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Life & Work with Susan Zurenda

Today we’d like to introduce you to Susan Zurenda.

Hi Susan, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I have always liked to write and was a voracious reader throughout my childhood and adolescence, but I didn’t consider becoming an author until college when I became interested in journalism and was the co-editor of my college newspaper. A great deal of my time and energy during my youth was devoted to the piano. I entered college as a music major, but a class I took in Southern Literature began to change my direction. At some point, I realized I loved reading and writing about literature more than I wanted to be a piano major (though I love music and am grateful for all that I learned during my many years of devotion to playing the piano).

Initially, I dreaded writing English essays because I was terrified of being able to write well about literature. Eventually, though, I gained more confidence. My first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. Sometimes, during downtime when I wasn’t out interviewing or writing a news or feature article at my typewriter, I’d pull out a short story I’d started.

I never tried to publish my first story (it was amateurish), but it got me started writing fiction. I did actually use an idea in that first story for a scene in my debut novel “Bells for Eli’ (Mercer University Press, March 2020; paperback edition March 2021). I had a 33-year career teaching English to high school and college students and published a lot of short fiction that won various awards during this period.

“Bells for Eli” has won a number of awards: Gold Medal (first place) winner for Best First Book—Fiction in the 2021 IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Awards), a Foreword Indie Book Award finalist, a Winter 2020 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, a 2020 Notable Indie on Shelf Unbound, a 2020 finalist for American Book Fest Best Book Awards, and Pushcart Prize nomination in 2021.

Bells for Eli, Delia Green’s first person narrative of her relationship with her first cousin Eli Winfield throughout their childhood into their college years, is a tender and engaging Coming of Age story in which fate takes with one hand and gives with the other in a time and place of social constraints. It is a world where family secrets must stay hidden, present and past. The novel explores the power of culture, family, friends, bullies, scars, and lovers on two cousins devoted to each other. Though cruelty and pain threaten to dominate, determination, otherworldliness, and most powerfully love, hope, and connectedness combine to enact their mysterious forces.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
I had 50+ author events scheduled among eight states for my book tour to present “Bells for Eli.” in March 2020. I was on tour for a week and a half before the pandemic shut down everything. My hometown launch was the last event. My heart sank again and again as events canceled, one month at a time. We would reschedule, only to cancel again. I had to accept the inevitable.

Similarly, when the paperback edition of “Bells for Eli” came out in spring 2021, so did the Delta variant of Covid. I planned live events for the paperback tour, but some were canceled because of the Delta variant. The private events have been super successful, but attendance at the public ones that weren’t canceled was somewhat affected by the fear of Delta. Though this time that has been difficult for everyone, not just debut novelists, I have been thankful for online and filmed author events.

I’ve Zoomed with private groups, been interviewed on Facebook live multiple times by bookstore owners and book people, spoken at length on literary podcasts, participated in author panels hosted by arts and humanities organizations, and appeared the SCETV author series “By the River,’ to name some. Particularly gratifying has been my experience of seeing authors supporting other authors during the pandemic.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
After teaching English full-time for 33 years on the college and high school levels, I began work as a book publicist for Magic Time Literary Publicist as head of media relations. Working for Magic Time threw me into the world of many well-known authors, helping me realize it was time for me to write the novel in my own heart. I still do a bit of work for Magic Time but have pulled way back since the publication of “Bells for Eli” to market and publicize my own novel.

One thing that sets me apart from many authors is the mature age at which I wrote my first novel. Older writers have the advantage of more life experience and more years of reading. My advice is for older writers to embrace those advantages. To have lived and learned is invaluable in creating characters and their circumstances. Also, I believe anyone who wants to succeed at writing must read widely and constantly.

What I know is what we read—I’m not talking about content so much as the words, sentences, style, tone, and effect—seeps into our subconscious and makes us better writers. You can take all the courses and get all the degrees in writing you want, but in the end, it’s reading that affects our writing most of all.

I couldn’t carve out that time in my younger years when I was teaching English, raising daughters, and taking care of ailing parents, among many other things. to write a long work. Instead, I honed my art by publishing short stories. Being older has afforded me more uninterrupted time to write.

How do you think about happiness?
What a question and where to start? Many things make me happy: my family, especially my grandchildren, riding my bicycle, swimming, kayaking, walking anywhere, but especially on the beach, a cocktail hour full of talk with girlfriends. And one thing I look forward to every day is reading. I don’t watch much television, but I’m never without my head in a good novel.

Relaxing in the bath with a glass of wine and my book of the moment is my definition of bliss. I suppose there are myriad reasons why I love reading but most importantly is literature reveals truths about what it means to be human. It forces us to see as others see, to feel as others feel, to connect others’ experiences to ourselves, and thereby achieve greater understanding (the good, the bad, and the ugly) of our own human nature.

And reading, for me, leads to one of my greatest passions: writing fiction that creates worlds and characters that are meaningful in portraying the human experience. In addition to the satisfaction that creating a story brings, feedback from readers who are moved by my debut novel Bells for Eli has been a tremendous joy.

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