Susan Wolan is May's writer in residence at ZVONA i NARI. She was born and raised in Chicago. Her father’s family is Croatian, from Zagreb.
She has a B.A. from Mundelein College of Loyola University, where she studied literature, language, and creative writing. She also took writing and publishing courses at the University of Chicago’s publishing program. Susan received an M.A. in writing and publishing from Emerson College in Boston, where she studied with the poet Bill Knott, and the nonfiction writer George Packer, and concentrated in nonfiction. She learned to wear many hats while working as an editor at Houghton Mifflin. She has collaborated with her partner on many writing and publishing projects, as a developmental editor, and occasionally, as a literary agent.
Susan lived in London for over ten years and considers herself a Londoner at heart. She is beginning work on a series of essays about her long relationship with that city. She loves Clairefontaine notebooks and writing by hand. She is looking forward to participating in the “small republic of letters” at ZVONA i NARI.
1. What brings you to Croatia? What will you be working on at ZVONA i NARI?
My father is Croatian on his mother’s side and I grew up hearing bits and pieces of stories about the Trupec family. As the story goes, the family had a vineyard in Zagreb, near the Sava River. My great-grandfather (the son of the vineyard owners) liked to play his violin and entertain the workers on the vineyard. In fact, he married one of those workers! My great-grandparents eventually left Croatia for the United States, settling on the South Side of Chicago. So the idea of Croatia sparked something in my imagination—I knew from a young age that I would go to Croatia and see it for myself someday.
At ZVONA i NARI I plan to begin work on a series of essays about my long relationship with London, based on my experiences of living there for almost twelve years. I have been back in the Chicago area for six years now, but I still consider myself to be a Londoner at heart. In my mind, I never really left London. I kept notes and journals while I was living in the U.K., and in Chicago, I jot down any London fragments that come to me on small notecards. My ideas have been incubating for awhile, so it feels like the right time to dive in and begin shaping them into essays. Of course, I also will be jotting down notes about my stay in Croatia for future essays.
2. Are you familiar with the Croatian literature?
Not yet, but I’m looking forward to hearing poetry being read in Croatian at the upcoming poetry event at ZVONA i NARI. Now that I am here in Croatia, I am really enjoying hearing the rhythms of the Croatian language. It’s so lyrical! Some time ago, I came across Yolk, a book of short stories (in English) by the Croatian writer Josip Novakovich. I recently started reading it and I was amazed by the writing style—it’s so energetic. I would love to read Croatian work in translation.
3. What are your main literary themes?
I am a firm believer in writing about one’s obsessions. For me that would be place—how it shapes us, influences us, haunts us, and when we leave a place, how it reverberates through the rest of our lives, whether we like it or not. Alongside place would be exile and longing.
I like to use place as a jumping off point and let the essay find its own shape: mosaic, meditation, or collage, to name a few. I love the freedom of an essay and the fact that it can take many forms. For example, just before coming to Croatia, I was revisiting Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark, his mosaic of forty-eight short chapters on Venice. I also was reading Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris, her nonfiction book about that city. A constant companion for me is “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion’s essay about her early years in New York City. All very different works, but all inspired by a particular place.
I have a bookmark from the British publisher Notting Hill Editions that says: “The essay can shift a culture, ignite a movement, and become a lifelong friend.” I agree. Long live the essay!
4. Do you collaborate?
Yes, all the time! I thoroughly enjoy the collaborative process of creative work. I love seeing something go from an idea to a finished book, creative project, or work of art. Whether it’s my own project or someone else’s, it is so satisfying to be involved in the process, even if it turns out to be different from what you originally had in mind. There is a certain kind of energy that comes from working with other creative people.