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Most of you know I love me some Susan Rebecca White. She debuted with BOUND SOUTH; I impulse bought it because of the cover before I knew her at all, and I ended up being very interested in her as a writer, very eager to see what she would do next. I felt her voice was really lovely and smart, conveying a depth of compassion and hopefulness I found very moving.
I sought her out and found her just as lovely in person. Her next book, A SOFT PLACE TO LAND,
I thought was very fine—and I was not alone. It became the Target Book Club pick.
Of her latest, Booklist says, “A PLACE AT THE TABLE
is the story of troubled souls finding their way and making a place for themselves through the magic of the big city and a love of cooking. With unforgettable characters, rich detail, and seamless narration, White’s new novel will long remain in the reader’s mind and memory,” and Booklist is correct.
Fresh out this week, it tells the story of three unforgettable characters whose paths converge in a Manhattan café: Bobby, a young gay man from Georgia who has been ostracized by his family; Amelia, a wealthy Connecticut woman whose life is upended when a family secret comes to light; and Alice, a renowned African-American chef from North Carolina whose past is a mystery.
These characters are exiles—from homeland, from marriage, from family. While they all find companionship and careers through cooking, they hunger for the deeper nourishment of communion—until the secrets that separate them from their own pasts cause their stories to collide. These three seekers will come together in the understanding that when you embrace the thing that makes you different, you become whole.
OH, and if you live in Brooklyn, NYC or Litchfield, CT you can meet Susan, and hear her speak Wednesday, June 19th and Thursday June 20th respectively. DETAILS HERE.
Don’t forget to leave a comment, and at the end fo the week, I will let the Random Number Generator have his terrible, terrible way with you!
JJ: Can you talk a little about the significance of your title and how you came up with it?
SRW: Originally the book was titled All It Costs Is Everything, which reflected the state of mind I was in while writing it. I wrote the bulk of this book while going through a divorce and in many ways that experience was a process of losing everything: I lost my perceived financial security; my now ex-husband and I sold our house at a huge loss; I lost the status of being a “married lady;” I was divorcing at 36 and was aware that doing so meant potentially losing the possibility of having kids. I went from living in a 3,000 square foot historic home with heart-of-pine floors and 11-foot ceilings to living in a small carriage house, behind someone else’s big house. I went from living like Lady Bountiful to becoming “Scrappy Sue.”
And yet by going through all of that, and realizing that I could depend on myself to find extra work, make ends meet, make do with less, navigate a divorce with grace, I discovered a stronger, scrappier, tougher and more resilient me. So all it cost was everything but what I gained was everything. (And then exactly one month after my divorce I met the love of my life, Sam Reid, who I married this May.)
The concept of losing everything to find your most authentic self applied to the characters in my book, too. They all lose their families of origin in one way or another, but they find their way back to family, and connection with others, through cooking. My editor loved the title, but on reflection we both decided it was too stark and didn’t offer enough of a glimpse of the redemption found in this book. At the end of the day this book is about finding a way for everyone –gay, straight, black, white, old, young, broken, whole—to come to the table and be offered a sense of communion and belonging at that sacred place.
JJ: What’s the most interesting/funniest/weirdest interesting thing you have ever done to try to promote your work or get the word out about a specific book?
SRW: I’ve done plenty of weird things, but let me share a story about something out-of-the ordinary that my mom did, my mom who I often think of as my stealth PR agent. (Or maybe not so stealth.) I’ll preface the story by telling you that I often receive emails from women I don’t know saying, “I’m in exercise class with your mother and she was handing out postcards advertising your book before Zumba started. It looks great. Would you like to come visit our book club?” Or “I was standing in line at Publix talking with a friend about what books we are reading and the woman in front of me handed us postcards about your book and said she was your mother. Would you like to come visit our book club?” (My answer is almost always, “yes, I would!”) ]
But the funniest story about my mom’s successful PR efforts centers on her brownies, which I paid homage to in my first novel, Bound South. In Bound South the stylish matron Louise Parker is known for her homemade brownies, which taste deeply of chocolate, butter, sugar and salt. I knew how to describe these brownies because they are an exact rip-off of the ones my mom makes. My mom’s brownies are so good that friends ask for them for Christmas. The brownies also freeze beautifully, and my mom usually has a batch on hand, cut into squares, waiting in the freezer to eat.
Well, one weekend my mom and dad were going to the North Carolina mountains and they stopped at Oinkers BBQ along the way. (This is a very southern story, isn’t it?) At Oinkers there was a pretty young woman with red hair reading Bound South. My mom walked up to her, pulled a pack of brownies out of her purse (she had brought along several packs for the mountains) and said to the woman, “Hello. Would you like some of Louise Parker’s brownies?”
My mom went onto explain that she was the author’s mother, the brownies in the book were based on her recipe, and that I liked to visit book clubs. The red-haired woman later invited me to her book club, telling me that she was uncertain whether or not to eat the brownies until after she contacted me and verified that the woman who gave them to her really was my mom. I assured her that she had indeed met Ruth White.
JJ: Who did you dedicate this book to and why?
SRW: I dedicated this book to Teagan and Olivia, the daughters of my good friends Peter and Bruce. Peter is in my writing group and he is one of the most astute readers I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. He knows how to dig right in and find the part of a story that isn’t working or doesn’t make sense. He’s graceful with his comments, too. You don’t feel attacked, just elucidated.
Peter teaches history at Clark Atlanta University, but his primary job is taking care of his two little girls. Peter is the sort of parent I would aspire to be if I had kids. He’s really present. He lets the girls be who they are, but he also gives them appropriate limits and boundaries and all of that good stuff. He and the girls and Bruce sit down for dinner together pretty much every night. And most afternoons if you walk by their house the girls and Peter are out front, hanging out with their neighbors, riding bikes, decorating the sidewalk with chalk drawings, splashing in an inflatable pool.
Probably because of a combo of the girls’ innate nature and the incredible environment they are growing up in, they are just fantastic kids—funny and inquisitive and kind and alive and super smart. When I first moved back to Atlanta, during my divorce, Peter and Bruce offered me the carriage house over their garage for four months (that’s friendship for you.) Teagan and Olivia would often visit me up there.
One of the things they loved to do was dance to songs on my I-pod. There was this one song written by Stephin Merritt and sung by Katharine Whalen called “You, You, You, You, You.” It’s this fun, dreamy song about a woman falling in love again. The girls would do ballet moves as they danced around the apartment to the song. I would dance with them. As soon as the track was over one of them would hit “repeat” on the I-pod, and we’d dance to “You, You, You, You, You” again. Sometimes we’d mix it up and dance to Eartha Kitt’s “C’est Si Bon.”
During those times of dancing I never once thought about what I was going to do for money, or whether my husband and I would divorce with grace or disgrace, or whether or I would ever meet anyone else, or whether the universe would allow me to continue to have my career as a writer. When I was dancing with those girls I felt gratitude. Gratitude that I have such good friends, gratitude that their sweet spirits were gracing my life with their presence. Gratitude to be alive in that moment. Hence, the book’s dedication.
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