An Interview with Susan Power [Interview]

by Kevin Norris

Norris:

“I see that most of your novels involve the Sioux tribe. Have you ever lived on a reservation? If so, what was it like to grow up there? How did you like Chicago? What was it like living in Chicago?

This question sort of connects to the last question but how has being a member of the Sioux tribe and being a native Chicagoan influenced your writing? And, if possible, talk about the people that have influenced you.”

 

Power:

My mother was born and raised in Fort Yates, ND on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation where her mother was tribal chair in the 1940′s and 1950′s. Both of them were major activists, working to help our people. (My mother is still alive, almost 91 years old, but she’s retired from her political work.) As soon as I was born I was enrolled as a member of the Standing Rock Sioux nation (there’s a blood quantum requirement which I met). I’ve visited relatives there throughout my life but I was born and raised in Chicago. My childhood was unusual for someone born in 1961 in that I grew up in a segregated city, yet was surrounded by people of many different backgrounds. My mother is one of a group of people who founded the American Indian Center of Chicago, so I knew Natives of several tribes, not only Dakota. My older sister married a Tanzanian man and raised her children to speak Swahili as their first language. We were involved in the Civil Rights movement, so we had extensive connections within the African-American community (and I was able to meet Dr. Martin Luther King when I was very young). I think this exposure to so many diverse voices and experiences informs my work. I have characters show up who are Native, yes, from different tribal nations, but also characters who are black, white, Asian-American, and on and on.

As for what it was like living in Chicago, well, there was much that was good and much that was difficult. I saw firsthand the racism that permeated the city and kept it rigidly segregated. On the other hand, my mother made sure to introduce me to the cultural treasures the city offered. We were constantly going to libraries, museums – riding buses all over the city to explore its history. I saw several Chicagos, not just my own neighborhood, which necessarily expanded my frame of reference.

 

Norris:

“Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured?

Have any other writers influenced you? If so, how?

What do you do when you are not writing?

What advice would you give an inspiring author? Please tell me about your unique craft of writing.”

 

Power:

I’ve loved books and reading since my earliest memory. My father had a wonderfully dramatic voice, and he read to me each night at bedtime until I was old enough to read for myself. I wanted to fill pages and write even before I started school, so I’ve been writing my entire life. I couldn’t always express myself when I was speaking but with a pen in my hand I could make my points, so I was always reaching for that pen. Teachers noted that I had talent when I was in elementary school, but few of them approved of my subject matter in those early years. I wrote about the political themes of my life – racism, poverty, injustice, the war of values between my people and the dominant society. Most teachers wanted me to write about “fluffier” things, and my political stance was deemed radical. I learned to keep my creative work from the eyes of teachers until I was about to graduate from high school and trusted one terrific English teacher and my amazing Acting teacher. I protected my voice and vision from the influence of those I felt would edit me culturally and politically. Even in college I didn’t take a single Creative Writing course. Everything I knew about writing I absorbed from being a voracious reader. I didn’t study writing until I attended the Univ. of Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I was nearing thirty years old. By then I had a strong filter in place – I could take in criticism and appreciate what would strengthen my technique while ignoring what I felt were unhelpful reactions to my different cultural worldview.

When I’m in major writing mode, that wonderful white-hot boil where a piece is surging to be born, I can write all day and night. I don’t have a set schedule. Each story, essay, and book is birthed using a different process. Because I’m never interested in a single character, rather an entire multi-generational cast, I usually have to do quite a bit of research in order to bring the cast fully to life. The new novel I’m working on, Harvard Indian Séance, has a cast of five major characters. All of them are Native students at Harvard, class of 2013, and each one is from a different tribal nation, a different region of the country, and each is pursuing a different field of study. I’ve had to do a lot of preparatory reading before I could even begin to write. It’s a ghost story on several levels. There are actual hauntings, but there are also the ghosts of our country’s dark history which so many want to sweep under the carpet. It’s my belief that when we avoid an honest accounting of our personal and national histories, old wounds fester and never heal, we make the same mistakes over and over again. So my students in this novel are bringing forward their stories to shed light on what has been ignored. They’re raising the dead who lie uncomfortably in their graves.

A really important part of my writing process is thinking. I allow myself all the musing time I need to think about my characters, really get to know them, to think through plot challenges and try different options in order to find the “truth” of my fiction. I’m not the puppet master who brings imagined characters to life so much as an artist in service to beings who have stories they want told. I have to work with them until they trust me. When I finally stumble upon the truth of what happened to them, the truth regarding their motivation, I can always feel it – something slides into the pocket and I breathe: yes. I like to go for walks to help stimulate my imagination – lift the top off my head is how I think of it. With the sky as my roof, anything is possible!

I find it really helpful to read my work aloud so I can hear what I’m saying, what my characters are saying. I like to tape record sections and listen with my full attention. This helps me edit the work. The rhythm of voices and sentences are very important to me. Perhaps because I so loved poetry as a little girl. I would memorize long dramatic pieces, including major sections of Shakespeare’s tragedies (“I always liked the sad songs best” as the character Barbara Allen says in the play, Dark of the Moon). As a matter of fact, I wrote more poetry than fiction throughout my childhood. I didn’t get serious about writing prose until my mother began writing short stories when I was in Law School. I saw how much she was growing, developing, and it inspired me. Then Mom introduced me to the writings of Louise Erdrich who has become one of my favorite writers. Louise writes from her Ojibwe heritage, though she has also walked in other worlds as I have. I began reading more like a writer from that point on, not just for enjoyment, but paying attention to how pieces were constructed. When I’m wrestling with problems in my writing I always go back to these sources, consult favorite stories or novels to see how masters did what I’m attempting to do.

I’m often asked how I made the leap from Law School to writing fiction, and it’s really just another example of how I allow myself to try different options, to experiment with life. I was probably trying to live my mother’s dream to a certain extent by going into Law – she would have made an excellent attorney but she didn’t have the opportunities I did. Eventually I realized that I’m an Arts person and the work of lawyering would never be a good fit, so I graduated from Law School but never even took the bar exam. Instead I got a job working for a non-profit organization that didn’t require more of me than doing paperwork from 9-5. My imagination was all my own – it had room to breathe. That’s when I got serious about writing.

Perhaps the primary lesson of my life has been learning to claim space and breath. Society, loved ones, our own fears, can often make us feel we have limited choices, our voice is of limited value. We need to walk under the roof of the sky and allow our remarkable minds to open. The traps are imaginary. Our stories matter. Our choices are limitless.

 

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Susan Power is the author of Grass Dancer, Strong Heart Society,Roofwalker, and Sacred Wilderness. Her debut novel, Grass Dancer(1994), received the 1995 P. Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Best First Fiction.

Kevin Norris is a second year MFA in Creative Nonfiction candidate at Old Dominion University. He also teaches High School English; therefore, he has a strong interest in the current trends of public education.  He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife of 22 years and three children.