") and you have ZUCCHINI PIE.

 LIZ: Tell us about the recipes. Does each have a connection with you or your family? 

 SUSAN: Some (Sourdough Bread, Pumpkin-Date Bread, L.A. Temple Oatmeal Cookies, for example) are family stalwarts with their own traditions and rituals. Others I dug up new just for this book. My daughter had recently taught me to make my own hummus and I've been experimenting with naan, so I enjoyed finding my favorite recipes for those. Still other recipes were answers to recent family needs, such as when I had fresh blackberries ripening in my backyard and needed something different for dinner. A few offer homage to friends who shared their own recipes and asked me to make room in the Burnetts' lives for their family favorites.
LIZ: Which recipe is your favorite and why? 

SUSAN: That's like asking me which child or grandchild is my favorite and it has the same answer: It depends on the day. *;) winking

LIZ:  What's the story line of the project you're working on now? 

 SUSAN: In the mid-90s I wrote a series of light romance novels set in the fictional town of Rainbow Rock, Arizona. The books were originally published in hardback by Avalon, although I've recently begun selling digital versions of the same stories. I'm currently doing the final edit of a manuscript for a new book in that series, appropriately titled RETURN TO RAINBOW ROCK.

LIZ:  What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a writer? 

 SUSAN: Read, read, read. Then, while you are reading more, write, write, write. You can't become a writer without being a reader first and you can't become a good writer without plenty of practice and learning from your own mistakes. I liken reading something wonderful written by a world-class writer and then deciding to do that yourself to watching a math genius work a kind of problem you've never seen before and then being completely clueless when you get home and try to do the problems from the book. Yes, there are geniuses who write brilliant debut novels, but most of us start with simpler stories and learn by doing. Even some of today's giants (I'm thinking of Stephen King and his book On Writing) have used that process. Once you are making progress, joining writers' groups and attending conferences can make a big difference in moving your career forward, but only writing makes you a writer.   

 LIZ: Is there any final word you'd like to offer aspiring writers? 

SUSAN: If you're toying with the idea of maybe writing a book someday and publishing it for everyone to read, take up hiking or golf or knitting instead. Writing something satisfying for your own enjoyment can be a good hobby, but writing for the public is a vocation. You can't toy with it and do it well. I believe it was Somerset Maugham who said, "I write because I can't not write." When writing consumes you in just that way, you won't say, "I wish I had time to write." You'll write and wish you had time for other things. If that's how you feel about writing, then own it: You're a writer. May it bring you joy.