One of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Southern fiction belongs to a writer who was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago and spent most of her adult life in the urban Northeast. Susan Dodd officially became a Southerner when she moved to Ocracoke Island in North Carolina some six years ago. But when PW compared Dodd's 1998 novel, Mourner's Bench, to the work of Reynolds Price, the reviewer picked up on a defining quality of her work, one that the author herself has been aware of all along. "All my novels are set in the South and have a Southern voice," says Dodd. "I don't know why, but a Southern voice has always come most naturally to me."
Dodd may be a de facto newcomer, but with her deep tan, sun-streaked hair and casual attire”bare feet and a colorful sun-dress”she certainly looks like a native. On this warm June day in her bright, wood-paneled living room, it is clear that Dodd weathers the climate as if born and bred here, too. Despite the steamy summers for which the Carolina coast is justly known, her home is only partially air-conditioned. ("You may want to do the interview early in the morning," cautioned her publicist.)
Dodd's house, which looks out over a wide expanse of marshland, is small and simple. "I wanted a place where I could work instead of entertain a lot," she remarks. Solitude is easy to come by on Ocracoke, which, perched in the middle of North Carolina's Outer Banks and accessible only by ferry, is home to just 750 year-round residents. Dodd lives alone here with her dog, Elliot, a friendly, energetic brown-and-white spaniel. "I could spend days in this house with Elliot and no one else to talk to and be happy as hell," she says.
It's a far cry from the political fray that defined her life in the 1970s, when she was married to Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut”an experience that undoubtedly informs "I Married a Space Alien," one of the stories in O Careless Love, her new collection from Morrow (Forecasts, June 7). While Dodd's fiction is seldom explicitly autobiographical”"characters who are like me are the hardest to know," she says”this particular tale of a divorcÃ©e who learns that a tabloid newspaper has identified her ex-husband as one of a cadre of aliens who have infiltrated the U.S. government clearly d s have a personal resonance. Like Dodd herself, the story's protagonist remains on good terms with her high-profile ex; she's simply out of sync with his world.
A Sense of Place
Dodd did once dabble in politics: as an undergraduate at Georgetown, she challenged Bill Clinton for sophomore class president. He won handily, but the two have been friends ever since. Dodd was raised as a practicing Catholic by her father and mother, an attorney and artist, respectively. But for years she felt that her suburban childhood was a liability when it came to her ambitions as a writer. "I used to see it as a deficiency in me that I didn't come from deep roots in a place that had this endless well of history, like Faulkner or O'Connor did," she says. "The place where I grew up could have been anywhere. It had no individual character." This lack of connection to a specific locale has proven an asset, however. "I can go places and soak everything up. I'm always asking what it's like to be this person in this place."
Learning how to be a writer has in many respects been a deliberate and self-conscious process for Dodd, who didn't begin to publish fiction until she was in her mid-30s. "I always knew this was what I wanted to do," she says, "but I took so long to start because the prospect of failure was terrible." After taking a job as a political speechwriter while in a graduate program in African-American studies at Howard University, Dodd moved into the field of community health and social services, where she stayed for some time. "I loved that work, because I was so directly involved with these programs I felt very committed to. But it wasn't a lifelong vocation."
So in 1981, she took the plunge, entering the M.F.A. program at Vermont College. That decision wasn't easy. "I was very protective of my dreams of being a writer." But her experience in Vermont was a revelation: "I found a whole new identity that I'd been keeping in a dark corner." Dodd also found the kind of support network she feels every fledgling writer needs, which is why she believes writing programs are an invaluable resource. "While every writer starts with natural strengths, she has to learn to foster other talents. I was born with an ear for voice, but I had to work on my eye. My teachers told me my early stories were like disembodied voices”they could have been taking place inside a ping-pong ball. But, finally, one day the visual component was just there”it had come naturally. And that's a story I love to tell my students, that with perseverance and helpful feedback, you can and will grow as a writer."
Dodd's own writing career took off almost immediately after she completed her degree. By what she calls an "incredible stroke of luck," her thesis project, a collection of stories entitled Old Wives Tales, won the Iowa Fiction Award "a year to the day" after she graduated, and was published in 1984 by the University of Iowa Press. Although she d s not discount talent and hard work, Dodd maintains that there is always an element of chance in any writer's career. "I never overlook the fact that I've been incredibly lucky," she says. "I've had some breaks."
One such break came as a result of her friendship with Marion Newburg, the doyenne of Connecticut politics and mother of high-powered agent Esther Newburg. "Even though most of Esther's clients are much bigger," Dodd says, "she took me on when I was still a fledgling writer." Dodd's subsequent three books were issued by Dan Frank at Viking; after Frank left Viking, Newburg shopped her fifth book, Mourner's Bench, to several editors before placing it with Claire Wachtel at Morrow. "Mourner's Bench got turned down a lot," says Dodd, "but Esther loved it and refused to give up on it."
In the years before Mourner's Bench was published, Dodd was teaching, first at Vermont College, then at Iowa, Harvard and finally at the Bennington College Graduate Writing Seminars, where she's been since 1994. She says she reminds her students that "at some point in her existence, every artist has to make a choice about how they're going to fail”by not going far enough or by going too far. I heartily endorse going too far, opening up your heart and the heart of the story. If you don't go too far, you'll never know how far you can go."
That process of opening up, of learning to overcome reticence and fear, is central to the evolution of many of Dodd's characters as well. In Mourner's Bench, Leandra, a stubbornly self-reliant small-town Southerner, and Wim, a stiffly self-contained New Englander, gradually discover that the long-suppressed passion that blossomed between them during an adulterous love affair 10 years earlier is not a sin but rather a healing force that sustains them both through Wim's drawn-out battle with cancer. And in many of the stories in O Careless Love, moments of quiet but profound human connection both illuminate and change her characters' lives. Speaking of the volume's title, Dodd remarks, "My characters are not careless, but love is. I think of love as being a capricious and often not benevolent force that und s people, and lets them down. It forces hearts to open and then plays tricks on them. But heart that can open itself to love despite a painful history is a real triumph of the spirit."
Perhaps nowhere is that triumph more clearly illustrated than in the collection's longest piece, a novella called "Ethiopia," in which Nola, a shy and unassuming novelist, develops a literary friendship with Marcus, a prize-winning writer of considerable renown. When Marcus abruptly disappears, Nola summons up the courage to track him down and finds him in a mental hospital where, catatonically depressed, he seems impervious to help. But Nola refuses to leave him in such a state. By the story's end, Marcus has begun to heal and Nola has, with his help, become more attuned to the recklessly "profligate" side of her nature, which gives her the strength to hurl herself "against everything she knew she could not remit or revise, could never emend, could only begin to imagine."
Dodd says of the novella that "when Marcus disappeared on Nola, I didn't know where he was for months”and then one day I just knew." The comment reveals a lot about what the writing process is like for her”a process of continual discovery rather than of deliberate plotting. "For the most part, anything I write begins with a character's voice. It's almost like having people confide in you in a way that opens you up."
Listening to her characters has led Dodd down some unexpected paths. Mourner's Bench, for example, began as a novel told in the first person by Leandra, who speaks in the kind of down-to-earth Southern voice. But as Leandra's relationship with Wim deepened, Dodd realized she herself was struggling to understand how her warm-hearted protagonist could care for such a buttoned-down New Englander. "So I decided I needed to let Wim speak to me," she says, "and once he began to talk, I discovered that he needed to talk, that he had a lot to say under that repressed exterior."
If Wim's was initially an unfamiliar voice for Dodd, her current work in progress is an even more radical departure. "It's set in Dresden just after WWI and it's about a real-life painter and a real-life incident." In September, Morrow will reprint her 1988 novel, Mamaw, based on the life of Jesse James's mother. "It was my father's favorite of my books," she says. "And in so many ways, my father is responsible for the fact that I became a writer. He read to me constantly when I was a child. And my feeling that books represent all manner of comfort and learning and love”all that came from him."
Dodd has also drawn inspiration from her friendships with such fellow writers as Alice Mattison, Jill McCorkle, Richard Bausch and the late Andre Dubus; and from Wachtel, whom Dodd calls "an amazingly gifted editor." Dodd has high praise for the staff at Morrow. "They've been like a family to me. To know that now, in this day and age, your work is in the hands of people who know you and care about your writing is an amazing thing."
But if a community of friends and fellow writers has always been important to Dodd, she has also found that writing is a task that demands solitude. It was the promise of isolation that drew her to Ocracoke, first as a summer visitor and then as a permanent resident. That first house on Ocracoke was so small it had no room for a desk, and Dodd had to do all her writing outside. But after only a month, she knew the island was a place she wanted to call home. "My feelings were what I can only describe as covetous," she says.
The simplicity of the lifestyle Dodd favors is further reflected in her deliberate choice not to rely on the modern conveniences upon which most writers have become so dependent. A self-professed "Luddite," she d sn't own a television and is content to manage without a phone, a fax machine or e-mail. She writes at a simple pine desk in her book-lined bedroom and resisted switching from typewriting to word processing for a long time.
But much as she continues to keep one t in the outside world, Dodd d s enjoy reading her reviews. "I'm always amazed by how other people see my work, what they see in it. Often reviewers see things that should really be obvious to me, but they haven't been." Maybe that element of surprise is a function of her writing philosophy. "I'm not one of those writers who spends a lot of time thinking about what is and isn't true," she says. "That's just not how my mind works. But I am in search of emotional truth. I'm not trying to create new literary forms. I'm just trying to tell people stories."
Haynsworth is co-author of Amelia Earhart's Daughters: The Wild and Glorious Story of American Women Aviators from World War II to the Dawn of the Space Age.