The Southern Lit Alliance will welcome author Susan Beckham Zurenda on Monday for a writing workshop and discussion of her award-winning debut novel, "Bells for Eli," as part of the SouthBound Lecture Series.
The event marks the official launch of the book, a coming-of-age story about two cousins drawn together through tragedy. It is set in the 1960s and '70s in a small town in South Carolina, Zurenda's home state.
In advance of her visit, the author spoke by email with the Times Free Press about the true events that spawned the novel, her former life as an English teacher and the "metropolis" it takes to bring a book into the world.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: How long has this novel been percolating?
A: The genesis for "Bells for Eli" was a short story that won the South Carolina Fiction Prize many years ago. The novel is inspired by my real-life first cousin's tragic childhood accident in the late 1950s. It explores how one misstep changes the trajectory of a young boy's life and creates immense conflict in the lives of those around him in a time and place of supposed innocence, the small-town South of the 1960s and '70s.
Q: How did it come together?
A: I am, by nature, a planner, so I thought I should have an extensive outline, and I spent a lot of time in this initial stage. But my book had its own plan for me. From the beginning, I knew what the content of the opening chapter and the penultimate chapter would be. I intended to use my outline to flesh out the intervening chapters, believing I'd figure out how to write the final chapter when I got there. But that's not what happened. After about the third chapter, I abandoned the outline. I did know a few particular scenes I wanted, but mostly I let the characters lead me into their lives.
Q: You're a former English teacher and now a book publicist. Have your dual careers given you better insight into the business?
A: Both careers have benefited me greatly.
Helping students engage in literature for 33 years convinced me that there is no field of study any more important. It brings knowledge, satisfaction and wisdom. Literature reveals truths about what it means to be human more than any other discipline. It forces us to see as others see, to feel as others feel, to connect others' experience to ourselves and thereby achieve greater understanding (the good, the bad and the ugly) of our own human nature.
Teaching literature has encouraged my own writing on many levels. I'll mention a couple. First, is the inspiration. The fulfillment that reading great literature brings to me made me want to also write about the human experience. Also analyzing literature with students for so many years continually exposed me to the how and why of characters' lives and conditions. There is no greater teacher for writing fiction than teaching fiction.
For someone who has spent a lifetime reading, and who had a long career appreciating (often with awe, I might add) and teaching literature, I was completely naïve about the "business" of literature. I had little notion of the complex process of publishing and promotion until I became media relations manager at Magic Time Literary Publicity. I have learned it doesn't just take a village; it takes a metropolis, and a lot of determination to bring a book into the world. In my role as a book publicist, I have worked with wonderful people (including a fine publisher, a spectacular agent and the president at Magic Time Literary Publicity) who have helped me along my path to publishing "Bells for Eli."
Q: You've previously written fiction and nonfiction. Do you prefer one style over the other?
A: I enjoy writing nonfiction, but fiction is what I feel compelled to write. Fiction opens us to the truths of humanity in ways that other writing cannot do. On the surface it sounds absurd to say invented characters and circumstances reveal truth more deeply than real people and situations. But real people, even if we could fully understand our motives, thoughts and actions, would not likely fully reveal ourselves because to do so would make us vulnerable. In fiction, the writer is God and can look into the heart and soul of a character to reveal the depth and breadth of human experience.
Q: What's your writing process like?
A: What I like best about the writing process is having written. While I was writing "Bells for Eli," each chapter was a milestone, and I enjoyed the gratification of finishing each one.
When it comes to creating fiction (as opposed to essays and articles), I'm more of a night writer than a day writer. It took me about a year to compose the early manuscript of "Bells for Eli." I'd start writing after dinner and continue until I was too fatigued to write more. Often, I stopped at midnight. Sometimes, later. My schedule is probably not the best model, but I like to write when it's quiet, dark and there are few distractions. At night, my inner critic tends to go to bed and stay out of my way.
I wrote the manuscript for "Bells for Eli" on a desktop computer in the office I share with my husband. When I was in the "zone," I found I didn't pay attention to my crowded surroundings and my not terribly comfortable chair. After working at the computer in the evenings, I often printed chapters the next day and marked them up, then returned to the computer for revision.
Q: Is there a next novel in the works?
A: Yes, there is. At present, I have some rudimentary notes and direction. Still located in the South, the novel will be modern day rather than set during a previous era as is "Bells for Eli." The story will involve a teacher and two students, one from a privileged background and one from deprived circumstances. I've not written a work from varying viewpoints and intend to challenge myself to write from the viewpoint of each of these characters surrounding a central conflict between opportunity and hardship.
Q: What are some of the points you'll bring up at the workshop you're leading?
A: The writing workshop, "Family Stories: Evoking Emotion in Your Characters," will cover both the basics of story and the importance of genuine emotion in stories. It will also examine how writers achieve success in creating human emotion in contrast to why writers sometimes fail in this essential endeavor. Ample illustrations will be provided, most from "Bells for Eli," and participants will be given writing prompts with feedback.
Q: Final thoughts?
A: I hope Bells for Eli will touch readers' hearts. In a letter to his friend Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "The purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader's mind." This is my purpose in "Bells for Eli": for my characters' lives to resonate with readers after the novel ends. To consider the irony of fate the novel presents: how it can take with one hand and give with the other. How wounds of the heart from childhood might never leave and become the catalyst for decisions that bring this novel to a staggering conclusion, yet simultaneously, how boundless love can ultimately triumph in a world where cruelty and pain threaten to dominate.
Contact Lisa Denton at email@example.com or 423-757-6281.
If you go
Susan Beckham Zurenda will lead a writing workshop and discussion about her award-winning debut novel, “Bells for Eli,” as part of the Southern Lit Alliance’s SouthBound Lecture Series on Monday, March 2, at the Arts Building, 301 E. 11th St., Suite 301.
› Writing workshop: 5-6:30 p.m., limited to 16 people, $15 admission. Purchase tickets at https://www.southern litalliance.org/copy-of-writing-workshop-susan-beck.
› Book discussion: 7 p.m., $10 admission. Purchase tickets at https://www.southernlitalliance.org/writing-workshop-with-susan.