Q & A with award-winning author and LTCC teacher Suzanne Roberts
Ryan Summerlin November 23, 2012
Author Suzanne Roberts set out along a month-long trip through the Sierra Nevada in 1993 with two other women. Almost 20 years later, Roberts published the story of that hike in her book, “Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail,” a recipient of the National Outdoor Book Award. Part memoir, part nature writing, part travelogue, the book is dedicated to Roberts’ two companions and to women hikers everywhere. The author, poet and Lake Tahoe Community College English teacher spoke to the Tahoe Daily Tribune about some of the challenges of writing “Almost Somewhere” and what it takes to become a professional writer. Q: What are some of the challenges with regards to writing a memoir? How did you decide on this genre to tell the story? A: Because a memoir is based on memory, one of the challenges is getting it right, but in the end, it’s more important to stay true to the truth of the memory than the facts, though I certainly tried to do both by going back and looking at my journal as well as photographs. Also, in memoir, you end up telling your story but you also end up telling other people’s stories, and one of the things that can be difficult is figuring out which parts are your story to tell and which aren’t. I suppose I could have fictionalized this story to make the plot more exciting, but that seemed false to me. For this story, I needed to get to the truth of a woman’s experience in nature, and for me, the only way to do that was through memoir. Q: Could you elaborate more on what you mean by truth of the memory versus facts?A: You want your story to involve a reader in a way where the reader forgets that he or she is reading words and really enters the world of the story, whether that story is fiction or nonfiction. And when you are writing nonfiction, that means creating a real world for your reader, which means the recreation of dialog and setting. In some cases, like in the dialog between my narrator and her father at the end of “Almost Somewhere,” I admit that I couldn’t remember what was said. And I needed to do that because the lack of remembering haunts me, and so it needs to haunt the reader. Did I tell my father I loved him? I’m not sure. I am uncomfortable with that, and I needed to convey that truth to the reader. And in the creation of setting, what you leave out is just as important as what you include. It’s the same way in photography. The viewer’s sense of reality is shaped by the photographer’s eye. In a similar way, the writer is creating the reader’s world, and though that world is based on the ‘real’ world, it is filtered through the writer’s point of view. And in writing memoir, you have to leave out anything that isn’t necessary to the arc of the story. Is that dishonest? I don’t think so because if you include everything, you would have a messy, boring 2,000 pages. Q: What was your reaction when you heard your book won a National Outdoor Book Award? A: I saw it online before I was notified, so I wasn’t really sure what the award was or what it meant. Once I figured out what the award was, I was surprised but also pleased and honored. I do think, however, it’s important not to get too wrapped up in these things. If you are elated by success then you will also be crushed by rejection, and all writers know that rejection is part of the writer’s life. In the end, it’s the writing, the creation of literature, that’s most important. You make a book and you send it out into the world, and whatever happens happens. The writer can’t control that. So I’m honored by the recognition, but I am trying not to dwell on it and instead focus on writing my next book. Q: What is it about the Sierra Nevada that draws you? What’s it like to live and work in the area that seemed to make such a lasting impression on you in the book? A: Though I find all types of landscapes beautiful, it is the Sierra — with its lakes and rivers, its granite and fast-moving clouds — that feels like my landscape. I am drawn by the elastic air, the mountain-notched sky, the hiking trails and the ski slopes. I love to travel, but it’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else. So, how do I feel? I feel extremely grateful. Q: What advice do you give to your students who want to pursue a career in writing? A: Read, read, read. And then read. Samuel Johnson says a man (or a woman) will turn over half a library to make one book. If you are a writer, you are joining a conversation, but you can’t contribute to that conversation if you don’t know what’s going on. The only way to be a writer is to be a reader. When students tell me they want to write a book, I tell them to go read 100 books, 1,000 books, and then come talk to me about writing a book. Also, writing can be a lonely life, so join a writing group or take a creative writing class. Attend readings and other literary events, where you will meet other writers. My writing group and the literary community here in Tahoe sustains me.