Why we love “The Beach at Herculaneum,” followed by an interview with author Susan G. Muth.
By Patricia Moosbrugger and Patti Thorn, BlueInk Review Managing Partners
We have no idea how Susan G. Muth managed such a feat. But we can tell you, unequivocally, that she has delivered a read you won’t want to miss.
We are proud to announce that Muth’s novel, The Beach at Herculaneum, has won the BlueInk Best Book Award. This is only the second time we have awarded the honor, which follows no timetable but occurs only when we find books we feel passionate about and want to share with the reading world.
“The Beach at Herculaneum” is a mesmerizing story about two women struggling with tragic circumstances centuries apart. Anne McCarthy is a woman coping with terrible grief after the death of her husband and son. She is haunted by nightmares that seem set in another time and language. Meanwhile, centuries earlier, beautiful Daphne searches desperately for her husband and son in the final moments before Mount Vesuvius erupts, destroying the Roman city of Herculaneum, where she lives. As the two women inexplicably find each other through time, their healing begins.
We love this book for many reasons:
First, it offers a fascinating account of life in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius and the devastation that occurred when the volcano erupted. In this time of “extreme weather events,” where whole towns are leveled by the whimsical forces of nature, the historical event resonates more than ever.
Second, it intertwines the story of these women with that of the two men who love them, providing a romance factor that’s undeniably appealing — and not in a cheesy way, we promise. (Only the most stoic reader will remain unmoved by the tragic story of beautiful Daphne and her Roman soldier husband, both doomed by the hand of fate.)
Finally, it’s all wrapped in Muth’s hypnotic writing style that’s breezy and lyrical at the same time.
In sum, “The Beach at Herculaneum” is an irresistible story that comes wrapped in the ultimate mysteries of life and tied up in a conclusion that’s sure to satisfy.
We urge you to read our review of the book and our interview with Muth (below). And we would love to hear your comments once you finish book!
“National Geographic” article sparks author’s imagination
By BlueInk Staff
When we called Susan Muth at her home in Mandeville, LA, to talk about our awarding her novel the BlueInk Best Book Award, she was equal parts excited and wary. “After so many years of frustration, I’m afraid to believe it,” she said of the award.
Muth is no stranger to the ups and downs of the publishing world. Her first novel garnered praise from publishers, but ultimately no publishing contract. The book didn’t fit neatly into any genre, she was told repeatedly.
Ditto, book number two. And book number three. Book number four, “The Beach at Herculaneum,” is a different beast. While it’s also a mix of elements, it hits squarely in the genre of women’s fiction. And beautifully so.
“Herculaneum” is a mesmerizing story about two women living centuries apart, both struggling with tragic circumstances. Anne lives in the present day, coping with the death of her husband and son in a car accident. Daphne lives in the ancient city of Herculaneum in the days just before Mount Vesuvius destroyed the town in the same eruption that stilled Pompeii. The two women’s stories, and their romances with two strong men, converge in time as they seek a resolution to their troubles.
Muth has high hopes for “Herculaneum.” Meanwhile, she has many interests that also vie for her attention. Susan has taught English at three different universities, and now teaches acting classes for drama students. She’s also a pet portrait painter, a former jazz singer and lead singer in a rock band, and a riding instructor. She has raised, trained and shown jumping horses and is a “dog agility enthusiast,” teaching dogs to run obstacle courses. And as if all this isn’t enough, “I’m also really into history, especially that Roman period (in which her novel is set).”
In short, her personal story is as expansive as her novel. We recently spoke to her about her novel and her writing life.
When did you start writing?
I guess in high school. I just wrote poetry at that time and still do occasionally…
I actually wrote my first novel, The Winner, in the late ‘80s. It was about a crooked woman jockey – kind of a thriller. I was told it was a “romantic suspense,” but it doesn’t fit neatly into any category. It verged into a love triangle, had some twists you don’t expect to find in a romance… They kept telling me I had to change it to make it a romance, but that wasn’t the focus at all. It was about moral ambiguity, really.
How many publishers did you submit that to?
Oh, a lot. I’d say at least 20. Some wouldn’t read it at all, and some read it and said it had potential, but that I’d have to change it. I put it away.
Why didn’t you consider changing it?
Because that would turn it into something it was never intended to be. A lot of people told me I was foolish not to just turn it into a romance, but I would have had to change it so much, it would have been unrecognizable. This was in the ‘90s; everything was very formulaic, and they were selling romances like crazy and wanted it all to fit into this pattern. They even sent me the pattern to show me how to change it, so I got on my high horse and put it in a drawer. I divorced writing.
You became interested in theater and received an MFA in stage direction. Then you dove back into writing novel number two. What made you try again?
(I had in mind a spin-off from the first book.) I’d had this one, Adversaries, written in my head all along, and had even written little segments, but was just grumpy (about the first experience). But it didn’t leave my head and finally one summer it got hold of me, and I couldn’t let it go.…
(In this story), a Mafia guy starts pursuing an heiress, and the heiress’ mother is determined nobody like that is going to get into her family, so she hires a hit man. I don’t know what to call that either (in terms of genre)…. I was told I had to make up my mind which was the hero and which was the villain, which was impossible because they were both anti-heroes.
How many publishers did you submit that to?
I sent it to even more than the first one, because I really believed in Adversaries. It really meant a lot to me. There was sort of a Greek pathos about the whole thing. I ended up getting the same thing: the form letters and the ones that said, “What genre is it”? I had no idea, so I divorced writing again…I felt that the way I did things was so alien to them (publishers) that it wasn’t going to happen for me.
Finally, there was a third novel. A fantasy…
Yes, The Atlaneans. I sent it to an agent who was very well known for a (paid critique). He said, “I’m declining to take this on with more than usual regret.” He really liked the writing but couldn’t figure out what to do with the story because it didn’t fit in with a genre, and so then I went, ”Oh, god help me!”
You had the courage to tackle a fourth book, Herculaneum. Did you have in mind a genre for this one?
Well, not originally. And I didn’t when I was working on the Herculaneum part. I really thought it was just a tragedy. But when I got thinking about Anne, then I hit a roadblock; it didn’t have a genre. I thought, “Can I call it a romance? Maybe.” I tried to go back and see what I could do to make it roughly romantic suspense, and of course, that blocked me for a while. I still don’t know what to call it. The last take I got on it, from someone who pitches Hollywood movies, is that it’s a time travel novel.
I just can’t think in genre terms when writing because it makes me stall. When I’m composing, I’m working in the right brain. When I try to impose a left-brain concept on it, it stops the right brain flow. I just have to say to myself, “If doesn’t sell, it doesn’t sell.” I’m hoping that it will and that there will be some compatible readers out there.
What was the genesis for your story?
I worked in schools, and one of the teachers was giving away some National Geographics. I was looking through one of them and found a story about the archaeological dig at Herculaneum. They were finding skeletons all up and down the old beachfront. Apparently, the inhabitants had all run down to the beach because they were trying to evacuate by sea. They found two skeletons. With one, they were looking at her bone structure and speculating about what a beautiful woman she must have been. The other was a soldier who looked like he was working on a construction project, but they knew it was a soldier because he had on a uniform. They became my inspiration for Daphne and her husband Marcus.
I thought the story was going to be about those two people on the beach. (But then the idea expanded.) Anne came from a different place. When I was in college, the girl in the next apartment lost her newlywed husband in a car crash. It was extremely sudden. One day I noticed his car was gone. She stopped me, and she wanted to talk, describe the accident, show me her honeymoon pictures, their scrapbook. I commented on the photos and drank soda with her and felt utterly helpless to ease her pain. I have always been haunted by this. I felt I failed her. Anne is in some way my attempt to bring closure to that tragedy, for her and me…
So I had these two storylines running in my head, but they felt connected to me. I started weaving them together.
How much research did you do for the novel?
Oh, a lot. I was very conscientious about that. I know for me, if I’m reading a historical book and start spotting errors, it really spoils it for me. I got lots of different pictures and maps and timelines and studied volcanic eruptions and the physics behind them, and this one especially.
This particular eruption, something about it was very poignant to me. It is kind of like 9/11. There is so much pathos in the idea of so many lives snuffed out so suddenly. (I read about) some guy tending his garden, some family having lunch, the baker doing business. All of that is so normal and then to have their entire world snuffed out like that.
Oddly enough, that strikes me as deeply significant and also very life affirming. The things we agonize about–the bills, the petty disagreements, the number on the scales this morning — those things are put into sharp perspective when you contemplate how thin the boundary is between life and death, (between) now and never.
How long did it take for you to write?
I got the core story down first, and in many cases it came in whole passages, which unfortunately occurred to me at the most inconvenient times, usually when I was driving…. so I’d have to keep them in mind and try to get to a keyboard, which wasn’t always easy because I was usually on the way to work…
If you start from the National Geographics, I’d say it took about 10 years. The actual, active writing? I’d say about 4 years, 3 years maybe. I had the first draft pretty fast. I don’t think the next one would take me as long. I learned a lot about structure and plotting from this.
Do you have advice for other self-publishing authors?
My best advice to somebody just getting into this process is to take the advice of the editors you are working with — not to the point where you’re altering your concept, but take it as the reader’s point of view, this is how what you intended is perceived by another person. If they have trouble understanding what you’re trying to express, certainly your average reader will too.
How many copies have you sold?
The book just came out at the end of December. They (publisher iUniverse) don’t notify me until May, so I have no idea what it’s doing… The publicity that you’re affording me may eventually get it picked up by an agent. Then I think the weight of a publisher would get behind it. That’s what I’m hoping.
At what point would you consider yourself successful? What is your ultimate dream?
My dream is to become a full-time writer. I’d really like to write a series of books about these characters, Mike (Anne’s romantic interest) and Anne, at different archaeological digs, picking up things from the past. Then maybe go back to the earlier novels, or something completely new and just do that. To answer the question, (success would be) being on the New York Times bestseller list, being interviewed on The View or something like that, that would be a path to what I really want. It’s not about making money per se, but I have to make enough money out of it to allow me to write full-time.
We wish you all the best in achieving your goals!
“The Beach at Herculaneum” is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iUniverse. Click here for the full review of the book.