I am very excited and honored to have author Susan Coll grace us with a guest post here at Planet Books! She is the author of three novels, karlmarx.com: A Love Story, ROCKVILLE PIKE and ACCEPTANCE. Susan has shared with us the thoughts and events that put her novel ROCKVILLE PIKE into motion here at Planet Books.
~ “Wacky, heartwarming, and deliciously smart, this novel (karlmarx.com: A Love Story) of heartbreak and hilarity on the doctoral circuit is the intersection of Laura Zigman, Nora Ephron, and Richard Russo.”
~ ROCKVILLE PIKE “is a smart, witty, and funny read that revels in the joy of discovering what life has in store.” It takes place in Rockville, MD where I attended community college for a couple of years and have loved to shop and dine since I can remember.
~ ACCEPTANCE is “a comic chronicle of a year in the life in the college admissions cycle.”
My last two books, Rockville Pike and Acceptance, were deemed “too American” by international publishers. I wasn’t particularly surprised by this—they are distinctly American, both in the specificity of their suburban settings and in the subject matter, but what strikes me as ironic is that I couldn’t have written either of these books had I not recently returned from six years living overseas. Newspapers routinely rotate their foreign correspondents so that they come to their subjects with a fresh eye, and I think it was a six-year absence from this country, and nine years away from the Washington D.C. area, that enabled me to view my surroundings, and the most routine aspects of daily suburban life, with a sense of wonder.
Rockville Pike—the road, not the book—begins in Washington, DC, where it is known as Wisconsin Avenue, and it then stretches 41 miles, changing its name eight times as it straddles the border into Maryland and stretches north through the traffic clogged suburbs and ex-burbs and then into whatever patches remain of rural farmland. The Pike portion of the road runs through the eponymous town of Rockville, Maryland. Just say Rockville Piketo anyone familiar with the area and he or she will inevitably recount a recent journey to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, or Circuit City, or to Best Buy, or maybe Toys R Us. You know this road, because there is one in every stretch of America, and possibly in every corner of the world these days. Even while traveling in India, about three years ago, one of my kids remarked that the road we were on, running from New Delhi to a rural village about an hour outside the capitol, looked like Rockville Pike, as it was dotted with shopping malls, gleaming new condominiums, and an overabundance of Pizza Huts.
It was during a routine day of running errands along my own Rockville Pike that I had the epiphany that led to the creation of that novel. I remember quite clearly that it was a January afternoon, and that I was feeling somewhat sapped of spirit from all of the traffic and the prospect of my still long, dull, to-do list. I needed a break, and there, off to the left as I headed south, was the small graveyard where I had heard that F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were buried. Tender is the Night is one of my all-time favorite books, and I decided to pull off the road and pay the author my respects. Fitzgerald’s family is originally from Rockville , and although he never lived in the area, he was nonetheless buried in the family plot at St. Mary’s church (although it is said that he was first buried at another local cemetery, and was later re-interred here after his daughter, Scottie, convinced the church to accept him despite the fact that he had not lived the life of a model Catholic). I stood there contemplating the strangeness of this locale, considering the fact that Fitzgerald, with no real connection to this area, had come to rest in the middle of a noisy, wildly busy, crisscrossing, confusing intersection, in this not particularly bucolic patch of Maryland. I imagined how, many years ago, this road had been a dusty Indian trail, and later research revealed that James Polk and Andrew Jackson had traveled this road by stage coach, stopping at local inns along the way. I looked again at his gravestone, which is inscribed with the last sentence of the Great Gatsby: And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. And then I looked up and saw a giant discount furniture store across the street, and I knew that this was going to be the subject of my next novel.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think I would have seen this landscape in quite the same way had I been living in the same place all of these years, traversing that same stretch of Pike. I suspect that the giant discount furniture store (or really, all the giant discount furniture stores) would have become part of scenery that blurred in the background as I ran my errands, and had I looked out across the street from the graveyard—where I probably would not have stopped in the first place since it would not have seemed quite so novel—the presence of a furniture store would have struck me as the norm. I think it’s only because I had come to this landscape with a little jet lag of the soul after moving from New York to New Delhi to London to suburban Maryland in the space of nine years, that I was able to see what was peculiar about this juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime, the buy-now-no-payment-due-for-a-year sort of discount furniture store in such close proximity the tombstone of one of America’s most celebrated authors, beside which sat an empty champagne bottle, a bunch of dead flowers, and a puddle of melted blue candle wax.
Karen, who has been exceedingly generous in asking me to write this guest blog, knows the Rockville area herself, and she asked me if I had any favorite restaurants along the Pike. I didn’t quite realize until I began to think about this that one thing that’s really wonderful about Rockville Pike these days is the availability of great ethnic food. There are at least six Vietnamese restaurants serving pho. There’s great Japanese at Hinode, plus a good new fast-food Japanese noodle shop in Congressional Plaza. There’s fabulous dim sum further up, which is worth the forty minute drive from my house. I can’t actually think of a good all-American place along the way, because in fact Rockville Pike, while maybe too American a book, has become a great, sprawling, international melting pot.
Author Bio from www.susancoll.com: Susan Coll was born in New York, and attended Occidental College, in Los Angeles. She currently lives outside Washington, D.C. ACCEPTANCE is her third novel. She is also the author of the novels ROCKVILLE PIKE and KARLMARX.COM, and has worked as a freelance writer and book reviewer. Her articles have appeared in publications including the International Herald Tribune, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and the Washington Post. A short story set in India, Fire Safety Week, was broadcast on BBC World Service Radio, and the first chapter of the novel BRAIN FEVER, written with J.H. Diehl, appeared in the literary journal ENHANCED GRAVITY.