Author Interview: For novelist Susan Zurenda, reading paved way to writing

Susan Zurenda didn’t plan to be an author. She started college pursuing a music degree, something she said was her mother’s dream. Yet she’d always been a writer, penning skits for Girls Scouts and scripts for the school talent show. And she’s always, always been a reader.

“My mother took me to story hour at the library when I was 3 years old; my father would read poetry to me and my brother at bedtime,” she told me. “All of my years of reading made me a better writer. I would rather read than anything.”

Zurenda, author of “Bells for Eli,” her first novel, will be speaking and signing books at Midtown Reader at noon Friday, Sept. 24.

After earning an English degree in literature, working briefly as a journalist and starting a family, Zurenda became a literature professor, something she said was also instrumental in learning to write fiction. She wrote short stories but never had the time to create a longer work of fiction.

“When I sit down to write,” she said, “I want to be able to do it until my mind says, ‘That’s all we need to do for today.’ I didn’t feel like that was possible when I was working full time and raising a family.”

Once she retired, she had the time, and the novel she’d had in her mind began to develop. Sometimes it felt like the content was writing itself, and the characters were doing their own thing.

“I started with an outline but around the third chapter, I threw it out,” she said. “On a conscious level I’m very aware of writing structure and moving points forward, but underneath there’s something in the subconscious that brings out the characters’ stories on its own.”

The natural arc of character development also helped her bond with her characters, especially those she had a hard time connecting with at first.

“There was a character I didn’t particularly like, which made it difficult for me to write him as a truly multidimensional character,” she admitted. “But later in the story, his actions helped me develop a real sympathy for him. I felt like I understood him better.”

Bells for Eli — which follows two cousins growing up in small-town South Carolina in the 1960s and ’70s — is Zurenda’s first full-length novel, although she’s written numerous prize-winning short stories throughout the course of her career. When I asked her what she would tell other aspiring writers, she didn’t hesitate.

“By golly, you’ve got to be a serious reader.”

This article was first published in the Tallahassee Democrat.