Rising Star Spotlight: Susan Clayton-Goldner


What is your fondest memory of reading a book as a child?
I grew up in a relatively poor family, the only girl among four boys. My father was a disabled veteran from WWII where a grenade exploded in his hand. Books were a luxury we couldn’t afford. As a child, I never longed for anything the way I longed for books. Every Saturday afternoon, even before I could read, I’d ride my tricycle up Single Avenue in Collins Park to one of the stops the bookmobile made in our New Castle, Delaware neighborhood.
To me, that traveling library was a magical place, all its inside walls lined with stories. I’d nestle into a corner of the children’s section and study the illustrations, making up my own tall tales. I loved everything about books, the way they smelled, the soft sound of pages turning, the weight of them in my small hands. And I’m pretty sure that mobile library was where the seed was planted and my dream to be a writer took root and began to grow.
I received my first book when I was about seven—it was a Christmas gift from one of my father’s friends. A Child’s Garden of Verses, poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson. I memorized every poem in that book. It was a cherished possession that I took with me wherever I went. I still have it in my home library. The spine is broken and some of the pages are falling out, but like the Velveteen Rabbit, that book was so loved that the poems inside it became my friends—so real and alive to me. I suppose it is no wonder I was a poet long before becoming a novelist.
Did your love of reading continue through your teenage years?
Yes. I have been an avid reader my entire life. Before I started writing full time, I read at least three books a week.
What took you from your Delaware home all the way to Tucson, Arizona for College?
I moved to Arizona with my husband who had accepted a teaching position at the University of Arizona. At the time our children were very young—a three- and a one-year old. Once they started school, I enrolled in creative writing classes. As a faculty wife, I could do this for $5 a semester.
What were you hoping to be when you entered College?
My BA in Creative Writing was more than twenty years in the making. I entered the University of Delaware right out of high school on the GI bill (child of a disabled service man). At that time, I wanted to learn something useful that would help me become employed. It worked. I received an Associate degree in Secretarial Studies and was hired by the DuPont Company one week after graduation. Those were the days when a person being able to type and take shorthand was a real advantage and almost guaranteed a job.  
Two decades later, in my late thirties, I enrolled at the University of Arizona and majored in Creative Writing with my emphasis on poetry. I’d been writing poetry and short stories all of my life and decided it was time to learn how to get it right. Once I graduated, I entered the MFA program. My goal was to be a writer—most logically a published poet.  
How did your college hopes and dreams pan out?
My first poetry publication, as an undergraduate, was in the University of Arizona’s literary magazine. I went on to publish in dozens of literary journals and anthologies, including Hawaii Pacific Review – Best of a Decade, The Comstock Review, New Millennium Writings, and the anthology Our Mothers/Ourselves. One of my poems was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A full-length collection of my poetry, A Question of Mortality, was published by Wellstone Press in 2014.
What was your first experience in writing a full-length novel like?
My husband and I retired early to live out our dreams—his to own and run an Arabian horse ranch, mine to write at least one novel. Somehow, as time moved forward and I had more and more life experiences, the poetry wasn’t enough, and I needed a larger canvas to explore.
We bought a 32-acre ranch which included a 12-stall barn with an attached covered arena, and moved up to Oregon from Arizona. He spent most of the daylight hours in the barn. I had a designated work space inside the house. But when faced with the blank screen on my computer, with all the time in the world and no excuses not to write, I froze—paralyzed. Day after day, I sat at the computer and stared at that screen. Finally, I enrolled in a novel writing class at the local community college. It didn’t take long to ignite the fire. The class was small and we brought in chapters every week to read and critique. Chapter by chapter, my first novel emerged. It wasn’t a great book., but it felt like a miracle when I wrote THE END.
As I look back on it now, I don’t think I decided to become a writer. I believe I was born a writer. The truth is I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. Let’s face it, writing is isolating and doesn’t pay very well. I’m not sure many people would choose to write if they could avoid it or were of sane mind. 
You have won a bucket-list of awards for your writing.  How has that helped or hindered your career?
Awards can be helpful in that they set your work apart from other books. And, perhaps, readers are more willing to take a chance on a new author whose book won an award. Before I found a publisher, winning an award validated me and made me want to keep going. It’s hard to write for the major part of your waking hours when you’re receiving rejection after rejection—hard to believe that what you are doing matters.
In my experience, awards are often based on the quality of the writing more than on the story itself. I think this hurt me early on. I could weave words. I learned to do that in my creative writing program. Simile and metaphor came naturally to me. But it was much harder for me to employ conflict to reveal characters and write a book with a powerful story that grabs the reader on the first page and won’t let her go. I took some workshops, and I slowly began to understand. Beautiful writing is a bit like frosting. The story is the cake. When you can manage both, not too heavy on the frosting, you are on your way.
What inspired you to write mysteries?
I began writing novels thinking I’d write family dramas that leaned toward literary. My first book, A Bend In The Willow, was like that, but there was also mystery involved, especially with the main character. 
So writing that book planted the seed for a series of mysteries that were a cross genre with elements of family drama and the traditional detective story.
I originally wrote Redemption Lake, the first book in my mystery series, as a family drama. My agent at the time wanted me to focus more on the detective. He was there, but not a major character. So, I did a rewrite and created Winston Radhauser. Tirgearr Publishing has now released 11 books with him as the lead detective. I am working on #12 and feel as if I have the best of both worlds. I can write the heart-wrenching family dramas that I love to write and the mysteries so many readers prefer. It’s worked out well for me.
You had a tragedy this past year of losing your husband.  How do you think life-changing experiences like that effect your writing?
When my husband, Andy, died from a massive brain bleed in early March, I lost my first reader, my biggest fan, my lover, my husband, and my friend. And the world lost a dazzling light.
During the first few weeks after his death, time stopped for me. I felt so isolated and alone. The Covid pandemic didn’t help. Nothing felt real. I wandered in a daze around the empty house, constantly replaying events from our life together. I said his name out loud, though I knew he wasn’t there. And the silence was like a held breath, the silence of listening, but hearing nothing. The silence that hung in the air around me. The silence that was now my life. I couldn’t think straight or carry on a conversation. And I wondered how a person could ever come back from that much loss.
But time keeps moving forward and I’d like to think that I am moving with it—inching my way toward that other life. The one I will live without him. I’ve begun writing again and am working on #12 in my Detective Radhauser series.
As far as what this loss will do for my writing, I believe every emotion we as writers experience has an effect on how we handle emotion in our characters. I have a much deeper understanding of grief. And this would be a gift to any writer. I know that grief is not linear—it doesn’t progress in stages as we are so often told. Before Andy’s death, even though I’d had my share of losses, I saw grief as an emotion, terrifying and chaotic—a kind of mess that needed to be cleaned up as soon as possible. Grief was some affliction people needed to overcome.
Now, I see it more like a long journey along a rocky slope. It is not something I can solve or talk myself out of. It is much more about moving through the pain with tenderness toward myself and toward those who want so much to help. Some days go smoothly. Other days, I trip over something as simple as one of his socks behind the dryer and feel as if I’m right back where I started on March 10th when Andy took his last breath and I took my first one without him.
What I’ve learned in the last eight months is that loss is a universal experience. Eventually it comes to each of us. It hurts. It is exhausting. It changes everything you once believed about yourself. This grief is leaving me with a need to love more and better.
I suspect everything I’ve learned will eventually find its way into my writing. Imagining this kind of grief, and actually experiencing it, are not the same thing. I am forever changed. I hope it will enable me to dig deeper into my characters who are grieving. I hope it will make me a better writer.
What are your hopes for the future?
I hope to continue writing. I’m not sure I can write 3 books a year as I have for the last five years. My life has changed so dramatically and many of the things Andy used to do for me, I now must do for myself.
Twelve is a pretty long series, so it may be time for me to retire Detective Winston Radhauser and start another series with a different protagonist. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see. I’m not a writer who has a plan for her next book. I concentrate on one book at a time. And when it is finished, I play the “what if” game and see if I can find another idea that sets me on fire.