An Interview with Susan Beale, Author of The Good Guy

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I’m so pleased to be celebrating paperback publication day of The Good Guy by Susan Beale with an interview with the author. The Good Guy is published in paperback today, 9th March 2017, by John Murray and is available for purchase by following the publisher links here.

The Good Guy

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Ted, a car-tyre salesman in 1960s suburban New England, is a dreamer who craves admiration. His wife, Abigail, longs for a life of the mind. Single-girl Penny just wants to be loved. When a chance encounter brings Ted and Penny together, he becomes enamoured and begins inventing a whole new life with her at its centre. But when this fantasy collides with reality, the fallout threatens everything, and everyone, he holds dear.

The Good Guy is a deeply compelling debut about love, marriage and what happens when good intentions and self-deception are taken to extremes.

An Interview with Susan Beale

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Susan. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?

Thank you. I’m delighted to be here. I grew up in Falmouth, Massachusetts, which is the second largest town on Cape Cod. In 1990 I married my Danish husband and we’ve been expats ever since. We started in the UK, moved to France, and then Belgium, and then, in 2012, back to the UK. I worked as a journalist and editor until our second son (we have four) was fifteen months old. The work-life balance wouldn’t balance, so I took a break that ended up lasting fifteen years. Faced with the prospect of starting from scratch in an industry that had been thoroughly disrupted, I decided to go for the moon shot and try to become a novelist. I wrote the first draft of my novel The Good Guy while on the creative writing MA course at Bath Spa University.

Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about The Good Guy?

It’s set in New England in the mid-sixties, just before the sexual revolution; conformity is reaching its high-water mark and white males without college degrees have never had it so good.

Ted McDougall is a university drop-out and an up-and-coming tyre salesman, living the American Dream in a tract housing development west of Boston, with his wife and childhood sweetheart, Abigail, and their baby daughter Mindy. Their troubles are relatively minor – Abigail misses her studies and struggles with the domestic arts; Ted interprets her sadness as dissatisfaction with him and his choice of career.

On the night he lands his biggest business deal to-date, Ted meets Penny and is enchanted, not only with her but also with what he sees as her glamorous, independent life. He repeatedly seeks her out, gradually conjuring a second life with her at its centre. He tells himself he can keep the two lives from colliding.

When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?

Probably when I was four or five, but it took me decades to admit, even to myself, that I wanted to write novels. I thought that novelists were born not made, and that I didn’t have the goods. I became a journalist because it’s considered a trade not an art – also because I’m very curious and I love asking people questions.

Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?

I hesitate to describe anything about the writing process as easy, but I’d say that dialogue, characterisation and description attract the bulk of my writing attention. My inter critic constantly badgers me with questions like: ‘Is that something that character would say or think?’, ‘What is their frame of reference?’, ‘What does he or she want?’; or ‘How would that place look, smell, sound?’ The inner critic isn’t as obsessed with things like pacing and suspense. I have to be more deliberate and conscious about those parts of storytelling.

(Interesting!)

What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?

I would love to tell you about the wonderful routine that have I created and to which I cling. Regular practice is one of two essential ingredients to becoming a good writer – the other being reading – and I aim to get a few hours of writing in every day. Ideally, early in the morning, so that by lunchtime I can do other things without feeling guilty. Maybe when my kids leave the nest, I’ll be able to manage it.

But I can’t throw too much shade my kids’ way. I’m a terrible procrastinator. I could read political websites until my eyeballs melted and the past twelve months, with Brexit and Trump, I’ve indulged in unhealthy levels of it. Being a political junkie the worst kind of vice because you can pretend it’s a virtue: ‘It’s my civic responsibility to stay informed!’ when, really, you’re just wasting time, avoiding the hard work of fiction, which is mapping a place that doesn’t yet exist.

Where I write is equally haphazard – I surf between the dining room table, the living room sofa and my bed. Sometimes I go to a café or the library, usually when things aren’t moving and I need a change of scenery or, more likely, when I’ve lost control due to advanced-stage procrastination.

(I think you may have just described a typical author approach to procrastination Susan!)

You were brought up in America but are now living in the UK. How has that background helped or hindered your writing?

Being an expat for basically my whole adult life has without a doubt helped my writing. No matter how well you integrate, you remain a bit of an outsider. It can be isolating on a personal level, but it’s a boon to an aspiring writer.

Twenty of those years were spent the French-speaking world, which is a whole other layer of otherness. My French is pretty good (vastly better than my middle school French teacher could have imagined, especially given that I dropped her course before the end of a single term) but it will never be equal to my English. I make stupid mistakes – mixing up the gender of nouns, blurting out the wrong verb tense or word order in a sentence. I’m good enough that I can generally spot the error the moment it’s left my mouth. It’s a continuous lesson in humility. It’s made me more reflective. I consider what I want to say, and the different ways I could say it, but if I worried too much about making mistakes, I’d never say or do anything.

I would add that seeing America from outside has been invaluable. It’s not always pretty, not always comfortable to watch, but, for a writer, it’s a gift.

(You’re making me want to brush up my French.)

You’ve recently completed an MA in creative writing. How has that impacted on your style?

I can’t recall a tutor commenting on any students’ style during the course. It was one of those things, like voice, that was assumed to be unique to every writer and they gave us wide latitude. That said, I hope that some things rubbed off on me. It would be a shame if working with writers such as Samantha Harvey, Philip Hensher and Tessa Hadley hadn’t affected my writing style in some (beneficial) way, but I’m at a loss to say how.

The Good Guy is your debut. How does it feel to be published?

Awesome.

The Good Guy has self-deception as one of its themes. Why did you choose to explore that theme?

Without self-deception, there wouldn’t be much of a story to The Good Guy. The three main characters all engage in it and it’s a major source of tension.

I wanted to dig deep into the phenomenon because I think it’s a fascinating human trait. We read or hear about people getting cheated or swindled and think, ‘How is it they didn’t know?’ We’re sure that we would see through such a scam, but the science indicates we probably wouldn’t, particularly if it was perpetrated by someone we loved.

The behavioural economist Dan Ariely wrote a terrific book called The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How we lie to everyone, especially ourselves. It’s about cheating in business, politics, school, and sports, but his conclusions are equally applicable to personal relationships.

All humans use motivated reasoning. We discredit information that doesn’t confirm to our world view and look for ways to dismiss it. It takes very little convincing for us to believe that the things we want to do are the things we ought to do. The more we have invested in a lie (emotionally or financially), the more likely we are to cling to it, even in the face of mounting evidence.

(Brilliantly put – couldn’t agree more!)

How did you go about researching detail to ensure The Good Guy was realistic?

My research began with my adoption papers, which were the inspiration for the story. Though literally written in my lifetime, they seemed to belong to a different world, one I was determined to understand. I read magazines from the time, and books such as The Feminine Mystique and Sex and the Single Girl; I looked at old photo albums, scoured the internet for pictures, old commercials, and the history of the places featured in the book, such the city of Lynn, Massachusetts, and Shoppers’ World, an open-air shopping centre, that was heralded as the Main Street of the future when it opened, but which was soon overshadowed by fully enclosed malls. My older cousin, who I adored, worked at the Jordan Marsh anchor store that was built to look like a flying saucer. I can’t remember going there myself, but I recall my grandmother talking about it in almost reverent tones. The television show Mad Men was a big help. It’s about a different socio-economic group, but the sets and costumes and the sense of the time are all beautifully portrayed.

The Good Guy has a very nostalgic cover. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?

All credit goes to the folks in the art department at John Murray, who created two wonderful covers for The Good Guy. For me, the paperback cover conjures an image of an important scene in the novel, where Ted spends an idyllic weekend at Penny’s mother’s house on Cape Cod. Nostalgic is the right word for it, the picture, the font and the colours are all heavily evocative of the mid-1960s. The combination of teal and orange reminds me of Howard Johnsons’, a chain of restaurants and motor lodges that were at the height of their popularity at the time in which the book is set and are mentioned a couple times in the story.

If you could choose to be a character from The Good Guy, who would you be and why?

Penny’s roommate Peanut. She’s a relatively minor character but she knows the score. She is funny, loves life and people, but at the same time, she is under no illusions. She is neither overly romantic, like Penny, nor cynical, like their other roommate, Ellen. She has dreams and, unlike Abigail, is unwilling sacrifice them for convention. Although open to getting married, one day, she won’t consider it until she has done what she wants to do (which is travel the world as a stewardess). America is on the cusp of drastic change and Peanut is just the kind of gal to reap the benefits of it.

If The Good Guy became a film, who would you like to play Ted, Abigail and Penny and why would you choose them?

Ooh, good question! The actors would have to be young because the main characters are in their early twenties. I’d think maybe Hunter Parrish or Chace Crawford could work for Ted. Both are real charmers, with lovely blue eyes. For Penny, maybe Ashley Benson or Rooney Mara. They’re petite and can be made to appear fragile and wide-eyed; innocent, but not ditzy. Abigail would need to be played by someone who can show a torrent of emotion simmering beneath a placid surface. I could see Saoirse Ronan or Jennifer Lawrence.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

The very first books I ever took out of the library were biographies. I still love them. Currently, I’m trying not to read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton because I gave it to my husband for his birthday and I have a habit of reading the books I give to him as presents, but I’ve dipped into it a couple times and can hear it calling to me from the shelf. Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen Secret Radical reminded me that I’m overdue for a reread of Austen. I gravitate towards articles and books on behavioural economics and studies of human behaviour. I recommend Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game: Why we fall for it … every time. I listen to a podcast called Hidden Brain and read the Science of Us column in New York Magazine online. Not only are they interesting, they’re also useful for sketching characters and developing story ideas.

It’s probably no surprise that my interest in human behaviour is reflected in the fiction I read. I love Anne Patchett, Anne Tyler, Annie Proulx – hmmm a lot of Anns – also Karen Joy Fowler, Elizabeth Strout, Samantha Harvey and Tessa Hadley.

Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?

As Nora Ephron said, everything is copy.

I love talking to people, love hearing their stories, and learning what makes them tick.

Everyone has a story. It’s just a matter of listening and asking the right questions. I once sat next to a man at a wedding rehearsal dinner. For three-quarters of the meal, he barely spoke three words, and then I managed to find his interest (tractors, of all things), and the guy opened up like a flower. I can’t recall a word of what he told me about tractors, but I know I wasn’t a bit bored.

Story ideas are all around. The trick is to write them down before they slip out the back side of your brain. Too often, when something triggers a spark or an idea, I’ll tell myself that I’ll remember. I almost never do.

And finally, Susan, if you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The Good Guy should be their next read, what would you say?

To understand the forces of nostalgia that led to President Donald Trump, read this.

Thank you so much Susan for your time in answering my questions.

My pleasure. Thank you.

About Susan Beale

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Susan Beale was brought up on Cape Cod and now lives in the UK. She is a recent graduate of the Bath Spa MA in Creative Writing. The Good Guy is her first novel. It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2016.

You can follow Susan on Twitter.

There’s more with these other bloggers too:

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