Interview with Susan Strauss, 2nd Place Winner in the Spring 2023 Flash Fiction Contest

Tuesday, October 03, 2023


Susan Strauss is a Portuguese-American author whose culture influences her identity and her writing. She is a teacher and a coach, and as the world turns upside-down, she writes like crazy. She writes novels, The Queen of Saudade and its sequel, The Queen of the Frostbite Ball, and picture books, Sincerely Yours, Buster and My Dog Speaks Portuguese, as well as a long list of Letters to the Editor. “It was Friday, So We Had Air Raid Drills” is her first publication of flash fiction, and it is dedicated to all the children who deserve to grow up in a world without war and other man-made disasters. She lives in Southern California with her family and a dog named Buster. 

----------Interview by Renee Roberson 

WOW: Hi Susan, welcome, and congratulations! Your short story, "It Was Friday, So We Had Air Raid Drills," has so many layers, from the familial relationship between Tia Blina and Lu to the vivid descriptions of the school air raid drills to the dream sequence. How did you first get the idea for this piece and how did it evolve as you were writing it? 

Susan: My short story, “It’s Friday, So We Had Air Raid Drills,” is actually an excerpt from my young adult novel, "The Queen of Saudade." I got the idea for writing this particular excerpt, a letter to the main character’s English teacher, after working with elementary and secondary students and their teachers during the pandemic. Witnessing the students’ traumatic changes after being confined throughout the pandemic by the existential threat of a world-wide disease, I thought about significant events that shaped my own childhood. One continuous event that forever changed my generation was the Cold War with its constant nuclear threat as well as the continuous Vietnam War. Children grew up faced with the futility of trying to protect themselves from a nuclear bomb, which most likely influenced the creation of the anti-war movement. The parallels of the atomic threat and constant war with the global pandemic, each exacerbated by politicization and misinformation, made me think deeply about the terrifying polarization of my own childhood. 

My hope is that the current generation will find ways to turn unbearable fear into empathy, and that their generation will find better ways to communicate and care for each other. Another hope is that children living in today’s upside-down world might read my story, and know that the terrified main character grew up to be the person who wrote the story. 

WOW: The quality of your excerpt is a true testamament to how your book will captivate readers! How did you first hear about the WOW! Women on Writing flash fiction contest? 

Susan: I first heard about the WOW! Women on Writing flash fiction contest from Marilyn Morton, a friend in my writing sisterhood who recommended I submit a piece of flash fiction or creative non-fiction to your literary site. I am forever thankful for Marilyn’s recommendation. Since she is also an outstanding writer, you might be on the lookout for her submissions. Thank you so many times over for being on the lookout for mine. I am beyond grateful and extremely honored to join the sisterhood of WOW! Women on Writing.

WOW: You write in a variety of genres. How do you divide your time between working on various creative projects? 

Susan: Another thoughtful question. Fortunately, the days of the week create an automatic division of time, so I use that frame to create a schedule for myself. Having a background in the genres of journalism and writing television scripts helps me understand and appreciate the text structures essential to being literate. Besides being a writer, I am also a teacher and coach and support the joyous pursuit of literacy with the current renaissance of literature serving as models for good writing. I am a writing teacher and believe writing teachers should write side-by-side with their students, which has kept me writing throughout my teaching career. 

Mostly, I determine the genre that will best suit my purpose and intended audience, and that element of discovery shapes my choices as a writer. Quite often, I keep photos or letters from the young people in my life in front of me while I write, which keeps me focused on my audience and inspires my voice as a writer. 

WOW: Can you tell us a little more about your two novels, “The Queen of Saudade” and “The Queen of the Frostbite Ball?” 

Susan: I would love to tell you about my two young adult novels. Since I am a Portuguese American, my culture as well as the time period in which I came of age influence both my identity and my writing. Both historical novels have the same family of characters: the main character is Luliana, a teenage girl facing the loss of one brother during the Vietnam War and dedicated to the survival of the other. She’s immersed in the universal struggle for identity and purpose that is central to all teenagers on the verge of becoming a young adult, especially those who struggle with their cultural identity and their ability to realize their goals for the future. 

A central part of Luli’s goal in "The Queen of Saudade," the Portuguese word for ‘longing,’ is to maintain her sense of integrity within her family as well as her personal life. Writing, especially regaining her lost credits in English and being editor of her school newspaper, offers a critical path toward affirming her identity, and hopefully, her ability to go to college. Complications arise when her older brother’s friend, Jack, a recent veteran of the Vietnam War, returns and is asked to drive the family car to Canada to check out the possibilities of her brother living there until the war is over. Along the road trip, she finds herself reluctantly but ultimately attracted to Jack. 

In Saudade, the novel is interspersed with Luli’s letters to her English teacher, which contain her completed assignments, one at a time. In an assignment to interview a veteran, Luli interviews Jack, which helps her develop a deeper understanding of his life as a veteran of war. As Jack, Luli, and her family travel to Canada, Luli’s developing interest in him will influence the entire story. Her letters to her teacher will capture their reluctant attraction as well as multiple twists she did not see coming, including the ending, where she realizes she is willing to risk everything for him. 

In the book’s sequel, "The Queen of the Frostbite Ball," Luli’s identity as a young Portuguese woman and the sudden return of Jack to their hometown drive the story as she determines what she’s willing to risk in order to grab hold of a future that matters. When she is nominated to be her high school’s Queen of the Winter Ball, affectionately known as The Frostbite, she cannot imagine a world where she’s popular and rides through town on a float. She’s convinced it must all be a joke, only no one appears to be laughing. 

When she realizes the nomination is authentic, she has no idea who might ask her to the dance. When the dance is days away and she still does not have a date, she’s positive her nomination was a prank. Desperate, she asks her remaining brother to take her to the dance, but he turns her down flat. Facing humiliation, she persuades her cousin Bernie to take her, but the night before the dance, he is arrested for forging a check. Then she calls another cousin, Gloria, to enlist her help and a plan begins to take shape. 

The morning of the dance, she finds Jack sitting in her backyard on a rock in the shade of a low-hanging palm tree reading an editorial she had just written in the school newspaper about the Vietnam War. Realizing Jack has risked everything to return to home, perhaps just to see her, the dance no longer matters as her life suddenly tilts in a whole new direction. 

WOW: It's obvious you've put a lot of thought and time into these book projects! We wish you continued success with your writing, including with your picture books. I noticed your dog Buster is featured in some of them. As an avid dog lover, I’d love to hear more about him! 

Susan: Buster, meu amor! Our dog, Buster, the sweetest guy this side of the Douro River, inspired two of my picture books: "Sincerely Yours, Buster" and "My Dog Speaks Portuguese."  The first book is based on Buster and his BFF, Eddie, and their longtime friendship. Through a hole in the backyard fence, they join with other neighborhood dogs to help Buster’s parent people, Rico and Julieta, weather a sudden illness. Since Buster is a prolific letter writer, he sends messages to Eddie in the form of p-mail cloudbursts to convince their neighbors to help Rico and Julieta through their illness. The neighbors pull through as do Buster’s parent people thanks to Buster and Eddie’s friendship, persistence, and Buster’s ability to write a convincing letter to his community of friends. In the second book, "My Dog Speaks Portuguese," Julieta’s dog, Buster, reveals his empathetic persona as he engages in a meeting of the minds with Julieta’s Portuguese aunt, Tia Blina, who is convinced she is too old to have a dog. If that’s true, then how does she explain her sudden and complete rapport with Buster whenever she speaks Portuguese to him? Buster and Tia Blina become soul mates-for-life who suddenly find it hard to remember that anyone else is still in the room, even Julieta. This motivates Julieta to work hard to improve her Portuguese so she can be an important member of their circle of love. 

WOW: We've loved getting to learn more about you and your work. Thank you again, Susan!


Nicole Pyles said...

What a insightful interview and wonderful story. So glad to have read this one!

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