Imagining Character with Susan Richards Shreve

Summer Program Update by Gretchen Barkhuff

Novelist Susan Richards Shreve led a fun and thought-provoking conversation on writing and characters this past Tuesday, July 10th, at the summer program. The students read her novel Plum & Jaggers which is a truly captivating story that explores what happens in the wake of unexpected tragedies. Shreve explained that the idea for Plum & Jaggers— which follows the lives of four siblings whose parents were killed in a terrorist train-bombing—originated from her own life experiences. When her children were young, Shreve found herself on a plane in London where it was suspected that a bomb was on board. As she followed the flight attendants’ instructions to remain seated, she found herself wondering what would happen to her children if the plane were to explode.

Years later, Shreve saw comedian David Sedaris and his siblings perform skits modeled off of their zany family life. She immediately called him up to share his experiences with starting a family comedy troupe. Laughing, Shreve recalled how Sedaris “must have talked non-stop for four straight hours” sharing everything from hilarious family stories to his time as a window washer. Plum & Jaggers, like it’s own characters’ lives, developed in this space where these two stories of comedy and tragedy meet.

The summer program students were thrilled to be let in on the novel’s back-story and pressed to learn more about how Shreve created her unforgettable cast of characters. Shreve confided that creating characters is her favorite part of writing and that the best way to create believable characters is to imagine their back-stories. The students had spent the past week developing histories for their own characters and thus were excited to hear that Shreve did similar exercises in her own writing. They found it fun to see where their writing techniques overlapped with those of a professional writer.

As the students grew livelier, the conversation transitioned to discussing American mythic characters—such as super heroes—and what they reveal about the society that imagined them. The students perceived that the way American popular culture imagines its iconic super heroes has changed overtime. That is, they boisterously argued that they have gone from being underdogs to being hyper-attractive people who never really have to fight their way to be on top. Shreve was impressed with this analysis and suggested that the way we re-imagine our uniquely American mythic heroes reveals a changing American self-perception. The students suggested that America doesn’t really see itself as an underdog anymore and believed that this sense of invincibility is a problem in such a global world where anything can happen.

All in all, the students left the conversation with a better understanding of how the characters that we imagine are a crucial part of the stories that we want to tell. As Shreve said about Plum & Jaggers, “it is a book about comedy, but it is not a funny book.” The students began to see that the key to this distinction is the unfolding of the characters’ lives.