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Interview with Susan Streeter Carpenter (’69)

Posted on November 4, 2014

Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and literary scholar  . . . pointed out the many voices in novels by authors such as Dickens and Dostoevsky. As I read Bakhtin with a 1968 book in mind, the many voices of a Dickens novel began to represent for me a kind of democratic resistance to a totalitarian regime. . . . The result was a  . . . tapestry with characters coming to the fore and then fading back.”
 
1.      What was the first glimmer of an idea that made you begin to consider telling the story of Ivy and Chuck and Jane and Bert?It was more than a glimmer; think of a council fire. I had supper with six people in Glenville on the night students took over Columbia and one of them telephoned us from Low Library. I’ve dedicated the novel to those six people. For a long time that dinner stood in my mind as the beginning of 1968, a center out of which each person’s life grew and traveled in its own direction. Within a few years two of them were dead, one in the Weathermen’s Greenwich Village townhouse explosion, the other in a car accident. One had gone underground. One I never saw again after that meal; someone told me he was in Mexico building a wall. Two I lost contact with after I left Cleveland in 1969; they seem to have continued with their lives, as I did, in ways not easily summarized in a fiery dramatic arc.Ivy, Chuck, Jane, Marvin, Tessa, and Bert emerged out of that centering moment–explosive only in retrospect.2.      Riders is set in a time and place that you experienced. Were your experiences and memories useful? Could you give an example of something that really happened and how it filtered down into the book?The dinner in Glenville is one of many events that really happened, though I could not render it the way I experienced it. “Filtered down” is a good way of describing how an event changed to fit the needs of the novel. In Glenville, for example, we did not stand in a circle and sing. There was another group circle singing “Eyes on the Prize” or maybe “Hand on the Plough,” but I don’t remember when or where. My memories are spotty, selective, and not usable for good fiction. Every time I wrote a scene as I remembered it, the result was a confusing page that didn’t fit.

That said, some other events in the book are based on my experiences: a painful breakup I still feel bad about. A delegate to the Democratic convention in Chicago who expressed the supreme importance of baseball games. Crippling asthma. I wasn’t planning to give asthma to Ivy, but as I was working on the book a classmate of my daughter’s died of asthma in the emergency room. I realized that more young people than ever wrestle with that condition. Also, the novel needs a reason for Ivy, who comes from a privileged professional family, to identify sincerely, at gut level, with poor and oppressed people. Asthma is oppressive, especially when no one around you understands how terrified, defeated, ashamed, and angry you feel.

The My Lai slides were shown in Cleveland during the summer of ’68, but I didn’t see them. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz mentions the slide show in her memoir, Outlaw Woman. I decided to use the slide show when the Abu Ghraib photographs were published as I was writing the book.

The Glenville shoot-out really happened, but no one I know was directly involved. So I relied on a report researched and written by Louis H. Masotti and Jerome R. Corsi from the Civil Violence Research Center, Case Western Reserve. I have the paperback published in 1969 with the title Shoot Out in Cleveland.

The Claude Foster Hall move really happened. So did the George Wallace demonstration, the charity lunch invasion, and the SDS convention at Ann Arbor. There was a Movement office on Euclid Avenue, east of the university, and an underground book store near campus.

I invented the balloon drop and the steam tunnel explosion, and I moved the Thinker explosion back in time about sixteen months. That was the most radical change, I think, because sixteen months doesn’t seem long now, but at the time, the zeitgeist utterly changed from November 1968 to March 1970. On the other hand, when people refer to “the sixties” now, they tend to conflate everything that happened between 1965 and 1972; Riders on the Storm kind of echoes that conflation.

3.      Could you describe your methods of research for a historical novel?  Is it the period or the person represented that interests you more?  What kind of sources do you use?

I had a terrific time researching, and I mean “terrific” both in the sense of “wonderful” and “terrifying.” For 35 years I had not really discussed my experiences of 1968 with anyone. Then several things happened: someone found a play I’d been involved with and forgotten about (Sweet 16 to Soggy 36: a Saga of American Womanhood) in the Duke University archives and sent me a copy. An old Movement friend showed up at my mother’s memorial service. Books were published, such as Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days and Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year That Rocked The World. I found an Internet listserv called “culture and history of the sixties” coming out of H-Net, an organization of scholars in many disciplines, and I discovered a whole world of scholarship; my private misgivings resurfaced as academic debates. I learned about books and courses I hadn’t imagined could exist. I could ask questions about half-remembered songs or slang, who “the Canadian Maoists” were, and COINTELPRO. People on the list responded to my questions, and some of those responses led to dialogues on line.

The Internet was immensely useful for locating dates, places, people, a variety of Movement histories, and artifacts like the “Girls Say Yes to Boys Say No” poster which I remembered, but not in the kind of detail Chuck sees it in the novel. In addition to books by Masotti, Ayers, Ortiz, and Kurlansky, I used Kirkpatrick Sale’s detailed history of SDS, autobiographies by Lewis G. Robinson, a Cleveland civil rights activist, Fred Halstead, the Socialist Worker Party candidate for president in ’68, and Carl Stokes. A friend loaned me his copy of the 1967 Conscientious Objector’s Handbook. I also used primary sources: the student newspapers of both Case and Western Reserve, leaflets, pamphlets, The Big Us (the underground newspaper), and anthologies of original documents. CWRU’s Encyclopedia of Cleveland History is a great on-line resource, as is the Cleveland Memory Project. The Cleveland State Library keeps a marvelous collection of news clippings in little envelopes, thousands of them; I spent a day there looking up obscure people and events, finding precious nuggets of information.

People gave me interviews, filled with storytelling and conversation: I’m especially grateful to Carol Close, Harllel Jones, and Roldo Bartimole. A staff person at the Cleveland Museum of Art told me about the nine-inch pipe bomb used to blow up the Thinker.

I’d write fictional scenes, then develop questions and go hunting for accurate details. Or I’d feel stuck and need to immerse myself in the era by reading six months’ worth of student newspapers. I enjoyed researching and did much more than I needed.

I can’t separate the people from the era, much less prefer one or the other. My goal for this novel was to re-create a sense of How It Was Then and weave a story with intense, believable characters that contemporary readers would understand. To do that I had to get all the details just right.

4.      How important is the use of the language and music of the times to recreate the sense of a shared space—things like “dig” or “the engine of the revolution” or referring to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or the Association’s “Cherish”? Were there other kinds of cultural markers that you used?

Language is tremendously important, of course. I can’t imagine writing from the perspective of people coming of age in that era (or any era?) without lines of song zipping through their minds. The challenge with the music was to be sparing with it. Dylan’s phrases especially pop up as if the words out of context could explain how it felt to be there right then, but most of the time I could convey the feel of things better with my own contemporary words.

The challenge with language was to make it new. So many words and phrases that seemed fresh then (“groovy,” “far out,” “right on”) have become stale jokes. There’s no rescuing them. I also had a problem then with how some people in the Movement began to talk. Increasingly we used language from various Marxist theorists that now comes across as nearly-unintelligible jargon. Such language was a symptom of how little we knew about how “to make the revolution” we wanted so much. We were ideologues, to a greater or lesser extent, and even admirable ideologues are dreadful in a novel because they’re so sure they’re right, and because they tend to use words as codes for political positions rather than to present their thoughts clearly. I left the Movement partly because of my antagonism with people who insisted on “the correct line” (later to become “political correctness”) instead of engaging in human relations. I wrote the book partly to work through that antagonism, to show what had happened. Also, of course, the use of politically coded language, rather than honest talk, has not ceased.

Other “cultural markers” I was careful to get right include the prices of things, technology such as the mimeograph machine, phone booths, and a keypunch system for computer programming. One of my favorite phrases is “both kinds of olives” because it stops people, a telling detail. Some readers are surprised at the word “both”; others recognize suddenly that there were only two kinds of olives, black and green (with red pimento tongues). I also paid attention to clothing and cars.

5.      There seems to be an ongoing attention to hunger in the book, the physical hunger for food. Is this just a result of the socioeconomic context of the characters or is hunger foregrounded in the book for other reasons?

This question is an intriguing surprise. I wasn’t aware of hunger as a theme in the novel, but you’ve got me thinking. Jane is hungry often when she forgets to eat for a day or two, or when she can’t afford to buy food. She’s living on $5.00 a week pocket money; that was standard, I understand, for urban community organizers in ERAP (Economic Research and Action Project) when they worked on building “an interracial movement of the poor.” So Jane eats a Snickers instead of lunch and coffee with sugar and cream instead of dinner; she longs for lemon meringue pie during a meal when she’s thinking about what her friends want.

Chuck is hungry when he can’t earn enough to support himself at Cleveland State; he lives off campus (was there any on-campus housing in 1968?) so he doesn’t have a meal plan, and some days he’s so broke he can’t eat anything but the free saltines and pickles in the cafeteria.

Neither Chuck nor Jane has low socioeconomic status; they can go home to their parents who are comfortably middle class. Their belief goes something like this: in the Movement, you identify with the oppressed (i.e. hungry and broke) people of the world, so you live as if you were one of them. You act in solidarity with the poor.
Ivy does not go without eating the way Chuck and Jane do. She sometimes can’t eat when she can’t breathe; when she feels healthy, she tends to gain weight.

As people in their early twenties, however, all three people experience standard adolescent hunger, which I think is often more than just physical hunger for food. It’s possible to make a case that Jane’s hunger for food is mixed with her confused sexual desire; she has not yet named herself Lesbian or bisexual.

It’s possible I added some hunger I was feeling myself. Sometimes writers find themselves giving their characters what they, not the characters, hunger for. I wrote a lovely hot bath scene for Chuck that did not make sense in the context of the novel. And I find myself giving characters cups of coffee when I don’t know what else to do. Then I realize the tension of the book has all drained away with the bath, and the coffee, which might speed me up, is slowing the novel down. So I remove the offending comforts.

6.      Do novels and memoirs have the same purposes? Why did you decide that the sixties in Cleveland would be represented best in a novel rather than a memoir?

Some novels and some memoirs have similar purposes. Riders on the Storm shares purposes with memoirs trying to render an era or zeitgeist accurately and with memoirs meant to help the author come to terms with an intense, confusing, painful period. For several reasons, however, I needed to write a novel:

First, if I were to craft an accurate memoir of my experiences in 1968 (or 1965-69), there wouldn’t be enough drama. Most of my revolutionary activities consisted of thinking hard, sitting around tables talking, or marching in crowds, all terribly hard to write with even a whiff of drama. At the time I felt very impassioned, but feelings don’t make the story effective; readers need action. The successful writers of late-sixties memoirs lived much riskier and more exciting lives than I did. Roxanne Dunbar, Bill Ayers, and Robert Pardun, for example, were Movement leaders, risk-takers, and semi public figures. Part of the motive for their books is a need to account for one’s self after one has impacted hundreds or thousands of people.

Second: In an honest nonfiction work the main characters’ motivations remain somewhat of a mystery. You simply cannot know everything about a real person (even if that person is yourself) the way you can—indeed, must—know everything about a fictional person. Those people around the real dinner table in Glenville were and are mysterious to me, and much, much more complex than Ivy, Chuck, Jane, Tessa, Marvin, and Bert could ever be. I wanted to write a novel so I could show facets hidden to the characters themselves. I could not do that with nonfiction.

Finally: A memoir about my life in 1968 would basically have only one narrator. I needed to construct a story with more than one voice, from several points of view. That need connects with what I’ve written above about leaving the Movement as people began to insist on using one kind of language, sticking to “the correct line.” The idea became intention when I read Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and literary scholar who pointed out the many voices in novels by authors such as Dickens and Dostoevsky. Bakhtin did much of his work in exile, sent to the hinterland by Stalin’s government which insisted on one voice in all the public discourse of the Soviet Union. As I read Bakhtin with a 1968 book in mind, the many voices of a Dickens novel began to represent for me a kind of democratic resistance to a totalitarian regime. The result was a kind of tapestry with characters coming to the fore and then fading back for awhile; not only could I move among three people’s experiences and add a reflective first-person-plural “we” voice that knows the future, but I could also use dialogue to bring in the voices of Ivy’s mother, Chuck’s grandfather, both of Jane’s parents, and Sheldon. That tapestry effect (rather than linear narrative with one narrator) reflects, I think now, my continued preference for participatory democracy.

7.      Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?

Most everything about my time at the school I called “Reserve” made this book possible. I soaked in the whole student experience, beginning in September 1965 when the “Adelbert men” swarmed through the windows of Harkness Chapel to steal “’69” beanies from the heads of the freshmen (sic) “Mather girls.” We barely had time to sing the song: “I’ve got a beanie on my head/But I can take it off in bed. …”.

I came to the end in June 1969 with a commencement speech in Severance Hall by President Robert Morse, who said something like, “I don’t know what the world will hold for you; so much has changed I’m not certain about anything. Well, go. Do what you can.” (My flawed memory shows here; I tried to find a text of Morse’s speech without success. I’m more willing to give him credit now than I was then.)

I chose an English major because there were relatively few required courses, so I could take lots of electives, several of them in art history. But I also realized that for me literature was the best lens through which to see the world whole: it fit the eyes of my mind. Literature still is the most effective lens for me, though I let it go for about fifteen years while I worked in health and human services, trying to enact social justice on various fronts.

At Reserve, I experienced time ratcheting forward as it does in the book: the nature of the world last week was utterly different than it was this week, and there was no going back. I saw how the sciences swallowed the humanities (the subject of a Mather Stunt Night skit I co-wrote; it didn’t win). I lived in Sherman House, Guilford House, and a duplex on Hessler Road. I attended Sherman Lee’s Asian Art History class. I helped block Euclid Avenue with a crowd of students to protest the University Circle Development Corporation’s proposed Loop highway that would run between the “new” dorms and the main campus. Our slogan: “Kill the Loop, not the campus!”

Great statements by professors still ring in my mind. I do not remember most of their names. (An exception: Philosophy 101, Dr. Kim: “The ultimate philosophical question is So what?”) One quarter, I suddenly felt Midterms bearing down and, though I’d attended classes, I hadn’t read any of the books or begun any of the papers. So in ten days I took 4 exams and wrote 5 papers (or perhaps 5 exams and 4 papers), living on cigarettes, coffee, and 4 hours’ sleep out of every 24. I remember screaming in the fourth floor Guilford shower, hating the mess I’d gotten myself into. I remember talking to a Movement friend on the phone, briefly, hearing his voice as if it were very far away: “My, we are certainly clear-headed, aren’t we?”

Other moments during my time as a CWRU/Mather student: Long talks late into the night. The comfort of the Student Union tables. The downtown peace vigil I helped organize and then studied for a social psychology project: Dr. Mawardi did not approve of my methods. Of course, I realize now: I was incapable of the kind of detachment social psychologists cultivate. I learned a good deal in my own way, and she graded my project B.

It was a thrilling time to be alive, and Case Western Reserve gave us as much room for experience as a conscientious institution could. I loved being a student there.

Carpenter

Susan Streeter Carpenter has been an anti-poverty worker, home health care administrator, independent radio producer, free lance writer, and teacher of writing. For almost twenty years she was involved with the Antioch Writers’ Workshop as director, board member, and faculty. Now she is assistant professor of English at Bluffton University, specializing in fiction writing. Riders on the Storm, her first novel, was published in the spring of 2010 by Bottom Dog Press.  For her fiction Carpenter has received an Ohio Arts Council Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and two first-place Westheimer awards from the University of Cincinnati, as well as a Distinguished Dissertation Fellowship in the Humanities for an early version of her novel. She has published short stories in journals such as The Long Story, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Snake Nation Review, Kalliope, and Crab Orchard Review. Her story “Elk Medicine” appears in The Best of the West ’09, edited by Scott Horton and James Thomas, published by the University of Texas Press. She has also published essays and poetry.

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