Thursday, April 25, 2013

An Interview with Author Susan Froetschel

Author Susan Froetschel
I recently received a reviewer copy of Fear of Beauty from Seventh Street Books.  Set in modern rural Afghanistan, the novel could have been written by a seasoned U.S. soldier turned Afghani housewife and mother. But it wasn't. It was written by Susan Froetschel of Michigan. Susan's experience as an award-winning journalist is evident in her fiction; in Fear of Beauty, she immerses the reader in a story of human tragedy and tentative hope as real as the political conflict that surrounds it. Here I ask Susan how she does it.

Susan, you have enjoyed quite a prestigious writing career. From working for several popular New York magazines, to news reporting in Alaska, to studying at Harvard and teaching at Yale. By now, you must have the freedom to write almost anything you want. Do you still engage in reporting, or have novels taken over your life?

Novels have not taken over my life, though I did take one year off from YaleGlobal to write Fear of Beauty. I still write opinion essays and book reviews, most for YaleGlobal Online, in my work since 2005 as an assistant editor and later as a consultant. And I have many great memories of the rush-and-tumble of reporting for a daily newspaper in a small Alaskan town.

Tell us about one or two of the more memorable stories you have covered as a journalist. Do these experiences play into your novels? If so, how?

My reporting – the close observations of a small, tightknit community – is reflected in all the novels, whether it’s Sitka, Alaska, or a small village in Afghanistan. Even in small communities, non-leaders and non-experts often go ignored. My best stories emerged when I stopped and listened to ordinary people who had a hunch about corruption or a community need, and I could gave them a voice through reporting. In one case, the newspaper stopped the costly deployment of Alaska National Guard jets in distributing unneeded charitable food donations to Scandinavian countries. In another instance, a young man began a lonely task of restoring an old, hidden cemetery. Many thought the project was futile, but after a profile, he mobilized community support and won state recognition.  

Fear of Beauty is told from the first-person perspective of an illiterate Afghani woman in a farming village. How did you (of all people) write so credibly from this woman's point of view? Can you comment on the research that went into developing Sofi's character?

The research began years ago with my volunteer work as a literacy tutor, both with adults in Alaska and middle-school students in an urban setting. Most of these students were smart, capable, fully aware that they were vulnerable in unknown ways and yet terrified that their lack of basic reading and writing skills would be exposed in the workplace or classroom. Next, I’m a mother and my four books analyze the joys and conflicts of mother-son relationships. But to be honest, Kris, I found that the best research was going about daily routines, thinking deliberately about every modern item we enjoy and stripping such details from my writing.

The same question applies to Army Ranger Joey Pearson. Do you have a military background? If not, what did you do to get into Joey's head?

No military background at all – other than some non-wartime reporting on the Alaska National Guard and talking with relatives and friends who are veterans. I was shopping at the Ranger Surplus store in Bethesda, and my son pointed out a Ranger Handbook from July 1992. This compact training guide, 4 by 5.5 inches and about an inch thick, is terse and practical, and it’s the heart of Joey’s character just as the Koran is for Sofi’s husband.

And finally, the third main character: the setting. You write about Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as if you have been there. Have you? A Google search for "Laashekoh" gives me three pages of references to you and your novel - so I suspect that Laashekoh is a fictional village. Am I correct in my assumption? Are this village and its citizens based on a village you know?

I have not had the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan. The village is fictional, and the word “laashe koh” is ledge in Dari. I follow international news closely with my work – including many reports on Afghanistan. I spent one long day in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, paging through photography books on Afghanistan from the 1920s and 1930s, before the war with Russia, before the days of Taliban control. But I had to stop and remind myself that a lifelong resident of a village does not describe every detail – after living in a community for a while, we take our routines and everyday scenes for granted – until it changes or we must leave. And we could find characters like the villagers of Laashekoh in some small American farming communities.

I referenced Fear of Beauty in a blog post about Interweaving Subplots. There will also be a full review of this novel in a future blog post, so I won't dive too heavily into its plot here. Instead, I will merely ask Susan to comment on the non-fictional subject matter and controversies presented in the book. What might our readers not gather from reading it? What else would you like us to understand that might not be evident in a work of fiction?

The book is a product of my constant reading, writing and editing about modern globalization. All on this globe share many connections. Attempts to isolate ourselves from the mass of ideas swirling the globe in an ever-rapid pace is not easy. The worst ideas, ones that entail controlling others, are persistent. But the best ideas are penetrating, lasting and can’t be vanquished. In this era of globalization, it’s critical for people to be lifelong learners and think for themselves.

Last, what else would you like our readers to know about you? Are you currently writing another novel? Care to comment about it?

I have two books going. One is a sequel to Fear of Beauty. But I’m a very slow writer who likes an intricate plot!

I would like to call our readers' attention to your blog, at which you don your journalism hat and detail the many themes presented in Fear of Beauty: the plight of women in rural Afghanistan, the role of agriculture in rebuilding a war-torn nation, the interpretation and misinterpretation of Islamic law and the personal and political agendas that fit those interpretations. I encourage anyone interested in Middle Eastern politics to explore these pages. Susan, please also provide any additional website or contact info you'd like our readers to have.

YaleGlobal is a rich resource on globalization and my personal website is


  1. Sounds like a really interesting story, Susan. I look forward to reading it!

    1. Elliott, it is a really interesting story. You should check it out

  2. Susan,

    Congrats on the outstanding reviews you received for this novel. Having read some of your previous novels, I know what a fine writer you are. Best wishes.

  3. Kris,

    I appreciate you and your constant search for brilliant authors to interview. Great job!