We recently spoke with author Susan Straight, who joined us from her home in Riverside, California, to learn more about how she has spent the past pandemic year, what started her on her path as a writer, and the intrinsic importance of books. She also gave us a sneak peek into her new novel, Mecca, to be released in March 2022. The following is what Susan had to say:
The first few weeks of March, I was in San Francisco and Oakland, speaking about my memoir, “In the Country of Women,” to readers at events and going to museums with my daughter Delphine, who’s an art historian in Berkeley. Because her childhood was filled with California history, my obsession, she now delights in taking me to places I’ve never seen, like Dorothea Lange’s house in the Berkeley Hills. We went to Hunter’s Point that day to see the amazing art installation of California native Mildred Howard, seeing the old shipyards, the historic neighborhood where African American and Irish American families lived. Then suddenly, the world changed.
I was home in Riverside. Mario Soria, 42, my next-door neighbor, was among the first hundred people in this county of nearly 2 million people to be hospitalized with severe COVID. I stood on my porch, and his wife Nancy stood on her porch, and we could not go with him to the ambulance. He spent ten days in the ICU and nearly died. During that time, I cooked for Nancy and their four children, who were suddenly isolated in their house with no school. Leaving food on the porch was so strange, but other neighbors who worked in warehouses shared food and supplies, and I took it to whoever needed it. Then I realized how the hundreds of children in my neighborhood had no school, no library, and no books, so I began The Fence Library.
The Fence Library was featured in O Magazine, on the Los Angeles news, and in various media outlets. Now, more than a year later, it has never been empty. Thousands of books have been given away, and more books arrive from lovely readers all over Southern California, from Irvine to Redlands to Pomona. People drive to The Fence Library from Colton and San Bernardino and Corona, choosing titles for their children, grandchildren, and themselves; for the autistic teens in their care at group homes; for their elderly parents who are homebound. The fence has been draped with roses and poppies, then lavender and sunflowers, and now, fourteen months later, the roses are back.
The way my community has taken care of its people isn’t new at all – it’s the heart of my memoir. I had spent five years writing about six generations of women who migrated to southern California – one grandmother from Europe, one fleeing violence in the Colorado Rockies, another grandmother fleeing racial violence and murder in Sunflower County, Mississippi, another ancestor leaving behind a former plantation in Tennessee. I met my future husband at fourteen, and at the heart of the book is the driveway of his parent’s house, where all those ancestries meet. My mother-in-law, Alberta Sims, fed every single person who ever showed up to her house and taught me to “always cook for the stranger.” I feel as if this year of pandemic showed the world very clearly how vital it is to care for everyone around us, in our neighborhoods. That’s something many people don’t understand about California – we are large enough to be a nation, but we are an endless collection of villages in which people might have known each other for six generations or one year. Places like mine are all heart.
I first found my words when my mother, who had immigrated here from the mountains of Switzerland, the land of “Heidi,” bought me a Little Golden Book from the Stater Bros market on Mission Boulevard in Rubidoux, California then a poor, rural community. She was not yet a citizen, and she had only one quarter left, and she wanted me to have an education. That book was the spark of the rest of my life. I was three years old and learned to read that weekend. Books saved my life when many around me fell into violence, and books have saved my life as I raised three daughters, taught future generations of writers, and published ten books.
I finished my new novel, Mecca, just a month after the pandemic began but had to revise many of the lives to reflect the coronavirus and the devastation. The novel features characters in Santa Ana, San Bernardino, Los Feliz, and Hollywood, and places in Coachella like Mecca, California, where residents work in vineyards and hotels and date gardens. I just got the cover, which I will share here, designed by Rodrigo Corral, an amazing artist. My editor is third-generation California native Jackson Howard, which makes me so happy. The novel will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in March 2022. The stories are of ICU nurses, California Highway Patrol officers, junior high students, animal control workers, house cleaners and gardeners. I can’t wait for California to see it.