Local author's inaugural novel wins Willa Award
PRESCOTT – The strength and character Susan Lang built as a young girl growing up in the wilderness is the foundation of the character she created in her first novel, "Small Rocks Rising."
Lang recently won the Willa Award (named after author Willa Cather who wrote "Death Comes to the Arch Bishop") for her book, which is the first of a trilogy.
The novel tells the story of a woman "homesteading in the wilderness in an isolated canyon in 1929," Lang explains.
It tells about the struggles the woman faces living in the wild, and "she's a little too feisty and independent. It gets her in a little trouble."
Through trial and error, Lang said the character learns to "be a free person in a responsible way."
Lang has recently finished the second book in her series, titled "Juniper Blue," and said the books in the trilogy tell "a story I've always wanted to tell."
The stories are based on "the women who were always around me," including her mother and her mother's friends.
Lang grew up in the 1940s in a tent in a canyon located at the foothills of the San Bernadino mountains in Southern California. She based a lot of the stories and circumstances in her novels on stories she remembered her mother and their friends telling.
She attended a one-room school house that was 12 miles away from where she lived. Lang finished school through her freshman year in high school and then dropped out.
"I grew up shooting and skinning rabbits," Lang said. "We were pretty wild and we lived without electricity. We were pretty rustic. When I wasn't climbing around jumping over rattlesnakes, I read. My mother furnished books."
Because of her childhood, Lang said, "I'm very acquainted with the wild I grew up with."
She incorporates her past into her writing, and said the main character of "Small Rocks Rising" has "a connection with the wild we've lost."
The character experiences situations such as coming face-to-face with bears and dealing with harsh, rough winters.
"The things we've buffered ourselves with civilization she chooses to confront on her own," Lang said.
When she was young, Lang wrote poems and stories which ended up a box she can no longer find, and she never really took writing seriously.
When she was 14, she and her family moved to a large city, and that's where "I fell in love with James Dean on the big screen. I had never seen a movie and (was attracted to) the 'rebel without a cause'."
When she turned 15, Lang ran away from home and "found someone who looked like James Dean and married him." It was during this time Lang "really dug into reading. I started with the Bible because I thought it would have the answers. Then I read works by psychologists and philosophers. I really connected with fiction/world literature because (they dealt with) the twistedness of being alive and how inconsistent people are."
She, still at the age of 15, and her husband ran away together and moved to Fresno to pick grapes. She said she had read the book titled "Grapes of Wrath" and said it "sounded like a very romantic life to me. Talk about a misconception."
After only a few years of being married, Lang and her husband had five children. She said they moved to the desert, and "when I wasn't pregnant and having children, I was a waitress."
She continued reading a lot, and said, "I washed the dishes with a book behind the faucet."