Take a bit of Chuck Palahniuk and some Elmore Leonard, with a dash of Danielle Steele and you might be close. But Susan DiPlacido would most likely tell you such comparisons are so much bullshit designed to cram a new name (the incomparable Susan DiPlacido!) into enough pigeonholes to cajole the book-buying public into a kind of familiarity-induced critical mass of consumer frenzy. Her novels ‘Trattoria and ‘24/7’ may or may not be coming out very, very soon. According to the author, at least one is a lock. So don’t misappropriate those pigeonholes, will ya? Fuggedaboudit.
Steven Hansen: What's a nice Jersey Girl like you doing in a place like Pennsylvania?
Susan DiPlacido: My family left Jersey for PA when I was a teenager. I left PA for a while but I missed my family too much and so I came back here to live.
SH: Now, when you say 'family,' that means mom and dad and sisters and brothers, right? With a name like DiPlacido and a state like Jersey... one has to ask.
SDP: Now. See, that's how I know you're not from Jersey, and your name doesn't end in a vowel. Cuz you wouldn't have to ask. But yes, I mean blood family. It's a little funny though, as I'm sure you know, people still love to make fun of Jersey. When I was young, I didn't really notice. As I got older, of course I went through the self-loathing phase where I actually did feel scuzzy for coming from there and not being as rich or good as a New Yorker. But then as I grew up a little, I really learned to appreciate the place. Growing up Jersey is different, but I think it's a good thing. It gives you backbone and humility at the same time. Now with The Sopranos, it's like Jersey suddenly has this badass mob cachet. But yet it still reinforces that scuzzy image. Double-edged sword, I guess.
SH: The reason I asked is because I remember your story 'Neon Nights' is about a girl running away to Las Vegas from her goomba boyfriend on the East Coast.
SDP: No, it's no problem. I think you'll find those sorts of things as recurring themes in most of my work, so it's natural for people to ask. I grew up loving all sorts of pulpy stuff, so that's what I write, only with a female twist on it. And I mean, that's what I grew up on. I didn't have "Heidi" or anything like that. Quite literally, once I learned to read, my mother would bring home books that she'd pick up at the supermarket or whatever. I don't know what she was thinking, but she'd bring home Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins to a seven year old. Of course, I loved it! And, of course, and I didn't bother telling her what was going on in those books. I know I was under ten when I read The Godfather.
SH: How does being 'Jersey' effect your writing, do you think, as opposed to if you were from New York City?
SDP: That's a good question. I hope I can articulate the answer for you. Ok. There's like this duality of feeling going on about where I'm from and what it was like growing up because we weren't rich either. So there's this longing, an always wanting to reach out and improve and be something better. But yet that's balanced by the "chip on the shoulder" mentality [that] comes from the jokes and such, a sort of defensive, knee-jerk reaction where you have moments of clarity and think "The hell? We're just as good as they are!" I think that mix, that ambivalence comes up a lot in the stories and particularly the characters I write. I think it comes up an awful lot in the other famous "Jersey artists" works. But maybe I'm just riffing off them. Or maybe I just see what I want in their works.
SH: Oh dear. There are 'other famous "Jersey artists?''' And I know you don't mean Joe Piscopo. Who do you mean? And how have they influenced your writing?
SDP: Oh my. I can hear the non-Jersians groan as they read this because it's so cliché. But he ain't called The Boss for nothing. I guess more than anything his influence on me was just that of learning to take the leap and try. From him I had the realization that writing about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is really compelling. But those extraordinary circumstances don't have to be "saving the world" situations. They can be much simpler than that.
It's those pivotal moments that are common to most American lives that can be most interesting to me. There are others who are inspiring, like Dorothy Parker. I wouldn't say she's influenced me much in my writing. But she made me admire strong, witty women. Bon Jovi influenced my clothing choices for a time.
SH: Well, that Bon Jovi fashion faux pas can be forgiven, I guess, seeing as how you have two novels coming out this year. And neither of them is set in Jersey or Pennsylvania, but Las Vegas. What is it with you and Vegas? How does Las Vegas lend itself, in your view, to fiction?
SDP: Wait a minute, I never said the Bon Jovi fashion years were a faux pas! I loved my carefully ripped jeans, man!
I think Vegas is hilarious and terrific because it was a joke, much like Jersey, for so long. It was considered cheesy. But you know what? People still keep going there. It gets more popular. And I think that's because even more than making fun of cheesy stuff, we as a culture love it.
But mostly, Vegas can quickly thrust people into extreme situations. It's got a vibe unlike any other city. And it offers a plethora of ways for people to destroy themselves, and to do it quickly and efficiently. So there's a great duality again. It's a place that can be really fun and bright. But there's also that lurking, slithering danger.
SH: And! It was made by the mob, right? Bugsy Siegel or however you spell that. A jersey girl and Las Vegas seem to have a natural affinity. Now when you mentioned 'extreme situations' in that last answer it reminded me of something you said earlier about 'ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances' in your writing. What about the converse of this? Extraordinary people in ordinary situations or extreme people in mundane situations. Do these opposing dualities apply to your writing, too?
SDP: Well, I don't know. I never thought about it before. I don't think so though. I guess that depends on the reader's view of a mundane situation though. What some people consider mundane might be something that I think is a crossroads for that character, so it's extraordinary for him/her, and hopefully, I exploit that "largeness" of the situation. It might be a person applying for a new job. It's not really earth shattering or heroic. It's something most of us have done at some point. But it's not in this person's normal routine, so it's out of the ordinary. So that offers potential to bring out the more extreme parts of their personality that we wouldn't usually see.
SH: I guess what I was getting at that last question was the old character-driven vs. plot-driven type narrative... is the character the one creating the plot or is the plot leading the character? Which of these paradigms does your writing follow? And is this a conscious decision on your part or does it just turn out that way?
SDP: Whew I was starting to think about it too much and got a little worried I was writing about boring people in mundane situations! That'd be a list-topper, huh?
I make conscious choices before I start out a story of what I want it to be about. Generally speaking, I have the ending in mind, and then I start at the beginning to get to that ending. There are a couple themes or plot points that I'll want to hit along the way. But those plot points can change if I can't make them viable. But, that said, I definitely think my work is character driven. Because those plot points are formed around how a "person" would react and which roads they would take in certain circumstances. So even though I have an ending and plot points, I know there's a certain personality that's going to illustrate these, and who will react accordingly to keep the momentum moving in the correct direction.
Okay, you know what? That was bullshit!! I was making it up to sound official and like I know what I'm doing! But I just write, man. It's the truth about how I get an idea for an ending and then leap to the start and build up to it. That is how I work. As for conscious decisions about plot vs. character and such -- no. I don't have a method or structure, nor do I plan everything out. I just start typing and see how it goes. I honestly can't even tell you if my stuff is plot or character driven. I guess that's for the readers to decide.
SH: You just let that spark of an idea ignite. I'd call that some pretty good advice. And speaking of dualities: you're an accountant? How'd you come around from that to writing?
SDP: They go together if you ask me. It's all language. That's all math is, is a language. It's just a language that has universal laws with concrete positions.
Ok, I'm making things up again to try and sound official! Stop me, Steve! Stop me!
The truth. I like accounting, and I do like math and numbers. I always loved the visual arts too. So those are the things I studied in school. Art was fun, but I knew I could make a good living doing accounting, so I chose to pursue that professionally.
For pleasure, I try a lot of things, just to see if I can do it and to see if I'll like them. I mean, I've gone scuba diving with hammerhead sharks. Not because it was particularly appealing, but because I wanted to see if I could do it. I did it. It was terrifying and I'll never do it again.
As to how I decided to try writing, this is the truth: I had written in college quite a bit. My first "paid" writing gig was a paper that I wrote for art history class for a friend. In return, he was supposed to make me a pot because I was failing ceramics because I suck at centering clay. I wrote him the paper, he got an A on it. When it was time to throw my pot for me, he balked. He said he didn't think it would be right, he respected that teacher and didn't want to cheat in that class. I was miffed because that ceramics teacher was also the art history teacher. So basically, this friend didn't grow morals, he was just lazy.
Well, at the end of the year, we were in the last class and having to do our review in ceramics of all our pieces. I didn't have crap. The teacher turned on my friend instead of me. He said, "Why didn't you just throw her a pot to help her out?" And my friend, he said, "Because I didn't think it'd be right to cheat."
The teacher was no fool, and this teacher also really liked me. He goes, "But she wrote you that paper."
I nearly died laughing. My friend was jacked. But I hadn't told, the teacher just knew! He said, "I'm not stupid, and I know you can barely write your name. And I know her writing from other papers she's done."
Apparently, that stuck with me. So when I was bored one day, I thought, "Hmm. Maybe I can tell a story."
So I tried writing, and it wasn't nearly as terrifying as those sharks, so I've stuck with it so far.
SH: That's a great story! Talk about 'just desserts'. Anyhow. You've not only stuck with it, you've succeeded pretty good, if two novels being published in the same calendar year is any indication. And on top of this, you also edit an e-zine (The Blue Iris Journal) where you review books. Does reviewing other people help your fiction or are you just sand bagging the competition by savaging their books?
SDP: I haven't sandbagged yet, but I might. I think the reviewing is really hard, and I'm getting progressively worse at it, so I'm trying to do less. You [Steven Hansen] do great reviews -- you give the flavor of a book and hit on its positive notes, and any negative ones, but you don't give too much away.
After doing a few reviews, it seemed like it got hard to talk about the books without being specific about plot points. I think it helps and hurts to read with a critical eye. Because I learn by picking out what I think didn't work so well in someone else's pieces, and even more so by figuring out why something did work. But it also creates a hitch in me, where I get nervous and question too much. It's like that "conscious clutter" interferes with the spark you'd mentioned earlier. Do you notice that? Do you notice that you can pick out mechanics and perform those, but when you get tangled up in the technicalities and the "craft", it sort of drains some of the fun and interferes with whatever was driving the possibly subconscious story or "artistry"?
And, I would also like to point out here when I say "artistry", I don't mean to imply that means I think I have good artistry. I'm not saying that I'm Kerouac or anything. I'm just separating the two different forces of writing with those terms.
SH: Well thanks for mentioning my book reviews. I am, quite probably, the greatest book reviewer of all time. But you're not bad. And yes, I think that letting that 'conscious clutter' get to you before you've finished fleshing out a rough draft can really kill any momentum you might have had. Do you have any strategies or tricks to keep this from happening to you?
SDP: I won't read with a critical eye while I'm writing anymore. I don't have both going on. If I get a story idea, or even the urge to write, I just won't read/review as I'm working on it. It seems to keep the over thinking dialed down.
SH: And speaking of 'swimming with sharks,' how's your experience been dealing with publishers, agents and who or whatever else is involved in getting a novel marketed and sold?
SDP: I can't believe you just asked me that. As usual, I'm of two minds about answering this, because on one hand, I feel grateful and lucky. And I would also like to be classy. But on the other hand, I'm in the middle of an exhausting and frustrating battle, and it's hitting the peak -- tonight.
Ok. Let me try and be classy and honest at the same time. Here you go: Working on the one book has been a professional, pleasurable experience. Working on the other one has not been. And at this point it's quite disturbing and disappointing because I'm so close. But yet I'm also very close to my breaking point. So, in full honesty, by the time this goes live, I might have two books out. And I might only have one.
SH: Hey, one out of two ain't bad. In fact, I'm jealous. And I just gave you the chance to bitch. But I guess Jersey girls got class, too?
SDP: Don't be jealous until you read the book. Cause if you read it, you won't be jealous -- you'll be bitter! And I think if I had class I'd have bucked up, been gracious, and said it was all good! But yes, most Jersey girls got it going on. Just don't make us angry if there are firearms in close proximity.