Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
The Jorgenson family is moving from Bethesda to London, which would be stressful enough even under the best circumstances. But add in a prescription pill problem, the resurfacing of a former friend and a runaway pet rabbit, the anxiety gets even worse. Local author Susan Coll talks with Kojo about her satirical take on relationships and real estate in ‘The Stager.’
- Susan Coll author, 'The Stager'; Events and Programs Director, Politics & Prose Bookstore
Read A Featured Excerpt###
Excerpted from THE STAGER by Susan Coll, published in July 2014 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Susan Coll. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWouldn't be much of a stretch to dub Susan Coll the bard of Bethesda, as many different novels have been influenced by her time living in that D.C. suburb. Inspiration for her latest though was sparked by the act of moving out and into the district. But it wasn't so much the geography, though you'll recognize the area. It was the surreal experience of having a so-called stager come into her home and remove all traces of the personal to showcase it for potential buyers, that planted the seed for this story.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to explain what grew out of that is the aforementioned Susan Coll. She's the author of five novels and has written for the New York Times book review, NPR and the Washington Post. She is the events and program director for Politics and Prose Bookstore. Susan Coll, good to have you aboard.
MR. SUSAN COLLOh, thank you, Kojo. I'm honored to be here.
NNAMDIOh, the honor's all mine. Anyone who has moved knows that there's always a big of drama involved, no matter how straight forward a relocation is it. What happened when you put your Bethesda home up for sale and how did it inspire this book "The Stager?"
COLLWell, the realtor who came in, took a look at the house and suggested politely that we hire a stager, I had not heard of a stager before but it's a person who comes in to improve the house to make it appealing to other perspective buyers. But what that really means is it's a person who comes in to strip it of personality.
NNAMDISo as far as you were concerned, and I suspect most other people who are moving, that's not necessarily improving it.
COLLNot necessarily. It's depersonalizing it. It's the idea so that other people can imagine themselves living there without looking at your own artwork or pictures of your children or their school art projects lying around.
NNAMDIAnd you didn't even become aware of it until the stager actually starting working because you didn't feel that attached to the house anyway.
COLLExactly. I was eager to move. It had been a nice place to live for a while but I did not feel particularly attached to it. But the experience of having a stranger come in and start passing subtle judgment on the way you'd been living for the last 12 years was more emotional than I would have expected.
NNAMDIBy the way, if you have comments or questions for Susan Coll, you can call us at 800-433-8850. She's here discussing her latest novel. It's called "The Stager." You can also send email to email@example.com. If you have read her earlier novels and you have questions, feel free to call us. Have you ever sold a house with the help of a stager? Tell us what that experience was like for you, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIIn this novel, daughter Elsa stays behind in Bethesda with the nanny while her parents go to London ahead of their big move, and that the impending move is, well, disrupting things s evident right off the bat. Read for us, if you will, from the opening chapter.
COLLThis is from the point of view of Elsa, the 10-year-old child.
NNAMDIThere are several points of view you will find in this book, yes.
COLLThere is a skinny lady with bright red lipstick and purple nail polish standing in front of my refrigerator when I get home after field- hockey practice. Dominique is cradled in her arms, and in her hand is a crooked nubby carrot with the bushy leaf still attached. She is trying to get Dominique to eat the carrot, but he won’t open his mouth. I don’t know who this lady is or why she is standing in my kitchen holding my rabbit, but since the first "For Sale" sign went up in front of our house three months ago, I’ve gotten used to finding strangers in random places, doing random things.
COLLOnce, I found a lady sitting on my bed with her shirt unbuttoned, nursing her baby. Another time, I saw a man going through my mom’s dresser drawers. One lady even went around the house flushing all the toilets while her husband sat in my dad’s favorite chair in the living room, reading a book. But no one has ever tried to feed my rabbit before. Dominique doesn’t even like carrots. Also, he looks kind of sick. I’m surprised to see him, since he’s been missing for a couple of days, so I reach for him.
COLLAt the same time, Nabila walks into the room, sees the lady, and screams. In the chaos, Dominique winds up getting dropped. He hits the ground headfirst, and for almost an entire minute he doesn’t move. I worry that he’s dead, but then, just when I’m about to tell someone to call the police, or the fire department, or my mom, he lifts his head, pricks his ears up straight, looks around the room, and hops out the back door, which is propped wide open, I’m guessing, because of the bad smell in our house.
COLLWe spend an hour walking around the neighborhood, calling Dominique’s name. We see about ten diﬀerent rabbits, and even though they all look sort of like Dominique, none of them is him.
NNAMDISusan Coll reading from her latest novel called "The Stager." The rabbit who makes a break for it -- I love that part. Dominique looks around, he says, I'm out of here.
NNAMDIHe becomes an important character in his own rite. Was that choice at all inspired by the classic Jimmy Stewart film "Harvey?"
COLLIt was not. It was actually inspired by a friend of mine who had a destructive pet rabbit in her basement that kept eating the carpet and regurgitating the carpet, and actually did chew through the electrical wire of the freezer causing an awful smell in the house. So that was the inspiration.
NNAMDIThe inspiration for this rabbit. Selling their home is just one of the stresses the Jorgenson family is facing. Let's take it member by member. What's lurking close to the surface for father and former tennis star Lars?
COLLWell, Lars has lost track of himself. He has blown out both knees. He's put on weight. He's no longer able to play tennis. He has lost his sense of purpose and his -- there's trouble in his marriage. So he is finding himself unable to act, which is a little bit of what is offset by the rabbit's ability to just get out, whereas Lars can't seem to move.
NNAMDII often wonder about that, the former pro athletes who, after leaving careers where they were either stars or very prominent in one way or another, have to retreat to these lives of relative anonymity and the effect it would have. Lars is one such.
MS. SUSAN COLLRight. And Lars is doing a lot of online shopping and trying to just -- and self-medicating.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come, we'll continue our conversation with author, Susan Coll, her latest novel is called "The Stager." But you can still call, 800-433-8850. Have you ever sold your house with the help of a stager? Tell us what that experience what like. If you work in real estate, how do you establish, how do you maintain boundaries between yourself and families you work with during the buying or selling process, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back, our guest is Susan Coll, author of five novels. She's written for The New York Times book review, NPR and The Washington Post. She is the events and program director for Politics and Prose Bookstore. We're discussing her latest novel, it's called, "The Stager." And, Susan, I don't know if you're familiar with Stager Obsession but we got a tweet from Josh who says, "We've been a bit obsessed with "Stager" since we looked at a house with a pantry staged as a reading nook, now a tiny, tiny library." You didn't experience a stager obsession by any chance, did you?
COLLNo. I'd heard that there is such a thing. And there are TV shows about stagers. But I was unfamiliar with stagers until one walked into my house.
NNAMDIAnd I, until I read this novel. So I guess I'll have to look for the TV show at some point. Both the matriarch of the clan, in this novel, Bella and the title "Stager" Eve, are former journalists whose careers have taken very different paths. Where do they diverge and what might that teach us? Might they teach us about the nature of friendships and of secrets.
COLLWell, they -- one of them stage -- neither of them had gone into journalism with the idea of becoming journalists. Eve was very -- or Bella was very ambitious and she went on to become an investment banker. She'd worked as a business journalist for a while. And Eve had stumbled into it, just on a lark, her then husband had applied for a job and she'd applied as well. But she was must more interested in the home design aspect anyway and had worked in the home section of the newspaper.
COLLAnd then had gone on to edit a shelter magazine. But as the publishing industry started to collapse and she lost her job, she found herself working as a home stager. So one friend had become hugely successful and one was now, essentially, working in her service, trying to get her home ready for a sale, unbeknownst to the other.
NNAMDIOne of the things that one observes about this novel, is that it reflects the state of journalism today, journalists who are losing jobs, changing jobs all of the time, was that one of the things that was in your mind, as you were writing this? The...
COLLYes, I wasn't...
NNAMDI...the state of this profession.
COLLWell, I wasn't really trying to say anything profound about the profession, it was more a vehicle for how these two women had met each other. But, in fact, I do know, as we all do a lot of very talented journalists who don't have homes, at the moment homes, in terms of newspapers or magazines.
NNAMDISo people will definitely get an understanding of that. We got another tweet from Abram, who says, "As a real estate photographer, I need to be the bad guy and move the tooth brushes under the sink." If you're going through a house, why would you not expect to see toothbrushes over the sink, if people actually live in the house? I guess, that could be a bit annoying. Authors often -- but I digress. Authors often say, that the story takes on a life of its own during the writing process, which some might think is an exaggeration. But you say, this happened to you with this novel. How did this plot get away from you, so to speak?
COLLWell, a lot of that was Dominique, the rabbit. He had it in the beginning, just been a vehicle for this bad smell in the house and a catalyst for the family coming apart, as they are trying to find the lost pet. But as the story went along, particularly toward the end, when I sat down to write the end of the book, I did not know what was going to happen. And I won't give that away.
COLLBut Dominique just came to life. He just, kind of, inserted himself into this book and had a speaking role and a lot of things just came together in the, kind of, magical way that I didn't believe really happened when you're writing a novel. But these characters did have their own path that they insisted on.
NNAMDIYou know, I've heard Walter Mosley say that and now you're saying it. And I've never fully understood. Is there a process by which the thing takes on a life of its own? Does -- is -- does it come to you in a dream? It's while you're writing, when you're thinking of it. When does this rabbit begin to emerge in the form in which Dominique eventually does?
COLLIt really was, as I was sitting at my computer writing. I had sold the book without writing the very end. And the moment of truth was there, I had to turn this book in. I had not sat down and thought about the end. I had not mapped it out and thought, this is the logical end. I just started typing. And this is what happened.
NNAMDIDominique just took over.
NNAMDIDo you actually, when you're writing this, become Dominique, so to speak?
COLLNo. I didn't become one with him but...
NNAMDIIs there a point at which -- is there a point at which Dominique lets go of you?
COLLYeah, he hasn't quite let go of me yet. He's still there.
NNAMDILooking through reviews for your earlier books like, "Beach Week," "Acceptance," as well as those coming out for this one, there's a word that tends to recur, satire, even comedy. Though I understand that it's one that you had just now starting to embrace. What have other others seen in your work that it took you a while to come around to?
COLLWell, it's funny, the word, satire, is almost a dirty word in publishing, when I was first trying to get published, I found, when I would tell people I was writing satire, they said, no-no, you know, don't use that word, use comedy, use dark-comedy. So I have steered away from that word although it is what I'm doing.
NNAMDIIs this because this was not your intent?
COLLWell, I think, everybody who aspires to be a novelist begins with aspirations to write gorgeous literary fiction or at least I did. And that's not who I am. And when I sit down and -- I can tell when I'm in the right zone and I can tell when my pros is working and it's usually when it's funny. So my -- I'm only starting to embrace that.
NNAMDIEven though others, including publishers, recognized it in you before you were willing to acknowledge it in yourself.
COLLYes. I think I -- my first book was meant to be historical fiction about a fairly tragic incident. And everyone I showed it to noticed the comic parts and gravitated toward that, more than the historical parts. So...
NNAMDIAnd that, apparently, is who you are. I asked you, before, a little bit about the writing process and how the rabbit comes to take over as other characters do in novels. Another part of the writing process involves reality. You had a day job, you've got kids, what kind of time do you carve out for writing? When and how do you write?
COLLWell, I learned to become very disciplined when I had young children at home. And I would -- I became a morning person, even though I'm not a morning person. That was my only quiet time of the day. At one point, with three kids, they -- their school start times were three different times in the morning. By the time I'd get the last one off, the first one was coming home. So I had such a small window in which to write that I became very disciplined.
COLLAnd I am not someone who needs perfect conditions, if you just give me an hour with some quiet, I can sit down and write, pretty much anywhere. The day job, now, is a different story. I have a very demanding job with crazy hours. So I'm yet to answer that question of how I'm going to get to...
NNAMDIYou know, the people on your day job are probably listening to this right now...
NNAMDI...at Politics and Prose. So be careful what you say about your day job. But you say you're not a morning person but nevertheless, because of having to develop that discipline, you now do most of your writing in the mornings?
COLLI do. I have become sharper in the morning. I get up and just sit down and that's when the words flow best.
NNAMDII've worked, in the past, from time to time with a lot of newspaper people and writers who seemed to labor under the illusion that their sharpest time is at night. By all standard, it's natural for your sharpest time to be in the morning. You had to discover that, didn't you?
NNAMDIIn addition to writing your own novels, you're immersed in books in all sort -- immersed in books of all sorts, through your work at Politics and Prose, where you've had a hand in editing a literary journal called "District Lines." How did that project come about and what range of topics have successful submissions covered?
COLLWell, it had long been a dream of mine to start a local literary anthology. I mentioned it to a few different people over the years and everybody said, great idea, how are we going to finance this?" But Brad and Lissa, the owners of Politics and Prose, said, sure, give it a try. So we put out a call for submissions and were amazed by how many responses we got. And how much talent there is out there. And how much people have to say about this area.
NNAMDIRange of topics?
COLLA lot of submissions to do with transportation, which I love. A lot -- the first year we had a great poem by local poet, Sandra Beasley, about the Red Line derailment. And the second year, we had another submission, very similar imagery in the poem. We did not run that because we just had more then we could fit in this. But a lot of poems about D.C. buses, about the Metro, about bicycle messengers.
NNAMDIHow regularly can we expect to see the journal?
COLLWell, we're looking at it annually, right now. I wish we could do it more frequently but it's a -- we're doing it on a largely volunteer basis. So it's a lot of work.
NNAMDIDrew, in Arlington, writes, "As I was listening about Lars and the rabbit, I'm wondering how much the novel is inspired by John Updike, also --" well, let me ask that question first. He has another one but, how much?
COLLNo, no John Updike inspiration. Although I did read and love and greatly admire the rabbit books but no, no connection.
NNAMDIAlso, "Did Ms. Coll, feel 'The Stager' was worth it? I thought it was just another scam, for lack of a better word." Did you feel "The Stager" was ultimately worth it?
COLLWell, she did make the house look beautiful which is another -- I have -- I mention this in the book, it's one of those irony's that people wait until it's time to move to fix up their houses. So, suddenly my windows were clean, I never knew that the view to the backyard was so lovely. So it did make me think about sprucing up where I live before it's time to move.
NNAMDISo "The Stager" was in, at least, the respect of prompting you to get moving, worth it?
NNAMDISummer, it's in full official swing, for some the unofficial start around here is, you know what's coming, "Beach Week." The subject of one of your earlier novels and it was suggested by Ron Charles at The Washington Post. What might Attorney General Doug Gansler, of Maryland, have learned from your book, "Beach Week?" For those of our listeners who didn't know, one of the controversy surrounding the candidacy of the Attorney General for governor of Maryland was photo's taken of him at a beach week party that he visited that his son was attending, at which alcohol seemed to be used in full view.
COLLWell, without commenting on Doug Gansler's...
COLL...situation. That does speak exactly to the inspiration for the book. It was less the behavior of the teenagers who go off and behave badly in this sanctioned week of debauchery. But it's more the behavior of the parents that I found interesting, in that I was looking to document.
NNAMDIWhat about the behavior of the parents do you find particularly interesting?
COLLWell, the idea that, if the parents can come together, hold a lot of meetings, invite even the police to these meetings, create legal documents and think that, by being wise and by giving their best attention to the situation, that they can actually control teenage behavior. And year after year, kids go off and get in trouble, no matter how hard the parents (word?).
NNAMDIHow much pressure is there on kids and parents during that season?
COLLI felt a lot of pressure as a parent because you're trying to make the right decision, you're trying to be a responsible parent, but you're trying not to, at least in my case, not be too hovering, trying to give your children the benefit of the doubt, that they can make good decisions. And because it's not school sponsored but it's community sanctioned, at some level. So I felt a lot of pressure to make the right decision.
NNAMDIAll of your books have been, in one way or another, affected by the area in which you were living, at the time, when you wrote those books. Why is that?
COLLYes. I can't help but absorbed where I'm living. The first novel I wrote that was never published, which I think was a good thing, it wasn't really ready for primetime but was set in India which is where I was living at the time. The second novel, which became the first published novel was inspired by learning that Karl Marx' family had lived in the same North London neighborhood where I was living at the time.
NNAMDIAnd you start it as basically a historical novel, right?
COLLI did. It was about his daughter, Eleanor, who had been an activist and a really dynamic woman. But who had wound up committing suicide. And I was fascinated by her story. And back in the pre-Amazon days, finding used books meant wandering around London, going to Charing Cross Road and finding all these old biographies of her. So I really immersed myself in her history.
NNAMDIWhat's next for you?
COLLI'm not sure. I keep promising that it's not a comic novel, set in an independent book store.
NNAMDIOh, let me tell you about that because I'm from the Caribbean where, as you know, there are Calypsonian's who flourish and invariably, when these Calypso singers date somebody, whether they happen to be male or female, their date invariably says, I don't want to show up in any of your Calypso's, okay. So I guess the people at Politics and Prose are saying the same thing to you?
COLLYes. I'm going to try to avoid that.
NNAMDIIt won't be a satirical novel about a bookstore but what do you have in mind? Are you currently working on anything?
COLLI'm not sure. This is the first moment in my -- since I began writing that I'm not putting a lot of pressure on myself to answer that question. So I'll set it aside for a little while.
NNAMDIWe're almost out of time. But after your initial rejection of the book that you wrote in India, how were you able to overcome that and continue?
COLLI've always been a glass-half full kind of person. And I looked at the feedback I'd gotten and I'd looked at the nice rejection letters, the ones that offered encouragement and decided to just go with that rather than give up.
NNAMDIGlad you did. Susan Coll is the author of five novels and she's written for The New York Times book review, NPR and The Washington Post. She's the events and programs director for Politics and Prose bookstore. Her latest novel, is called, "The Stager." Thank you so much for joining us.
COLLThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening, I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Coming up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," the Chesapeake's defining flavor, Old Bay seasoning enjoys a renaissance, even as its parent company contemplates leaving Maryland. Then at 1:00, "The People's Republic of Amnesia," veteran journalist Louisa Lim uncovers new details about the Tiananmen Square killings. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," noon till 2:00 tomorrow, on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at kojoshow.org.
ANNOUNCERBy the way, Susan Coll, author of "The Stranger (sic) " will be at Politics and Prose at 5015 Connecticut Avenue, tonight at 7:00, for a reading and signing of her novel.
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