July 18, 2007
Susan Isaacs Makes Sassy Look Easy
Her protagonists are often gutsy, savvy women with withering self-deprecating humor. Not immune to life's pitfalls, these dames also have their moments of weakness, sometimes handling a situation with little aplomb. It's what makes them tangible. And down to earth author Susan Isaacs knows how to create a cast of characters a reader can relate to.
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"Those are the women, certainly not wonder women, but women who when faced with a tough situation they can cry and carry on but then they get on with it and I think that's true with a lot of women I know," she said.
Last Friday the novelist, essayist and screenwriter was the guest speaker at The Hampton Library in Bridgehampton. Her appearance was part of the Fridays at Five series, which the library conducts throughout the summer.
Born in Brooklyn and currently living in Port Washington with her husband Elkan Abramowitz, a criminal defense attorney, Isaacs frequently sets her novels in the New York Metro area. And, in fact, Magic Hour, published in 1991, takes place in Bridgehampton.
Through her witty characters, male and female alike, Isaacs gets to live out those "I wish I had said that" moments, when cleverness suddenly eludes a conversation only to return hours or days too late.
"If you're sitting alone in a room for two years, you know, it's like eventually a chimpanzee will write Shakespeare, eventually you'll say something mildly amusing," she said. "But as far as ordinary conversation I'm like everybody else, especially when I'm under pressure, everything just kind of dries up and then there's that middle of the night, 'ugh, if I only said . . .'
"But, every once in a while and especially as you get older, one of the pleasures is that you lose the self consciousness and social fear, so you can be a lot funnier, which compensates for having six chins."
Writing murder mysteries can be equally satisfying by getting out any aggression through killing off characters. "That's the great benefit, you can kill," she joked. "When I was having gum problems I killed a periodontist. And then after I made a couple of movies I killed a movie producer."
"The mystery genre has always been very welcoming to women," Isaacs continued. "The characters have changed very much from Miss Marples. But it was a very lady like way of being vicious."
For Isaacs, mysteries are also about "a sense of fair play and about justice . . . It gives somebody a chance to get the world back into balance and it's also a search for truth."
Peppered with wry social commentary, Isaacs' novels – all 11 of them – have made it on to the New York Times bestseller list.
In 1978, she published her first novel, Compromising Positions, a whodunit set on suburban Long Island. It was turned into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia in 1985 and Isaacs wrote the screenplay for Paramount. Close Relations and Almost Paradise followed. Her fourth novel, Shining Through, an espionage-like tale set during World War II, also made it to the Silver Screen in 1988, starring Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffith.
Although a fair amount of research goes into each of her novels, for Close Relations, "a love story set against a background of ethnic, sexual and New York Democratic politics," Isaacs had some experience she could tap into.
She began her writing career in her 20's working for Seventeen magazine and though she liked it she "was getting tired of writing adolescent stuff mainly because my own adolescence was not that far in the past."
Tapping into her passion for politics, she decided to volunteer for Herman Badillo's race for mayor in a New York Democratic primary in the late '60s. Isaacs walked into campaign headquarters and offered her services. She told them she wrote for Seventeen magazine and they simply said, "Oh you're a writer, good you'll be a speech writer."
She continued writing political speeches for various candidates "and it got me out of the chirpy Seventeen mode, it satisfied my needs as a political junky and it also gave me a sense of voice." It gave her a sense of the voice the candidates wished to have as well.
"They all wanted to sound like JFK, and this was the '70s, and my job was to tell them, 'listen, you're a guy from the Bronx and essentially monosyllabic; you're not JFK and I'm not Theodore Sorenson, so let's do the best possible job we can and make it sound like you."
She no longer writes speeches but politics finds its way into her novels nonetheless, such as in her 2004 release Any Place I Hang My Hat, where the heroine is a 28-year-old political reporter.
The ideas for Isaacs' books materialize as characters and she takes her time, a few years to be exact, carefully filling in the details of each story. "I take time out for life," she said. "I know writing is a craft, and on occasion it's an art, but it's a job, so I work regular hours. It's toward the end of the novel I become obsessed and then I find reality annoying. And so I ignore it as best I can and I just want to stay in that world of my novel."
The concept for her most recent book, Past Perfect, released in February, began with " . . . this character and all I knew about her was something in the past was really bothering her."
The character, Katie, had been an analyst for the CIA and was fired without reason. She ultimately reinvents herself – terrific husband and kid, successful job writing for the long running TV series "Spy Guys" – but is never able to let go of the firing. A former member of the Agency suddenly asks for Katie's help, promising to tell the truth about the incident in exchange.
Now that Past Perfect has been published, Isaacs is back at work on her next book, about "a pretty and charming and superficial" woman whose husband is murdered. Hers is a story about the search for justice and whether this "ethical lightweight" can become a deeper person from this experience.
Given the reactions of her fans at The Hampton Library, it is safe to say Isaacs' readers are eagerly awaiting her newest literary addition.