A conversation with Susan Carlton
How did you come up with the idea for Lobsterland?
I started with the idea that we all feel, at some point, trapped in the wrong place and the wrong family. I wanted to explore the depths to which a girl would go to flee that feeling. A small island in Maine seemed the perfect backdrop for fermenting that sense of desperation and for hatching an elaborate escape plan -- without anyone finding out. Our family had just moved from Maine to Atlanta and I wanted to capture the push/pull of loving the quietude yet longing for a bigger experience.
Your main character, Charlotte, is a vocabulary whiz. Are you, too?
I like to play with words. I worship clever lyrics and dumb puns and, as a magazine editor, I loved trying to come up with witty headlines and blurbs. I had a great high school teacher who taught us ‘parsimonious’ and ‘punctilious’ and all kinds of ridiculous ten-dollar words. Anytime I stumble across one of his words I get a little thrill. That said, I still stink at Scrabble.
Is Bleak modeled on a real island? If so, what’s its name and is it as Charlotte described it?
Bleak is fictional, though it bears a passing resemblance to Peaks Island, a short ferry ride away from Portland. Peaks is a wonderfully vibrant place, even in the dead of winter -- it’s bigger and bustlier than Bleak and many more people dream of living there than escaping it.
Charlotte’s escape from Bleak is inspired by her high PSAT score. Do you have any PSAT or SAT stories of your own?
I had perfectly ordinary test scores, but one of my daughters scored really well on a standardized test. Seemingly overnight she was a hot commodity. One day the prospective college mail was from Podunk State, the next day it was Princeton. It struck me as crazy that she went from ordinary to singular just because she had a good test day.
Charlotte’s parents are obsessed with Charlotte’s Web -- what books are you obsessed with? And what were your favorites as a child?
Favorite adult book, hands down: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Favorite YA: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. All-time favorite kid’s book: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I wanted to be Harriet M. Welsch because she wrote incessantly and also very truthfully. Not coincidentally, I can recite entire pages of Charlotte’s Web, as can my daughters.
Tell us about your writing process. Where do you write? When? What do you eat/drink while you’re crafting a story?
I’m an insomniac. I retreat under the eaves of my attic office sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. -- it feels like neither night nor morning but almost a dream-like time. I don’t try to edit then (that I do while biding my time in the carpool line) but just let the words tumble on to the screen. As for food/drink, Diet Coke and Double Bubble. A certain essential part of me is still in tenth grade.
This is your first published novel—tell us about your road to publication.
Right after college, I got a graduate degree in Journalism from Columbia and for about ten minutes thought I’d be a Serious Reporter. But my first job offer was at a glossy woman’s magazine and I embraced the fluff. I’ve written tons of pieces for Mademoiselle, Self, Seventeen, Mirabella, and Elle, and have co-authored a few non-fiction books. When I decided to try fiction, I took various workshops and labored over short stories before realizing that I loved writing for readers in their teens. It took about three years to write (and rewrite) Lobsterland.
Is having teenagers helpful in writing books for teens? How?
Sure, because their unbridled insecurity is a constant reminder of the angst of high school (though I also find it scarily easy to tap my own adolescent vein). Besides, the girls are brutally honest readers. If they think something’s bad, they say so. Over and over again.
Charlotte worries that her father is a fugitive. Where did that idea come from?
I’ve always had a fascination with radicals of the 1970s -- many of the Greenpeace activists and draft-protestors are parents now and I wondered what it would be like to be their child. Also, I’d read this odd article about a former radical who was now a stay-at-home mom -- her kids had no clue about her past and I was intrigued by the idea that those we love can be a mystery to us.
Are your [teen] daughters anything like Charlotte?
No and yes. Neither has (yet) had a boyfriend named Noah or planned a clandestine escape. But both girls have a deep ironic streak and have felt, at one time or another, like a fish out of water. A funny coda is that my oldest daughter is a college freshman in . . . Maine.
Do you eat lobster?
I make a mean lobster quesadilla, but I’m squeamish about boiling live lobsters. Lobstermen say the crustaceans don’t suffer but how do they know?