Shiny New Author: Susan Beale

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Questions by Victoria

Has writing been a long-held ambition for you or is this novel something that you happened to fall into?

How I wish I were the type of person who could just happen to fall into novel writing! It took me a long time to work up the courage to admit fiction writing was a goal. Novelists, I imagined, were special humans, with a superior talent, rising fully formed like Venus from the foam. I became a journalist after university because journalism is a trade, not an art. I dabbled in fiction on the side, in secret. Terrible fiction, which reinforced my belief that I lacked the necessary talent. Still, I couldn’t let it go. I read books about the craft and wrote when I could, which wasn’t often because I was working full time. It became even more of a challenge after I had children. To be honest, finding time to do anything became a problem after I had children. When my second son was 18 months old, I took a work break – just, you know, to catch my breath – and about five minutes later got pregnant. With twins. That made four boys in just under five years. The next ten, maybe 12, years are a blur but whenever I had time to myself, I wrote. It still wasn’t good, but it was better. I took some short courses and got better still. My boys were growing up. I started thinking about going back to work. A return to journalism looked increasingly unlikely. I’d be starting from scratch, with no contacts, in an industry severely disrupted by market forces. There was no reason not to swing for the bleachers of fiction writing. A move from Brussels to Somerset for my husband’s work four years ago gave me the opportunity to do the creative writing MA at Bath Spa and I grabbed it.

Can you tell us more about the real life story that inspired The Good Guy?

The Good Guy was inspired by my adoption papers. For adoptees of closed adoptions, like mine, any piece of information about a birth parent is like a bite of forbidden fruit, but these pages were so much more. They had a complete narrative arc – Jane Eyre meets The Scarlet Letter – and were a perfect snapshot of mid-1960s’ life. Everyone in them was trying to do the right thing. They’re following rules that are as clear as they are immutable, but as a reader coming to the papers decades later, I knew the rules were about to change. The sexual revolution is coming. In fact, it’s already started, and these poor souls have no idea what’s going to hit them. I felt quite sorry for them. I still do.

Given this novel has such a personal genesis, I wonder what it was like for you to look back into the cultural climate of the 1960s and the situation of unwed mothers?

The Good Guy by Susan Beale

What happened to these women was an outrage. Young people were given few tools with which to understand their sexuality, let alone manage it. Sex education was non-existent and birth control near impossible to obtain. My home state of Massachusetts outlawed both. Not surprisingly, out-of-wedlock pregnancies happened, and the go-to solution was a shot-gun wedding. If the young man wouldn’t, or couldn’t, marry, plan B was to cover everything up with lies. The young women bore the brunt of the shame.

The dramatic potential of these women’s stories was obvious to me, and yet I struggled to think of novels that explored the subject, which is amazing given how frequently affairs and adultery feature as plot points. When unwed pregnancies do appear in literature, they typically involve minor characters, who serve as foils or cautionary examples to more important ones; almost without exception, the action takes place off stage which, in retrospect, isn’t altogether surprising as it mirrors real life. Women were shunted off into maternity homes or foster families, their absences explained with stories of sick aunts in distant states in need of care. Afterwards, the women and their families never discussed what happened. The birth mothers were airbrushed from the picture. The state even got in on the game, issuing new birth certificates that listed the adopted parents’ names, and sealing the originals from public view as if they were threats to national security. The media often perpetuated a myth that birth mothers were uncaring, irresponsible or deficient.

The injustice of the situation was uppermost in my mind while I was writing The Good Guy, because the year before I started the MA course at Bath Spa I reunited with my birth mother, Lynne. Getting to know her gave me a deeper understanding of the grief, guilt and shame that she and millions of other women were forced to carry.

What was the most interesting part of writing the novel for you?

It’s hard to pick just one but if I had to choose I’d say it was discovering that the world into which I was conceived bore almost no resemblance to the world in which I grew up.

The world described in my adoption papers is one of rigid gender roles and an unrealistically strict moral code. People faced enormous pressure to conform to a single, cookie-cutter narrative of what it meant to be American, a narrative based on television programmes like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Men were the heads of household and women were expected to find complete fulfilment in the roles of wife and mother.

In the world where I grew up, girls had a legally protected right to the same educational and athletic opportunities as boys. Helen Reddy sang ‘I am Woman’, and television programmes like The Mary Tyler Moore Show featured a career woman who didn’t need to be married to be fulfilled. This is not for a second to suggest that full equality has been achieved. However, in the space of a couple years the message to girls was turned on its head. Instead of being told that a domestic life was the one key to our happiness, we were promised we could have it all. It was a lie, but it shaped our expectations.

The biggest takeaway from writing The Good Guy was that the post war years 1945-1970, a period often held up as America’s golden era, wasn’t all that golden. I’ve come to the happy conclusion that, for all its faults and shortcomings, the world today is a more equal and compassionate place than it was half a century ago.

How did your family feel about you exploring your own past in this way?

I suspect my parents are relieved that I chose to invent something inspired by my adoption papers instead of writing about something closer to my lived experiences. There’s less chance that people will think any of the characters are based on them. Lynne, who would have been more likely to face that kind of speculation, was eager for me to write about the subject. She once said it would be the birth announcement she’d never been able to send. Unfortunately, she died before the novel was finished. Her husband is very supportive.

I want to stress that The Good Guy isn’t a memoir. I used certain things from my adoption papers, and from conversations with Lynne, but I made up lots more. I manipulated events, thoughts and feelings for dramatic effect. All the characters are my own inventions.

Ted is such a fascinating character and you write him with terrific compassion. Did he come together very naturally for you, or was his voice something you had to work hard to inhabit?

Thank you! It took a while to get the tone right with Ted. In my adoption papers, the social worker uses professional and impartial language, but her doubts about my birth father’s character and intentions come through loud and clear and, initially, this infected my narrator’s treatment of Ted. It got laughs in the workshops, but my tutors, Samantha Harvey and Richard Kerridge, warned me that poking fun at Ted would make readers care less about what happened to him, which I didn’t want. I have a lot of empathy for Ted. His mistakes stem from weakness and insecurity. He really is trying to do what’s right, always looking for the path that will avoid hurting people. His need for a woman’s adoration might seem self-centred and egotistical to today’s reader, but at the time it was a perfectly normal expectation for a man to have; his willingness to help with the housework and childcare are downright enlightened. Also, time is not on his side. The future belongs to smart, clever women like Abigail and Penny. Their stature in society will rise at the expense of men like Ted: white, lacking a university degree. Were Ted a real person and alive today, I expect he’d have a Trump 2016 bumper sticker on the back of his pick-up, and a red hat that says, ‘Make American Great Again’.

The novel recreates perfectly the atmosphere of 1950s/60s America. What kind of research did you undertake to get the details right?

Thank you again. The internet is a marvellous thing. There were websites devoted to every aspect of the story I needed to research – highway expansion, tract housing, the birth of shopping malls, fashion, hair styles, slang, top 100 hit lists, the Chevy Corvair Monza  …

I’m a stickler for facts, down to the weather at Christmas 1965 (unseasonably warm), and the snowstorm in February 2008 that features in the opening chapter. When I decided that Ted and Penny would go to a Red Sox game, I read up on the 1965 season (dismal apart from Tony Conigliaro’s batting).

To get a feel for both the mindset and the language of the time, I read a lot of literature: The Feminine MystiqueSex and the Single GirlPeyton Place, Revolutionary Road (which is set a decade before The Good Guy but written in the early 1960s). I read the articles for Time’s Man of the Year for 1965 (General Westmoreland) and 1966 (the Baby Boomers), and watched old television ads on YouTube.

For the setting, I drew on childhood memories, family photos, and old magazines. I loved watching Mad Men, which was useful despite taking place higher up the socio-economic ladder than The Good Guy.

I understand that The Good Guy was written in part on the Bath Spa Creative Writing course. What was the experience like for you? Would you recommend this sort of qualification to other aspiring authors?

I loved Bath Spa. The tutors were excellent, supportive, and inspiring. The structure of the workshops and modules suited me. I enjoy diving deep into a text, bouncing ideas off people, debating. Most of the feedback I received was useful; the close reading of other people’s work was equally beneficial. After my extended career break, I was ripe for the course: intellectually thirsty, and determined to get the most out it. To any aspiring writer who reads this and says, ‘Me, too!’, I say, absolutely, do the course. If you’re the sort of writer who prefers to work in solitude, doesn’t need much feedback, or to talk things out, you’d probably find the workload, which is considerable, a distraction.

Which authors have been your own inspiration?

Tessa Hadley, who I was fortunate to have as my manuscript tutor at Bath Spa, is more than an inspiration. She’s a role model. She spent decades raising boys before becoming a writer and got to where she is today through persistence, curiosity and steady devotion to the craft of writing.

Tessa writes the kind of books I like to read, stories about relationships: the daily challenge to understand ourselves and others, to reconcile our expectations with our reality, and the give and take of balancing our needs and desires with those of the people we love.

Other contemporary writers I admire include Elizabeth Strout, Karen Joy Fowler and Lorrie Moore. Anne Tyler has long been a favourite. I remember being hugely impressed by Katie Ward’s Girl Reading – it’s still hard to believe that was a first novel.

I’m inevitably drawn back to Jane Austen every couple years; Richard Yates, too.

And what are you currently reading?

Claire Keegan’s short story collection, Walk the Blue Fields. Like many Irish writers – John McGahern and Colm Toibin are two who come immediately to mind – she excels at subtext. The dialogue is often simple but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. Her prose is elegant without being showy.

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Read Victoria’s review of The Good Guy in our Fiction section here.

Susan Beale, The Good Guy (John Murray, 2016). 978-1473630338, 320 pp., hardback.

BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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