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|
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?
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|
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.