Winner of The Writers' Union of Canada's 2016 short prose contest for developing writers, Susan Wadds' award-winning short fiction and poetry have been featured in several literary journals and anthologies, including Room and carte blanchemagazines. The first two chapters of her novel, What the Living Do, won Lazuli Literary Group's writing contest, and was published in Azure’s winter 2017 issue. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers, Susan is certified in the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) method of writing workshop facilitation. She is past president of the Writers' Community of Simcoe County (WCSC).
First, congratulations on winning our September contest with "Misconception"! What are you working on at the moment?
Thank you. I love that story, possibly because it was written in Italy which is where a big part of my heart lives.
Currently, I’m reworking my first novel, having realized for many years that it was written from the wrong point of view, and that the meat of the story had, in its first 6 iterations, been relegated to the background. It’s a story about a man who has been denied access to his child because of a bitter ex-wife. He meets a woman whose husband has just gotten out of jail for molesting a 12-year-old, and who is raising a son of the same age. So now I’m bringing the woman’s story to the forefront.
You've also written a memoir about your time in India. Can you tell us a bit more about it and your experiences there?
I went to India to learn the art of Rebalancing, a form of bodywork that had opened me up to many memories and emotions that lay under the skin. Practitioners and therapists from Germany, Japan, France, Italy, the US and Canada taught the course. At the time, the ashram in India was the only place in the world where this particular approach was being offered, so even though the idea of India terrified me—the poverty and overpopulation—I knew I needed to leave the safety and comfort of my position of maître d’ in a French restaurant to learn a trade that was in harmony with who I was.
What I experienced of India itself in that first year was minimal. I spent most of my time within the ashram where the bamboo groves provided shade along the winding white marble paths that bordered a serene stream. Those six months changed my life, but not for the reasons people might expect from someone living in India. The training was transformative—including as it did daily meditations, both active and still, group therapy, emotional release work through various methods, as well as the profound experiences of the body through the many approaches to which we were introduced.
There were beggars outside the gates, but I was able to block them out for the most part. There were two instances where I was shocked into reality of my environment. Once, when I was riding my bike to the ashram from my apartment, I rode around a man lying on the street. He wore a pristine white Kurta and cap. It was only after I passed that I realized the man was dead.
On the street outside the ashram, a woman in a faded cotton print sari cradled a bundle wrapped in the chador. She was murmuring, “Hospital, hospital…” As she approached, she lifted the edge of the chador. Inside was a small boy of about two with an oozing gash on his thigh.
India got to me through incidents such as these. But inside the ashram gates it was heaven.
I returned three more times to deepen my training in various therapeutic techniques and approaches. In those years I came to know and understand both India and myself with more compassion.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to see where an idea takes you? Where do your ideas come from?
I generally work from an idea or an image. Sometimes it will literally take decades for something that’s touched me to emerge in story or poem. For instance, my short story, What’s Left, about a friend’s wife who suffered a brain aneurysm and lost her memory and sense of humour but retained her mathematical skill, took forty years to arrive as a thousand-word story. Over the years, I’d tried to write it as a play, a screenplay, and a novel. So in its final form it just landed intact on the page.
Which is somewhat like the poem, Berlin, 1976, partly about meeting Leonard Cohen, whose genesis obviously occurred some time ago.
My novel, What the Living Do, began with an image of a woman roads’ worker. I wondered what kind of woman she would be and I wanted to give her a dilemma that I had personally faced—of having cervical cancer and finding out that she was pregnant.
My second novel, What Love Cannot Do, was me trying to imagine the life of a young teenager whose parent commits suicide. Suicides such as that have affected four people I know. During the time when I was writing this story I encountered a First Nations girl on the street. My protagonist meets such a girl who has been affected by suicide of a different nature than mental illness. I had to write about that to find out what happened.
In fact, First Nations issues have shown up in my work a lot, as I was married for 10 years to an Ojibway man and we have a son. I’ve been able to use much actual dialogue and many of the experiences of that world in my work.
But then there’s this story, Misconception, that was practically given to me by our taxi driver from Assisi. I just had to write it down and ask, “What if his wife…?”
If you could tell your younger writing self something, what would it be?
Don’t stop. I was a rabid poetry and short fiction submitter for years, with a modicum of publishing success, but I stopped writing “seriously” during the years I was in India and then raising a family, so when I picked up my pen again ten years ago I was so shaky. The literary landscape had shifted and morphed dramatically. I had to start from scratch.
I would tell myself to keep writing, even if it’s only a few pages a week. Stopping creates rust in the writing joints.
I didn’t have a writing mentor until I met Sue Reynolds in 2009. So I would advise my younger self to find a mentor she respected and trusted. It could save a lot of time and ink!
People close to you in life - family or friends - will always tell you that they will be there if they need help, but when the time comes, they’re not around, or they’re too wrapped up in themselves and their own grief to be of any help to you at all. Sometimes you have to heal alone, sometimes you heal together. Sometimes all you need is a bit of catharsis. I suppose that’s what Whittling, Man was about, and that’s what it was for me as well.
Growing up without roots, you never fully bloom. You may find the sun, rain, or wind on your face, but it only burns, wets, and batters. Nothing takes hold, burrows into a community, blossoms out of purpose. That's how I came to be here. I'm no more than a dandelion seed, standing in the middle of the road in a small town in South Dakota, ready to blow away on the next breeze. It doesn't matter. Not a bit. One town looks the same as another after a while.