Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Featured Author: Susan Pashman


Meet Bettina Grosjean, a professor of Women’s History, and her husband, a high-ranking environmental policymaker in the New York City mayor’s office. Once a pair of student radicals, they are now raising their two brainy children on New York’s Upper West Side.

Here is the tale of their fierce parental love as it is tested in a startling eruption of racial hostility and political chicanery within the very community they have long loved and helped to build. Despite the deep love and affection they have for each other, their domestic life is suddenly thrown into crisis by a shocking and tragic event: During a school field trip, their son Max and his best friend, Cyrus, are horsing around when, in a freak accident, Cyrus falls down a flight of stairs, and dies a few days later.

The fact that Cyrus is black, that his mother is Bettina’s closest friend–that jealousy, suspicion and resentment have long been simmering in the community, and that there are powerful political forces at work as well–all conspire to reveal an ugly underbelly of the community the Grosjeans have worked so hard to fashion into a model of an enlightened, multiracial world.

Upper West Side Story is also the story of a remarkable multi-racial friendship, of two women united by their ideals and their devotion to their children, then divided by events that spiral out of control.

With cries for racial justice rising up all around our country, we must stop and consider how recent headlines are impacting our children, kids raised to believe in an America that is different from the one now showing its face.

Susan, what’s the story behind the title Upper West Side Story?
For years - yes, it took years to write this book - its title was An Interpretation of Dreams in reference to Martin Luther King's "dream" which the main characters share. The idea was that the dream doesn't always work out as well as you hope and you might be sorry you dreamed it. But then an editor asked for a snappier title and I began to think of where the novel is set: on New York City's Upper West Side. The story, which involves racial conflict that nearly destroys its characters, was, in that respect, like West Side Story. Suddenly it all fell into place. I said the name over a few times and fell in love with it.

Where’s home for you?
Although I grew up in the Bronx in New York and later moved to Brooklyn Heights, a leafy neighborhood in what is now the center of New York's most chic literary neighborhood, I spent my summers at the shore in a tiny whaling village, Sag Harbor. Once my sons were grown, I realized I could leave my job as an attorney, a career I'd taken on only for the money, and move to my childhood Eden. I love the sea and the very intimate little village where everyone knows everyone. It makes people behave.

What’s the dumbest purchase you’ve ever made?
The same purchase that was the dumbest a lot of people have made, an exercise bicycle. I actually waited for months for Hammacher Schlemmer to re-stock this particular item. It was a good buy, and I hoped it would help make up for the exercise I lose when I can't walk in the very cold winters we have out here. But by the time the bike was back in stock and sent out to me - by the time I managed to assemble it - I'd given up on the whole idea. I think this must be a very common experience as I always find exercise bikes at tag sales.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
A lack of energy for a particular project is a sure sign it's not your project. Instead of battling away at it, drop it and move on to something that creates its own energy.

What is the most daring thing you've done?
The most daring thing I've ever done was decide to get a divorce when I had two very young sons and only the income of a philosophy professor. I had to stop teaching philosophy, which I loved, and put myself through law school, which I disliked intensely. But even worse, I had to work in a large Wall Street law firm for ten years. It was the worst thing I ever did. Huge regrets about all of it.

What is the stupidest thing you've ever done?

See above.

What makes you bored?

Commercials on TV. Especially the ones for medicines. I hate hearing the horrid side effects being repeated over and over. If you stop watching the distracting images and actually listen to those side effects, you can begin to feel pretty sick.

What choices in life would you like to have a redo on?
I never really decided to go to law school. I was living on grant funding for running a project about the lives of women in the suburbs when my mother called, and we had a sobering discussion about how my kids and how I would live after the grant funds ran out. My mother pretty much ordered me to go to law school. I should have had the guts to refuse.

If someone gave you $5,000 and said you must solve a problem, what would you do with the money?
I'd give it in smaller amounts to women in Africa who are trying to start their own businesses. You can get a huge bang for your buck with this sort of micro venture capitalism. A woman is transformed by owning her own business and many women make excellent business persons.

What makes you happy?
A day when I feel a great sense of accomplishment. When I've written something challenging and done a good job of it. Of course, the next morning I might think differently about what I have accomplished. But I love to sit down to a late night binge of "Law and Order" as a reward for a good day's work.

Do you have another job outside of writing?
I am a philosopher by training and vocation, and I teach philosophy every year because it is how I keep learning. But even philosophy involves me in writing. I am working on a book now that is mostly a philosophy book, a search for a contemporary meaning to Sabbath-keeping.

How did you meet your husband? Was it love at first sight?

Yes. In fact the "sight" on which we met was an online dating site. This is a second marriage for both of us. We were a celebrity couple because we had met online at quite advanced ages. If you Google me, you can read about our meeting and our wedding, as it was featured in the "Vows" column of the Sunday New York Times.

What brings you sheer delight?

Babies. Recollections of early motherhood, before the real problems set in. The fragrance of a baby's milky breath, the fragrance of a baby's oily scalp. I love the tiny toes, the fat thighs, and the way a baby smells. (In a fresh diaper, of course.)

Would you rather be a lonely genius, or a sociable idiot?

Well, I'm no idiot, and so I am probably lonelier than I might otherwise be. But I simply can't imagine having a less active mind than the one I have.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where in the world would it be?

I once heard someone say that he thought anyone who had a choice would surely choose to live in Italy. I recently spent a month in the small Tuscan walled city of Lucca and never wanted to leave it.

What would you like people to say about you after you die?
That I opened a lot of minds and expanded several lives.

Are any of your characters inspired by real people?
All of my characters are based on real people. My main characters are usually based on people who have, for some reason or other, infuriated me. I have these characters learn some very important lesson by their folly. But even minor characters are always based on someone I have known. That's how I can easily just pick off their characteristics. Some writers keep charts in front of them when they write so they remember their characters' hair color, weight, etc. I never have to do that. I know what these people look like, how the talk and what they are likely to say because I've met them.

Is your book based on real events?
I invent all the events in my books that make up the plot. I pick real life models for characters and then put them into made-up situations. but often some of the backstory comes from stories about real people. In this novel, for example, the adventures the two young boys have are drawn from things that happened to my own two sons.

Who are your favorite authors?

James Salter is my absolutely favorite author. No one can touch him. His metaphors are fresh and surprising; they do what true art must do: they make you see the familiar in an entirely new way. His prose is virile and stunning; every sentence is a perfectly crafted jewel. From this it should be clear that style, more than content, is what interests me. I also love Nabokov, particularly Ada, which is a stylistic tour de force.

Where and when do you prefer to do your writing?
I write absolutely alone, upstairs in my house where there is nothing but my writing room. I write on a huge old desktop computer which is not connected to the internet so nothing can ever corrupt those files. The room is painted a warm orange color which I find not only cheering but also very stimulating. I've been told that after two hours, any writer is exhausted so I try to stop after two hours and take a break to do something with my hands: cooking, gardening, housework. When I go back to writing, I go back to where I started and edit what I've written to get me into the groove again.

What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received about your writing?
The best compliment was the entire review of this book written by Diane Donovan for Midwest Review of Books. I was flying for days after I read it. Not only did Donovan totally get what I was trying to do, she is not a New Yorker, and I was afraid that my book was a city book that might not be understood by a mid-westerner. I love what she wrote and that she was the one who wrote it. You can read her review at my website.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to write?
Most writers will tell you that sex scenes are hard to write. It's hard to keep them from getting cliche or embarrassing. I had a lot of difficulty with what I call the "almost sex" scene in which a clumsy attempt doesn't come off. It had to be humiliating and also a bit comical for both parties. Getting it just right was a challenge.

Why did you decide to publish with Harvard Square Editions?
I had a few options, none of them dream-options. I chose not to self-publish because there are many reviewers and outlets, including many stores, that will not deal with self-published books and I wanted the widest possible distribution for this book. Of the small presses that were interested, I chose Harvard probably in part for sentimental reasons: I had studied landscape design at Harvard for five years and then taught there at the Landscape Institute. I love Cambridge and miss the days I spent traveling there and staying for two or three days a week. I'm looking forward to visiting some of the bookstores there and doing some readings in Cambridge and nearby towns. I feel more comfortable in Boston and the surrounding area than I have ever felt in NYC.

How did you find Harvard Square Editions and how long did your query process take?

I found my publisher the old-fashioned way: by being persistent and being willing to change and change again the things editors objected to. In the end, I had a better book at the end - of fourteen long years - than I had when I started. Of course, I did a lot of other things while those fourteen years dragged by. I bought some land, designed and built a house, found a great guy and married him, published many short stories and essays, studied landscape design for five years to earn a certificate at Harvard, earned an M.A. in landscape at The Inchbald School of Design in London and then earned a PhD in Philosophy for a thesis on Landscape Aesthetics at SUNY Stony Brook. So the saga of getting this novel published is a long and varied one. My first novel, The Speed of Light, was written in less than a year and found a small press publisher in about a year. A much better way to go.


Susan Pashman is a philosophy professor and former attorney. While in law school, she served a year in the New York City Council President’s office; some of what she learned there has found its way into this story. But most of this book derives from her experience of raising two boys on her own in Brooklyn. Many of her sons’ childhood exploits, and the hopes and fears she had for them, became the heart of this novel.

She now resides in Sag Harbor, New York, with her husband, Jack Weinstein.

Connect with Susan:
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