Author finds repetition a way to get things just right |

Author finds repetition a way to get things just right

Writer Susan Straight admits her work — at least the execution of it — is boring.

“With dancing, you have a mirror and you can look at yourself,” Straight says. “Singing, you can hear yourself. Painting, you have something you can see, but writing — sometimes, you’re working on the same thing over and over again.”

That repetition, that constant hammering away at prose to make it fit just so, can result in transcendence when the writer is as gifted as Straight. In “Take One Candle Light a Room,” Straight’s seventh novel, she writes with a painterly eye, constructing a vivid work that travels back and forth between central California and Louisiana.

Straight used to wonder if she wrote too much about central California — she lives in Riverside, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, where she was born — but finds inspiration in the work of John Constable, the early 19th -century British artist who concentrated on painting landscapes of Dedham and Vale.

“I actually take great comfort in (his) paintings,” Straight says. “I love his six-foot landscapes where he paints the same place over and over again, but each time there’s something different.”

The story begins in Louisiana during the 1950s when four girls are sent westward because a serial rapist is terrorizing a black community. Fantine “FX” Antoine, a travel writer, is one of the legacies of the extended family that takes root in Sarrat, a small community that’s part of the larger city of Rio Seco. She has reinvented herself, distancing herself from the agrarian lifestyle (one of Riverside’s claims to fame is as the birthplace of the citrus industry in California) of her family. She is smart, in demand and rarely returns home.

But when her nephew, Victor, comes to her with two of his friends, she turns him away when he wants to stay overnight. It’s a decision she comes to regret when Victor and his friends become involved in a shooting that sends them to New Orleans, with Fantine and her father desperately trying to track them down. To make matters worse, the story is set in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on Louisiana.

One of the things Straight does via Fantine’s character is to illuminate how writers are perceived in their communities.

“I live a completely public life, lived in the same place all my life, all my neighbors and my family know I’m a writer, and no one cares,” says Straight, who is a single mother. “I got home last night, and no one asked me ‘Where were you?’, ‘What did you do?’ It was, ‘We really need the clothes washed.’ And for Fantine, doing what she does is embarrassing to her because of the way she was raised: ‘Why would you do that• Why would you write stories down• That’s a weird thing to do.’ In a sense, that is how my family feels about it. It’s an odd thing for me be down the hall making up stores about a woman named Fantine who has all these conflicts.”

Straight does draw from her own experiences to construct some of the scenarios in her book. A cross-country trip she took with her ex-husband was fodder for Fantine’s journey to Louisiana. A bi-racial nephew informs Victor’s character. And Fantine’s fascination with art mirrors her own.

At heart, the novel is an examination of race and the pressures to conform to a family legacy when one’s heart is elsewhere. Fantine’s travels are everything she desired as a child, but she has not found happiness as she approaches 40. Straight, as a lifelong resident of Riverside, seems to be her mirror image, the mother, the anonymous working person who goes to her day job as a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, then comes home to do laundry.

“I am someone who thinks more about what’s your place in the world, and when you travel around are you are kind reinventing yourself and floating,” Straight says. “I think that I’m the person who stayed. But maybe my fantasy might be that I was that person myself. Maybe Fantine does represent that to me.”

Additional Information:

Capsule review

Susan Straight’s ‘Take One Candle Light a Room’ is a novel that has many tributaries: It’s alternately a working class novel, a family portrait and an examination of race and class. But themes are pointless if not bound up in a compelling story. Straight, with flair and verve, seamlessly integrates these issues into a vivid narrative about a woman trying to find what matters most to her.

• Rege Behe

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.