Today I’m welcoming Susan Manzke to my series of author interviews. Susan is the author of the recently released middle-grade novel Chicken Charlie’s Year. Susan has been writing a weekly column for Wisconsin State Farmer since 1980. Her two adult romances, Never Bring Her Roses and When the Spotlight Fades were published by Doubleday.
Elizabeth: Can you tell us about your new book, Chicken Charlie’s Year?
Susan: Here’s my blurb about the book:
Ten-year-old Charlie Petkus isn’t surprised to get scratchy wool underwear from Aunt Mutzi for Christmas 1932, but he is surprised that her gift package includes a diary. To his dismay, his Lithuanian-immigrant mother thinks a diary is the perfect present. “You man of family, Casimir,” she says. “You learn to write the English like good American.” Charlie wants more than anything to make Mama proud. But he’s not sure education is the way to manhood, especially since he doesn’t like school. With the Great Depression on, Charlie thinks it would be much manlier to quit the 4th grade and go to work like his friend Ray.
From Christmas 1932 to Christmas 1933, Charlie finds plenty of fun and adventure in his ethnic neighborhood. He discovers that sledding on a car hood results in embarrassment and a very snowy bottom. He finds that a “dead” pheasant that isn’t quite as dead as he thought can make a big mess in a Ford Model B. He learns that if you take a job harvesting onions before school, you get your feet filthy on just the day they make you take your shoes off to be weighed and measured—but you also earn a whole dime for your work. By night, Charlie writes in his diary to make Mama proud. But by day, he watches Ray, who now dresses like a man, smokes like a man, and earns a man’s wage. Charlie wonders why his mama and sisters should live on cabbage soup and the occasional package of broken cookies while “the man of the family” sits in school writing a poem called “Spring is Here.” The decision Charlie makes next will determine the course of his life and his understanding of what it really means to be a man.
This story is filled with fun adventures and family moments. At times when I was writing it felt like I was channeling my father’s family.
Elizabeth: How long did it take from story idea until the book was published?
Susan: I think I’ve been working on this story most of my life. My father told funny stories about his childhood to put my sister and me to sleep. I always loved those stories and creating this novel was my way of using some of them.
I can’t exactly remember when I started writing this actual book. It has been a long time. My critique group has read bits and pieces of it for years.
The hardest part is deciding when the book was polished and ready to publish. I wanted it to be the best I could do, to honor my father and I didn’t want to mess up.
Elizabeth: You’ve been writing for Wisconsin State Farmer for many years. Can you tell us what sort of columns you write for that publication?
Susan: My column is my life. I write about things that happen to me and my family. I began writing this weekly column in 1980. Back then I had a new baby, a three-year-old, and a five-year-old. Subjects then were about raising a young family. Today I have grandchildren. They often end up in my column these days.
I like to write about the funny side of life. Sometimes something will happen on our farm, Sunnybook Farm, and it won’t seem funny until a day or two later. A stuck tractor isn’t funny when you are covered with mud and working hard to get it out, but a few days later it makes its way into my column and it is funny.
Elizabeth: You’ve written a middle-grade novel, personal essays, columns (which have been published in the Words in My Pocket collections), and adult romances. How do you approach these very different kinds of writing?
Susan: I have a weekly deadline for my column, which runs about 650+ words. I’m always thinking about column ideas, so usually when I sit down I can start writing and get something done in one afternoon.
When I work on a novel, I get a germ of an idea and mull it over before starting to write. It may take me years to write a novel. I don’t outline, but I usually know the beginning and the end. The fun part is figuring out how to get from Chapter One to the end. For me it’s the journey that keeps me interested.
Elizabeth: You write in many genres, do you read in many genres? Which are your favorite?
Susan: I love to read middle-grade novels. I like anything that keeps my attention. Often ‘adult’ novels are too convoluted for me. I hate putting a book down, but my time is limited. Just tell me a good story. I have a form of dyslexia, so I’m a slow reader, but that hasn’t stopped me. I discovered my love for reading when I read Lassie Come Home in the seventh grade. Up until then reading was just a chore. I don’t want a book to be a chore to read.
Elizabeth: Tell us about yourself.
Susan: I live with my husband of 41 years, Bob, on Sunnybook Farm. We have 4 adult children, 6 grandchildren, 1 step grandson, and 1 step great granddaughter. We have 3 house cats and one dog. We also have 9 chickens and a bunch of barn cats. I love getting together with family. We laugh a lot and I never get enough of my grandchildren.
I went back to college in my 50s and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2009. It wasn’t easy going back to school after all those years, but every time I finished a class, I felt a great sense of accomplishment.
Elizabeth: Do you have any advice for young readers and writers?
Susan: I like to encourage writers who have dyslexia to charge ahead and write. I’m proof it can be done. Join a critique group to help improve your writing. Critiques may hurt at first, but I know I learned a lot from mine and I still do.
We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:
Elizabeth: Pizza or salad?
Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?
Elizabeth: Tree house or doll house?
Susan: Tree House, like the one in Swiss Family Robinson
Elizabeth: Violin or piano?
Elizabeth: Comic story or learn-something story?
Susan: Tough one….I like to learn something in a story by accident, not on purpose. It has to be part of the story, even a comic story.
Elizabeth: Laura Ingalls Wilder or Hermione Granger?
Susan: Another tough one….Hermione Granger
Thanks, Susan for joining me today. For more about Susan Manzke, visit her website: http://www.susanmanzke.net
Chicken Charlie’s Year is available here on amazon.com
Susan’s columns are available in the Words in my Pocket collections.