Susan Surman, Author of Dancing at all the Weddings

What is your book about?

Vivacious and talented Elaine Richman is faced with choices: A risky life in the New York theatre; an exciting life with college sweetheart, actor/director Jake Applebaum in Hollywood; a secure life in Boston with predictable lawyer David Alter, the match anointed by her domineering mother because ‘he’s the kind you marry.’ On the way to a dream, it is possible to collide with another dream’s seduction, only to learn there is no fulfillment on the path to safety. Elaine goes through the wringer to meet herself, proving there is no expiration date on talent or true love.

How long had the idea been developing before you wrote it?

I had an idea for a short story – this was maybe 4 years before I expanded it –

The character was the same, but had a different name, etc. Title: Where in the World is Mary Reynolds? I invited an audience to a reading to get some feedback. There were 35 people there at Altair Casting Agency Studio in Winston-Salem. I knew it was the germ for something more which had to be developed. That story actually is in the book – it covers several chapters.

Why this particular story?

Ernest Hemingway said you must write what is burning up inside. I knew the theatre from the inside; I had been writing novellas; it was time to write a full-length novel. I had so much to put into this book from personal experiences. (Only the names have been changed to protect the innocence, as the saying goes)

How much of you is hidden in the characters?

For those people who know me well, not so hidden. It’s the same with all my writing. I have no imagination. Why invent when all I have to do is remember? Born in Boston, I moved to London, then Sydney, as an actress and writer as Susan Kramer or Gracie Luck. I traveled the world, returned to the US – what I’ve done really with all my books is fictionalized fact.

How long did it take to write Dancing at all the Weddings?

This particular book took about 2 years – I kept expanding. And it just wasn’t finished until it was finished. I had to let it go. That’s it. You just have to let all these people you’ve invented go out and live their own lives by getting out there……

What did you do for research?

I use a lot of the places I’ve been, but to be sure I had updated information, I had to research – online; magazines; talking to people. For example, I don’t know anything about small private aircraft, so I found the person online who owns and sells what I was writing about. We communicated and I had my answers. Mostly, I was really writing what I knew about and one of the main male characters is based solely on a real person. Perhaps the novel depicts the way I would have liked it to turn out with him. That’s why it’s called ‘romance.’ It can be anything you like. Romance, I mean.

What was your technique to stay on track and develop your story?

It was very hard to keep track of the ages. I’d never done anything like this before. One year was usually my time frame. This book spans 28 years. I had to go back to the 1970’s. I kept lots and lots of notes. As math isn’t my strong suit, it wasn’t easy figuring out their ages at any given time, but I did it. I worked backwards with ages and found it the best way to do it. I went over and over it.

Since writing your first book, what has changed?

That was ten, twelve years ago. My first book, Max and Friends, was anthropomorphic for children of all ages; the second book, Sacha:The Dog Who Made It To the Palace, also anthropomorphic, but for adults. I needed to keep going. I needed to keep writing to find out what else I could write. A lot has changed since then. Now I’m introduced as the author or the writer – I guess with the fifth novel coming out, you earn the title. I like that. People treat you differently when they hear you are a writer. It was like being an actress in Europe. You get to the head of the line in restaurants. That type of thing. A little side story about Sacha. He was my dog in London. When I left, I had to leave him. My friend happened to be the florist to the Royal family. She would take Sacha with her. One day the Queen Mother looked out the Palace window, saw the dog in the van and told my friend to bring him in. And that’s where Sacha spent his mornings for a long time. I wrote to Queen Elizabeth that I would be in London (2004) and would like to deliver a copy of the book. It was affirmed I was to enter by the side of Buckingham Palace via the staff entrance. A few weeks later, I got a letter thanking me for the book and saying Her Majesty was most interested in the inspiration for the book about my little dog.

What is the most difficult part of the writing process?

The idea. Coming up with the idea. Then the doing of it. Finding the word; then finding the exact word to describe what you mean. Writing is intellectual prison. I’ll do anything NOT to do it; then once I begin, I can’t do anything else. When in the creative mode of the work, I say ‘no’ to a lot of social invitations. This is very hard because I’m basically a gregarious person.

Does writing come easy?

Sometimes; usually not. But you keep going. It has to become an obsession. You become addicted to your own words. And it flows.

Where do you keep future ideas? Computer? Notebooks? Pieces of paper?

I’ve lots of notebooks with ideas. Big notebooks; little notebooks. And scraps of paper. Will I ever get to them? Who knows? Maybe just one sentence from something looms, and I’ll use it, once I can find it.

What is the best writing advice you ever got?

Stop writing on your Brother Electronic typewriter and buy a computer. The best writing advice was from author, screenwriter, Joe Schrank. When I first started writing or rather ‘thinking’ I was going to write, I didn’t really know how to do it. He told me, because he liked the title: “If you don’t do something with it, I’m going to do it.” I didn’t like that, so I got busy. He also said, “Put aside 2 hours a day to start. That’s all. Clear everything off the desk, and just do it.” I did. By the way, the title rarely came first after that time. Usually, there’s a provisional title and then after the work is finished or nearly finished, the real title comes to me.

What is the first story you remember writing?

I remember the first story – I was 13; 1953. I don’t remember what grade I was in. I still have it. I got an A minus. “The Will to Dance.” I don’t know where it came from because it’s about a ballet dancer. I’m not a ballet dancer. Anyway, I actually used it in my Sacha book! So nothing is wasted.

What other books have you written?

Max and Sacha, of course, and The Australian Featherweight; The Noble Thing. Plays: George; In Between.

What last words would you leave?

I think you mean literally the last words and not the last words of this interview. In my book, Dancing at all the Weddings, my main character is at her mother’s side as she is dying. Mother’s last words to her daughter: “If you use a public toilet, remember to hover.” My last words will be: Stay curious.

Click here to read the first chapter of: Dancing at all the Weddings

Click here to read an excerpt of: Dancing at all the Weddings

Click here for an interview with: Elaine Richman, Heroine of Dancing at all the Weddings

Elaine Richman, Heroine of Dancing at all the Weddings by Susan Surman

Vivacious and talented Elaine Richman is faced with choices: A risky life in the New York theatre; an exciting life with college sweetheart, actor/director Jake Applebaum in Hollywood; a secure life in Boston with predictable lawyer David Alter, the match anointed by her domineering mother because ‘he’s the kind you marry.’ On the way to a dream, it is possible to collide with another dream’s seduction, only to learn there is no fulfillment on the path to safety. Elaine goes through the wringer to meet herself, proving there is no expiration date on talent or true love.

Interview with the heroine of Dancing at all the Weddings:

Who are you?

I didn’t exist at all before Susan Surman wrote me in her novel, “Dancing at all the Weddings,” published by Second Wind Publishing. I am Elaine Richman; through marriages became Elaine Alter; Elaine Applebaum. But Elaine Richman remained as my professional name. I was on my way to a risky theatrical career until it was hijacked by my marriage to David Alter, the match anointed by my mother. I discovered there was no fulfillment on the path to safety.

We weren’t religious, but there were certain Jewish rituals followed, especially when it came to the way death was handled. And looking back at it all, I see that my friends were Jewish, my husbands were Jewish, so without intentionally following the Jewish faith, I guess it was inbred in me. Even if you aren’t a practicing Jew, if you were born a Jew, you die a Jew. At least, that’s what I’ve been told.

Where do you live?

I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, lived in Weston, Mass., then Manhattan, and am looking forward to my new home in Malibu, California.

How does the author see you? Has she portrayed you accurately?

She has portrayed me very accurately. I grew up wanting to please my mother, be an obedient daughter, do the right thing. It means I lived the life others wanted for me. Until I couldn’t do it anymore. Until I finally met myself. It wasn’t easy going from frenzy to peace, but I made it.

Do you have a hero?

I never thought about that. I guess I admire people who know what they want, know how to get what they want, and still want it after they get it. In my personal life, I am surrounded by those so called heroes: Jane Mitchell, a college colleague who became a New York producer of plays; Jake Applebaum, who became a movie director; and my dear Sophie, my daughter, who started out a filmmaker and discovered she really wanted to be an entertainment lawyer. Her telling me that was really my wake-up call.

Do you have any special strengths?

It’s definitely not in the kitchen. Cooking was never my strong suit. Although, when I had to, I could meet the moment. Desserts are my specialty. Special strength perhaps would be pulling my life together at 50. Finally, doing that. Not succumbing to what would have been an easy existence – to finally getting out there and following my original dream. I’m an actress who got fooled and went down the wrong path. It isn’t how you start, it’s how you finish.

Do you have money troubles?

No. I’m one of the lucky ones in that department. It wasn’t easy as a kid – my parents didn’t have much. My father got sick and died; my mother had to work; I got a scholarship to college. And then my mother made sure I married the rich guy, and I was taken care of. It didn’t matter that I didn’t love him. She told me he was the kind you marry; that I’d learn to love him. He was always generous with money even after – well, I don’t want to talk about that. It’s all in the book.

What are you afraid of?

That it all goes by with such a mean clip and we waste so much time. I suppose we all think that. What am I afraid of? That I’ll die – but I won’t really be dead, and I’ll be buried or cremated. And I’ll be in there yelling, “I’m not dead, I’m not dead.” But no one will hear me.

What makes you angry?

Being wrongly accused of something that I didn’t do. More than that, the time I gave up my life to be wife, mother, chauffeur, secretary, cook, homemaker. They kept taking pieces of me. No – I gave away pieces of myself because I thought that was how you loved. Everything I knew about marriage and love was what I learned from the movies. They went off (husband and daughter) and did their own thing and I was left. The empty bowl.

What do you regret?

That my mother isn’t alive to see the good things that happened to me; that she missed her granddaughter; that she missed my acting career.

Are you lucky?

I would have to say, yes. I got a second chance. At love, at a career, at being who I really am.

Have you ever betrayed anyone?

Yes. A thousand times yes. I betrayed my husband. I lied, I cheated, I deceived. My life became one of lies and deception.

Are you healthy?

Yes. Despite my breakfasts of coffee and muffins for years; despite my eating pretty much anything I want; despite my yo-yo diets (the Zone, Atkins, the grapefruit diet, the white diet, so on and so forth), I am healthy.

 The white diet?

You eat only white food: Egg whites, cheese, milk, yogurt, vanilla ice-cream, anything with white flour. My skin turned white, I was constipated, and I gained eight pounds. I don’t recommend it.

Do you have any hobbies?

I love travel. I’ve been to London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris, Cannes, Athens. And I play tennis. I’m pretty good, too. And I could watch movies all day every day – which I did when I was going through the depression phase of my divorce. It’s all in the book.

What is your most prized possession?

Oh, that’s easy. The home-made card my daughter made for me one Mother’s Day. I was in Boston and she was in New York and she surprised me with a visit. She wrote a poem and it was just beautiful. I couldn’t read it, I was crying so hard. She had to read it to me. In the poem, she talks about my parents dying so young, sparing me their old age, and how she wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me. Sentimental, mushy, loving and I wouldn’t part with it for any amount of money.

Who was your first love?

My father. I had him such a brief time. He died when I was 10. I loved him very much. He taught me to ballroom dance. He taught me to listen to music. I thought heaven was where you went to get well. I would look up the sky and if it was blue, I believed my daddy was wearing his blue suit. If the sky was gray, I believed he was wearing his gray suit. I looked for him everywhere for many years.

Who is your true love?

Jake Applebaum. We met our first day in acting class at Boston University. You’ll have to read the book to see what happened with that. I like the author’s philosophy: Talent and true love don’t have an expiration date. I’ve learned more about myself by loving another.

What is your favorite scent?

Gardenia. The scent of a gardenia flower and anything gardenia. When I was a child, my mother always wore gardenias when she and my father went out. I use a lotion with a gardenia scent. It’s the closest I can get to that smell. For a while, I tried growing a gardenia plant, but I wasn’t very good at it, and eventually, it died, so I gave up.

What is your favorite color?

Peach. Not the outside layer of a rose, but the inside petals after you peel back the outer layers. Gentle peach. My bedroom is peach and white; my bathroom is peach and white. Have a look at the cover of the novel. That’s the color.

What is your favorite item of clothing?

An oversized Calvin Klein black cashmere coat that I’ve had for years.

What is your favorite beverage?

Tea. As hot as you can get it. Earl Grey is my favorite. My mother always made Lipton’s tea and it was bland. She would never try anything different. We had many arguments about that tea. But I find every now and again, I do drink Lipton’s tea – usually on a day I feel sad, or I need something familiar. I guess the hand that rocks the cradle is still – well, she’s still your mother. I haven’t thought about that for years.

What are the last 5 entries in your check registry?

Bergdorf Goodman’s for the shoes I bought to match my wedding dress. My dressmaker who made the dress. Giorgio Armani’s for a leather jacket for my fiancée. The electric company for the apartment in New York. A donation to the Cancer Society.

What will your next entry be?

Second Wind Publishing for “Dancing at all the Weddings” by Susan Surman. Thanks to her, I exist. And the wonderful thing is, once you’ve been created in a book or a movie, you can never die. It’s out there forever.


Click here to read an excerpt from: Dancing at all the Weddings

Click here to read the first chapter of: Dancing at all the Weddings

Click here for an interview with: Susan Surman, Author of Dancing at all the Weddings