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In Conversation With Playwright & Novelist Susan Rubin
From:
Norm Goldman --  bookpleasures.com Norm Goldman -- bookpleasures.com
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Montreal , QC
Tuesday, September 01, 2020

 

Bookpleasures.comwelcomes as our guest playwright and novelist, Susan Rubin. Susan has been writing plays for over twenty years and her work has been performed in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Cuba. Her works have been produced at the New York Theater Workshop, Baltimore Center Stage, the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where she was in residence for 6 years, and LA’s Bootleg and Circle X theaters.

Susan has written nine fully produced plays winning recognition from the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly and prestigious Garland and Ovation awards, and she received 20 years of support and commissions from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the Cultural Affairs Department of Los Angeles.

She has also written twenty-five documentaries, seen by thousands on college campuses and through screenings by organizations (and at the White House Commission on the Status of Women), on topics like domestic violence, early and forced marriage, untested rape kits and women’s reproductive rights and other feminist subjects. Susan has also written for Funny or Die.

Her debut novel, The Road Not Taken has recently been published.

Good day Susan and thanks for participating in our interview.

Susan: Hello, thanks for inviting me!

What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your career?


Susan: Tenacity. I have had to push very hard to write the kinds of plays I wanted to write. I used to be so sensitive that hearing a remark about something in the play that was derogatory, would cause me to want to go sit in the car with the windows up and the engine on. I have learned over many years that all art is subjective: what is fascinating to one audience member may bore the hell out of the person they are with. It is a success for me personally that I can go on and do my work knowing this. 

The plays I wrote that mean the most to me or are the most successful to me are my first play, club termina, which took place in a cloud and was inhabited by women who had died of breast cancer.

The club was a stepping-stone to their next existence and to get there, they had to perform a song, a monologue, a dance solo that showed what they had learned from their previous existence. I lost several very young friends to the disease and I knew that to dramatize it would take music and humor. I found the music and I wrote the humor. The success to me was that I had honored my friends who had died. I had told their stories because they no longer could. And audiences were moved by it. 

My play Immortality was a riff on the Simone de Beauvoir novel, All Men are Mortal. In her book she uses an immortal count, Fosca, who falls in love with an avaricious actress who believes that since he is immortal, if he loves her, she will be remembered through all time. I took the book and made it into a Broadway play starring an ambitious actress, and a mysterious man who early on showed her that he was immortal.

I could write funny scenes, and also tell a love story. I captured the sense of the novel, certainly not at her depth, but at a level that was entertaining and popular.

My last play, Liana and Ben was about a woman who made a deal with the devil and her time was up. She had not fulfilled her part of the bargain, and her life was in danger. It was a success in my mind because I dealt with a lot of issues about what the meaning of life is, while the clock ticked the whole time on this woman’s existence.

Those were my favorite plays. And you will notice that Death is strung through all of them. I am not a dreary person, but I know that death is a problem we all face. It makes for high drama, and lots of humor. In my first book, The Road Not Taken, there is no death, everything still exists if it ever existed. Much easier, thanks to the Space/Time continuum!!

Norm: How many times in your career have you experienced rejection? How did they shape you?  

Susan: My first piece ever produced was a one woman show starring me. It was nicely written, strange, but interesting.

I performed it at the Los Angeles Theater Center (LATC) as it was being closed down in a contentious fight with the city. LA Times Theatre Critic, Ms Sylvie Drake, mistook me for somebody on the side that was against the theatre.

She took an entire page in the LA Times to lambast everything from my French accent to the obvious emptiness of my soul, my total lack of talent as an actress and a writer.

When she was told that I had actually been chosen by the LATC artistic staff because they considered me one of them, she was very chagrined. I was suicidal. Every night I had to go on stage alone, with a tiny audience, and bare my soul. But ultimately, I thank Ms Drake because it gave me an iron will. And because (to be a bitch) every play she really liked, died on the vine, and the writers with them.

I am still here, still writing. Still enjoying being an artist. Nobody could ever be as cruel as she had been. I might have been singed in the flames of her vitriol, but I came out very strong.

Norm: How do you deal with criticism concerning your plays, documentaries and now your debut novel, The Road Not Taken?

Susan: I was hired to write the 25 documentaries, and if they had not been done well, they would never have been shown. I was given critique throughout the writing process, and I liked it. I was writing about very ugly things going on in the world, when somebody helped me to say it better, make it clearer, I was glad.

Public critique for the book has so far been mostly extremely positive. The one or two not so great remarks are hard to hear. It takes me some peanut butter and jelly and a couple of hours of the original Law and Order with Michael Moriarty, and then I feel justice has been restored and I am over it.

The plays are different. Audiences used to rely on reviews for a decision about whether or not to go see a play. That gave the reviewer a kind of power that is literally awful. I can’t use PB and jelly to soothe that because it effects how much the play is seen, and it stays in the paper for the whole run.

I have spent hours fantasying how I would answer the critic if I ever encountered them (these are basically revenge visions which never come to pass). I survived by talking to loved ones and supporters.

I have been reminded endlessly that the criticism was one person’s opinion. The weirdly worst part of criticism in the theatre is the reviewer who has loved the play and has no idea what I was writing. I have had a play favorably compared to the X Files. I have never watched that show.

I have been favorably compared to Sarah Ruehl, a big deal Off Broadway playwright turned TV writer. I have never seen anything she has written. Recently the book was compared to books by Alice Hoffman and Tom Robbins. That was cool. Although I initially thought it said Tim Robbins. Oh well. I read a review only if I have to, and try to remember that what the critic means as a compliment may insult me to death.

Norm: Do you ever dream about your characters particularly the ones in your debut novel?

Susan: I am a terrible insomniac so I’m lucky if I dream at all. My cats poke me in the face every hour on the hour demanding treats. My husband suggests, since my insomnia is serious, that I don’t respond to the cats anymore and they will stop doing it. Ha.

Have you ever opened your eyes out of a twenty-minute respite from not sleeping and stared into a pair of green tabby eyes? I do it several times a night. Good luck ignoring it. I give them treats then they go away and I lie with my eyes open for an hour. When I go through periods of time when the insomnia goes away, I have been dreaming lately about the theatre because I feel I have left it behind.

The book gave me a freedom of storytelling that I will never give up. Not to mention that Covid currently makes theatre impossible. In these rare dreams, I am surrounded with characters some of whom connect with the people in the book.

There is one man named Tim. When he comes to me in my dream it is a link because it is the name of one of my protagonist’s lovers, and it is the name of my last theatrical producer. Mostly I consider dreaming to be a big luxury I rarely have. But do I think about my characters? Yes. When I sat down to write the book, they seemed to come out of my sub conscious as if they had been waiting my whole life to tell this story.

They ran the keyboard, they corrected me quickly if I took a wrong turn. They wrote the book for me. I am careful to thank them in case I ever want to write another book.

Norm: If you could invite three writers, dead or alive into your living room, who would they be and why?

Susan: Simone de Beauvoir, William Shakespeare, and Rene Balcer.

Simone was known for her treatise on sexism The Second Sex. I don’t need to be educated on the many ways of misogyny. I found the book unbearable. But her novels, from All Men are Mortal, The Mandarins, She Came to Stay, these books did what I wanted to do: tell the truth in a fascinating way from a specific point of view.

As much as she wanted equality for women, she, like me saw the faults that women suffer as human beings who are not treated the way men are. This turns some women into a worse enemy than any man could be.

I will not mention my family members, but my mother and sister (ok I will mention some of them) have hurt me more than any injustice I have ever faced. And it doesn’t stop with them. I have worked for feminist organizations that were not my idea of the New World we want.

Female friends have betrayed me in ways that were dreadful. Men? I don’t really respond the same way. Maybe because I am afraid of women. So when I read De Beauvoir’s words, and realize she is angered not frightened by some of the contradictions in women’s behavior, I feel strong. 

William Shakespeare. I was a sloppy student, smart enough to get A’s without reading most of the material. I went to London when I was 18 and saw the Zefferelli movie of Romeo and Juliet.

When they died, since I had only read the first part of the play in school, I literally couldn’t breathe.

A nice English usher suggested that I stay through to see the beginning again, and then at the intermission, get the hell out of the movie theatre as they were happily getting married.

From then on, I wanted to know Shakespeare’s work, and I studied the RADA technique of performing his work for 4 years.  When I’m in a particularly sad mood I will mutter “A glooming peace this morning with it brings/ the sun for sorrow will not show its head/for never was a tale of more woe/ than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

I find his language inspirational. I have written some fine stuff, but nobody can really touch him for poetic monologues. 

Rene Balcer was an original lead writer for Law and Order. In the first four years of that show I watched it like a zombie. The story lines were filled with the quest for Justice.

A quest I am desperate to go on. Balcer created (under the genius of Dick Wolf), a world of smart, attractive people seeking the world I wanted to live in.

He did it over and over again. I will not bore you with my ability to quote verbatim many scenes from many episodes. Sometimes my husband sees it coming as tears fill my eyes and I begin to speak with the characters (yes I have it on video, and I watch it to this day). He gently leaves on some excuse, the cats need dinner, the doorbell rang (no, it did not), but for whatever reason, he knows that once a certain scene starts, I will weep, speak the dialogue and then feel the world is a better place. He returns for the last part of that cycle.

Norm: Could you tell our audience a little about your debut novel, The Road Not Taken?

Susan: The book is about a woman who is widowed at 50 and moves back from the suburbs to her childhood home in Greenwich Village.

She becomes involved with a group of 100 individuals, the Lost, who are 50 million years old, and who landed on the earth as it cooled down. Through them, she is taken on the Space/Time continuum where she sees her dead parents, her recently deceased husband, and meets Isis, Osiris, Set and Nephthys the seminal mythological characters of ancient Egypt.

She goes back to Weimar on the eve of Hitler taking power. She kills a Nazi. She becomes a warrior, a priestess, a seer just like Deborah from the Bible. Don’t worry if you don’t know Deborah, she gets about four lines in the Old Testament.

My character is given a lover, one of the Lost, with whom she learns about loving freely without having to live in the suburbs. She becomes best friends with Vincent Van Gogh when she is shown by her mentor from the Lost how to climb inside a canvas -- which she then does frequently, visiting the painter in Arles, where they drink massive amounts of absinthe, and he points out to her that she has done nothing with her life, and must find her given talent and exercise it.

Eventually she meets a Yoruba Priestess who teaches her the strength of human spirit. Not religion. Spirit. The Priestess shows her how human spirit can defeat any enemy. Now the character knows what her talent or Contract with Creation is, and she ends the books with a monologue, requested by the Lost, on her opinion of planet earth, and the merits of keeping it going. She and I do not agree, but I gave her the room to have her own opinion.

Norm: How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your book?

Susan: I started out wanting to write about a woman who meets her twin sister and kills her. Instead, the twin she meets becomes her mentor.

As for theme, I am interested in the possibility of creating meaning in one’s life no matter at what age. I find it fascinating to fly around on Space/Time and see the past as it existed in the moment.

The real world, tick tock, tick tock, is not of much interest to me. All of my work is about impossible places and people. I have always been horrified by death. In this book, I almost make peace with it. That’s because, in astrophysics, if you have existed, then somewhere on the Space/Time continuum you still exist. I see it as a huge video tape on which is every moment of every life, every conversation, every sexual experience that ever happened. I am aware that this is not for everybody. But for me, the idea that matter nor spirit can be created nor destroyed gives me the hope to go on.

Norm: Would you say that the publication of your first novel is the culmination of a lifelong dream?  

Susan: Yes. Because I feel, from the early response, that my book is meaningful to a wide spectrum of people. I have always wanted to write art that can be popular but not dumbed down. I think this book, like it or hate it, is smart. I think if a librarian in Hempstead, Long Island can go on and on about it, and a critic from Midwest Book Reviews also gets it, then I have written something that many types of people can read and enjoy. That has always been my goal although some of my plays were a little far out for that to happen.

Norm: What does the title of your book represent?

Susan: The life you didn’t live. The possibility that you still can. The obligation we all have to ourselves and to our universe to contribute our talents. Van Gogh and the protagonist have an argument about whether every person has a talent if they are willing to look for it. For me, that is the truth. Everybody has a contribution to make. And not making that contribution will leave you empty and unfulfilled.

Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them? 

Susan: My goals were to tell a great story. At the beginning it was a vendetta against my older sister and I was going to try to write “Brat Ferrar” which Josephine Tey already wrote, about a twin brother who has been missing but returns on his 18th birthday to claim half of the inheritance of his family’s wealth.

Problem is, the other brother killed the twin ten years ago. So the whole book is an effort to explain who this Pretender is. I love that kind of mystery story, but much as I admire that, my goals are to explore life and death.

In this book, without knowing it ahead of time (as I mentioned I got great help from my characters) I wrote a lot about cruelty. My family was cruel, although we loved each other. I have learned not to be cruel: a hard lesson to learn. I think it is among the most important things we can talk about as a species. As for the strength of the story, I feel it is different than most things I have read. Surreal but very real. Straight out of my subconscious mind. Please enter cautiously.

Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing? 

Susan: A slightly smarty pants tone that I try not to allow to become insulting. Wit. Imagination and imagery that are unusual. An approach to sexual pleasure that is loving but not terribly restrictive. An urgent desire to make the world a better place, hopefully without being didactic.

I am from Greenwich Village. I have irony in my soul, and I am not a traditional thinker. I have become excited by the Boson particle lately because it taught me about Space/Time, and how the universe developed.

This influenced me a lot since Death and I have never made peace with each other. I lived a different childhood that many. To say my parents didn’t notice what I was doing would be a gross understatement.

I was frequently alone in Harlem at 15 coming out of the train station looking for a cab. I rode the subways alone at 5. I shoplifted until the detective at Bloomingdale’s caught me. Some of this is typical urban adolescent stuff.

I sat in nightclubs at 16 and listened to rock bands that were influential in the coming political movements which I became part of. I wanted to join the Black Panther Party and was deeply insulted when they rejected me.

I am a restless woman who had cancer at 30 and was sure Death was sitting in my living room laughing at me. All of this stuff makes me irreverent, as a writer.

My family story is not so funny so I made it funny. My father died from bad egg salad. My mother died on opening night of my play, Immortality.

I have used all of these experiences and the awful things I saw in the documentaries I wrote, and I have turned my stories into non naturalistic worlds where wonderful things happen that can’t possibly happen.

In the book I see my father a lot, after his death. That hasn’t actually ever happened. I think I am a magical surrealist writer with a deep sense of humor as the only survival mechanism I can really count on. I don’t much like reality, so I don’t write about it. 

Norm: The Road Not Taken is your first novel. Did you enjoy the process? How was it different from your typical format writing plays and documentaries?  

Susan: I have never loved writing anything so much as this novel. Partly that’s because I have enough experience writing to feel good about my chops.

It is also a huge relief not to write plays where you have to balance out scenes so that each character fulfills its arc. Then after you sweat your brains out to create good language for the actors, they complain that their costume makes them look fat. I know this because I was an actor for many years and nobody was as whiny or nervous as I was.

Writing this book was heaven. The characters spoke to me from inside my head. Sometimes making suggestions, sometimes just marching off ahead of me so I was typing as fast as I could to keep up with the story they were telling. I think I am a storyteller. Not a playwright. They are similar but not the same. The plays were great training, and some of my monologues were fascinating (at least to me). But my novel is a story. And I am good at stories.

As a little kid in the disgusting lunchroom at my school, everybody wanted to sit with me because I told stories at lunch every day. Even kids who hated me wanted to hear my stories. As I stuffed down my meatloaf I made up fantasies that to this day, are similar to my book. I like dark caves with walls built of rubies and emeralds and strange creatures sitting inside the room in the cave. I guess I like storytelling because it is deeply subconscious for me. And there’s no place weirder or more fun than my subconscious mind. At least for me.

Norm: Did you learn anything from writing your novel and what was it?  

Susan: I found out that story telling is easy for me. Although I started out wanting to write about a woman who meets her twin sister and then kills her, the book very quickly corrected me.

It was amazing to see the words pop onto the computer screen in complete defiance of what I thought I would write.

The novel is a solo act. I like it. I have spent years in theatre companies, and I loved it. Especially the after the show trips to restaurants where we all laughed and drank.

But at this point in my life, nothing fulfills me as much as a quiet room with my cats lounging around licking themselves, the silence that is my backyard, and a group of characters who I really liked.

One of the romances the protagonist has is with a man I was shocked to recognize about halfway through the novel: my dance teacher from when I was in my 20’s. I realized how much in love with him I had been. Although it is way too late (and we are both way too married) to fulfill this now, I could live out every fantasy in the book. And I did, and it was thrilling.

Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and The Road Not Taken?

Susan: On my WEBSITE  you can find every documentary I ever wrote, every play, my web series for Funny or Die, my blogs for Ms magazine. And of course, there is biographical material about me.

There is also something called Mapping the Book which is a series of blogs getting posted one at a time where I talk about something adjacent to something in the book, and then connect it loosely.

I ask for people to communicate with me if they want to and I promise I will answer. I ask questions that are salient to the book: “Have you lived the life you were intended to live? If not, why not? Is it too late?” Stuff like that.  My website is a treasure trove of info about the book, about my past writing. More than anybody really needs to know about me!

Norm: What is next for Susan Rubin?

Susan: I hope to stay with this book for a while. I am writing more Mapping the Book blogs because they help with building an audience for the book, and they are so much fun.

I am doing a bunch of online interviews and blogs for bookstores that are COVID shut downs.

I look forward to writing another book but not now. This book was a test case. And I feel like the answer to my internal question is: “Yes, you can spend the rest of your life writing books.” That is an enormous joy and relief to me as I am a lousy cook, totally non domestically oriented, and my cats and my husband cannot stand to see me sitting around all day watching TV. 

Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.

Susan: Thank you, Norm. This was fun!

Reviewed By Norm Goldman of Bookpleasures.com

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