Interview with author Susan Lynn Meyer

I recent­ly post­ed a review of a fic­tion pic­ture book called NEW SHOES. I love the book so much, and today I’m thrilled to wel­come the author, Susan Lynn Mey­er, to the blog! Susan was kind enough to answer a few of my ques­tions. I hope you’ll enjoy get­ting to know her a lit­tle bet­ter. I know I did!

Susan Lynn Meyer

LT: Wel­come, Susan! I’m so excit­ed to learn more of the sto­ry behind the sto­ry of NEW SHOES.
SLM: Hi Lau­rie! Thanks so much for your inter­est in NEW SHOES.
LT: How did you first become inter­est­ed in writ­ing about the Jim Crow time peri­od, and what in par­tic­u­lar led to think­ing about fram­ing it in the con­text of try­ing on shoes?
SLM: I was read­ing about seg­re­ga­tion from the 1940s onward both just because I was inter­est­ed and as research for a nov­el I just fin­ished writ­ing. (It is called SKATING WITH THE STATUE OF LIBERTY and it’s about Gus­tave, a twelve-year-old French Jew­ish refugee who comes to New York in 1942 because his fam­i­ly is flee­ing the Nazis.) I was star­tled to come across a piece of infor­ma­tion I hadn’t known about—that in many stores, African-Amer­i­cans were not per­mit­ted to try on clothes, hats, or shoes. I thought a lot about what that must have felt like, espe­cial­ly for a child encoun­ter­ing it for the first time. As I mulled that over, it began to shape itself into a story.
LT: I love that, how one book project sparks and informs anoth­er, and in a dif­fer­ent genre and on fair­ly dif­fer­ent sub­ject, too. How much research did you do for this book? Can you tell us about that process? Dur­ing your research, did any­thing sur­prise you, catch you off guard, or make you change your planned course for the book?
SLM: I’m lucky because I have access to a ter­rif­ic aca­d­e­m­ic library since I’m also an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor at Welles­ley Col­lege. I went to the stacks, checked out a lot of books about Jim Crow, and start­ed read­ing! Among the most intrigu­ing things I came across were accounts of the ways, large and small, that African-Amer­i­cans coped with Jim Crow, the psy­cho­log­i­cal and prac­ti­cal strate­gies they used. Par­ents would make sure to bring along water so that their kids didn’t have to face seg­re­gat­ed drink­ing foun­tains. Peo­ple would refuse to patron­ize restau­rants where pro­pri­etors refused to seat them and would only sell them food by hand­ing it out the back door. I loved the sto­ry of one black teenag­er who had a job at a gro­cery store and who was infu­ri­at­ed by the stu­pid­i­ty of the fact that brown eggs and white eggs had dif­fer­ent prices—and that white eggs were cheap­er because they were “bet­ter.” So he’d secret­ly switch the eggs around, mix­ing them up in the car­tons! (I put that inci­dent in the nov­el I just fin­ished, but I end­ed up tak­ing it out. I love it so much that I may use it again someday!)
SLM: The hard­est thing about writ­ing NEW SHOES (it went through 23 drafts over sev­er­al years) was fig­ur­ing out what Ella Mae and Char­lotte could do to resist the unfair sit­u­a­tion they found them­selves in. The solu­tion they come up with isn’t per­fect, in the sense that the shoes are still sec­ond-hand, but peo­ple can buy them with dig­ni­ty. Sales at Mr. Johnson’s shoe store, where Ella Mae hasn’t been allowed to try on shoes, are like­ly to suf­fer as a result, which is a nice addi­tion­al benefit.
LT: In EMMANUEL’S DREAM, I wrote about a dis­abled man from Ghana, despite being none of those things myself. I know peo­ple have ques­tioned if I should’ve been the one to write that sto­ry, despite the fact that I did exten­sive research and had the man­u­script vet­ted many times along the way, includ­ing by Emmanuel him­self. IT was a sto­ry I felt I had to tell, in part because no one else had, but also because I could so iden­ti­fy with the emo­tions involved, even if not the spe­cif­ic expe­ri­ences. Clear­ly you also believe that it is okay to write out­side of our own cul­ture, as long as we do so with care and respect. What do you say to peo­ple who ques­tion your author­i­ty to write this book?
SLM: All I can real­ly say is that I write the sto­ries that come to me. When I found out about this aspect of Jim Crow, it real­ly hit home for me, and I mused a lot about what that would have felt like, espe­cial­ly for a child encoun­ter­ing it for the first time. Imag­in­ing and won­der­ing led me to this sto­ry. I’m not demo­graph­i­cal­ly sim­i­lar to any of the pro­tag­o­nists in the books I’ve had pub­lished so far, actually—I’m not a black Amer­i­can girl liv­ing in the 1950s and I’m not a French Jew­ish boy liv­ing in the 1940s either (as in my nov­el BLACK RADISHES or the sequel to it that I just com­plet­ed, SKATING WITH THE STATUE OF LIBERTY). Writ­ing fic­tion is about imag­in­ing your way into a char­ac­ter who is not you—and try­ing to do it so effec­tive­ly that your read­er is drawn in as well. Writ­ing for chil­dren espe­cial­ly involves this kind of leap—because all the writ­ers are adults try­ing to imag­ine their ways into the minds of chil­dren. Writ­ing across gen­der or time or nation­al­i­ty also requires this kind of leap.
SLM: But in order to be per­sua­sive to the read­er, that imag­i­na­tive leap has to be an informed one, and it was also impor­tant for me to get the reac­tion of black friends to NEW SHOES when it was in draft. One ear­ly read­er told me some­thing that real­ly res­onat­ed with me. I had ini­tial­ly had Ella Mae’s moth­er direct­ly express anger after the shoe store inci­dent. But this friend said that her old­er rel­a­tives would not have talked that way about racism to their chil­dren, that to pro­tect the child, they would have encour­aged the child to think pos­i­tive­ly. When I thought about my own old­er rel­a­tives and also about the way I am as a par­ent, that felt so intu­itive­ly right to me. So I changed Ella Mae’s mother’s answer. Now she tells Ella Mae that she should think about how nice her feet will look for school. And that feels so much more like what a par­ent in those cir­cum­stances would do. I’m real­ly grate­ful for that reader’s ear­ly response.
LT: Oh, I love that answer! So, how exact­ly were you able to “imag­ine your way into a char­ac­ter who is not you” in this case? How did you put your­self in some­one else’s shoes (no pun intend­ed), and tell a sto­ry that—on the sur­face, at least—you have no direct expe­ri­ence with? What was the per­son­al con­nec­tion for you?
SLM: In some ways, my own expe­ri­ences inevitably find their way into any­thing that I write. I was one of six chil­dren, mon­ey was lim­it­ed, and we wore a lot of hand-me-downs. I now enjoy telling stu­dents at the schools I vis­it about an absolute­ly humil­i­at­ing expe­ri­ence I once had with hand-me-down boy’s long under­wear. (Don’t ask!) My par­ents also had me and my broth­ers and sis­ters pol­ish our school shoes every week­end and we washed the shoelaces when we did it. I’ve nev­er asked to find out if any­body else did that! I wasn’t great as a kid about doing chores—who is?—but I actu­al­ly didn’t mind pol­ish­ing my shoes and I found wash­ing the dirt out of the shoelaces, the way Ella Mae does, very sat­is­fy­ing. On a deep­er lev­el, there’s the issue of injus­tice of all kinds, which I was very attuned to as a child. I often said furi­ous­ly, “It isn’t fair!”—and I hope kids will have an intense reac­tion of this kind to the sit­u­a­tion in NEW SHOES.
LT: Well, I’ve nev­er pol­ished shoes or washed shoelaces, but I’m sure almost every kid—including me—has roared, “It isn’t fair!” It’s kind of sad that we become more desen­si­tized to injus­tice as we get older.
LT: I think every book teach­es us some­thing new, about the world, about our­selves, or about the craft of writ­ing. What have you learned as a result of writ­ing this book? What sur­prised you the most dur­ing the process?
SLM: I loved hear­ing from Eric Velasquez about his method of illus­tra­tion, and it real­ly made me real­ize how much a pic­ture book is a tru­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive process. Eric has mod­els pose, takes pho­tographs, and then paints from those pho­tographs. He chose two girls who were friends to pose for Ella Mae and Char­lotte, because he want­ed their close­ness to show in their body lan­guage. It is won­der­ful to me to look at his paint­ings and to think about all the peo­ple besides me—Eric Velasquez, the mod­els, as well as all the peo­ple work­ing at Hol­i­day House—who came togeth­er to cre­ate this book. I also espe­cial­ly love the end papers Eric designed for the book, which are trac­ings of one of his girl model’s feet. They encap­su­late what the sto­ry is about so won­der­ful­ly in a sim­ple and pow­er­ful visu­al image.
LT: Yes, I loved the end papers, too! And the illus­tra­tions are so beau­ti­ful­ly real­is­tic. Kudos to Eric! 
LT: I always said that I would know I’d made it when I received one let­ter from one child say­ing that some­thing I wrote made a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in his or her life. How do you define suc­cess? Do you feel like you’ve achieved it? If not, what’s left on your to-do list?
SLM: I think I’m always going to want to write anoth­er book and get it pub­lished, so I don’t know if I’ll ever real­ly feel as if I’m at the point of suc­cess! But the oth­er day, I checked out a book from the pub­lic library, and it been read so many times that the pages were soft they were about to tear. What I want more than huge sales is to have my books find a home in libraries and stay there for many years wait­ing for a child to come along and pick them up. I think when I come upon a copy of one of my books in a library and the pages are as worn and soft as the pages of that book—that’s when I will have achieved success.
LT: That’s a won­der­ful image and a per­fect def­i­n­i­tion of success.
LT: Thanks so much for tak­ing the time to answer my ques­tions, Susan! It’s been love­ly to learn more about your process.
SLM: Thank you so much for hav­ing me on your blog!

2 thoughts on “Interview with author Susan Lynn Meyer”

    • Cathy, I’m a pon­der­er, too. I final­ly real­ized that it’s just part of my process. I tend to research and write rel­a­tive­ly quick­ly, but that darn pon­der­ing feels like it takes FOREVER! If I did­n’t do it, though, I’m sure the writ­ing and research­ing (not to men­tion the revis­ing) would take much longer. So, I’ve come to accept that the pon­der­ing is real work, if not the most impor­tant part of all.
      It’s nice to hear we’re not alone, though, isn’t it? 🙂


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.