Today I welcome author Suzanne McLain Rosenwasser to my blog. She is the author of the essay collections Manhasset Stories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back and Manhasset Stories: More Baby Boomer Memories. Suzanne’s most recent publication is the historical novel Don’t Ya Know, which takes place on the fictional Corycian Island, off the coast of Long Island, at the start of the 20th Century.
Elizabeth: Welcome, Suzanne. Tell us more about Don’t Ya Know.
Suzanne: Hello, Elizabeth. Thank you for inviting me to talk about my work, in particular, Don’t Ya Know, a labor of love for my Long Island roots. Until the 1890s, Long Island’s shoreline was dotted with malodorous, fish oil factories. Terms like “The Gold Coast” and “The Hamptons” were not part of the vernacular. Change came rapidly, however, once real estate developers saw the value of beachfront luxury. By the 1900s, the ferries of the Long Island Sound transported tourists instead of fertilizer to and from the barrier islands.
Corycian (Core’seen) Island represents a microcosm of Long Island’s physical and cultural transformation through the stories of her indigenous people, the locals who meet the challenges of change head-on, though often haphazardly. The worst among them sow silent seeds of hate; while the best cling to the ancient concept of living “all-a-wanna”- or all together – and sow seeds of spirit and hope.
Elizabeth: What drew you to this time and place?
Suzanne: I grew up on Long Island in the 50s and 60s, lived on Manhattan island in the 70s, and moved to a small barrier island off Long Island’s east end, Shelter Island, in the 1980s. The similarities of those, vastly different, island environments intrigued me, and continued to do so as I visited more islands along the eastern shoreline in later years. I also wrote for a 100-year-old local newspaper in the 80s, The Shelter Island Reporter. The feature stories I researched opened up a whole world for me. I was introduced to splintered Algonquin tribes, Dutch sugar merchants, Barbadian slaves, runaway New England Quakers, and legacy baymen. This unlikely group formed an agricultural society that led to a thriving economy driven by fertilizer factories and canning plants along hundreds of miles of shoreline. This was the world of Long Island until its beaches became a mecca for real estate developers and millionaires in the1890s. I wondered how the locals dealt with that enormous transformation, along with the turbulence of the times.
Elizabeth: How much historical fact is woven into your story?
Suzanne: The story takes place from 1900-1928 when great change occurred worldwide. Corycian Islanders endured the effects of women’s suffrage, spiritualism, WWI, the flu epidemic, and Prohibition. Fortunately, there are many books specific to Long Island on these topics, including guides for Algonquin words and stories of Barbadian slaves on Long Island, as well as photographs of the factories, the Victorian cottages, the baymen, the ferries and the hotels of the era. I visited many island cemeteries from Shelter Island, New York to St. Simon’s, Georgia. Sadly, one of those had been desecrated, and the impact of that senselessness worked its way onto Corycian Island.
Elizabeth: Tell me about your protagonist, Nuna Shellfoot.
Suzanne: Nuna is of Native American and Barbadian ancestry. Nuna expresses the theme of the novel in her rhythmic dialect: “Great spirit be a mother. She feed us, we feeds dem. Round and round. That’s de way. You helps dem, so you helps alla us; all-a-wanna or all together, don’t ya know.” Nuna’s words are few, but her wisdom is great.
Elizabeth: Tell us about your essay collections, Manhasset Stories.
Suzanne: Manhasset and so many towns like it on Long Island in the mid-20th century were new hamlets, largely made up of first and second generation Americans moving from the boroughs of New York. Growing up as Baby Boomers in this era allowed a “new” post-WWII perspective. The suburbs were a new concept. It was a new middle class. The families were young and new. The highways to Long Island were new. The shopping centers and area parks were new. We lived in the epicenter of changing times. We shared a golden era, and I chose to dwell on the times we enjoy remembering. The small book was intended as a gift-sized volume. It proved so popular, I followed it up with Volume II – More Baby Boomer Memories.
Elizabeth: What led you to write these essays?
Suzanne: The New York Times had published two essays I submitted about my hometown and beach life as a Long Island Baby Boomer. The great feedback I received led me to the idea of a gift book
Elizabeth: What are the biggest differences between writing nonfiction and fiction?
Suzanne: When I write non-fiction, mostly memoir, I know how it’s going to turn out ahead of time. In fiction, the story unfolds before me as it takes on life.
Elizabeth: What does your writing day look like?
Suzanne: Having newspaper deadlines in the 1980s for everything from zoning board meetings to historical features introduced discipline to my writing days. I had two small children, so I started writing at 4 a.m. before they woke up for school. I continued to do that for the next 35+ years, either writing myself or reviewing my students’ writing.
Elizabeth: What have you read recently that you feel passionate about?
Suzanne: I listened to the audio book of The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and found the story to be so well woven with history, character, and place – all further enhanced by the French accents of the reader while I listened. Also, I reread a favorite, The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, and was once again struck by the lessons we learn about the world in fiction. This is a brilliant book. While reading it I realized a character in Don’t Ya Know, Ezra Goldsmith, may well have derived his wisdom from the influence of “Doc” in Courtenay’s book.
Elizabeth: Can you tell us more about yourself?
Suzanne: I am a retired educator who loved teaching English literature, writing, and drama to high school students. Reaching a teen’s heart is challenging and rewarding. I found the written word to be a great vehicle for that target. Also, I am a life-long writer who began entering short story contests at the age of ten. I received nothing but rejections until the age of 35 when a major publisher offered me an astonishing contract. The book ended up in publishing hell (see Harry Chapin and Me). My job at the newspaper and a website called scribd.com, renewed my writing voice.
Elizabeth: 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: Coffee or tea?
Suzanne: Coffee – though I’m being told to cut back. Horrors!
Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?
Suzanne: Ocean. Ocean. Ocean.
Elizabeth: Hiking or shopping?
Elizabeth: Violin or piano?
Elizabeth: Mystery or fantasy?
Elizabeth: Darcy or Heathcliff?
Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?
Suzanne: Death scene
To learn more about Suzanne and her writing, visit:
follow her on Twitter:@zanne1 @storiesdontyaknow
and friend her on Facebook: Suzanne McLain Rosenwasser, author