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5 Minutes with Local Bestselling Author Susan Vreeland

The New York Times bestselling writer talks about her new book, ‘Lisette's List,' and her creative process

By Kimberly Cunningham

5 Minutes with Local Bestselling Author Susan Vreeland

Lisette’s List

5 Minutes with Local Bestselling Author Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland

University City resident and author Susan Vreeland has penned eight books, four of which have made the New York Times bestseller list, including Clara and Mr. Tiffany and Girl in Hyacinth Blue. She recently released her latest work, Lisette’s List, a historical fiction novel that weaves the events of World War II together with Vreeland’s personal love of art. Here, she talks about the story, the wisdom of Henry James, and the importance of reading other great literature.

What are some of the central themes in Lisette’s List?

The setting of Provence, World War II and France during the Occupation, the moral ambiguity of collaboration in order to protect the village, the paintings by Pissarro and Cézanne hidden and then threatened by Nazi theft.

What are some of the overarching lessons?

Lisette’s List shows how art uplifts the human spirit. The hunger to hurt is countered by the hunger to bless. One’s attitude determines one’s experience. What we disparage at first is often what is the best thing for us because it makes us grow. Forgiveness heals.

You’ve been on the NYT’s best-seller list four times. What was it like the first time you found out you’d make the list?

At first I couldn’t believe it because there are so many worthy novels. Besides the happiness, I felt humbled that my ideas were so honored. Seeing Girl in Hyacinth Blue on the list encouraged me to continue writing.

Are any of your books inspired by your life in San Diego?

In my 30 years as a literature teacher in the San Diego Unified School District (Madison and University City high schools), I taught much about imagery, figures of speech, and precise word choice. I have striven to develop these elements, which are present in the greatest fiction and poetry of England and America, in my own work.

How else did you finesse your craft?

Of course I attended writers conferences to hear accomplished contemporary writers, and I studied, oh how I studied, many books on the writing of fiction.

Please briefly describe your writing process. Do you sit down and write every morning or in the evening? Any rituals or superstitions? 

Since my novels are historical fiction, when I get an idea, I research it for at least six months. Eventually the historical characters come to life in my imagination, and relevant background material emerges. I write five drafts before I show it to a few trusted writers. On the ninth or tenth draft, I show it to my editor (Penguin Random House), and she gives me insight as to what needs improvement. Two or three more drafts are passed between us before we are both satisfied. Other writers are faster, but I know of no other way. I write new material in the mornings, and revise in the afternoons and many evenings, staying very focused.

What’s your cure for writer’s block?

I generally don’t experience what is called writer’s block, but if I did, I would go back to my original source material (research notes and my own preliminary character sketches) and mine them more deeply.

Any advice for the aspiring novelists out there?

My advice to beginning writers is the same as Henry James’ advice: “Try to be the kind of person upon whom nothing is lost.” Cultivating a keen sense of observation gives one details and story material that can be used years later. Beyond that, one must read, read, read, and note down extraordinarily beautiful or powerful or otherwise perfect sentences, and categorize them for later referral. Oh, and one must learn to revise multiple times.

Lisette’s List is available at Warwick’s (7812 Girard Avenue, La Jolla) and other booksellers.

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