Q&A With Susan Barr-Toman, Author of WHEN LOVE WAS CLEAN UNDERWEAR

First things first. Congratulations to the winner of Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling, which I reviewed on Monday: Tawnya at Drawn to the Flame!

Earlier this week I reviewed an excellent debut novel by Susan Barr-Toman called When Love Was Clean Underwear. Susan was kind enough to answer some questions for me, and her answers were very interesting to read. (I recommend reading them now, then reading the book, and then coming back to read them again. Just don't read the spoiler question before you read the book!)

Here is the Q&A. Thanks, Susan!

Q:  Do you know someone like Lucy? What was your inspiration for her character?

A: I do know people like Lucy, and I have had many people come up to me after readings to tell me the same. When I was writing the novel, people kept saying, “you have to make Lucy younger,” or “something terribly must happen for her to be a virgin at 30.”  People assume everyone is like them or like characters on sitcoms.  There are people who live with their parents.  There are people who hold on to their virginity for many reasons.  In this case Lucy is a practicing Catholic, and thanks to her mother she also has poor self-esteem.  And as you know, her mother has issues.

However, this is not an autobiographical novel.  My mother is alive and well and never smoked a cigarette in her life.  I was not a virgin at 30.  I was married at 27, and no man is that patient. 

Q: The South Philadelphia neighborhood that Lucy lives in plays a large role in your book. How did you pick the setting?

A: Actually South Philadelphia was the inspiration for the novel.  I heard this story about a young couple who weren’t from South Philadelphia, but had bought a row home there.  Since the house had been in the family for generations and had not been updated, they bought it for a low price with the plan to gut it.  What they didn’t know is that they had bought the house of a deceased woman whose sisters lived on either side.  So they were constantly harassed by the sisters each time they changed anything. 

I began to wonder who could move into that house and be intimidated by these women. That’s where Lucy came from.  She’s a woman who grew up in a nearby neighborhood and understands tradition.  She has lived in the same house her whole life, the house her father was raised in, and only moves out against her will.

I wanted to capture the family feel of the neighborhood – the nosiness, the unsolicited advice, but also, the eagerness to know, to help. 
Q: I am in awe of people who write novels – it seems so overwhelming to me. When do you write, and how do you stay disciplined? How long did When Love Was Clean Underwear take to write?

A: I began writing in earnest when I was pregnant with my first child and I took a continuing education class called “Write Your Novel Now.”  At the beginning of the class, the instructor asked why each of us was there.  My reason – I didn’t want to be a stage mom.  I’d always wanted to write and always found reasons not to.  I didn’t want to be one of those people who pushed her child to fulfill her dreams.  I wanted to be able to say, pursue your dreams, follow your bliss, and actually be an example of that. 

WLWCU was written when I had two young children at home. In the beginning, I would write during my son’s morning nap, and he was a wonderfully consistent napper.  During his afternoon nap, I would take care of the household tasks.  When he switched to one nap a day, let’s just say, we didn’t have company over much. 

There was something about having that limited time to get it done.  Before kids, I always thought I needed large spans of time to do any kind of real work.  For most of us, those long spans never come, and you have to learn to squeeze in the work.   When I was expecting my daughter, I was very motivated to finish a draft of the novel, knowing that with two my time would be even more limited.

All and all, it took about eight years.
Q: Are you writing a second novel now?

A: Yes.  I’m working on my second novel and hope to finish it this year.  It’s the story of a friendship between two couples who met in college.  Ten years later as they are about to start families, secrets come out and loyalties shift. 

I also continue to write short stories. My story “Town Watch” will be published in an anthology called South Philly Fiction this fall.   But really, I do venture into other parts of Philly in my fiction.

Q: There are so few redeemable characters in the book, yet it was such a pleasure to read. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about human nature?

A: I don’t see the characters as unredeemable, so much as flawed. Lucy is so malleable and the other characters recognize that.  They see an opportunity to turn her into what they think she should be, into what they need her to be. Flawed as they are, each of them wants to be loved and to love.  Just like Lucy.  Just like all of us.  So yes, I am optimistic about human nature. 
Q: ****Spoiler Alert!*** OK, I have to know… Tony or Jack? Or does Lucy reject them both? ***Spoiler Alert!***

A: At the end of the novel, Lucy says she will call Jack the next day.  So it isn’t over.  When I was in the midst of writing the novel, I wasn’t sure exactly how it would end, but I knew Lucy would be alone and it would be a good thing.

But remember, Tony is upfront about what he wants, why he loves Lucy.  He pursues her.  Jack knew Lucy for years and didn’t do anything until Marge died.  Still it’s Lucy, Lucy! who has to make the first move.  So Jack needs to work on being worthy.  Of course, who wouldn’t love a man who wants to do home improvement projects and is a great kisser?