Introduction by Susanna Daniel, If the Writing Is Going Well
I would love to say that I conceived of my debut novel, Stiltsville, in some dreamy and dramatic way — while taking a walk on a beach, for example, or riding a horse through a dark forest. But really, the idea for the novel sort of evolved in my mind, bit by bit, until it was more or less a fact of life and not a decision at all, the way a baby grows into a toddler.
What happened was this: I wrote a short story — only 15 pages — about a woman and her husband and their daughter and something that happens to them during a weekend that they spend at this place I know, Stiltsville. I submitted the story to a few literary journals and showed it to an agent who visited my graduate program. She said, “I think you have more to say about this family.” I shrugged — maybe, maybe not. The story was published in an anthology and won me a fellowship at the University of Madison, where I still live. This was ten years ago.
That story is not in my novel. But two other stories I wrote about this family, during my time in graduate school, are included. I didn’t start writing these stories with the notion of writing a novel in mind, but by the time I finished them, I think I knew that agent was right: I had more to say.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit that the idea for one’s novel came from someone else — a stranger, to boot — but it’s true. As for the second novel, which I’m working on now, it’s my own idea.
However, I’ve been asked several times if I might write a sequel to Stiltsville, and I have to say that it’s something I’m considering seriously. I love my narrator. She’s not me and she’s not my mother, though she has elements of us both — she’s a relic, really, of a different era, and as she ages she becomes more astute and more fiercely protective of her family and friends. This fierceness in her, which is only starting to come out by the end of Stiltsville, is what I’d like to explore further. Her life is so bound up in her marriage, that I wonder: how does she return, after it’s over, to the land of the living? What pulls her back?
I write in the mornings after dropping off my son at daycare. I write for about four hours at a time, until my growling stomach forces me to stop. It’s not easy for me to return after lunch — and often I fail to do so — so I’ve learned to put off lunch as long as possible. After lunch, I either revise or run errands and clean my house, activities that most of the time I find far more pleasurable than writing. But nothing is as rewarding.
The problem with writing as a rewarding activity, though, is that if it’s not going well, this infects every aspect of my life, from my marriage to my parenting to my friendships to my exercise regimen. My brother says, “If you work out, everything else will, too.” For me, the saying it, “If the writing’s going well, everything else will, too.”
This was my first encounter with Susanna Daniel and I’m confident it won’t be the last. Disarming, delicate, discrete are all words used by critics to describe her Stiltsville and all ring true. This work of fiction is heartwarming in the way only a true story can be; it reads like a memoir…but not the sort which relies on melodrama to make good. It is a well-paced exploration of intimacy, full of vulnerability and tenderness, and an exceptionally engaging portrait of the Bay of Biscayne in South Florida.
The novel doesn’t rely on a very large cast of characters, leaving room for Daniel to fully mine the inner lives of Frances Ellerby (the narrator) and, to some extent, her husband Dennis DuVal. Frances is an inviting narrator; her voice is stirringly authentic. Dennis is a dreamer but also a devoted man. The extended cast consists of friends made in Miami, the in-laws, and their own little family. Every female narrator needs a good girlfriend and there was a great deal of realism in their relationship. Frances and her friend Marse care deeply for one another in spite of so much time spent apart.
It was the novel’s focus on long-term relationships that immediately drew me. We all desire the profound intimacy which comes with knowing someone for more than a few years. The couple, their friends, and family are in it for the long haul, even in doldrums and rough seas. Even the family stilthouse has a singular relationship with each major character; it becomes as much as oasis for the reader as the characters. That house serves as the novel’s first object lesson in longevity: yes, it will end, but it’s worth spending all the time you can in the midst of it.
The second is the major plot twist. No spoilers here; don’t worry. Still, the author deserves great praise for such a graceful approach to Frances and Dennis after they receive the news that changes their lives. She writes about the resulting challenges with such care that the tremendous difficulty of her craft is well-disguised. Her prose reads so organically I was reluctant to finally reach the end. Stiltsville is a lovely meditation on the ever-changing nature of our relationships – definitely a recommended read!
Check out some very cool stilt houses in Biscayne Bay!
Caitlin is a fiction writer who also dabbles in poetry, creative nonfiction and acrylic painting. When not reading, she enjoys hiking, cooking and spending time with friends and pets. She earned her B.A. in English from the University of Portland and currently resides in Oregon.
Review and giveaway copies were provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.