Susan Straight's most recent novel Take One Candle Light a Room is the final book in Tell Me More's Summer Blend Book Club series.
The main character Fantine grew up in a tiny rural community of mixed-race families in California. She becomes a jet-setting travel writer who creates a life far away from the drugs and violence that plague her cousins. But she's forced to go home and face her own demons when her godson gets into trouble.
In an interview with host Michel Martin, Straight says writing the opening scene was a long and difficult process. It describes a photo from 1958 of five girls preparing to hop into a truck and drive across the country.
"These five young women have to flee their tiny town in Louisiana in the 1950s because of a serial rapist," Straight says. "This is a man who feels that because these five young women are of mixed race their only use to him might be sex. And he's already targeted three girls, so these five remaining young women are taken onto an Apache truck and they're driven to the bus station and they are sent to California."
These women have five daughters, including two who got involved with drugs and abusive men, and two who married young and bore children. Then there's Fantine. She takes off for a new life but keeps the photo to remind her of her roots.
Fantine's light skin makes her racially ambiguous. It becomes her passport to create a new identity. Straight describes the character as a modern-day version of someone who's passing. She constantly reinvents herself.
"She feels so ambiguous about coming from a rural settlement in southern California. In the end, that's been kind of her downfall because when she rejects who she is, she's really rejecting her parents; and she's rejecting her siblings," Straight says. "But she's also really lonely. I think Fantine is that kind of person that we say 'there are two kinds of people in the world - those who stay and those who leave.' And Fantine always knew she was going to leave."
The Use of Dialogue And Personal Influences
Straight says the novel's characters are all people she grew up with and listened to while growing up in Riverside, Calif. Down the street from her were families from Louisiana. The men in those homes only spoke French.
In the book, Fantine's parents speak in a mix of Creole and English.
"I'm trying to make the reader feel as if he or she is right there in the conversation. I don't manipulate it too much," says Straight.
Straight still lives in Riverside, just three blocks from where she was born. She has three daughters with her ex-husband who is African-American.
"For someone like me who's lived in the same place her whole life," says Straight, "there are all these family stories and legends passed down."
She recalls a large family gathering she attended when she was 18. Someone asked how everyone got to California, and another person responded with a story of having a beautiful daughter. They heard a man was planning to "come get her" so the family packed their belongings in the middle of the night and came to stay with their cousins in the West.
Straight says a combination of that story and her own experience raising three mixed-race daughters inspired her to write this novel.
"From the time they were very small, people would comment on their hair or skin tone. I had one very chilling moment when someone said to me: 'Well that one's so pretty, she'll never have to work.' And there was this really weird sexual undertone - and she was 10," says Straight.
She says her ex-husband still feels immensely helpless to protect his daughters, though they're now grown women. She attributes that helplessness to society and how society has always perceived women who look a certain way.
"YOU A LIE!" someone shouted from the alleyway near where I walked downtown, where homeless men had congregated, and it sent me directly to my childhood. "You a damn lie!"
That was how people accused each other back in Rio Seco. Not "That's a lie," or "You're a liar."
You were the lie.
"I ain't no lie, you drunk-ass — "
The shouts faded when I left the hot sidewalk that smelled faintly of beer and pee and onions, off Spring Street, and went into the lobby of a beautifully restored building that used to be a toy factory. Two people were already in the elevator. The young woman held the door for me and smiled.
"Hi, I'm Donovan," she said. "I'm the publicist's assistant. What a great building!"
"It used to be like a Third World country on this block," the man said. Perfect pressed shirt. Artful stubble. He nodded. "Jeremiah. I'm one of Arthur's lawyers."
They looked at me expectantly. "FX Antoine," I said.
Donovan, whose hair was a shining auburn bob, said, "Oh, I loved your last article in Vogue! It was on Belize, right?"
Jeremiah looked sideways at me. "Your mom named you FX?" he said.
I smiled. People from my childhood didn't know the initials I used for my travel essays, because no one from home ever read them. I had just finished one about Oaxaca for Vogue, and an article on Bath for Travel and Leisure. At noon today, I'd gotten off a plane from Zurich. I was working on a Switzerland piece for Immerse, the funky travel magazine where I had regular assignments.
No one who read my essays or assigned them knew my real name.
"She did," I said to Jeremiah as the elevator door opened.
The loft had cement floors the color and texture of limestone cliffs, and ebony-wood furniture, and grass growing in pots. Arthur Graves's new place. He'd made a career by moving to a different city each year and writing a book, always about himself — a man who searched for the right apartment or house where he could paint, who always found a local woman to cook for him and another local woman to love him. He'd done Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon, San Francisco, and Avignon. After a year, he'd leave for another place. Another love.
Arthur Graves actually looked like his jacket photo — white-blond hair combed severely back from his tanned forehead and curling like commas behind his ears, black horn-rimmed glasses. Very British. He stood near a table piled with empanadas and fruit, his new book propped on a side table with a vase full of white roses. He'd been in Argentina this time. Not Buenos Aires but Cordoba, and the first chapter had been published in Immerse. So here we were — magazine writers, editors and publicists, people from the Los Angeles Times, and people from Hollywood because this book was being made into a movie.
I was headed for the empanadas when my phone rang. Rick, my editor at Immerse. "Hey, FX, you at the launch party?"
"Yes," I said.
"Tony's there with you?"
"No," I said, bending to get a plate.
"Come on, get him out of the house. This guy from The Wall Street Journal said he might come. He wants to cover Immerse, and if Tony's at the party, that makes it worthwhile."
Tony had just won a Pulitzer for a photo essay on children without fathers — he'd gone to rural Mexico, Nigeria, Kentucky, Montana, and Iraq and shot pictures of children holding cell phones, talking to the absent fathers whose portraits were beside them. "Tony doesn't go out on Wednesdays. And I'm not staying long — I need to go home and sleep. I only came to check out some new connections."
"Try," Rick said. "I'll be there in a while."
I stood near a window, looking outside at the heat waves shimmering off the skyline and the parked cars below glinting like silver teeth. We were on the fifth floor. Down there, homeless men were gathering in an alley, settling along the wall though it was not near sunset yet. From here, the green pup tents, brown cardboard squares, and shopping carts made the alley look like a cul-de-sac with absolute boundaries and property lines. Two men were shirtless, their dark backs wide with muscle.
Grady Jackson might be out there, arranging cardboard or sleeping however he had in the streets for so many years. Grady Jackson, who'd been a walking fool, who'd made me know I was a walking fool way back when I was fifteen. He brought me here to LA the first time, when he stole a car and I climbed into the backseat. I had thought of Grady every day of my life since then. But he was a fool for love, too, and I would never be. He was homeless, living somewhere in an alley or under an overpass, and I lived in Los Feliz in an Art Deco apartment building.
We had been kids together, and he fell in love with Glorette. Then he'd stolen something from her — the man she loved — so she'd have to marry him. But she could never love him, and when she left him, he lost his mind. He came here and lived on Skid Row. Glorette had lost her heart, and filled the emptiness every day with the smoky vapors of crack.
Excerpted from Take One Candle Light a Room by Susan Straight. Copyright 2010 by Susan Straight. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon. All rights reserved.