Meet Susie Flatau
Susie Kelly Flatau is a writer and speaker who spent over twenty years teaching English in high school and community college. In 1994, Flatau founded the Casa del Sol Writing Studio, offering workshops and consultation in women's studies, creative writing, legacy work, book reviews, bookbinding and more. The author of four books, she lives in Austin, TX. This interview, originally published in The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 6, No. 1) was conducted by Susan Wittig Albert in March, 2002.
Visit Susie's website.
Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 03/15/2002
You've certainly had a wide variety of writing experiences. Tell us about some of these activities, Susie.
My husband is always introducing me as a "woman juggling life." I think his term sheds some light on the roles that help me identify the professional avenues down which I travel. (Thank goodness you didn't ask me to list the non-professional roles—like every woman I know, that list is infinite.) My years as a teacher cemented my love of working with others in the role of mentor, of "fire starter." I find joy in curiosity and energy in creation. Fortunately, I have been able to transfer this joy from teaching into a freelance arena that includes writing, speaking and workshop facilitation.
When I left the classroom in 1994, I founded Casa del Sol Writing Studio to carry out a career in personal writing as well as creative and inspirational workshops designed to guide others to write, to explore, to gather their life stories. The studio's first activity was the creation of a monthly women's group. We called ourselves the "Fatter than Barbie; Stronger than Ken" group. We gathered to write, to read and discuss women's works, to explore our inner psychology—and of course, to share food and drink. What a delicious platter of spirits shared their lives: women who ranged in ages from 19 to 82 years
Today, I continue to create and conduct writing workshops of different types with people of all ages—older women and men, middle-school children, and others. I work with such organizations as the Story Circle Network, the Writers' League of Texas, and the National Association of Women Writers.
Most recently, I've been working with a group we call "Women on the Fringe." In connection with my next book, Red Boots & Attitudes, our first efforts will raise money for the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Austin. We plan to meet "as a cause comes calling," and it is our collective goal to celebrate life, to give back to a universe that has given so much to us.
Your first published book was called Counter Culture Texas. Tell us about it. How did you come to write it?
When I left classroom teaching, I found myself floundering, wandering. I wondered how I would introduce myself to others when they shot that inevitable question my way: "And what do you do for a living?" I knew it was time to pursue another dream, a dream of writing books, but I just wasn't prepared for the mourning, the sense of loss and emptiness I felt when I could no longer reply, "I am a teacher." I began wanting to answer those queries with three of Emily Dickinson's lines: "I'm a nobody/who are you?/are you a nobody too?" But I refrained. I had faith that I would one day be able to respond, "I am a writer."
I spent time in self-exploration, examining my hopes, my dreams, my goals. And when I walked out of the mist, it was clear that it was time to gather tales about people, about places, about legacies—those stories that are the fodder and foundation of folklore. And then fate confirmed this new direction. A close friend, a photographer, suggested that we collaborate on a project, and when we brainstormed, ideas swirled like leaves swept up into a whirlwind, spinning wilder and wilder until I closed my eyes and invited a favorite childhood image: myself at 9 or 10, sitting at the soda fountain counter at Smitty's Pharmacy in League City, Texas. That did it. The vivid memory of that counter and the many hamburgers, French fries, and cherry cokes I consumed while I chit-chatted with the waitress and friends was the "muse that came calling." Within an hour, my collaborator and I had the framework for a book on the "counter culture."
We began our travels off and on for several months along Texas' back roads (and some main roads), searching for old-time "Mom and Pop" places where a counter still serves as a central gathering place. We didn't have a publisher at that time, but that didn't matter. This was a life journey, and this pilgrim was in search of stories that captured the spirit of these everyday heroines and heroes.
Ultimately, a regional publisher picked up the work, and the result is a book graced by the spirit and history of 44 landmark gathering places—diners, dancehalls, honkytonks, drugstores, and more—and the women and men who shared their stories. By the time the book was published, four of the people I had interviewed had died and three of the old businesses had closed their doors. Those occurrences confirmed the importance of this work for me. People and places are mortal, their stories are immortal.
Another of your projects has resulted in a fascinating book called From My Mother's Hands. What's the story behind this book?
This is a very personal book for me, and it's hard to speak briefly about its energy and spirit. First, it's important to know that my mother and I did not have a continuous, kind, and forgiving relationship. Our time together was an uphill-downhill journey. Sometimes we rested in separate and opposing valleys, sometimes we picnicked lovingly on the same hilltop. Fortunately, we were enjoying the world from the same hilltop when they diagnosed her lung cancer. After 15 hard-fought months, Mama succumbed; she was only 59 years old, just a baby in terms of a lifetime. When she died, I experienced an un-tethering. I sank into a depression, a fog of self-sorrow.
But optimism and hope were among the many blessings and qualities my mother passed along to me. Although she was often struck by arrows of hard luck, despair, loss, and anger, she never lost faith and was not afraid of hard work, of re-focusing and exploring a new direction. So, once again, I walked through the mist and fog, and saw the next chapter of my writing life. I had no inclination to write about our relationship, but was driven to compile a work in which daughters could pay tribute to their mothers, their mentors. Fortunately, the publisher of Counter Culture Texas had asked me to submit another book proposal. I did, this one named for a journal entry I had written while on a two-week trip in Spain to heal from Mama's death: From My Mother's Hands.
I selected a format that would allow me to honor the daughters' words. I spent two hours with each interviewee, tape-recording their thoughts, their tributes, their images of mothers. Prior to the meeting, I gave each one the interview questions, which allowed them to think ahead. The tape recorder freed me to listen, to connect the dots between information, and to think on my feet. It also enabled the interviewee to speak as she thought, without worrying about whether I was getting all of her words. Back in the studio, I transcribed each daughter's words into a computer file. If I had received photographs at the interview (the book contains over a hundred), I had them copied and enlarged and hung them on the wall near my computer so I could see their faces as I transcribed: for me, visual images stir up the creative process. This transcribing, while it was often challenging and time-consuming, allowed the daughters' words to play again in my mind. I noted the nuances in their voices, cried again at their tears, and smiled at the burst of laughter captured on tape. I fell in love with both daughter and mother over and over again.
The next step was to carefully edit their words into a narrative that would flow as naturally as a conversation, and to write profiles of each daughter. My editor also suggested that I collect a recipe from each daughter. At first I resisted, since I don't spend a lot of time cooking, but in hindsight, I am grateful for the idea. The daughters loved talking about the food their mothers created, whether they were gourmet dishes or comfort food.
As I share these stories at my speaking engagements, those women are in the room with us. Their stories touch hearts; their words evoke memories. And women often write to tell me that the book has inspired them to interview their mothers, or begin their mother journals. For me, that is an intense emotional reward.
Your latest book takes an entirely different direction. Tell us about it, Susie.
Yes, and I love going in different directions! I'm one of those women who cannot do the same thing over and over and over again. I often tell audiences that my writing is like my garden—untamed and filled with surprises, like the shamrock amid the oregano, the daffodil periscoping up through the santalina, or the Mexican mint marigold in low mounds, among the lavender. So it is no surprise that this third book, Red Boots & Attitude, is altogether different from my first two works. When I see it in terms of my writing goals, however, it becomes clear that Red Boots is just another step on the path down which I'm traveling in my life work.
In the two decades I've spent sharing the works and voices of American authors with students, I found myself yearning for more women's words, women's voices. Call it serendipity or synchronicity, but when the next messenger came knocking, I knew it was time to honor that yearning. The result is a deliciously diverse collection of fiction, nonfiction and poetry (65 works in all) by 34 veteran and emerging Texas women writers from diverse backgrounds and heritages.
One of the many strengths of the book is that the reader does not see the author's work through a keyhole. Each author had the opportunity to submit up to three works, in the same or different genres. There is a photograph and a profile of each author.
The title, Red Boots & Attitude, makes me want to slap my knee and do a Texas two-step. Every time I say it, I throw my shoulders back and grin. The title came about during a brainstorming session with the book's coeditor, Diane Fanning. We were laughing about life and love and women and writers, and those three words just popped into our conversation. You know when a good thing comes your way—and there it was, the title and "green light" for a new project.
As a lifewriter, you've mostly focused on helping others tell their stories. What about your own lifewriting? Do you journal? Are you writing or planning a memoir?
When I'm asked about my own personal writing and journaling, I feel a twinge of guilt But this lessens all the time, because I have so many ideas in my head. I've kept a journal—actually a multitude of journals—for approximately three decades. Along with those notebooks, my files are filled with essays and poetry and short stories and story ideas and one-liners and partially written works. I even have an entire rough draft of a novella that needs polishing. I have walked with my fiction, blindfolded, out to the end of the critic's plank once, and was fortunate to have that short story selected for inclusion in New Texas 2000.
As I see it, my works are more often than not bits and pieces, snippets, taken from the universal life story in which I exist. As a writer, I use the life that surrounds me in all my works. I simply give myself permission to "blur the edges of reality." I know that one day I will allow myself the greatest gift, the gift of time, to sit still and put my "true" life story into stories. But for now, I am a stone skipping across a mountain lake, dancing on the diamond sparkles cast by the sun. And with each connection of stone and water, a strange thing happens. For a millisecond, I touch the earth, and then, just as quickly I am airborne again and dancing into the unknown.
What I do know is that organizations such as Story Circle Network are essential to my writing life, to my lifewriting. There is a creative flame in the synergy of women who gather and share and encourage. As I look ahead, I see a folder, a file cabinet, a studio crowded with ideas. Ideas I wish to bring to tangible form. And as I look around, I see I am surrounded by beautiful women who are overflowing with stories, and their words must be preserved. That is the spirit and philosophy of Story Circle Network.