Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The In Character Interview with Susan Perly

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Susan Perly (photo credit: Dennis Lee)

In Susan Perly's Death Valley (Wolsak and Wynn), war photographer Vivienne Pink is tasked with taking pictures of servicemen about to head into active combat. While the men contemplate their uncertain futures, Vivienne confronts an abuser from her past. A quest for vengeance and the elusive perfect shot overlap in the Nevada Desert, as adrenaline junkie Vivienne careens towards a future she never expected. Described as “Equal parts Twin Peaks and Alice in Wonderland" by writer Michelle Berry, Death Valley is a fast-paced fiction that will leave you as scorched as the desert sun.

We speak to Susan today as part of our In Character Interview series, which asks authors about how they create and shape characters and their own favourite characters in fiction.

Susan tells us about the writer as god vs. the writer as archeologist (and why she is the latter), what she and Vivienne have in common, and gives us a poetic answer to what she'll be working on next.

Open Book:

Tell us about the main character in your new book.

Susan Perly:

Vivienne Pink is a war photographer in her 50s at a crisis point in her married life. She left her hometown Toronto when she was a teenager, travelled to Saigon by chance to assist an older male photojournalist covering the war in Vietnam. In Indochina she finds her calling: photography. She has moxie, daring, an eye for the moment.

We meet her in Death Valley at a juncture in her life when she has agreed to stop going to conflict zones, so that she and her husband, Johnny Coma, a novelist, can have a calmer life, living in the same place. She has assigned herself a project: to photograph servicemen the night before they deploy, to do this in the military desert of the southwest U.S.

Open Book:

Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?


Vivienne existed before I wrote her. I was shadowing a shadow. Rather than being a god who created a woman, I was an archeologist discovering a civilization. Planet Vivi. I came into her life; she let me look through her camera lens. I was behind her eyes with her. Then I stepped into her clothes, her hair, and then I began to speak like her. I had become the object I was following. When I closed the door to my study, I was performing for the page.

Open Book:

How do you choose names for your characters?


The name Vivienne arrived to me. I felt the ping inside: the sound of her name inside my skull, the feel of my top lip, my teeth hitting my bottom lip as I shaped her name, how it ended with a bit of a smile when I said, ‘Vivienne.’ I wrote it down. I instantly adored the symmetry of the letters. Four vowels, four consonants. The two ‘vi’s.’ Vi-vi. How the capital letter V at the start was a valley, the rest of her name like a long road.

I like things in threes. She has three syllables to her full name. Three and then one, for her surname Pink. Names on the tongue, on the page, inked, in pixels. First though, the gut rightness.

Elmore Leonard told a great anecdote about one of his characters. Writing on the official Leonard website about his book Bandits, he said, ‘I called the main character Frank Matisse and he almost refused to talk. I changed him to Jack Delaney and I couldn’t shut him up.’


What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?


I listen through an inner ear: what is the character saying? Their mannerisms, tics, rhythm of speaking. For me, dialogue is circumstantial, occasional. When Vivienne talks to her husband Johnny, it’s intimate shorthand. But when Vivienne talks to Val, she is bantering with the platonic ‘other man,’ who is flirting with the woman he knows he can’t have. When Vivienne meets Andy, the soldier she wants to photograph, her conversation with him has intention inside the fun and dire stories: to allure him to be her subject.

My tips for writing dialogue: Read. Read plays. Read poetry. Read your dialogue out loud. Record yourself doing it. Eavesdrop not for gossip but for cadence, tasty phrasing. If you like the dialogue in a show you’re watching on DVD or streaming, switch on the English subtitles, watch, listen and read.


Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?


We’re both storytellers. Vivienne tells stories with light, I tell them with words. We’re both city women, used to being noticers, making up stories about the multitude of people we observe in a day. She doesn’t take photographs for herself; she collects light as evidence. I don’t write for myself; I write for you the reader. Vivienne is more wounded than I am, in her soul and body. She is less droll. She’s fierce; I’m looking for the fiercely funny.


Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?


While I was writing Death Valley, I put aside most fiction. I read geology, art history. I read biography, another door to character. Photographer Sally Mann’s Hold Still, a portrait of her life, in art and writing. Patti Smith’s Just Kids, tracing a young life in art, music, poetry. I’ve just finished Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carre, a real man who has lived and written as many overlapping characters.

My perennials include Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams), Eddie Coyle (The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins), Lady Bracknell (The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde) Lisbeth Salander (Stieg Larsson’s trilogy), Joan Didion as herself, Mitch-and-Murray, the never seen head office men in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.


What are you working on now?


Let me answer in a haiku:

Quiet mind. Big ears.
Open my pores to absorb
The next first sentence

Susan Perly has worked as a journalist, war correspondent and radio producer for the CBC. In the early ’80s her Letters from Latin America for Peter Gzowski’s Morningside reported from locales such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Chiapas. During the Iran–Iraq war she broadcast Letters from Baghdad, and she produced many documentaries for the weekly program Sunday Morning. Perly is the author of the jazz novel Love Street, and her short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. She lives in Toronto with her husband, the poet Dennis Lee.

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