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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!