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Meet the WritersImage of Susan Isaacs
Susan Isaacs
Susan Isaacs, novelist, essayist and screenwriter, was born in Brooklyn and educated at Queens College. After leaving school, she worked as an editorial assistant at Seventeen magazine. In 1968, Susan married Elkan Abramowitz, a then a federal prosecutor. She became a senior editor at Seventeen but left in 1970 to stay home with her newborn son, Andrew. Three years later, she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. During this time she freelanced, writing political speeches as well as magazine articles. Elkan became a criminal defense lawyer.

In the mid-seventies, Susan got the urge to write a novel. A year later she began working on what was to become Compromising Positions, a whodunit set on suburban Long Island. It was published in 1978 by Times Books and was chosen a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Her second novel, Close Relations, a love story set against a background of ethnic, sexual and New York Democratic politics (thus a comedy), was published in 1980 by Lippincott and Crowell and was a selection of the Literary Guild. Her third, Almost Paradise, was published by Harper & Row in 1984, and was a Literary Guild main selection; in this work Susan used the saga form to show how the people are molded not only by their histories, but also by family fictions that supplant truth. All of Susan's novels have been New York Times bestsellers. Her fiction has been translated into thirty languages.

In 1985, she wrote the screenplay for Paramount's Compromising Positions, which starred Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. She also wrote and co-produced Touchstone Pictures' Hello Again. The 1987 comedy starred Shelley Long and Judith Ivey.

Her fourth novel, Shining Through, set during World War II, was published by Harper & Row in 1988. Twentieth-Century Fox's film adaptation starred Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffith. Her fifth book, Magic Hour, a coming-of-middle-age novel as well as a mystery, was published in January 1991. After All These Years was published in 1993; critics lauded it for its strong and witty protagonist. Lily White came out in 1996 and Red, White and Blue in 1998. All the novels were published by HarperCollins and were main selections of the Literary Guild. In 1999, Susan's first work of nonfiction, Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen, was published by Ballantine's Library of Contemporary Thought. During 2000, she wrote a series of columns on the presidential campaign for Newsday. Long Time No See, a Book of the Month Club main selection, was published in September 2001; it was a sequel to Compromising Positions. Susan's tenth novel is Any Place I Hang My Hat (2004).

Susan Isaacs is a recipient of the Writers for Writers Award and the John Steinbeck Award. She serves as chairman of the board of Poets & Writers and is a past president of Mystery Writers of America. She is also a member of the National Book Critics Circle, The Creative Coalition, PEN, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the International Association of Crime Writers, and the Adams Round Table. She sits on the boards of the Queens College Foundation, the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Association, the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and is an active member of her synagogue. She has worked to gather support for the National Endowment of the Arts' Literature Program and has been involved in several anti-censorship campaigns. In addition to writing books, essays and films, Susan has reviewed books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Newsday and written about politics, film and First Amendment issues. She lives on Long Island with her husband.

Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.

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Good to Know
Some outtakes from our interview with Isaacs:

"My first job was wrapping shoes in a shoe store in the low-rent district of Fifth Avenue and saying ‘Thank you!' with a cheery smile. I got canned within three days for not wrapping fast enough, although I suspect that often my vague, future-novelist stare into space while thinking about sex or lunch did not give me a smile that would ring the bell on the shoe store's cheer-o-meter."

"I constantly have to fight against the New York Effect, an overwhelming urge to wear black clothes so everyone will think, Egad, isn't she chic and understated! I'm not, by nature, a black-wearing person. (I'm not, by nature, a chic person either.) I like primary colors as well as bright purple, loud chartreuse, and shocking pink. And that's just my shoes."

"I'm not a great fan of writing classes. Yes, they do help people sometimes, especially with making them write regularly. But the aspiring writer can be a delicate creature, sensitive or even oversensitive to criticism. I was that way: I still am. The problem begins with most people's natural desire to please. In a classroom situation, especially one in which the work will be read aloud or critiqued in class, the urge to write something likable or merely critic-proof can dam up your natural talent. Also, it keeps you from developing the only thing you have is a writer -- your own voice. Finally, you don't know the people in a class well enough to figure out where their criticism is coming from. A great knowledge of literature? Veiled hostility? The talent is too precious a commodity to risk handing it over to strangers."

"Writing is sometimes an art, and it certainly is a craft. But it's also a job. I go to work five or six days a week (depending how far along I am with my work-in-progress). Like most other people, there are days I would rather be lying in a hammock reading or going to a movie with a friend. But whether you're an artist or an accountant, you still have to show up at work. Otherwise, it is unlikely to get done."

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In the fall of 2004, Susan Isaacs took some time out to answer our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests:

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
For a couple of months during college, I was wowed by H. L. Mencken's book of essays, Prejudices. Its influence was both positive and negative. I loved the author's iconoclastic instincts, his razzle-dazzle language, and his contemptuous take on the assorted idiocies of American politics and culture. My infatuation could not last longer than a couple of months because of Mencken's off-the-cuff racist and anti-Semitic asides: How could anyone that smart be that stupid?

In any case, while in Mencken mode, I wrote an essay for the college newspaper defending the fraternity/sorority system. (Fortunately, I can find no trace of this piece and thus can avoid confronting my younger, dopier, and more arrogant self.) The response was, to me, astounding. More pats on the back then I could count and, on the other hand, a stunning number of outraged letters to the editor protesting what I had written. A grand fuss, but it brought me little pleasure. True, I loved the attention, but it didn't take me long to realize both the applause and the fuming was not for me, but rather, for my competent imitation of H. L. Mencken.

A little more than a decade later, when I began writing my first novel, I started to realize that all I had as a writer was my own voice. Sure, I could imitate Mencken or, for that matter, Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde. But that was just a clever college-kid trick. Mencken and Austen and Wilde were far better Menckens and Austens and Wildes than I could ever be. Besides, why would any reader bother with an imitation when they could read the real thing? All I could be, for better or worse, was Susan Isaacs.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë -- Jane is my favorite example of a complex and heroic female character, a brave dame. She has high moral standards, stands up to injustice and is willing to leave civilization and face the wild, even death, rather than do wrong.

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens -- Dickens pulls off a double whammy here, offering a brilliant view of the different classes of British society while creating wonderfully memorable characters. I've always been fascinated by climbs up and down the social ladder. My novel Any Place I Hang My Hat (note to the subtle way I've insinuated myself alongside Charles Dickens) is a 21st-century look at such a climb: When you are able to fit in anywhere, from the visitors' room at Sing-Sing to the dining room at the Harvard Club, where do you truly belong? Everywhere? Or no place at all?

  • Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen -- My two favorite Austen novels. I love her characters, the relationships, her genius for the telling detail, as well as tough-mindedness side by side with her compassion. And of course her brilliant wit.

  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith -- With its first sentence ("I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."), I was hooked into what I consider one of the most luminous coming-of-age novels. Its narrator, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortman, is incredibly smart and appealing. Dodie Smith wrote this novel in the 1940s, but its chin-up heroine is an up-to-the-minute girl who becomes a woman in the course of this book.

  • Sophie's Choice by William Styron -- Styron's novel about a Christian woman who survives her ordeal in a concentration camp juxtaposes the bright light of American innocence with the dark knowledge of Europe under the Nazis. The writing is superb, the characters unforgettable.

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- Okay, F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel is on just about everybody's Top Ten list, and with good reason: while at first it seems simply a first-class snapshot of East Coast types at one moment in time, it really is a profound and complex work of art about what we Americans long for and what we actually wind up with. Gatsby and company hold up Fitzgerald's mirror in which we readers see our optimism, naïveté, hypocrisy, and casual cruelty.

  • The Stand by Stephen King -- Here's King's take on the brightness and darkness in American life, a huge, apocalyptic novel that, like nearly all of the author's work, is compulsively readable.

    I'm an avid reader of nonfiction, too, so I have to add:

  • All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- Woodward and Bernstein's book about how they broke and then followed the Watergate story reads like a cross between a noir whodunit and one of those scary, dystopian novels about the undermining of the democratic system, like Sinclair Lewis's It Can Happen Here. These two then-young reporters had the guts and the brains to trace what looked like a cheesy burglary all the way up to President Nixon's White House.

  • The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 by William Manchester -- The first volume of one of the best-written biographies ever about one of the rare aristocrats who actually was aristocratic. What a giant he was! Compared with him, every politician today... better yet, let's not compare.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

  • Singin' in the Rain -- The best musical ever made.

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy -- This is one of the rare times that a film adaptation faithful to the novels on which it's based really works. Having slogged through big movies from Lawrence of Arabia to Troy, I loved its grandness and many of its larger-than-life characters, although Gimli the dwarf reminded me of a Mike Myers routine and Frodo kept bringing to mind my friend Barbara from high school, but without the wit. Anyhow, I loved the books and I loved the movies.

  • All About Eve -- When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I watched this great Bette Davis movie and said to myself, Wow, this is sophisticated. I still think so. It celebrates the glamour of the theater and its actors, directors, and playwrights while keeping tongue in cheek and eyebrow arched.

  • Radio Days -- Woody Allen's film evokes not just the magic of radio but the magic of being an imaginative, smart-ass Jewish kid growing up in Queens during World War II. There isn't one frame of the film that is sentimental, but its sentiment for that medium that pulled the family and country together is true-blue.

  • Rashomon -- Kurosawa's movie about the murder of a man and the rape of his wife, as seen from the points of view of four different people, is a classic in every sense: It asks the big questions (What is truth? Is there an objective reality?) while breaking new ground in the telling of events. Through the camera's eye we see not just of four different versions of these two crimes but four different worldviews of the characters.

  • Citizen Kane -- Orson Welles's finest work is indeed the great movie it's touted to be, but I love it for Welles's extraordinary portrayal of a man's journey from decency to corruption, along with another of my favorites, The Godfather, in which Al Pacino made a similar journey.

  • Seems Like Old Times -- This is a brilliant Shakespearean comedy that happens to be written by Neil Simon.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    If even a radio were playing in the house across the street, I would not be able to write. When I'm inventing characters and creating a universe, that of my novel, I can't have any distractions from the universe I'm living in.

    My knowledge of orchestral music composed between Mozart and Gershwin is close to nil. As for opera, give me melody -- Puccini, Verdi, Bizet. I am a word person: The music I enjoy most has lyrics. So I love the standards, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and so forth. For me, they are best sung by performers with the intelligence and sensitivity to get at the meaning of the words without sacrificing the music. Give me Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington, and that most underrated of singers, Louis Armstrong. And of course I love rock, although what I enjoy most is the music of my childhood and teenage years. So it's Bill Haley and the Comets through the Beatles.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
    Well, right now I've been listening to an unabridged recording of Anna Karenina. Over the years, I started it a couple of times but for some reason always gave up. Yet here I am most afternoons, sneaking off for time alone with Tolstoy. So my book club would feature books I've given up on which everybody else says are a must-read: Even if I still hated the book, I would read it in the hope of getting elucidated by my fellow book club members. Some possibilities: Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, and Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    Whatever strikes me. A bestselling novel, a worst-selling novel that looks intriguing, a big fat coffee-table book with photographs of bats, or French couture. A biography. A book on the development of language, or the thousand best recipes for cheesecake.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    What I have on my desk is usually a mess. Looking down right now, I see a pair of sparkly red, blue, and aqua clip-on earings that felt too tight a few days ago, a micro drive, malachite beads I brought home from Africa and plan to give to an old family friend, an empty eyeglass case, and a folded-up copy of Chapter 7 of my current novel, Any Place I Hang My Hat, with a footer that indicates it was printed out on July 31, 2003; my shopping list and "Ann and Al's anniversary" is scribbled on it. Near the lamp, there's a CD sent to me by a pal, a Vietnam vet who has lately fallen in love with World War II love songs. It includes guaranteed tear-jerkers like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Something to Remember You By." And an empty Diet Coke can.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    No real horror stories. I was able to find an agent fairly quickly, and Compromising Positions was sold within a couple of months. It was only later that she told me it had been turned down by four or five publishers. The reasons were as varied as the publishers: The novel was too comic for a mystery; no one wanted to read a whodunit with a Long Island housewife as the detective; it might make a good paperback original published by somebody else; it was too different.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
    What I'm interested in is any new, original voice. I was so happy for the chance to choose a novel for the Today show Book Club, because having read Matthew Sharpe's The Sleeping Father, I said to myself, "Hey, this is an extraordinary talent, someone who can interweave humor with great sadness." I felt that same "what a unique talent!" thrill when I read Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist and Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Most of all, keep writing. If you have finished a novel and have done everything you possibly can to make it good (no waiting around for a dream editor to work with you), then began another novel. Also, if you spent six months or four years writing, it should be worth a few weeks of your time to research finding an agent and also to work up a brilliant one-page query letter to be sent to agents.

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  • About the Writer
    *Susan Isaacs Home
    * Biography
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    In Our Other Stores
    * Signed, First Editions by Susan Isaacs
    *Compromising Positions, 1978
    *Close Relations, 1980
    *Almost Paradise, 1984
    *Shining Through, 1988
    *Magic Hour, 1991
    *After All These Years, 1993
    *Lily White, 1996
    *Red, White and Blue: A Novel, 1998
    *Brave Dames and Wimpettes, 1999
    *Long Time No See, 2001
    *Any Place I Hang My Hat, 2004
    *Past Perfect: A Novel, 2007
    Photo by Elizabeth Stoll