Monday, May 21, 2012

My First Time: Susan Woodring

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Susan Woodring, author of the new novel Goliath (St. Martin’s Press) and the 2008 short story collection Springtime on Mars (Press 53).  Ann Hood (author of The Red Thread) had this to say about Goliath: “Like a contemporary Winesburg, Ohio, Susan Woodring’s Goliath brings small town life beautifully, achingly alive.  Sprinkled with marching bands, baseball, and parades, and a cast of southern characters who will charm the pants off you, Goliath is a memorable novel, written in a new memorable voice.” Woodring’s short fiction has appeared in Isotope, Passages North, turnrow, and Surreal South, among other anthologies and literary magazines.  She currently lives in western North Carolina with her children and her husband.  Visit her website here.

The First Time I Spoke with My Agent
on the Phone

First, it needs to be said: I am a special kind of freak.

Typical of writers, I am an introvert who cares passionately about people.  I do.  I love people.  They amaze me.  And not only from a writerly standpoint, but from a very human one.  I take my kids to the park and a very old woman sits next to me on the bench.  She observes the knitting on my lap and somehow connects that to a job she had serving lunch at an elementary school cafeteria fifty years ago.  Her connections are hazy, but she is so dear, I want to hug her.  I want to follow her home and sit in her living room and watch “Wheel of Fortune” with her.  I want to do her laundry.  Sweep her floor.  I want to, in the least, ask for more.  More about her life and the cafeteria and living in this town, my town, for the past eighty or so years.  Tell me more, I want to say.

Another day, the cashier at Walmart looks so very tired, tells me it’s been crazy in there, it’s the end of the month when everyone and their brother is in there shopping away their paycheck, and I want to shut down her lane for her.  I’m thinking about buying her a huge bag of peanut M&Ms because they’re my favorite, and I want to share that with her: the comfort of peanut M&Ms.  I want to take her to the beach.  Read to her.  Somehow I know she is the most wonderful human being in the world—to be a cashier at Walmart on the state employees’ payday!—and it becomes crucially important, suddenly, for me to tell her so.

But, what do I do?  Me, the special freak who loves people but has substantial deficits when it comes to actually talking to anyone?  I tell the old woman, “Wow,” and turn my head back down to my knitting.  My heart is pounding in my ears for all the things I want to say.  And then, to the cashier at Walmart, I say, “I hope you’re getting off soon.”  I’m too shy to buy her the M&Ms though I want to, dammit.  I really, really do.

I am like this everywhere.  With the parents of my kids’ friends, with fellow townspeople I run into at the post office, with other writers and editors at conferences and workshops.  I simply turn plain stupid.

You might guess that I was not at all prepared to participate in the kind of professional banter, the small talk and polite inquiries, necessary when The Call finally came.  You would be right.

When the man who would be my agent calls for the first time, I am grateful to tears, to ecstatic, nearly orgasmic leaps of joy at his offer to represent my novel.  But instead of imparting some reasonable-sized morsel of my gratitude, I instead tell him how very sad I was at the passing of Michael Jackson.

I blabber on about wall paint and camping with my kids and how I should never, ever be alone in my house for three days in a row.  About walking around the block in Kure Beach at three o’clock in the morning.  It’s all connected to the book—kind of.  All of these things happened right after I finished the book; they each had felt, in different ways, like consequences of my finishing the book.  It was as if Michael Jackson O.D.’ed and died because I’d finished writing my story about a dying furniture factory town.

This book, my Goliath, that I didn’t know if it was worth anything or not.  This book that only two other people had read before this man, this man talking to me now on the phone.  This man who is on my shortlist of agents I’d love, love, love to have.  This man who is in the process of helping me make my dreams come true, telling me how much he likes my book…and I’m talking Michael Jackson.

What I mean to say, of course, is how pleased I am by his interest in my work and how thrilled I am by his offer.  I mean to speak eloquently and intelligently (or, at least, intelligibly) about the themes in the book, the characters, the setting.  The current state of publishing and the market and submission possibilities and the like.

I blabber on and on about all these truly stupid things, and finally, he says, “Does this mean you accept my offer of representation?”

In my world, “Wow” means “Tell me more,” “I hope you’re getting off soon,” means “May I buy you a bag of M&Ms?” and, “Michael Jackson is dead,” means, “Yes.  Represent me.  Please.  And thank you.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

It’s been a few years, and I’m still an idiot on the phone with him, and with my editor, but they are both gracious and really wonderful people who listen politely to my yammering and to my um…um…um.  They have become experts at getting out the information from me that they actually need, and they’re both good-humored and very patient about the whole ridiculous process.  God bless them both.

And God bless the very old woman at the park who interpreted my “Wow,” rightly and talked on.  About seat-belts and other changes in our world.  Who, rising to leave, said she had enjoyed talking with me.  And the cashier at Walmart who smiled at my meager comment about her getting off work soon.  Maybe she heard my attempt at sympathy for her and her long, hard day even if the M&Ms thing didn’t translate.


  1. Ha! "In my world..." Susan you MUST see my fb post today - it's what my coffee mug says...

    And, if you ever do go for it w/ the M&M's, be sure to ring it up on a separate receipt, then give it all to the cashier, free & clear. (Learned this from one of those park-bench-sitting little-old-lady-types.)

  2. You're so funny! You have the writer's gift of making characters, even yourself, so utterly human. Great stuff, this!

  3. Too funny! And I feel like I just read myself in a mirror.

  4. Ah, you are going to strike a chord with many people with this one...myself included. Just lovely!

  5. Love this! And it has inspired me to actually buy that bag of peanut m&ms (or whatever) for a tired cashier one day...

  6. I so related to this. I'm always rewriting conversations with what I should have said if my brain would do what everyone else's seems to. The only place I'm really safe if unleashed is the page. A pleasure to meet you, Susan - and thank you, David, for hosting her.

  7. Susan, love how you manage to connect an old lady blabbering about seatbelts to talking to an agent who wants to represent you. Truly creative, I must say!