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Interview: March 20, 2015

Susan Crawford is a debut author who, in addition to teaching and writing, is involved in many impressive literary extracurricular activities --- including participating in two critique groups. THE POCKET WIFE is her first full-length novel, and it’s about Dana Catrell, a bipolar woman in the throes of mania, who must piece together the shards of her broken memory in order to figure out who killed her neighbor. In this interview with The Book Report Network's Norah Piehl, Crawford talks about why she decided to write a psychological thriller, the challenges of matching her writing to Dana’s state(s) of mind, and why there’s no such thing, really, as a reliable narrator. She also recommends some great books for anyone interested in further exploring bipolar disorder.

The Book Report Network: THE POCKET WIFE offers a very intimate look at a woman dealing with bipolar disorder who can’t remember if she murdered her friend. What inspired you to make this the plot line for your debut novel?

Susan Crawford: I wanted to show bipolar illness from the inside out --- Dana looking at the world rather than the world looking at her. I also thought it was an intriguing and terrifying concept, to not be sure if you’d done something horrible or not. 

TBRN: What kinds of research did you conduct to understand how to portray this condition?

SC: I have had close friends over the years with this condition, so I knew what they had gone through, even though, of course, everyone is different. I also studied psychology extensively and worked toward a Master’s degree in counseling. 

TBRN: Your writing background includes short fiction and poetry, but you chose to write this story as a thriller novel. What made you choose to expand into this genre? Did the story idea come first, or the decision to write a psychological thriller?

SC: I was encouraged by my critique group to write something with “more action in it.” A couple of friends also nudged me toward writing suspense. I thought it might be interesting to try a different type of genre, and it has definitely proven to be that! Once I’d promised to “start out with a dead body,” the story just unfolded in my mind. 

TBRN: In the sections of the novel written from Dana's point of view, your style seems to adapt to reflect her state of mind --- becoming more frenetic, for example, during her manic phases. Was that a difficult technique to accomplish? What did you find most challenging about capturing Dana's state of mind?

SC: It was a natural progression as she became more manic and sped up, more out of control. I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t find capturing Dana’s state of mind difficult at all, but I did find it hard to describe the way she was feeling --- I could write her thoughts better than her feelings about what was happening to her because I didn’t see Dana as particularly reflective generally, and especially not when she was in the throes of mania. I also sometimes found it difficult to be inside her head because it wasn’t a pleasant place to be!

TBRN: You also write sections from the point of view of Jack, who's investigating the murder at the center of the novel. Was it challenging to switch back and forth? How did you find the experience of capturing a man's point of view?

SC: It was interesting to switch between Jack and Dana. Jack is much more grounded, so being in his head was a good balance for me. Also, these two characters each have large chunks of the book, so it wasn’t as if I had to pop back and forth constantly. I might be writing a Dana chapter for a couple of days and then switch to writing a Jack chapter for a few more days. The differences in points of view between Jack and Dana have much more to do with perspectives than gender. I tried to see things through Jack’s eyes when I was writing his parts and to draw on my experiences with men --- things they say, things a man like Jack might say or think.

TBRN: Although THE POCKET WIFE is certainly a novel of suspense, you also use the book to explore a lot of ideas about marriage and relationships. What were you hoping to suggest about marriage through your story?

SC: I didn’t mean to suggest any specific thing about marriage. The spouses in THE POCKET WIFE are all difficult, but for different reasons. Each of them is harboring resentment or hiding something from a partner, and eventually these secrets and misunderstandings take their toll. 

TBRN: I imagine that writing a mystery novel involves a fair amount of planning in a way that a different sort of narrative might not entail. How much of the overall mystery plot did you map out before you started writing?

SC: Not much at all. I knew Celia would be lying in her foyer when her husband arrived home. I started with that. Originally, the book was told differently, from more points of view, so I did a lot of rewriting.  

TBRN: Dana isn't strictly a narrator, since the book is written in third person, but her internal monologues do share a fair number of similarities with various unreliable narrators. Have you read other books with unreliable narrators that you would recommend to readers who enjoy THE POCKET WIFE?

SC: Yes. I recently read BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, where the narrator was very unreliable, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I’m not sure narrators are ever totally reliable since everyone sees things through their own filters, their own life experiences, and that influences point of view.  

TBRN: After reading THE POCKET WIFE, readers may have a lot of questions about bipolar disorder. What print or online resources would you recommend for them to learn more?

SC: I suggest A BRILLIANT MADNESS by Patty Duke and AN UNQUIET MIND by Kay Redfield Jamison. Both books were written by women who struggled with bipolar disorder, and both illuminate the devastating feelings involved with this illness.

TBRN: What are you looking forward to most about connecting with people who have read your novel?

SC: I’m looking forward to hearing about them and about their reactions to my book. 

TBRN: What has surprised you most about the publishing process?

SC: So many things! I think I was most surprised by how quickly things happened once my agent accepted the rewrite on my manuscript. I have also been pleasantly surprised by the patience and understanding shown by everyone involved in this publication.

TBRN: What is your favorite time of day for writing? Where do you write? Do you set daily goals for yourself?

SC: My favorite time for writing now is in the morning or at night. I guess I’m not an afternoon writer. I used to write in the middle of the night after everyone was asleep.

TBRN: Which do you like better --- drafting or revising? Why?

SC: Drafting. I like revising, too. I really enjoy most of the writing process, but the initial draft is the exciting part for me. It’s when I first get to know my characters and discover their flaws and secrets and hopes, and it’s when the story unfolds. 

TBRN: I read on your blog that you're involved with a critique group. How did this come about? What do you find valuable about being part of a group like this?

SC: I’m actually in two fantastic critique groups. One is smaller and more publication-focused than the other. Several years ago, I asked my coworkers if anyone could recommend a critique group, and one of them suggested the Village Writers Group. I joined it. The other group developed from that one. Critique groups are helpful in so many ways, but only if you find one that’s a good fit! Mine have given me vital feedback, great suggestions, fresh ideas, friendships, comradery and invaluable information about conferences and other resources. 

TBRN: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

SC: I’m working on a book about the death of a businessman on an icy road. What is at first thought to be a traffic mishap appears to be more than an accident, and the dead man’s widow, as well as his girlfriend, struggle to find answers and balance in the wake of this loss.