An Interview with Writer and Instructor, Suzy Spencer
I’m sure you remember Suzy Spencer’s successful memoir, Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality. Well, we’ve snagged her for one of our classes this spring! Suzy took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about creative nonfiction and her class, Creative Nonfiction: An Interactive Class, which is this Saturday, February 2, from 9 AM to 4 PM. Registration ends January 30th, so make sure you get your spot before they run out, and don’t forget to bring your questions!
First off, what do you think it is about creative nonfiction that appeals to readers and writers?
Suzy Spencer: The humanity combined with storytelling. It’s one thing to read a great novel about someone battling cancer and fighting back. It’s another thing – a teaching thing and an inspiring thing – to read about a real person battling cancer and fighting back. The reader can say, yes, I understand, I’ve been there myself. Or, yes, I’m going through the same thing and you’re giving me hope and you’re helping my family understand my feelings. It’s real life.
Is there a different feeling you get after closing a book based on real-life events?
SS: I think reading a book about real-life events can often have the same effect as one that is 100 percent fiction – strong emotion, tears, joy, empathy, sadness. But as I said above, I think inspiration, hope, and education come through more profoundly in creative or narrative nonfiction.
Think about The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. If that book had been written as fiction, one might close it and think, wow, great story. But since it’s nonfiction, one closes it and thinks, wow, what an inspiring story – it’s about loving and respecting family no matter how dysfunctional they are; it’s about finding the good in the bad and building on that good; it’s about rising above poverty and one’s circumstances to find success financially, professionally, and emotionally; it’s about not turning one’s back on family, even though sometimes it may be more convenient. For me, The Glass Castle’s messages and impact are so much more powerful as nonfiction than they ever could have been as fiction.
What do you think is the most difficult element of creative nonfiction that fiction writers tend to struggle with?
SS: Honesty. Sometimes, it’s easier to write honestly about one’s thoughts and feelings when putting those thoughts and feelings into a fictional character than it is to write them into a nonfictional character.
For example, it can be easier to write about mother-daughter dynamics in a novel than it is to write about one’s own mother-daughter dynamics in a memoir … or … in a book about sex. For that matter, I think it’s easier to write about sex and religion in a novel than it is in nonfiction. In a novel, one can always say that those thoughts, feelings,actions are those of the character, not the author – the character just took the author there. But in memoir, one can’t do that.
To what degree do you think tweaking real-life details to fit a particular plot and structure affect the overall reception of story?
SS: Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist, but for me, I believe it’s an absolute no-no to tweak real-life details to fit a particular plot and structure. Not only do I believe it’s ethically wrong, but I believe it opens one up to shame, ridicule, embarrassment (remember Oprah and James Frey?), and the killing of one’s reputation and career, especially in this age lawsuits and publishers being so fearful of lawsuits. And if one isn’t going to tell the truth, why write nonfiction? Write it as fiction and tweak away. Leave the tweaking and manipulation to the movies. Write the absolute truth in books. Indeed, absolute truth is the beauty of nonfiction.
How do you know what experiences are “nonfiction” worthy, and what is your process in getting that experience on paper?
SS: Is there a great plotline and story arc? Is the storyline riveting? Are there great characters? Strong personalities? A protagonist? Antagonists? Is something at stake? Are there plot complications for the lead character? Is there a turning point? A resolution? A lesson learned? A reason for the book? I could go on and on. Instead, I say take the class and we’ll discuss this in depth.
What do you want writers to take away from your workshop?
SS: I want writers to take away what they need – just like they would from a great book. That’s why I ask writers to come to the class with three questions that they want answered. That’s why I ask them to send me those questions prior to the class so that I can be prepared to meet their needs. And I specifically want them to tell me what they what they want to take away from the class. That way, we’ll all walk away with a lesson learned.
Suzy Spencer is the author of five nonfiction books, including Wasted, a New York Times bestseller; Breaking Point, a Doubleday Book Club, Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Guild, and Mystery Guild selection; and Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality, a memoir that was named a Barnes & Noble Editor’s Recommendation, Publishers Weekly Fall Pick 2012, and was featured on Katie Couric’s talk show, “Katie.”
Suzy holds a Master of Professional Writing in fiction, a Master of Business Administration in marketing and finance, both from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Baylor University.