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The idea for Susan Johnson’s latest novel came to her a decade ago after she sent an email to the wrong person, received a reply and has continued talking to the recipient ever since. From Where I Fell begins with a similar moment - Pamela Robinson sends an anguished email from Australia to her ex-husband in Paris and it accidentally ends up in the inbox of New York State teacher Chrisanthi Woods. Susan spoke to us about embodying each of these characters, the difficulty of writing a book in the format of email correspondence and completing the novel on an small Greek island.

In an email subject line, describe From Where I Fell so the recipient will open it and read on.

SJ:

To: The Reader

From: The Author

Subject: How about I let some readers from Goodreads tell you about From Where I Fell: “Oh I loved it. If I had the book in my hands I would hug it,” wrote Toria. It’s a story about the joys and struggles of being alive and how two women who accidentally meet in cyber space become a modern version of pen pals.

 

The novel is carried by emails between two women – Pamela and Chrisanthi – sharing the stories and secrets of their lives. How did you embody each of these unique characters?

SJ: Pamela is inclined to be over-emotional and, frankly, a bit histrionic. So of course her emails are one long outpouring of feelings. I try and show how other people see her, and how she reacts to events in her life, and so her style of writing became quite quickly a way of embodying her character. Chris is far more restrained, far more dampened down in her life in many ways – she initially engages with Pamela because she is a bit of a busybody (why is Pamela’s ex-husband in Paris?) but also because she wants in her life something Pamela has (travel, adventure, drama). So her style of writing is in many ways the opposite of Pamela’s – she’s much terser. Funnily enough, this question is about embodiment, and let’s not forget, these two women never meet in person, that is, in their bodies. I was looking at the idea of email being a free space for expression, where you might be able to be yourself in all your full consciousness as it were, without your body – and then I read the work of the Melbourne academic Esther Milne who says a relationship in letters (or in this case emails) can sometimes be more intimate, even telepathic, than that of actual physical friends.
 

Susan Johnson Susan Johnson


You isolated yourself on a small Greek Island to write the book. Did your own personal emails to friends and family influence how the book was written?

SJ: Well, there were about three drafts of From Where I Fell was written before I went to Greece! I actually got the idea about ten years ago when an email I sent went astray – I was writing to a publishing friend in St Paul, Minnesota, but she had recently changed her email server and it ended up going to a random guy in San Jose, California. But because he wanted to be a writer, we started corresponding, and we are still in touch all these years later. This book took many drafts to write, and while I was living on Kythera (a small island between the Peloponnese and Crete, where many Greek-Australians come from) I was working on a final draft. Even though the novel reads like it’s dashed off—like emails are—it was actually incredibly hard to turn the colloquial nature of emails into something resembling literature! So actual emails don’t really work when literally translated onto the page—they have to read like emails, look like emails, but they aren’t actually emails. I didn’t really use much of my own emails (except for that first accidental email) but I certainly pinched stories from my friends. Many readers think my books are completely autobiographical, and I’m pleased about that. Once I used to protest (because if anyone believes you can rip out the pages of your diary and send it to straight off to a publisher to get published—good luck!) but now I think, well, I must be doing something right, if even one reader believes everything to be the literal truth. This book was the hardest thing I’ve ever written—it took ages to get right.

 

What do you hope readers will gain from having read your novel?

SJ: I know I read books for a sense of understanding about what it means to be alive, to make choices, what if feels like to inhabit a human consciousness. The books I love best—by writers such as Deborah Levy, Ingred Nunez, Elizabeth Strout, Marilynne Robinson, Rachel Cusk, Charlotte Wood and Saul Bellow, to name a few—broadly explore the question of how to live. I hope From Where I Fell will not only make readers think—about love and its duties, and home and displacement, about women and guilt—but that it will also make them feel something about this strange thing called life.

 

Which books have you recently read and loved?

SJ: Late to the party I know but I only recently read the acclaimed best-seller Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Hachette), which has so much to admire in it—an examination of the meaning of love, as well as our consumer culture—again, a book looking at how to live. I found Australian author Caro Llewellyn’s memoir about her diagnosis of Multiple Scloerosis very moving (Diving Into Glass, Penguin). I also read Trent Dalton’s All Our Shimmering Skies (HarperCollins), which has a wonderful sort of Dickensian rollicking feel to it, and I am a HUGE Sigred Nunez fan – just loved The Friend, which is not her last I know.


From Where I Fell is available in store and online now.

From Where I Fell
Susan Johnson
$32.99
  

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