An Interview with Susan Coll
- By Therese Droste
- November 15, 2022
The novelist talks bookselling, recalcitrant vacuums, and writing happy endings during sad times.
In Susan Coll’s latest novel, Bookish People, indie-bookstore owner Sophie Bernstein’s problems keep piling up. Between her husband dying, her beloved manager leaving, and her ne’er-do-well son continuously disappointing her, she can’t seem to catch a break. When riots break out in Charlottesville, Virginia, Sophie begins to feel like her whole world is in a tailspin.
All she wants is to slip away to a hidden room in the store — the one behind the shelf with all the Graham Greene. But as in real life, nothing goes as planned. What follows is a zany, comedic read from an author who was herself the longtime events and programs director at famed Washington, DC, independent bookstore Politics and Prose.
Tell us how this book came about.
I had no intention of writing a novel set in a bookstore. Then, I took a lengthy leave of absence [from Politics and Prose]. During that time, I still received the store’s internal emails. These included the “end of day” reports — that was actually the original working title of the book. I read the emails from a certain distance since I was not personally caught up with the daily flow of things. I began to view these memos more as works of literature.
There are two characters — other than the books Sophie is surrounded by — that are not human: A turtle named Kurt Vonnegut and a vacuum cleaner. Is the turtle a metaphor for Sophie, who just wants to retreat into the hidden room? And why a vacuum?
Turtles do want to pull their heads back in. The tortoise was inspired in part by a real tortoise named David Foster Wallace, who was owned by my stepdaughter’s college roommate. For the book, I thought Kurt Vonnegut seemed like a good name for a tortoise. In the “end of day” reports, the vacuum cleaner was mentioned a lot because it was frequently broken. There were descriptions of how to get it to work (“kick it a few times to get it to go”), or just information such as [that] it was back in the shop with a broken belt. A lot of my work comes from epiphanies, and that was one. This vacuum cleaner was speaking to me, and it was telling me it’s got to be a character.
I like Sophie’s character arc. She evolves from being a bit crusty and unapproachable to her staff to rather hopeful by the end, when she’s at an eclipse-viewing party with her employees.
I struggled with her character a bit as I wrote. I didn’t mean for her to be a dark and cold and demanding boss, but it was who she had turned into. I had to show that wasn’t who she really was but who she had become after her husband’s death. She’d had a rough year. She was weary. She’d become distant and no longer invited people to her home for dinner, and she thought she didn’t want to be a bookstore owner anymore. She changed back to whom she means to be at the end. Yet it was a challenge to write the very end of the book. I wanted it to end on a hopeful note, but politically, it was a hard moment [in which] to write that scene. Things were not and are not necessarily looking up. It’s hard to write a happy, “life will improve” ending because it’s not clear if it will or not.
Clemi is one of the novel’s hopeful characters. You have a strong sense of what the young, slightly unreliable bookstore workers struggle with. Most want to be writers, find love, and earn a living.
Some of that insight comes from a function of my own experience working at the bookstore. I first worked there in my mid-50s but was doing a job similar to — if not the same as — Clemi’s job. A lot of my colleagues were her age, and I felt it was easy to channel that for me. Even though Sophie Bernstein was more my sensibility, I understood both characters.
Sophie is constantly approached by people with book ideas or books to sell. How often are you approached by people who want help publishing their books or getting on the Politics and Prose events calendar?
All the time. It’s not just because of my Politics and Prose job. I also teach a year-long novel class. Many people approach me with book ideas, [questions about] how to find agents, and for advice on how to publish their books.
What is your writing process? Do you outline or make it up as you go?
I don’t outline; I wish I could. It would be more efficient and save me a lot of revisions and headaches and despair. But I get an idea and figure it out on the page as I go along. I am doing this with my next book. Sometimes, it takes a year of false starts and doubts, but I know when it’s time to stop and go back and pull new threads. It eventually all comes together.
I’m working on a novel that has to do with the legend of the Moth Man. I am taking it in a different direction than the  movie “The Mothman Prophesies.” The original story comes from a bridge collapse from the late 1960s in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. My book involves a child of the people who died in that collapse.
Therese Droste is a Washington, DC-based writer and member of the Independent’s board of directors. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Prevention, Health, Washingtonian, and numerous other publications.