Susan Elderkin

An interview with Susan Elderkin

Read our interview with Susan Elderkin, shortlisted for the first-ever Writers' Bursaries 2000. Is there a story about how you wrote or came to publish your first book that you'd like to share with us?

Susan Elderkin:

The most extraordinary series of coincidences paved the way for me writing my first book. I had started writing about a fat man doing yoga in the desert when I was at UEA (the Creative Writing MA taught at the time by Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain) and when I left I decided to go out to Arizona and live alone in the desert, as my character Theo does. I arrived in LA, intending somehow to get a car and drive out to Tucson, but without enough money to hire a car for several months. One night I was in Starbucks and I got chatting to a guy at the next table, and I got an overwhelming urge to tell him I needed a cheap car. Straight away he said, You can borrow mine (it was a clapped out VW Beetle) for 50 bucks a month. So a few days later I set off in this guy's Beetle and just about made it in one piece to Tucson. After a week in a motel, I started wondering how I could find somewhere cheap to stay in that was out in the middle of the desert, and I went to a poetry reading at the university one night, sat down next to this woman, and got an overwhelming urge to tell her I needed a house in the middle of the desert. And she said, "You can have mine--I'm going to Georgia tomorrow for three months to look after my mother." It turned out her house was in Calle de Suerte--Lucky Street. When things like that happen, you know you've got to get on with your end of the deal. So that's where I started to write Sunset over Chocolate Mountains . Do you have a day job and career that you combine with writing, and if so, what is it?

Elderkin: I've been working as a freelance journalist for the last six years or so. Though I spend a lot of time complaining that it doesn't leave me enough time to write fiction, it does provides a good antidote, because it gets me out of the house and talking to people and finding out about how other people live. I think being a journalist is the most amazing scam--it gives you the licence to phone up almost anybody in the world and say, can I come and ask you lots of nosy questions about yourself. What other job allows you to do that? Great for a fiction writer. If you now write full time, what did you do before? How and why did you make the shift?


I know this is a real cliché, but I've known I would write fiction since I was really young--it's about the first thing I can remember feeling strongly about. I can remember learning to write and thinking, this is important, because I'll need to be able to spell if I'm going to write books. So when I went into journalism, it was because I thought it would be good writing practice, which it was, and I went freelance so that I could free up some time each week for fiction. What are the key challenges to being an author in the 21st century?

Elderkin: There are an extraordinary number of books published each year and if you add all the magazines and newspapers and everything else that is on offer to us to read, it can make you feel quite nauseous at the thought of all those words, all that newsprint. Writing something that competes with all that is quite a daunting thought. Having said that, when you sit down to write, it's such a peculiarly personal drive to express something, that you don't really stop to think about whether this is a necessary addition to the book mountain. In 1929 Virginia Woolf said that a writer needed £50 a year income and a room of her own; what do you think an author needs now in the way of practical support?

Elderkin: I might want to up the income a bit, but otherwise I totally agree. You have to step right into the world in your head when you're writing, and to do that you need to leave the real world behind for a while, and that isn't really possible when you're earning a living as well. I find it hard swapping from one mind-set to another--the working, journalist side of my life which is busy and buzzy and all about deadlines--to the quiet, contemplative mind-set which you need to write fiction. You can waste half a day getting yourself out of one mind-set and into another, and if you can only afford to write fiction one or two days a week, that's a lot of time. If I could write full-time, my next novel would get done in a third of the time. How do you evaluate the responses and feedback of the people who buy and read your books?


It's totally wonderful when you get a letter from a reader. The only author I've ever written to who I didn't know was Roald Dahl when I was about eight, and I find it really touching that there are adults out there who take the time to sit down and write and say what they felt about your book. It makes it all become real--better than a review in a newspaper any day. What's the most striking thing a reader--not a literary critic or reviewer--has said to you about your book?

Elderkin: That they ended up missing a day's work because they started reading it in bed in the morning and couldn't stop... Do you think the UK is a good place to be a writer?

Elderkin: Better than LA where every other person is a writer so none of you gets taken seriously Name a book you wish you'd written. Why?


Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. He captures the characters and their world with this extraordinarily delicate, poetic touch--as if they are butterflies that he can't grasp too firmly in case they're damaged, and yet you get them completely. He's a totally wonderful writer. Do you think creative writing should be encouraged and supported within formal academic institutions? What are the upsides and downsides of this?

Elderkin: Yes I think it's really sad that kids stop writing stories at school when they hit 12 or 13. It would be great if creative writing was still taught after that. If it can be taken as an MA, why can't it be taken as a GCSE?

Related Bookshelf

Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains

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Author Profile:

Born in 1968, Susan Elderkin is a graduate of Cambridge University and of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. She has worked as an ice-cream seller, an English teacher in a Slovakian shoe factory and, for the past six years, as a freelance journalist.