Thursday, September 24, 2009

Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place

Today we welcome Susan Wittig Albert, prolific author of numerous mystery novels, perhaps less commonly known as the creator of the Story Circle Network, and now author of her first memoir, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place.

Dani: Susan, we've talked all week about memoirs, and earlier we discussed the Story Circle Network which you founded. What prompted you to start that group ten years ago? Why then?

Susan: I’d been teaching lifewriting (journaling and memoir) to women for five or six years, and I’d just written Writing From Life. I wanted to encourage women to document their lives--to tell the true stories of their experiences--and it seemed to me that what we needed was sustained personal encouragement from other women. A book can help give guidance, but I felt an organization could best do that job. (For more backstory, click here.)

Dani: Why write a memoir?

Susan: There are lots of reasons: to record your life; get clear about who you are and what you’ve done and why; tell your personal story to family, friends, the community--people who want to know more about you; relate your experiences with a particular issue, illness, challenge, in order to help others facing the same situation. We have so many men’s stories: our history books are full of them. We need women’s stories!

Dani: And now ten years later, you've just published your own memoir. You've written about your marriage to Bill Albert, and perhaps it's fair to say, you share with readers the marriage both of you have to your "place" which you've named Meadow Knoll. Why did you narrow the focus of your memoir in this way?

Susan: I’ve long been interested in the idea of place: our need as humans (and particularly as placeless, unrooted Americans) to find a home in this world. We need to be in touch with nature and the earth, particularly as we face the challenges of climate change. I felt that my story--I was placeless and unrooted until we settled at Meadow Knoll--might help other women who are searching for ways to feel at home on the earth. I wrote about our marriage because it has been the central relationship of this part of my life. In some ways, the memoir is not my story, but our story. And yes, Bill read it, made suggestions, and agreed that does tell the story.

Dani: In this 20+ year partnership with your husband and your home, you've produced a tremendous amount of writing, together and alone. The books helped create the place, but tell us how the place might have contributed to the quality and quantity of writing.

Susan: It’s contributed in so many ways! Besides giving me wonderful subjects to write about (the land, the plants, animals, weather, history) it’s given me a place to write--a place that’s exactly suited to the work of writing. When I lived in cities, there were constant distractions, always something to do, some reason not to do the writing I wanted to do. Out here, I’m less distracted. It’s easier to focus--to get the work done.
This place also puts me in immediate touch with what I see as the most compelling issue we’re going to be facing as a species over the next century: the changing nature of our planet. I see this more and more every year. We’ve just gone through the most frightening drought and summer heat in recorded history. Is this the future for this place? And I can see what humans have already done here, all around me, to the resources of soil and water, and to the prairie life that used to be so abundant here. Wherever we live, we simply must begin to understand and care for our place. I’ll never stop writing about that.

Dani: So what's next? Another memoir with a different focus?

Susan: 2008 was a remarkable year for all of us. The oil price spike, the collapse of the financial markets, the sad toll of two wars, the excitement of a presidential campaign, job losses and foreclosures--it was an extraordinary year. I kept a journal during that year, which kept me focused on what was going on around me and how it was changing me--as it did. It will be published next year: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days. And I’m continuing with my fiction work. There’ll be a new China Bayles mystery (Holly Blues) in April, 2010; a new Cottage Tale (The Tale of Oat Cake Crag) in September, 2010; and the first book in a new series: The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree. The Dahlias are a garden club in Darling, Alabama. The year is 1930, another extraordinary year!

Dani: Finally, Susan, you've put together a tremendous promotion package with a unique website for this memoir, and a lovely book trailer that beautifully represents the tone and focus of the memoir. It's your first trailer right? Tell us how it was created and where we can view it.

Susan: The trailer is on my website. It was created by Masha Holl (whom I met when I talked to the San Antonio romance writers), with audio work by Becca Taylor. The song Simple Gifts is my favorite melody and the words mean a very great deal to me. The photographs are from my collection of Meadow Knoll photos. There are other photos on the website, and the maps from the book (beautifully created by Molly O’Halloran) in color.

Dani: Thanks for joining us, Susan. Readers, if you have questions please leave them in the comments. Has anyone read the book already? What did you think of it? Here's the gorgeous cover:

And, of course, you can purchase the book, personalized and autographed by the author, by clicking here.
Dani Greer is a founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil, and this week, when she's not reading short story anthologies or blogging, you can find her in the kitchen making and canning applesauce.

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  1. Together alone sounds like a very interesting memoir - and I love the cover. I'm also looking forward to An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days. Both books appeal to me. Well, shoot, just about anything Susan writes appeals to me!

    Straight From Hel

  2. This interview makes me want to run right out and get Susan's books - all of them. I'm just getting to "know" Susan thru SCN and look forward to meeting some of you at the conference in February.

  3. I have to tell you how I "met" Susan some years ago - I picked up the first China Bayles novel while at the library searching for a new mystery series. This was early summer (probably on a gardening display and librarian recommended books) and by the end of August, I'd caught up with the series. How many books did I blast through? Then I read the Robin Paige books, stayed caught up with China, followed the blog, joined SCN, and now look forward to the Dahlias. Mercy!


  4. I often think I've got to be the luckiest writer in the world--slipped into a genre/sub-genre (cozy mysteries) when it was really beginning to bloom (early 1990s), found a niche (gardening/herb), and a supportive editor/publisher who has always been willing to listen to new proposals--hence the various series. UT Press published my first academic book (on medieval narrative) back in the 1970s, and I've been able to keep that connection alive. The editor there was receptive to the memoir proposal, when it wouldn't have worked as a Big House book. Lucky me!

  5. Susan,

    Thank you, as always, for sharing your unique voice...for providing women (and men) with insight and a community spirit with each other and their environment.
    You are an inspiration to us all. =)


  6. Welcome to The Blood-Red Pencil, Susan. I'm one of your biggest fans, and all because I met you very early in your career (I think at Magna cum Murder in Muncie, IN). I look forward to reading the memoir. Very nice interview, Dani.

  7. Susan, so nice to learn more about you and your work. I love the cover for Together Alone, and based on what you said about place, I think I will definitely have to buy it. I, too, feel so connected to the earth and find writing here on my little farm so much easier than writing while watching cars zoom down a suburban street. Although nature does distract me sometimes. :-)

  8. Muncie--yes, I came to the very first MCM. Don't remember the year. Late 90s, I think, when the China series was 4 or 5 books old. I see that Katherine isn't doing it this year, because of Bouchercon. That's smart.

  9. Maryann, I think that those of us who live in close connection with the natural world have an important responsibility: keeping tabs on the changes we see around us. Climate change will impact all of us, but those who are in touch with nature will notice it first. I hope you'll write about what's happening around you. (Pardon moi. I rant about this a lot these days.)

  10. Susan, I found this post very moving - particularly your comments about your connection to the land. I've been following your comments about the drought in Texas. Here in upstate New York, we had much too much rain, but now we're in a dry spell, and I've been out watering my garden every other day. But it's nothing compared to what you're going through down there.

    Living close to the land is so nourishing - this afternoon I spent an hour watering my perennials, contemplating them and thinking about the gardening I've yet to do, and it was very therapuetic.

  11. I absolutely love memoirs and recently just finished reading one that really touched my heart. "Replacement Child: A Memoir" by Judy L. Mandel- a truly inspiring story about a family who learns to deal with the tragedy of losing a child. My husband calls me a sap, but I love them no matter how sad or happy the story is. Can't wait to check out "Together Alone."

  12. Julie, I think we all need the therapy that comes with being in touch with the land that nurtures us--which ranges all the way from knowing the soils and the climate that we depend on to understanding and connecting with our food sources. Glad you could spend an hour with your plants--hope this kind of therapy can become a regular part of your day.

  13. Becky and others--please do let your libraries know about Together, Alone, and other women's memoirs. One library purchase of a book benefits hundreds of readers. Book budgets are tight, and often, libraries don't order memoirs unless they get a direct request for them.

  14. Hi, Susan and Dani. Thanks for the interesting interview.

    Susan, a few questions come to mind. How do you manage to have so many projects going at the same time? Do you have techniques for keeping them all energized and sorted clearly in your mind? And what would you have done if 2008 had turned out to be a rather dull year? I guess you could see the election coming, but many of the most potent events couldn't have been predicted. What made you decide to try that experiment that particular year?

    I'm always grateful for SCN, and for my Aunt Jane, who bought me my first membership as a gift 8 or 9 years ago. Thanks for working so hard for women, Susan.


  15. Oh, gosh, Susan--you're THAT Susan! Now I remember. I was with Jane a couple of weeks ago for reading circle. She is so much fun, always enlivens our group.

    I work on one project at a time, although they do overlap somewhat. In the next 12 months, I have 3 deadlines: Nov 1 (Darling Dahlias), March 31 (next China), Aug 31 (last Beatrix). During these months, I'm very focused on the current project. But the copyedits and galleys and promotion overlap, so I still have responsibilities for previous work while I'm doing the current book. Pretty much a full-time job.

    I decided on 2008 before any of the national/global issues of that year came up (at least for me). It was going to be a book about entering my 70th year, aging, writing, etc. A book about ordinary days. Which it still is, in many ways--although the year gave us all a whole lot more than we bargained for. I can't take credit for that! Those things just happened to happen "on my watch." Hope I did them justice!

  16. Great interview. I love that book title - An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days.

    Morgan Morgan

  17. Dani, wonderful interview! This book and the woman who wrote it are very special. I urge everyone to read Together, Alone. It's eloquent yet simple in its focus on relationship and place and how they intertwine. You do good work here, Dani.

  18. Thanks all - it's been a good week of memoir-related posts, and special thanks to Susan Wittig Albert for stopping in to chat with us! I hope we can get you over here again soon to talk about your favorite retreat center.

    Happy weekend,


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