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  Curled Up With a Good Book
*Take One Candle, Light a Room* author Susan StraightAn interview with Susan Straight, author of *Take One Candle, Light a Room*

Susan Straight talks about Take One Candle, Light a Room, blood versus chosen family, the freedom and comfort of being "a walkin' fool," and the ongoing legacy of storytelling in an increasingly digital age's Luan Gaines: Can you relate the story behind the title of Take One Candle, Light a Room?

I have a scene in A Million Nightingales where a new woman comes onto the plantation where Moinette Antoine’s mother, Marie Therese, is living. The new woman sees the sleeping daughter and says, “Your only?” The mother answers “Take but one candle light a room.” What she means is that one child can be a whole life, and I must have heard someone say that sometime when I was young, maybe a woman talking to my mother-in-law.

Your last novel, A Million Nightingales, took place in the early nineteenth century; this one is set in the present. What was the inspiration for this novel?

I was really writing a kind of trilogy about blood vs. chosen family, about love, and it began in slavery, so I wrote the first part of this family’s lineage, and that was so I could understand the complicated relationship between Fantine and her mother and father. I had to know how fiercely Fantine’s mother was afraid to let her go, and that goes all the way back to slavery in Louisiana, when Moinette’s mother slept in that chair every night, trying to keep watch over the daughter she prayed no one would sell.

The five girls in the photograph mentioned in the first chapter of Take One Candle, Light a Room are easy prey to a white man who plunders their innocence with impunity in 1958 Louisiana. How do the Antoines and Picards respond to ongoing threat to their daughters? What of the girl who stays behind?

They pack up the girls and send them to California, to safety. Anjolie, the one who stays behind, is kept inside an armoire whenever her mother is afraid of anyone passing on the road in front of their house. Anjolie is so astonishingly beautiful that her father can only see her as prey, and the darkness of the armoire changes something in her brain, I believed when I wrote about her.

Recreating the family compound, Sarrat, offers the transplanted families a measure of security behind locked gates in Rio Seco in California. How is Sarrat different in California than Louisiana?

Sarrat is the community Enrique and Gustave make their own – they always worked as sharecroppers on someone else’s land, and this is Enrique’s land. (I have a story to work on about how he got it…) They know every tree and house and gate on their place, and they guard it fiercely.

Susan Straight's *Take One Candle, Light a Room*Foregoing marriage and children, Fantine leaves Sarrat for a brilliant career as a travel writer. Her clothing and demeanor carefully orchestrated, does Fantine cultivate racial ambiguity in her professional life? What is the source of this careful attention to image?

I believe Fantine found it easy, early on, to pretend to be someone else – Hawaiian or Samoan or Argentinean – and so rather than lie, she just smiles and doesn’t answer most questions about who she is. She does orchestrate her demeanor – she makes herself into an Audrey Hepburn/Carolina Herrera white-shirt kind of woman. Careful, classy, and kind of anonymous.

Fantine admits, “The terrible thing I did to my mother was to go away.” Please explain the dynamic between Fantine and her mother. Is this relationship irreparable?

As Enrique and Gustave made themselves into brothers when they were orphaned, Glorette is really Fantine’s sister, and Fantine owes her that. When she refuses to take in Victor, it’s a serious breach.

It is five years since Fantine’s girlhood friend, Glorette, was found tossed in a shopping cart in an alley. Victor, Glorette’s son and Fantine’s godson, bridges a troubled past and a future inspired by his godmother’s love of language. What is the significance of this link from Glorette to Fantine and Victor?

As Enrique and Gustave made themselves into brothers when they were orphaned, Glorette is really Fantine’s sister, and Fantine owes her that. When she refuses to take in Victor, it’s a serious breach.

Fantine is conflicted by Victor’s impulsive visit to her apartment in LA with Alphonse and Jazen?

They represent everything she has left behind, and they would identify her as someone she believes she is not. As for Victor, she just feels guilty.

A self-described “walkin’ fool,” what was the nature of Fantine’s first experience in walking long distance? What was her lesson?

I have a brother-in-law who everyone calls “a walkin’ fool,” and he often walked twenty miles back from somewhere. He walked to work every day. I’m a walker, too, and I walked for six miles today along the Mississippi River in Memphis, where I’m on tour for the novel. It’s a feeling of freedom and comfort – maybe how some people feel when they play the guitar, or cook.

Both Victor and Fantine are stunned when they notice an old photograph of Glorette in the window of a Burbank dance club. Is this reminder of his lost mother a factor in Victor’s involvement in a violent confrontation that leaves a boy dead on the streets of LA?

The photo makes him sad and angry, but when he goes back to retrieve it, a foolish coincidence means that this boy is around at the same time, and in LA, it’s so common for young men to try and establish territory this way – by asking Where You From? And then pulling a gun.

In spite of a bullet in his arm, Victor, Alphonse and Jazen, flee to Louisiana instead of returning to their home ground in Rio Seco. Why? What does Victor hope to find in Louisiana?

Alfonso shot the boy, and he and Jazen know the police will be after them. Victor has the bullet that will incriminate them, inside his arm, so he has to flee as well. They just want to escape.

Enrique Antoine, Fantine’s father, accompanies her race to intercept her wounded godson, familiar roads evoking painful memories of Enrique’s violent history. “Nobody loves a black man more than another black man.” How does this statement describe Enrique’s efforts on Victor’s behalf and those of the others who assist in the search for the boys?

I read that in Sula, one of my favorite novels of all time. In my family, the men seem to have an immense need for each other’s company, almost as if their shared experiences as children, teens and then young men supersede even their relationships with their wives and girlfriends. I had in mind that Enrique and Gustave think of themselves as kin, and that Enrique is the only one who could know the whole history of why Victor is like his own. When even Albert, the son of the man who changed Enrique’s life, assists in the search, it’s because of that clan thing.

Susan Straight's *A Million Nightingales*Fantine and Enrique plunge into the chaos of Hurricane Katrina, the crooked paths of family history reflected in familiar faces, Fantine shedding her sophistication with each passing day. What prompts Fantine’s transformation on this extraordinary journey?

Fantine has carefully constructed this image of herself, with her clothing and looks, but also with her reserve. I loved the character of Emile, who shows up and makes her feel something she kept refusing to feel – he makes her laugh and let down her guard. And Aunt Monie is actually history, living history, and she makes Fantine understand how insignificant her posturing is. The storm is the test of who you are as a human.

Fantine is the keeper of family secrets, the tangled motives of passion, jealousy, murder. Does this burden exact a toll on Fantine? How do other people’s secrets affect her relationship to Victor?

Fantine is like me – I have this face that encourages storytelling, and people tell me things they never tell anyone else. I don’t know why, except that I listen well. Even my mother in law told me stories she never told my father in law. It’s a burden for Fantine because those secrets make her feel emotions, guilt or jealousy or shame – and she doesn’t like to admit she feels anything. She feels guilty about Victor, but until now, not guilty enough to actually love him.

Victor is a child of loss, whether in California or Louisiana. Communicating sporadically with her godson by cell phone, Fantine is conscious of her tenuous connection to Victor and the uncertainty of his fate. How is Fantine’s relationship with Victor affected by her experiences on the long road from California to New Orleans?

It was hard to write the cell phone parts! I know how I feel when I talk to my own oldest daughters, who are in college, and you can’t always connect, and you feel the sudden absence of their voices. I had in mind that Victor knew he had to speak in code to Fantine, so the others wouldn’t understand that she was following them, and that actually meant he and Fantine knew each other so well, surprising her.

Take One Candle, Light a Room culminates in a riveting drama in the face of Hurricane Katrina, but begins in 1958 with the five girls who are spirited away to protect them from Mr. McQuine. What is Fantine’s reaction when introduced to McQuine’s aged niece?

She just can’t believe this elderly woman, almost childlike, is the last living legacy of someone so evil, so casually evil and entitled that he felt fine with driving down a road and snatching up a black girl for the afternoon. This aged woman is taken care of by two black women who would have been his prey, and Fantine feels overwhelmed.

There are two histories in Take One Candle, Light a Room, both linked by tragedy, one begun in slavery in Louisiana and the other in California, where Glorette succumbs to the streets and Fantine claims a brilliant career. This vast network of aunties, uncles, grandmothers is born of slavery and poverty and embraces everyone, good and bad. Can you speak to this powerful cultural dynamic?

I wrote an essay for today’s Sunday LA Times about this – I learned a new word this summer from Pakistan called biraderi – just what you say, a cultural dynamic that encompasses more than just your nuclear family. In our family, blood and also marriage and even geographical ties – a neighbor is now an “uncle” after forty years of closeness with our family – make a network that is how people survive. That’s exactly what I had in mind with Sarrat, the California version.

When I read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, I was struck by his protagonists’ ability to transcend hardship and demand joy even in the most grievous of circumstances. I had the same reaction to Take One Candle, Light a Room, where familial bonds- and I use that term expansively- override loss and brutality. As a writer, do you see adversity as a crucible for the evolution of our better selves, or is that the conceit of a romantic?

I don’t think it’s romantic – I think it’s actually practical. When loss and brutality are always hovering closely over a community as they do over mine, and over the fictional communities in Toni Morrison, Ernest J. Gaines and James Baldwin, I see a sense of humor, a love for language, and an ability to create joy as vital. (I love Mistry’s novel as well!)

I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots*I read I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots and Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights many years ago, convinced of your ethnicity (like Fantine’s curious associates). You seem on intimate terms with the emotional subtext of a particular American experience. Where do you find inspiration for your novels?

Sitting in the driveway of my father-in-law’s house hearing stories for thirty-five years, and sitting in kitchens, in parks, in bleachers, and everywhere else. Everyone, all over the world, tells me stories. I have that face – the face of a listener. Today a total stranger told me about her family while I sat on the steps near the Mississippi River.

Are you currently working on another novel? If so, can you share something about it with us?

I’m working on a book called My Little Women: An American Family, about raising my daughters and now, my nephew. Actually, I am way behind, but now have a website,, with a photo gallery of the ancestors and people in our American Family.

As a writer, what are your thoughts on the changing market of digital technology and publishing? Is the legacy of storytelling at risk of extinction?

As long as we have words, people will tell stories. They will tell them around a fire, or a table, whether they are typing them on a pad, speaking them into a phone, or leaning across the space to whisper the stories into someone’s ear.

Susan Straight is the author of six novels, including A Million Nightingales and the National Book Award finalist Highwire Moon. She has written for The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s Magazine and NPR’s All Things Considered. Her short stories have won an Edgar Award and an O. Henry Award. She teaches at the University of California, Riverside.

Contributor Luan Gaines interviewed author Susan Straight, author of Take One Candle, Light a Room (see accompanying review), about her books for Luan Gaines/2010.


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