Category Archives: Suzanne Antonetta Paola

On women writing well

Suzanne Paola, writing guru, offers some thoughts on how male vs. female writing, and offers some tips for warming up.

Suzanne Antonetta Paola

I conceived of Stolen Moments after several things happened: one, I read several interviews with V.S. Naipaul, who dismissed all of women’s writing—including Jane Austen’s—as “sentimental” and nowhere equal to his own books, and those of other men. Two, I did in fact buy a pocketbook at a consignment store, as does my character, that still had two lipsticks in a zippered compartment that resembled mine so much that I used them. It was, at first, a challenge to myself: could I create a world out of two accidentally found lipsticks? What if even such a subtle change to one’s outward self could change how we fundamentally think of ourselves and therefore, act?

I just returned home from Hong Kong, where I heard several writers—male—argue that fiction should be political to matter, by which they meant, should include as a major plot point the actions of governments or those who act on behalf of governments. This approach of course can result in terrific fiction. But I think women may be more instinctively aware that life is a series of small moments, every one of which burns outward, into the world: whether I hug my child tonight, and help create a child who is secure, or not; whether I take time to be with a distraught student, or not.  Those who repeat small tasks every day, perhaps, learn to look for the soul in them.

The word sentiment in its Latin root simply means to hold feeling. Human feelings underlie everything in this world, including wars.

One thing I love about the women in my world is that, unlike someone like Naipaul, who dismisses women utterly but pursues numerous and noisy feuds with the occasional male writer as well, the women writers I know are remarkably generous people. This is true of Laura Fraser, editorial director and cofounder of Shebooks.  In the spirit of Shebooks and its generosity, I offer a few writing prompts for you out there. Feel free to contact me at susantonetta@gmail.com to continue the dialogue.

Prompt one: Think about a very small change that made an enormous difference in the way you felt about yourself. Imagine a character who makes a similarly small change, and imagine, in the end, the circumstances of her life change drastically as a result.

Prompt two: Actually make a large change in yourself—clothing, appearance—for one day. Take notes on how you behave differently. Think about how much of self is defined through these sorts of daily decisions on how we present ourselves, and write about it.

 

Suzanne Antonetta Paola: “Happiness is a muscle, and it needs regular toning.”

Suzanna Antonetta Paola, award-winning poet and author of the Shebook novelette Stolen Moments, made it a personal challenge to write a profound, multilayered story centered around items that seem ordinary and girlish: high heels and a tube of lipstick.

What prompted you to write Stolen Moments?

I actually did buy a purse at a consignment shop and found that I accidentally used some lipsticks left inside of it, as my character did. Around the same time, I left a pair of shoes behind in a hotel room. They were perfectly nice shoes but cost me only five dollars—I do buy most of my clothes used, like another of my characters, though in my case it’s less frugality than trying to avoid supporting sweatshop labor—and I couldn’t fit them into my suitcase. So I began to think about how it might affect someone to use a lipstick left behind in a bag, or to find someone’s abandoned shoes. How interesting it would be if these small things changed someone’s life! The stories kind of flooded me after that idea.

How do you think your racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

I think I have always felt so betwixt and between in terms of all these questions that I have allowed my writing to move fluidly as well. I am technically partly a Creole, like my grandfather, who came to the U.S. from the island of Barbados—Creole meaning someone of mixed heritage, though mostly European. Religion-wise, I mostly call myself a Catholic, though my mother was a Christian Scientist. My son, who is adopted, is Korean-American. On my father’s side, I’m Southern Italian, descended from people, who are very poor, in a tiny town about 60 miles outside of Naples. We visited them once—they’re sharecroppers living in this town that was destroyed decades ago by earthquakes, and most of the damage still hasn’t been repaired. The government barely acknowledges they’re there, let alone provides aid. Like my character Ef, many of the women in my family cleaned for a living.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?

Yes, it’s kind of all down the line, like teachers who told me when I was a kid to forget about writing as a career while they encouraged it in boys, to the first creative writing professor I ever had, who was downright abusive, particularly to women students. In graduate school, I had one tiresome prof who called everything from women a “woman’s poem”—whatever that means—though he eagerly embraced everything from guys in the class, even one bizarre poem that had a character putting a woman’s head in a Crock-Pot. Presumably that’s of universal interest! I hope that my age—late 50s—suggests it’s gotten better for younger women than it was for me. Then again, VIDA’s [organization for women in literary arts] publication numbers are pretty dismal—fewer women get published and reviewed, though more women write, and that’s a fact.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I teach now, both in Washington State, where I live, and in Hong Kong—I travel there once or twice a year. I have had many strange jobs, starting with a job when I was about 14 sweeping the front of a small deli-type store in New Jersey that was actually a mob front. It never had anything to sell, and therefore that job was easy! During graduate school, my husband and I both had a job writing entries for an Encyclopedia of Disasters—bridge collapses, fires, floods like the Galveston Flood, you name it. Most of the disasters were in the past, so my husband and I would get kind of competitive about our disasters, which was weird! We were so immersed in it, we’d shout body counts across the room. Come to think of it, that job explains a lot—but I won’t say what!

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

Though I’ve written about it, most people don’t know I’m a high school dropout. I dropped out in my sophomore year and later got a GED and attended community college, then college, then graduate school, over time.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?

I have an inexpensive tablet. I love reading on it. I travel fairly often, so I read on it constantly when I’m traveling, and at home I read on it right before bed. I have it loaded up now with Shebooks and Dickens, which is the perfect juxtaposition of book lengths. I just finished Ona Gritz’s On the Whole—great book—and am about halfway through Martin Chuzzlewit. Also a great book.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just published a new book with Norton, Make Me a Mother: A Memoir. It tells the story of adopting and raising my son, and includes a lot of history of family fluidity and blended family across ages and cultures. It also looks at adoption as a concept that governs our fluid culture. I’m mostly promoting that book right now, though I’m looking forward to getting back to fiction.

Aside from writing, do you have any secret talents?

I have an amazing garden, though I’m not especially gifted with that—it’s just work! I’m also a really, really good cook, mostly for the same reason. I love making food and do a lot from scratch, even making my own breads and cheeses and such from time to time. I grow a lot of fruits and vegetables and play around a lot—I make all our jams and do flavors like rosewater-ginger-rhubarb and so on. My husband and I just did our own Peking duck, which is a dish we fell in love with in China.

Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?

Do something you love every day, even if you are in a bad place and think it can’t help. And eat one thing that’s delicious. Happiness is a muscle, and it needs regular toning! Surround yourself with good people and with animals. You know what Emily Dickinson said about dogs: “They are better than beings, for they know but do not tell.”

Stolen Moments

Check out Stolen Moments by Suzanne Antonetta Paola, only on Shebooks!