Telling Tales: Susan Froetschel’s novels bring resolution to stories in the news

A small town in Alaska and a remote village in Afghanistan might appear to have little in common. But for novelist Susan Froetschel, both locales inspired stories about families struggling with the impact of public policies.
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Susan Froetschel (Photo by Steve Dean)

Telling Tales is an occasional series featuring members of the Yale community who write novels, short stories, poems, or plays.

A small town in Alaska and a remote village in Afghanistan might appear to have little in common. But for novelist Susan Froetschel, both locales inspired stories about families struggling with the impact of public policies.

The managing editor of YaleGlobal Online and an award-winning author of five novels, Froetschel began her career working for Self, House Beautiful, and Esquire magazines. After moving to Alaska, her reporting for The Daily Sentinel was recognized with national and state press awards. She later studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and has written about business, environmental protection, nonprofits, and health care, among other topics. Froetschel taught writing classes at Yale and magazine writing and literary journalism at Southern Connecticut State University. She recently spoke with YaleNews about what inspires her to write fiction, her admiration for Nancy Drew, and the influence of YaleGlobal on her plots.

Despite having a career, you’ve found the time to write five novels. What inspires you to write full-length works of fiction?

I try to offer detailed and logical stories about parents and children troubled by public policies that most others in their community take for granted and how they often work at cross-purposes. These stories are about family relationships, how parents influence their children — and how these relationships can take multiple trajectories depending on which values a child might embrace or reject from his or her parents.

Do you find your experience in journalism helpful in writing novels?

Definitely — primarily for the practice of sitting at a keyboard and writing every day, but also for examples of stories about human nature. News stories triggered the ideas for all but one of my novels. The books are attempts to make sense of stories lacking in resolution or revealing gaps in social responsibility. The first book, “Alaska Gray,” was based on a story of a homeless woman from out of town with fetal alcohol syndrome. I was the police reporter and she suddenly appeared, repeatedly, in the police logs for drunk and disorderly conduct. I pressed police and hospital personnel for explanations, and learned that when patients left the inpatient substance-abuse program early they did not receive a ticket back home. Not long afterward the young woman was found dead, with blood alcohol levels five times the legal limit. The death was labeled as an accident. I wrote an article, but her story disturbed me, and I recognized how a novel could also address the issue and society’s culpability.   

You describe your most recent books — “Fear of Beauty” and “Allure of Deceit” — which are set in Afghanistan, as “suspense” novels, although they focus on issues like charity, religion, and literacy. Why do you feel they belong in that category?

Suspense novels were my favorites as a young reader. Starting with Nancy Drew, I admired the problem-solving protagonists. Their curiosity is boundless, and that’s a first step to caring and problem-solving. They travel around freely, bluntly asking questions, going to new places, sometimes keeping an open mind and sometimes not, while developing theories on the hows and whys of crimes and other social problems. 

Has your daily work at YaleGlobal Online provided any inspiration for the plots of your novels?

I could not have written the novels set in Afghanistan without this background or the insights on globalization from the magazine’s founding editor, Nayan Chanda. YaleGlobal covers globalization, the interconnectedness of our world through trade, travel, diplomacy, disease, war and more. And I can’t help but imagine issues and complications of globalization at the personal level. YaleGlobal followed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq along with the fear of Muslims among some in the West. During the 2008 presidential campaign, many pundits insisted that the United States could not negotiate with the Taliban. I started wondering how many Taliban were in Afghanistan and whether they had women’s support. Getting an estimate was not easy. Of course, the country is half women, and the CIA reported the median age at less than 18, suggesting that only a quarter of the population consisted of adult men who potentially had real power. By 2011 Reuters reported on a NATO leak estimating there was no more than 75,000 Taliban in Afghanistan, with most involved for economic reasons due to the lack of opportunity in that country. So 75,000 can easily coerce a country of 30 million. That’s relatively easy when there are rates of literacy as low as 10% for Afghan women prior to the 2001 invasion, and for me, living in a community with bullies, without books and readers, would be a nightmare. 

Can books change people? Is there any one book that profoundly influenced you either as a writer or as a person?

Many books. Every book offers lessons for writers about what to do or what not to do and the infinite alternatives. Forgive me for not sticking to one! I have written before about my mom’s death the summer before I attended third grade and her last book club order coming in the mail including “The Modern Family Cookbook” and Herman Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar,” the story of a woman who gives up on her career dreams. In high school, I discovered realist Theodore Dreiser on my own, and remember my fascination with the family dynamics and religious themes in “An American Tragedy.” And later in grad school, a good friend referred me to “Bound for the Promised Land,”a long Western and coming-of-age saga by Richard Marius. 

What’s the best advice you’ve received about writing, and what advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?

One of the finest editors shaping my work was Thad Poulson, the editor of The Daily Sentinel in Sitka, Alaska. He demonstrated time and time again, as editor and reporter in a town of 8,000 people, how to write directly, concisely, with respect and heart for others. And my advice for an aspiring novelist would be: Find an issue about which you feel passionate. This helps writers develop characters and easily imagine the array of responses that might come into conflict. More importantly, caring immensely about a topic keeps you writing the 300 pages or more needed for a novel. You will finish the project even if eventual publication is uncertain.

What’s your view on the battle between physical and digital books?             

For many writers, including me, it’s not a battle. Instead, more options are available. That said, globalization and technology expand availability of books from around the globe and herd readers around a few select favorites. The Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that the average adult reads about 12 books per year, and those readers typically rely on word-of-mouth and recommendations, including reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. “The Martian” started as a self-published serial on Amazon and emphasizes how much affordability and reader reviews matter in today’s market.   

Are you currently working on a new novel?

Yes, a third in the Afghanistan series. It’s about parents of disabled children in the same fictional village. But I’m also busy with YaleGlobal and taking my time with the novel. Too many suspense writers rush, trying to produce one or more novels each year, and that is something I cannot do. My plots take time to form. I relish getting to know the characters and studying how their relationships can unfold.

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