By Corey Campbell

Fiction writers Susan Lindheim, Emily McLaughlin, and Laura Hubber took the top three places in this year’s Kirkwood Literary Prize. The award, given by benefactor Andrew Morse, was founded to honor writer James Kirkwood (There Must be a Pony!, A Chorus Line) who started his writing career in the Writers’ Program. We asked the three winners to tell us about their winning pieces and the writing process.

First up is Susan Lindheim, who took first place for her novel excerpt Baby Driver. The story, of a Depression-era family running drugs, was drawn from Susan’s own family history.

Writers’ Program: Tell us about your winning piece. How did it develop? How did your workshop contribute to its growth?

A couple of years ago through an offhanded remark at my great aunt’s funeral, I discovered that my then-90 year-old grandmother had been keeping an amazing secret: during the depths of the Great Depression, her family forced her to become a drug mule for her heroin-addicted uncle. This went on from the time she got her driver’s license at age 16 until she ultimately married my grandfather at 21. My gut instinct was: wow, here’s an amazing story, but I have no idea how to tell it or even where to start. She was an only child, a nice Jewish girl. She could have been caught and thrown in jail at any number of times. Her whole future wasat stake. How could her parents and grandmother have knowingly done this to her? And why did she go along with it? What kind of family dynamics and values inspired that particular kind of forced risk-taking and loyalty? I spent about a year playing around with ideas, but when I started writing none of them seemed to go anywhere. At the same time, I spent hours and hours cajoling my grandmother into talking about what she still considers the most shameful period of her life.

Finally, last fall I decided that I needed some help. It had been a while since I had last taken a formal writing class, and I was craving the structure of a good workshop environment to help me sort through some of the swirl in my head. Which is what led me to sign up for Lou Mathews’ class.

Lou was extremely encouraging and supportive from the very first set of pages I turned in. He helped me to understand that I needed to broaden the scope of the story beyond the confines of the family history in order to “make it my own” and allow it to have its own life and momentum. The two workshops I took with him provided a great ground for trying out ideas and directions, some of which were much more successful than others.

WP: Which courses have you taken? What instructors?

During the 2006-2007 academic year, I took two classes with Lou Mathews: Intermediate Fiction Writing in the fall and Advanced Fiction Writing in the spring (actually, I’m not sure those are the exact titles, but basically they were short-story centric classes through which I started work on a novel; go figure). Lou is an amazing instructor — so generous with his time and support. His love of literature is evident in the enthusiasm he brings to every class and in the way he truly cultivates individuals as writers. He also does a great job of leading each workshop discussion so that you learn something from every piece.

I actually started taking courses through UCLA Extension in the fall of 2000 when I took Introduction to Fiction Writing with Tod Goldberg. That class also had an enormous impact on me because it introduced me to a kind of creativity that was missing in my then-stultifying, dull corporate existence. It also introduced me to my own addiction to writing fiction, and even led me to dare to think that despite all the struggle, it might be worth actually giving it a real try. Over the years, I’ve also taken some novel writing classes (including one with Tod), and Intermediate Fiction Writing once before with Rob Roberge.

WP: Tell us a little about your writing process.

You mean aside from tearing large clumps of my hair out and throwing things at the still-blank screen because I can’t think of how to move the story forward?

Seriously, I struggle with first drafts, although I also find amazement in them, in finding out what the characters are going to do and say and where they’re going to take me once they’ve really come into their own. I write a lot that I end up not being able to use. I wish I could find a good way around this, but so far I haven’t.

For Baby Driver, I have done – and continue to do – a lot of research. In addition to conducting interviews with surviving family members, I’ve been reading up on the period in general, on the history and criminalization of drug use, and on the pathologies of addiction. When I’m stuck, the research helps give me ideas. It also has helped in revisions as I find getting the details right adds depth and texture to the piece.

WP: Any advice for your fellow writers?

Skeletons in the family closet are great source material, just as long as enough of the characters are dead and/or you can afford to ignore their opinions once you’ve got the goods on them.

WP: What’s next for your writing?

Finish the novel, finish the novel, finish the novel. It’s my mantra these days.

WP: Anything else you’d like to share?

It’s still hard for me to believe, but patience and perseverance canpay off, eventually. It’s taken me years to hone my craft– and I’m definitely still working at it. Everything I’ve written until now, and all those mistakes that I’ve made along the way, really do seem to make my current project better and stronger. Which gives me hope when I stare at that dreaded blank screen.

Read an excerpt of Susan Lindheim’s novel, Baby Driver.

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