Friday, September 17, 2010

Meet Susan Poulos - Interview 1 of 6 with the Contributors for What Women Write

By Kim

What Women Write is over a year old and our readers now consist of far more than our collective family and friends. After some discussion, we decided that the time had come to re-introduce ourselves by interviewing each other. This is the first in a six-part series of Q & A sessions, though the posts will not necessarily run back to back. Keep checking back at What Women Write so you don’t miss any glimpses into the lives of our contributors.

At our last lunch, we drew names and I was thrilled to pick Susan Poulos. I've only spent a short time with Susan at last year’s retreat and a few sporadic lunches, but I can honestly say she is one of the people I admire most. Read on, and you'll see why.

Susan, tell us a little about your background – where you grew up, went to school, etc.

I grew up in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky and lived there until I was 17 years old and left for college. The town itself had a population of about 6,000 when I lived there, and the county totaled maybe 20,000 people. My parents--who are retired school teachers--and the majority of my extended family still live there. It was a safe and beautiful place to grow up. I had a childhood surrounded by a lot of love.

I went to Western Kentucky University on a journalism scholarship but bounced around a little--including a stint in England--but came back to Kentucky and graduated from WKU with a history degree.

What was your favorite book as a child and why?

I read everything as a child and, to tell you the truth, I cannot remember one favorite book. I do remember reading encyclopedias late at night. I lived in a 100-year-old house and my bed was next to a big bay window that overlooked Sycamore Street. I could read there with the windows open and the beam from the street light or the moon would give me just enough light to read late into the night without getting caught. In one summer I made it through the entire alphabet of the 1975 (or so) World Book. For some reason I remember that the letter “M” was the thickest volume and the biggest challenge.

What was your first job and what did it teach you?

The first time I was ever paid for anything (besides babysitting) was writing sports recaps without a byline for The Mt. Sterling Advocate, our weekly paper, when I was 15 or 16 years old. From there they allowed me to write fill-in sports columns (with a byline and a headshot). I also life-guarded in the summers at the local city pool.

The job at The Advocate taught me that people will actually give you money to put words on paper, which seemed to me to be the easiest thing in the world. Life-guarding was fun--and working in a bathing suit was great for my tan. Yet my first paycheck for a full week of work at the pool was less than $100 after taxes, and I realized that fun work wasn’t necessarily a good job! Writing, alas, did not pay much better.

When did you first discover you enjoyed writing?

I don’t remember ever not enjoying writing. I was on the newspaper staff from 4th grade forward. I loved reporting. It was a great excuse to ask a lot of questions, and I was always amazed that people would answer whatever silly or intrusive question I threw at them. You are given a certain freedom and authority by saying that you are with “the press.” By high school I was sure I would be a journalist, and was the editor of my school paper--a job I took very seriously.

I must also mention that my high school journalism teacher, Kenn Johnson, was a great mentor for me. When I graduated he gave me an AP Stylebook as a gift, and I still have it today. He always encouraged me to keep writing and to keep thinking.

Tell us a little about your current work-in-progress?

Susan in Kentucky
I haven’t lived in Kentucky for over a decade, which gives it a certain mythical quality in my memories…so when I started writing fiction, it seemed natural to base my stories there. My current work follows the paths of three Kentucky families as they navigate the last century--including prohibition and legal bourbon-making, the civil rights movement, and religion. Not many people know that in Kentucky a Trappist monastery called The Abbey of Gethsemani sits quietly (in fact, silently) right in the middle of The Bourbon Trail. In my opinion it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Thomas Merton (the well-known writer and monk) lived there for the majority of his life until his death in Thailand in 1968.

As I was researching this era, I couldn’t avoid telling the story of the racial strife of 1968 and the integration of schools during that time. It all started clicking together for me and became a novel instead a series of short stories.

The manuscript is called The Angel’s Share, which is a term in bourbon-making that refers to the evaporation of bourbon as it ages in barrels. One-third of every barrel is empty after full maturation, and the theory is that it’s so wonderful that the angels take their portion. It was an “ah-ha moment” for me when I realized that people are like this too--either sacrifice your portion or the angels will take it anyway--you cannot hide the things you want to keep from the gods! The theme of the book centers on sacrifice and loss, and the amount of effort families put into keeping secrets. It is 80% complete, and I hope to do some major editing and revisions by the end of the year and start submitting it to agents in 2011.

Of all the places you have gone to, which place feels most like home?

The obvious answer is Kentucky, although I don’t think I will ever live there again. I’m also a big fan of Italy – my first trip there felt instantly like home, in a nice and comforting déjà vu type of experience for me.

What book most changed your life?

When one talks about a book changing a life, usually people refer to something that sparked a new interest, or changed the way one thinks or views the world. Yet the book that truly changed my life was Jantsen’s Gift: A True Story of Grief, Rescue and Grace, by Pam Cope and Aimee Molloy. Pam Cope is the founder of Touch A Life Foundation, and I interviewed Aimee on this blog about a year ago on the process of co-writing this memoir.

The amazing thing about this book is that it is the most hopeful and uplifting example of one person changing the lives of others that I have ever seen. I highly encourage everyone to read it--no matter where you are in your life. It’s inspiring.

Tell us a little about the Touch A Life Foundation and your involvement with it.

Pam Cope, the co-author of Jantsen’s Gift, and her husband, Randy, founded Touch A Life Foundation after the unexpected death of their 15-year-old son, Jantsen Cope. Since then, they channeled their grief and resources into the rescue of several hundred at-risk children in Southeast Asia. In 2006 they began working in Ghana, West Africa, in combating child-trafficking: modern-day slavery, if you will, and there is no other phrase for it. The Foundation currently provides the long-term care, education and medical treatment for almost 100 former child slaves in Ghana.

I met Pam after I read Jantsen’s Gift. From there I did some pro-bono marketing work for the foundation for a few months, and now serve as their Director of International Operations. I leave for Ghana September 17 for my third trip there this year. I’ve been on the waters of Lake Volta and have spoken with these children who are currently in slavery. And I have watched them shrink into the horizon as my boat pulled away from them. At the same time, I love the rescued boys and girls in our long-term care. I consider myself extremely blessed to be able to serve these children as my life’s work. I just wish we could rescue all 7,000 estimated children who still work on the lake in one fell swoop. It’s not that easy, but there is hope. And it’s that hopefulness for the future that keeps me going.

Do you see ever writing a book that builds on your experiences with TAL?

Truthfully, no. Jantsen’s Gift is the book that represents Touch A Life Foundation--although I have had many life-changing and amazing experiences with my work thus far...I believe that my story is my own, at least for right now. My life is definitely a work-in-progress!

You’re a wife and the proud mother of two girls. How are they adjusting to this new life of yours? Have you noticed changes in the way they view life due to the things you’ve experienced?

Susan in Ghana
Although I have always considered myself a writer, I was stunned to wake up one day and realized that my entire 15-year career had been spent climbing the corporate ladder and knocking on that glass ceiling. Who I thought I was on the inside was not reflected on the outside, and it was time for a swift adjustment. The best thing about reading Jantsen’s Gift in 2009 and my career change that came with it was the impact it had on my family. Although I am not writing full time, which I always thought to be my dream job, I am still writing. I am instead working a dream job that I never envisioned for myself that is truly changing the lives of some amazing kids in Ghana--kids like Gideon and Comfort and Teiko and Ezekiel.

My daughters now know the names of these children too. The rewarding part is that my daughters are proud of me for my work--which is an amazing feeling. When I was working 70 hour weeks as a vice president of a corporation they weren’t necessarily proud; they just missed their mommy. Now, when I travel, they tell all their friends and teachers about what I am doing. Both of my girls talk about what they are going to do when they grow up now--and it’s not to work their way up to middle management in an American corporation. It’s to change the world.


  1. It's a great idea to interview yourselves for your blog! Susan, your story is inspiring.

  2. Thank you for stopping by, Andrea. We are all very excited for and proud of Susan. She's on a plane for Ghana now.

  3. Wow! An incredible interview, Kim. I greatly admire Susan, too. Her answers read like parts of a deeply inspiring and entertaining memoir. I want to know more about her childhood in Mt. Sterling Kentucky, as well as much more about all that transpired in her life since she read Jantsen's Gift (a must read). Susan, I hope one day you do write your story. My thoughts and prayers are with you on your latest journey to Ghana.

  4. What an interesting woman and interview. When I think of all of those little kids subjected to such hell, I am so grateful for people like Susan who are willing to do something about it. We support organizations who are working with such kids, but the hands on work she is doing has to be so much more rewarding. These little ones do not have a chance unless someone has compassion to intervene. I salute her for confronting the wrongs of this world. She is teaching her children so much by example. What a wealth of material she will garner in her work and travels. Great idea for you to have the interviews. I'll be looking forward to reading more about your group as time goes on.

  5. Wow--Susan is such an amazing woman. Thanks for introducing all of us to her!

  6. Well expressed introduction well chosen questions,Kim.

    You have a remarkable colleque and writing friend! I am impressed with all she is doing.
    It takes a loving heart to do what she is doing!
    Oh for more of us like her.

    Paula Niall
    Owen Sound, Ontario

  7. Hello to everyone from Ghana! I just had a chance to read this and the comments. Thanks to you all for your support and encouragment. The children here have been fantastic and full of love. Our anti-child trafficking initiatives are moving forward with a lot of attention and support. Thanks, Kim, for posting this while I was here. It puts things in perspective for me in a whole new light. Thanks to all of you for the comments! ~Suze


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