Something Like Sanctified
by Susan Straight
Issue #169 • September 20, 2012•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
They brought her a body. They brought Glorette in and laid her on Marie-Claire’s couch. Like it was Louisiana, when she was a child and their neighbor Michel got thrown from the mule and kicked in the head and they brought him to Auntie Viola’s house and she told Marie-Claire, Sit here with me, bebe, so I don’t lonely while he don’t left alone.
Marie-Claire’s son Reynaldo had been carrying the body. Her husband Enrique stood beside him. Marie-Claire crossed herself first. Then she stood looking at Glorette’s ribs, in the space of skin between the sports bra and the tight exercise pants. The two curved bones on each side of her heart. Glorette was Marie-Claire’s niece. The daughter of Enrique’s brother, Gustave. Marie-Claire had raised this girl along with her own children, and now Glorette was dead on the couch. Her head awkward without a pillow
Susan Straight has published eight novels. Her latest, Between Heaven and Here (McSweeney’s) is the final book in the Rio Seco trilogy. Take One Candle Light a Room (Anchor Books) was named one of the best novels of 2010 by The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Kirkus, and A Million Nightingales (Anchor Books) was a 2006 Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her novel Highwire Moon was a Finalist for the 2001 National Book Award. “The Golden Gopher” won the 2008 Edgar Award for best Mystery Story, and “El Ojo de Agua” won an O Henry award in 2007. Her stories and essays have been in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Harpers, McSweeney’s, The Believer, Salon, Zoetrope, Black Clock, Five Chapters, and elsewhere. She is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UCRiverside. She was born in Riverside, California, where she lives with her family, whose history is featured on www.susanstraight.com.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
SS: About fifteen years ago, a young girl was found dead in a shopping cart, left at the end of my father-in-law’s street. I remembered reading a small paragraph in the newspaper about it – her mother was angry and said her daughter was 17 and pregnant, and her boyfriend was into drugs, but her daughter wasn’t – she said that the police wouldn’t work hard to find out who killed her because no one would care. She was right. No one ever mentioned it again in the news. But my brother-in-law had walked right past the shopping cart on his way to a girl’s house, at dawn that day – he thought the shape was just a heap of clothes. And we all knew the boyfriend was killed not long after. I kept thinking of how our lives in my community are so off the grid that most of what happens to us remains completely hidden and unknown to the rest of the world in larger Southern California. I kept thinking about my childhood friends who have already died long ago from drugs or violence, and what happens to their bodies. I drive by that corner every day on my way to work.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
SS: The most challenging part was hearing her voice in my head, but making it clear enough for a reader who might not have spent much time with someone like Marie-Claire. I spent today with an 88-year-old woman from Louisiana – at our family reunion – and her language is so distinctive, but hard to put down on the page. She said to my daughter once, “Ain’t gon be no might could what he want, cause I ain’t even thinking bout maybe for him yet.”
HT: Why did you title this piece “Something Like Sanctified”?
SS: All those years listening to Marvin Gaye when I was a teenager, and people don’t always hear the very end of “Let’s Get It On,” which is that perfect phrase. I think we were dancing to it at a house party once when the DJ let it go to the end, and we felt pretty close to sanctified. (It was really hot, anyway, and we were happy.) Now a lot of those people are gone – I like to remember us that way.
HT: “Something Like Sanctified” is a part of your new novel, Between Heaven and Here, (published this month by McSweeney’s). Where does it fall in the book and how does it relate to the rest of the story?
SS: It’s pivotal, because that’s where the decision passes down to Marie-Claire, about Glorette’s body. The novel begins with Sidney finding her in the alley, and taking her to Reynaldo. When they bring her to Sarrat, in the orange groves, they’ve already broken the law. And then Enrique says they’ll bury her without telling the police or anyone else, and that physical burden falls to Marie-Claire. Enrique’s story comes next – he’s hunting the killer, and realizing he’s killed four men, and wondering if that makes him a serial killer, which he’s never thought about before. In our family, there are men like this – their burden is vengeance, and I think about that all the time.
HT: Between Heaven and Here is the final book in your Rio Seco trilogy. What drew you to Rio Seco, and these characters? And is it hard to say goodbye to them now? Any chance these characters will re-appear in later books?
SS: I have been writing about Rio Seco, and some of these characters, for 30 years. I am 51. I wrote the first story on my honeymoon. (We weren’t used to downtime, because we were always at work, and I had my little notebook anyway.) The men – Marcus Thompson, a high school history teacher known as Sissyfly; Darnell, a firefighter whose childhood friends sell rock cocaine – show up in their own novels. But Glorette – I wrote the first story about her, and her son Victor, fifteen years ago, and have come to know them so well that I can’t imagine not writing about them. I’ll miss them as much as I miss my friends. I think I’ll write about an earthquake next – someone from the groves will undoubtedly show up.
HT: Louisiana and California are inter-linked in this story. Why did you decide to use these two very different places as settings, and why did you choose for Marie-Claire to live on an orange farm?
SS: The community where I grew up, and where I still live, was made up by military families when I was young. In fact, today we were reminiscing about how people got to Riverside – from Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Florida. This month, my best friend’s father passed away – he was from Florida, and killed a pig when he was seven – just like Gustave in the novel. I spent hours yesterday with an 84-year-old man from Georgia whose mother-in-law was a fixture in the old neighborhood – the whole family came out from Georgia to Riverside after the two sons served in World War Two, as did so many black men, because why would they go back to segregation and violence and poverty in the southern states where they were born? It was a specific migration that has been my fascination all my life, because my own mother came from Switzerland at just the same time.
I grew up in a neighborhood bordering the orange groves, and played in them all my life, and my friends swam in the canals since we didn’t have pools. My brother was a citrus farmer for the last ten years of his life, and out there is a private world. His barn was his life.
HT: Do you ever reveal how Glorette died to your readers? And if so, is she avenged by Enrique?
SS: Only one person saw how Glorette died, and that was one of the very last stories I wrote, before I knew – Alfonso, a young man in the alley. He tries to keep Enrique from killing the wrong person for payback. But Victor, her son, doesn’t find out until Alfonso finally tells him in my last novel, Take One Candle Light a Room.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
SS: It took almost two years. I wrote about seven drafts before I realized how important Clarette was to the story – and I wrote about Clarette in 2003, so I knew her well.
HT: What are you working on now?
SS: I’m walking along the canals in the orange groves, thinking about this earthquake, and all the faults underneath where I live, and writing a lot of stuff by hand in my notebooks.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
SS: When I was way too young to be in graduate school, 22 and already married, James Baldwin was one of my teachers. He said that the most uncomfortable part of writing was carrying the story around and not being able to work, because you were thinking. He compared it to being pregnant, which was funny to me then. But he was right (since he was a man, some woman must have described it to him pretty well). You’re carrying the story, I have come to understand, and you’re not actually writing – you’re just uneasy and bothered and everyone and everything seems annoying, and people don’t see you producing anything – but you’re thinking and walking around being slow and irritated. That’s still writing, he taught me. That’s the best part.