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Q&A with Susan Coll, Author of Real Life and Other Fictions

Q&A with Susan Coll, Author of Real Life and Other Fictions

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Susan Coll is the author of Real Life and Other Fictions, which is out now.

Susan Coll is the author of six novels, including The Stager–New York Times and Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice. Her third novel, Acceptance, was made into a television movie starring the hilarious Joan Cusack. Susan’s work has appeared in publications including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington PostWashingtonian magazine, Moment Magazine,,, and The Millions. She works at an independent bookstore in Washington, DC, and is currently the president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. 

Real Life and Other Fictions follows Cassie Klein, a woman in her 50s who seeks answers about her parents’ mysterious death while navigating personal turmoil including a failing marriage.

Get to know Susan as she talks favorite novels, what inspired her to write her latest novel, her TBR list and more!

Q: What are some of your favorite novels?

A: I love dark comedy, especially those featuring unreliable narrators: Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen is one of my all-time favorites. Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal is another. I love everything Lisa Zeidner writes, including Love Bomb and Layover, and hope we get to read more of her soon. My husband, Paul Goldberg, writes dark comedy, too, so I’ll give a shoutout to his first novel, The Yid. On the other end of the spectrum – very much not a comedy—Alice McDermott’s latest novel, Absolution, set in 1960s Saigon, took my breath away.

Q: When did you know you wanted to become an author?

A: I have had something angsty burning inside since high school, some creative something or other that needed to find its way out. I have aways been a voracious reader, and since I couldn’t paint, sing, dance, or do anything other than type, writing seemed the way to go. 

Q: Tell us about Real Life and Other Fictions. What inspired you to write it?

A: Some twelve years ago I heard about The Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and while I am not a hugely impulsive person, the sound of this strange gathering sent me on a solo six-hour road trip. I then became fascinated by, and slightly obsessed with the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, which resulted in 46 fatalities, and which remains the deadliest bridge collapse in modern history.

In the year or so before the collapse, there were multiple local sightings of a creature known as The Mothman, a giant winged creature with glowing red eyes, that was thought to be part-man, part-moth. A 2002 film starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney, called The Mothman Prophecies, takes the story in the direction of horror, but I found myself drawn to the story of survival. My protagonist is a woman in her 50s who was orphaned in the bridge collapse. Cassie has spent her entire life wondering why her parents, who lived in Washington, DC, were in West Virginia and on the bridge at the moment of disaster. 

Q: Can you share your favorite part or chapter to write?

A: This was a challenging novel to write, and at first it seemed outside my comfort zone. Most of my work has a comic bent, and this was a subject that did not lend itself to lightness and whimsy. The book began to come into focus for me in chapter 19, when my protagonist, Cassie, walks into a hibachi restaurant at the foot of the now restored bridge, and meets a cryptozoologist. He asks Cassie whether she is visiting Point Pleasant, or just passing through, and they fall into banter that echoes the language of John Gardner’s classic book on craft, The Art of Fiction. They have an immediate chemistry, and in that moment the novel found its comic voice. This scene helped me to better understand the book in its entirely, so I went back to the beginning and filtered everything through this new lens.

Q: How do you find the right balance of humor and heart when composing your novels?

A: That’s a great question, since my work typically begins with a dark subject—a bridge collapse in this book, and in Bookish People, the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, for example—and yet I wind up writing what I hope are warm-hearted comedies. I spend a lot of time puzzling over intersection of darkness and comedy—about the adage tragedy plus time equals comedy. My characters typically begin with a challenging situation of one sort or another and then wrestle it to the ground in ways that become screwball. I’m not entirely sure I can explain how that happens.

Q: What are you currently reading and what’s on your TBR (to be read) list?

A: Because I work in a bookstore I tend to have a mountain of galleys on my desk and my reading is often dictated by our author event schedule. I just finished Helen Simonson’s charming Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcyle and Flying Club, and recently read Holly Gramazio’s sparkling comedy, The Husbands. I’m looking forward to reading a galley of Lynda Cohen Loigman’s The Love Elixir of Augusta Stern, which comes out in October. Other galleys on my desk include Claire Messud’s This Strange and Eventful History, Alexis Landau’s The Mother of All Things, and Jessica Anthony’s The Most.