Interview with Susan Larson
by Marian Kaufman
Susan Larson is the author of THE BOOKLOVER’S GUIDE TO NEW ORLEANS and the host of WWNO’s The Reading Life. She founded the New Orleans chapter of the Women’s National Book Association and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. In addition to being on the board of directors of the New Orleans Public Library, she serves as vice president of literary programming for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. Larson was also the book editor for The New Orleans Times-Picayune from 1988-2009. In 2007, she received the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the literary community, and, more than once, has served as a jury member for the Pulitzer Prize.
You have been very involved in the literary community of New Orleans. How did you get started and what has kept you motivated?
When I moved to New Orleans in 1985, I joined first one book group of women scholars, and then I joined another. That led to being part of the Louisiana Women Writers Conference in 1986, which opened so many doors for me; I felt that I had truly found my people! Then, when I worked at the University of New Orleans Bookstore, my boss Kevin McCaffrey put me to work on the second Tennessee Williams Festival, and that was it. One thing just led to another.
As for what keeps me motivated, I believe that when one writer benefits, all writers do. I am so proud of the literary community here. Many people make it happen—writers, booksellers, librarians, publishers, people who serve on nonprofit boards and contribute money, festival directors, literacy activists, all kinds of volunteers. We may read to know we’re not alone, as the saying goes, but these events—and places like the library—bring us together.
You’ve had many amazing experiences in the literary community. Any favorites?
My favorite, hands down, was a Neighborhood Story Project publication party in City Park. It was such a lovely moment—all these young writers, surrounded by teachers and family and supporters, being welcomed into the larger literary community. New Orleans at its best.
Tell us a little about your personal relationship with books?
Books were my great comfort and refuge as a girl, and I read my way out of small-town Texas as doggedly as any athlete ever pursued a sports scholarship. At first I thought I’d be an English teacher, but then I discovered life in an independent feminist bookstore, and for fifteen years, I never looked back. Along the way, I wrote ten romance novels with a good friend and literary/feminist journalism for various newspapers and magazines. And then, in 1988, I became the book editor of The Times-Picayune, the best job I could ever imagine in the one place on earth I wanted to be. As a young girl, loving books, I could never have imagined such a rich life for myself.
You read many styles and genres for the literary program you host for WWNO, The Reading Life. What do you enjoy reading the most?
I count myself lucky to have come of age with the feminist movement and to have known and met so many great women writers. To this day, my favorite novel is one that shows a woman thinking, a woman’s interior life. It all started with JANE EYRE, when I was a kid, then THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK, by Doris Lessing and MRS. DALLOWAY, by Virginia Woolf. I loved Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout and was so pleased it won the Pulitzer the year I chaired the jury (with Richard Dillard and Nancy Pearl). One of the books I love most is UNLESS, by Carol Shields; I wrote my first fan letter to her before she died. Every writer should read A.L. Kennedy’s EVERYTHING YOU NEED. I adore Scandinavian noir, especially the Stieg Larsson books (I often ask myself, “What would Lisbeth Salander do?” Seriously!), and I can read a cookbook as if it were a novel. For pure pleasure? Poetry. I find it’s best read aloud, and I am grateful my dogs are such an attentive audience.
How has the literature of New Orleans changed post-Katrina?
It has been fascinating to watch the post-Katrina arc of books—from early news accounts and benefit anthologies to photography books and poetry and, now, novels. I’m not sure we have our great Katrina novel yet—fiction takes so much time—just as I often think we don’t have a great Mardi Gras novel yet.
I’ve been delighted and impressed with the cooperative, collaborative endeavors that have come along—NOLAFugees, whom I love, Press Street, Antenna Gallery, Room 220, the Melanated Writers Collective, the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance, all these new reading series.
It’s terrific that so many writers have moved here—and not necessarily to write about the city. The literature that comes out of here is so diverse—look at the brilliant work of Katy Simpson Smith, for example, Jami Attenberg, Nathaniel Rich. And then think of former New Orleanians like Jericho Brown and T. Geronimo Johnson who are having such marvelous careers, and not necessarily with books about New Orleans. And to have the great Jesmyn Ward at Tulane! And the great nonfiction writers (thank you, Richard Campanella, for every word) and historians (and you, Larry Powell)!
Are there any titles coming out soon that you are particularly looking forward to?
What I look forward to most is the first novel or memoir that comes out of nowhere and surprises me—I love that serendipitous moment of opening a book and finding it is just what you want to read. That said, I am particularly looking forward to Colson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, Ann Patchett’s COMMONWEALTH, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, Nicholson Baker’s SUBSTITUTE, and Affinity Konar’s MISCHLING.