Friday, October 27, 2017

Interview with author Claudette Sutton

Author Claudette Sutton is here today to chat about her new historical biography, Farewell, Aleppo: My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home.

Claudette Sutton is an award-winning author and journalist living in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and son.

Welcome, Claudette. Please tell us about your current release.
My family had roots in the Jewish community of Aleppo, Syria, for perhaps 2,000 years. Growing up in the 1920s and 30s, my father went to school in Aleppo with other Jews, Christians and Muslims, who lived side by side as they had for centuries. Yet my grandfather, a Jewish textile merchant who did business with Arabs in Syria and neighboring countries, saw the signs of rising anti-Semitism and recognized the need to get his family out. Faced with the unfeasibility of relocating his large family at once, he came up with the plan of “exporting his sons” – sending his eldest son, my father, to Shanghai in 1941 to work for an uncle, in hopes of finding a stepping-stone to the United States. When Japanese forces seized Shanghai in December 1941, just a day after bombing Pearl Harbor, my father found himself alone in an occupied country, across the world from his family, until the war ended and he could come at last to the United States. Today, when the horrors of seemingly endless civil war in Syria fill the news, “Farewell, Aleppo” reminds us of a timeless than a century ago when Aleppo was a center of diversity, scholarship and tolerance. Written with a journalist’s eye and a daughter’s love, it is a poignant and hopeful narrative interlacing one family’s story with universal questions of identity, family, culture, and what it means to be home.

What inspired you to write this book?
The inspiration came from a seemingly simple request from my father. Friends had been asking him about his childhood in Syria and years in Shanghai during World War II before coming to America, and he wanted my help putting the story on paper to share with them. I immediately said yes, anticipating a short project for friends and family, but as I learned about my father’s experiences, and Syria’s amazing and nearly forgotten Jewish history, I knew I had to keep going. Many hundreds of hours of interviews, research, writing and rewriting later, I had a book, Farewell, Aleppo. That invitation to get inside my father’s experience was one of the greatest gifts of my life.

What exciting story are you working on next?
I am in the early stages of a book about my maternal grandparents. My grandfather was born in Aleppo, Syria and came to New York with his family in 1902 when he was 8 years old, part of the first wave of Syrian Jews to America. My grandmother was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1918, and after the death of her mother she was bounced between relatives in Haiti, New York City, and Manchester, England. She was a 15-year-old girl in a boarding school in Paris when a 30-year-old American businessman, a distant cousin, stopped to check in on her when he was traveling through Europe on a business trip. For Grandpa, it was love at first sight. For Grandma, “I didn’t know from love!” They were married over sixty years. Their story is one of individual fortitude, family ties, intercontinental journeys – and one of my favorite love stories.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Oh my! I still have a tendency to look at other people as “real writers,” while I’m someone who spends a lot of time writing. But I spend a lot of time writing, some of it gets finished, and some of what I finish gets published. So I guess I’m a writer.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I don’t write full time. For over 20 years I’ve been the editor and publisher of “Tumbleweeds,” a quarterly newspaper for families in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which I created back when my son was 5. I write an essay in every issue, and these have won several state and national awards, but much of my workday goes into soliciting articles, selling ads, other aspects of running a business. I have time to write between busy seasons, so my big challenge is in shifting my creative energy when my schedule shifts. One way I do this is to keep a little writing going even though my busy season, so I have some writing momentum when my time frees up. And I try to be vigilant about protecting my mornings for writing and writing-related reading, for things that keep my writing brain engaged.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I have serious side-interest in botany. When I need to clear my head from writing, or need to build up some writing momentum, I’ll often read about and study wildflowers. Right now I’m reading “The Triumph of Seeds,” by Thor Hansen, and “Gathering Moss,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, to learn about how seed plants reproduce, and how spore plants do it. I find it can be very valuable to think about something (seemingly) totally unrelated to what I’m writing about – although when I think about it, I’m still learning about families, just plant families. Same issues, just played out differently.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Other than a few years in junior high when I wanted to be a scientist, I pretty much always wanted to be a writer. What I loved about the idea of being a scientist was the thought of spending my days quietly making observations and taking notes – which in many ways is just what I do as a writer.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Good writing shows us that there’s always more to someone’s story than first meets the eye. A good book builds understanding, compassion and empathy, stretching the heart as well as the mind. That’s the kind of writing I try to do.


Thanks for being here today!

1 comment:

Claudette Sutton said...

Thanks for writing about my book, Lisa. It was great to chat with you. Our conversation has stayed with me because zoned in on remember how important writing is to me and how I have to be vigilant about protecting my writing time. I like reading the thoughts of other writers on your blog about how they structure their writing time. I also love seeing the ideas they had as kids about wanted to be when they grew up! Great question.