Susan Strecker graduated from The Hammonasset School in Madison, CT in 1989 and went on to earn a B.A. in Psychology with a double minor in fiction and non-fiction writing from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey in 1993. From there, she earned a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy from Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut in 1997.
Her second novel, NOWHERE GIRL, launched on March 1, 2016 with Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press and an imprint of Macmillan Books. Her first novel with them, NIGHT BLINDNESS, was released on October 7, 2014. She is currently nearing completion on her fourth novel and have begun the fifth.
Her first novel, NIGHT BLINDNESS, was an IndieNext Pick in October, 2014. NOWHERE GIRL was called “Compulsively readable” by Kirkus Reviews. It was number four on Pop Sugar’s list of 26 books everyone should read this spring. Herosandheartbreakers.com named NOWHERE GIRL as one of March, 2016’s best bets in fiction.
What inspired you to start writing?
When I was very young, my family spent many vacations fishing. While my parents and two brothers enjoyed it, I did not. I felt bad for the fish that had to sacrifice their lives to be bait, I got seasick and I have never enjoyed eating fish. My mother knew that this was not my favorite way to spend time and she started bringing a notebook and a pencil for me. She’d tell me to write about our adventures, then she’d gather the rest of our family and they’d listen intently as I read my short stories. The experience of turning what could have been an unenjoyable week into something I looked forward to, is my first memory of thinking that I loved to write.
I took as many creative writing courses in high school as I could, and even did an independent study in writing, so I could continue to practice the craft after I’d taken all the courses the school had to offer. Without the support and encouragement of my mom and a few teachers in high school, I’m not sure I would have stuck with writing.
What did you like to read when you were a girl?
Like many little girls, I loved horses. One of my friends introduced me to the book, The Black Stallion. I read it in just a few days and was delighted to learn that there was a whole series of books about Alec and The Black. The stories those books told were entertaining and fun to read. But, it was really the connection between a shipwrecked child and a wild animal that drew me in. They slowly learned to trust each other and that grew into a mutual respect and love for one another. I clearly remember thinking that the author, Walter Farley, did a fantastic job of showing the reader how much this lost little boy and a supposedly “untamable” stallion relied on and encouraged each other. Without one another, I don’t think they would have survived living on that deserted island.
What is the greatest challenge in writing a book?
Perseverance. It’s been my experience that the first draft is always the easiest. My son, Cooper, had a teacher who encouraged her students to write and write and write, and include every detail and story line they could think of. She called it “the sloppy copy.” From there, the class would work on editing their work and deciding which elements of the story should remain in the final draft and which ones should be cut. Since Cooper was in Miss Ricci’s class, I’ve begun to think of my first drafts as sloppy copies. I include every detail about all my characters that I can think of. I create a main plot, but also give supporting and minor characters their own storylines. I cram all kinds of information into my first drafts, knowing much of it won’t survive the editing process. But, it helps me get a feel for each character and the story itself. It’s important in my writing to know everything about the people in my books so that they are “real” and believable to my readers.
However, knowing what to cut and how to do it is troublesome. For everything three-hundred-page book that I write, I end up with about one-hundred-and-fifty additional pages that I cut. I often cut entire characters or plots that I love, but don’t feel do enough to benefit the book. My rule of thumb is that every character, scene, chapter and plot has to move the story forward. Anything that doesn’t accomplish that ends up in the cut file.
Editing gets tricky when I feel a specific aspect of the book isn’t working so I cut it. But, because everything in writing is related, anything that gets cut, affects the rest of the book. That is to say, if I remove a character, I then must alter everyone who was related to him or her. If he was so and so’s best friend, that person now needs a new friend. Or if I change a characters’ job, I will often have to alter what they wear, what days of the week they don’t work, how they speak, etc.
Sometimes it feels very overwhelming to pare down the story until it’s as tight and polished as it can be. It’s easy to become frustrated, but editing is perhaps the most important aspect of writing. So I do as much as I can in a sitting, then I’ll take a break and do something else. I’ll come back to it when I feel more settled. I repeat that process until several rounds of editing, rewriting and revising have produced the best finished manuscript that I can write.
How much research do you do before writing the book?
How much research I do really depends upon the book. Mark Twain said “We write about what we know.” I abide by that saying and therefore haven’t had to do that much research in the first four books I’ve written. In terms of researching topics before I begin writing- thus far, I haven’t. There are two reasons for that: I’ve written four books about subjects with which I am familiar. Second- I never write an outline or even jot down plot points before I begin writing. I prefer to let the story tell itself. It’s my characters’ story to tell- I am just the vessel they use to get it out there. I never know where a scene will take me from one moment to the next. Every time I open my computer, it’s a new adventure. Because I don’t have any set idea for how a book will end or what avenues it’ll take to get to the conclusion, it’s impossible for me to research before I begin writing.
However, my sixth book will tackle a subject about which I know very little. Therefore, I will have to do extensive research before I begin writing. Although it’s often said writers have “creative license” to change facts, it’s important to me that my books are as accurate and correct as possible. My sixth book takes on a complex and disturbing topic, so I anticipate having to spend a few months researching. I hope to find an expert in the field and shadow him or her as much as possible.
What motivated you to write “Nowhere Girl?”
The short answer is a song on the radio motivated me to write NOWHERE GIRL. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have a song called “Scar Tissue.” The first time I heard it, I immediately thought that it’d be a great title for a book. The phrase “scar tissue” evokes so many different images for me. There’s the physical scar tissue created by an injury and the emotional damage resulting from bad relationships. The song stuck with me and made me think about a story that would go along with that title. It was a pretty backward way to go about writing a book, but it worked for me.
Once I had the title for the book, images kept popping into my head- I saw them as clues. I wanted to focus on loss- specifically what one loss can mean to different members of the same family, so I came up with the idea of identical twin girls and an older brother. Once I had that familial dynamic, I knew that one of the twins would have to die a grizzly death. I imagine losing someone who literally began as the same person as you would be devastating. But, being a young man and experiencing the death of your little sister would be just as awful, but in an entirely different way. It’s often said that parents should never have to outlive their children. So, the parents of that lost twin would experience her loss in a dissimilar way than the siblings.
I know what you’re thinking- the book is not called SCAR TISSUE. How right you are! I called it SCAR TISSUE the entire time I was writing it and when I submitted it to my publisher. As much as they loved the book, they felt it deserved a stronger title. After a week or two of brainstorming, I came up with NOWHERE GIRL– an equally lovely title.
Can you tell us more about your latest novel, NOWHERE GIRL?
As I mentioned above, NOWHERE GIRL takes an in-depth look at one family’s experience with a great loss. When the book opens, thirty-two year old Cady Bernard is a bestselling mystery writer. She’s spent the last sixteen years feeling untethered, lost without her twin sister, Savannah, who was murdered when they were teenagers. Her death went unsolved and the police deemed it as a crime of opportunity, most likely committed by an unstable transient. Because they were identical twins, the sisters looked very much alike with one obvious exception- Savannah was much thinner than Cady. When the police told Cady’s family that they believed Savannah was grabbed because she was a pretty girl who was walking alone, Cady internalized that to mean that she never would have been taken because she didn’t view herself as pretty. There began the story of Cady’s scar tissue. She wrapped herself in a layer of extra weight that she felt served as protection. She began to almost believe that it was her fault that Savannah was murdered because perhaps if she had been thin (and therefore pretty) like Savannah, then the killer would have snatched Cady instead of her twin.
Cady writes a book about Savannah’s death, but she never intended to publish it. After working freelance for several popular magazines, an agent contacts her and asks her if she’d be interested in writing a book. It’s then that Cady shares her manuscript. It quickly gets sold and she gets a contract for another book, and another and another. Before she knows it, she’s become a bestselling author. But what no one knows is that she doesn’t love writing. She shies away from the fame and recognition. She keeps writing for two reasons. First- it’s all she knows how to do. Second- she believes that if she interviews enough victims and offenders and prison employees and psychologists under the guise of research for her books, that she will be able to piece together what happened to Savannah.
Unfortunately, Cady has been so focused on getting justice for Savannah, that she never stops to ask herself if she’s prepared to know the truth of what really happened on that cold, November day so many years before.
How did you come up with the idea of writing a crime-genre novel?
I call NOWHERE GIRL my accidental crime mystery. As I mentioned in one of my earlier answers, my books experience major and extensive changes from the first draft to the finished manuscript. When I began writing NOWHERE GIRL I envisioned that it was going to focus on the aftermath of Savannah’s death- what life was like for Cady a decade and a half after the death of her sister. Losing a sibling changes a person. Losing a loved one to a horrific crime has the potential to damage a person beyond repair. I wanted NOWHERE GIRL to be an intensive look at the slow unraveling of a young woman who was drifting through life unhelmed. Because of that desire, Savannah’s murder and her murderer was secondary to the story, almost incidental.
In the first draft, Savannah’s murderer was caught shortly after her death and was found not guilty by reason of mental defect. Although it was never specifically stated, in my mind he was schizophrenic. That leads back to what I was saying earlier about having to know everything I can about each character.
Unfortunately, with Savannah’s death being almost incidental, I realized I had a twenty-page novel. Knowing that would never sell, I began reconstructing the story to make the plot both more interesting and involved and thus longer. Because I let the stories tell themselves, NOWHERE GIRL took a natural progression of Cady’s need to know who took her sister from her. In order for her to want to obtain that information, she obviously couldn’t know it already. So, I had to change the entire trajectory of the novel to include the murder being unsolved.
I don’t think of myself as a mystery or crime writer. But, I am thrilled with the end result of NOWHERE GIRL and its mystery elements. I still consider the book to be more about a family and how great loss affects each member, than about the mystery of what happened to that lost girl. The mixture of the two components, I think, is what made NOWHERE GIRL so much fun to write.
Who are your favorite authors?
My favorite author is Pat Conroy. A close second is Jodi Picoult. I also love Nelson DeMille, Jennifer Weiner, Wally Lamb, Patricia Cornwell and Joshilyn Jackson.
How much time do you dedicate for writing on a daily basis?
My writing schedule depends wholly on my children. I try to write from when they go to school in the morning until three o’clock when they get home. They have always been my first priority and it’s important to me that I am available to volunteer in their classrooms, go on field trips, attend their sporting events and practices and in general be there for them. Therefore, I mostly dedicate all the time that they are in school or otherwise occupied to writing. That way, after school and in the summer when they’re home all the time, I can be with them. My publisher is lovely and doesn’t care when I write as long as I deliver my manuscripts on time. So far I’ve accomplished that, so we have a good thing going.
I’m not much of a nighttime writer, so in the summertime, I will get up at five a.m. and write until my kids get up.
What words of wisdom would you like to give to aspiring writers?
Don’t give up. Publishing is an extremely fickle and difficult industry. They say about one in a hundred thousand manuscripts will get published. However, I believe that heart is as important as talent. In many ways, I feel that I’m the least important part of my team. Sure, I produce the manuscript, but I have an agent, editor, copy editor, cover designer, proofreader, fact checker, digital marketing team, print and media marketing, publicist and many other integral team members.
I got sixty-three rejection letters from agents before the amazing and talented Lisa Gallagher signed me. Although it took me almost as long to get an agent as it did to write my first book, Lisa sold NIGHT BLINDNESS and NOWHERE GIRL in eleven days. I’ve been told it’s almost unheard of for an unknown debut novelist to get a two-book deal from a major publishing house. That just proves to me how very valuable Lisa is. I’d be working at Ann Taylor for the discount if it weren’t for her.
People ask me all the time why I didn’t give up in the midst of all those rejections. As much as I love writing, I never thought it’d become my career. I have a masters in marriage and family therapy and I honestly believed I’d go back to work as a therapist (after taking time off to be home with my young children). I took a relaxed approach that if I got signed, I got signed. If not, I’d go back to a career that I had loved, but left for my family.
I am not a person who believes in fate or that everything happens for a reason. However, if I hadn’t gotten those sixty-three rejection letters, I might not have ended up with Lisa and I do believe she and I were meant to work together. I hope to stay with her throughout my entire writing career.
You can buy her book now: