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‘That’s why I write’: Alumna returns to Saint Mary’s for Visiting Writers Series, discusses writing career

| Friday, April 8, 2022

Editor’s note: This story includes mentions of sexual assault. A list of sexual assault reporting options and on-campus resources can be found on the Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross websites.

Published author and Saint Mary’s alumna Susan Furber ‘14 addressed the Saint Mary’s community as she read from her novel “The Essence of an Hour” in Welsh Parlor as a part of the College’s annual Visiting Writers Series Thursday evening. 

Alumna Susan Furber read from her novel "The Essence of an Hour" Wednesday evening in Haggar Parlor. The event was part of the College's annual Visiting Writers Series.Genevieve Coleman | The Observer
Saint Mary’s alumna Susan Furber read from her novel ”The Essence of an Hour” Thursday evening in Welsh Parlor. The event was part of the College’s annual Visiting Writers Series.

“The Essence of an Hour” is Furber’s first novel. The book, which was published February 2021, is a coming-of-age story of a female protagonist, Lillie, set in the 1940s.

In regard to inviting Furber to read her work, Visiting Writers Series director Rebecca Lehmann noted the importance of hosting an alumna who is engaged in both the writing and publishing industries.

“We are really excited to invite Susan to campus because she is an alum of both English and philosophy and is relatively young to have published her first novel,” she said. “We always love to bring writers to campus that can show a model for students about how they might have success themselves in the world of writing and publishing. Susan’s just a logical, easy, wonderful choice for that because she is literally a Saint Mary’s graduate going out into the world and having this great success.”

Lehmann also discussed the connection between Furber’s book — which discusses sexual assault — and the College’s Symposium on Sexual Violence. She explained that while two events that were not intentionally scheduled in the same week, they are complementary. 

“It is a happy coincidence,” she said. “It was not planned, but given Susan’s work and the symposium’s topic, there is some really nice synergy happening there.”

‘It’s been a real joy to come back’

In an interview with The Observer, Furber spoke about what it was like to come back to campus after graduating in December 2013.

“It’s been interesting because to explain the book to lots of people, I have to talk about Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame and the community and Catholic education — and then again, I think I mythologized in my own mind, in my memory,” she explained. “It’s been really lovely coming back and seeing [campus].”

Furber said she arrived to campus during the College’s Sexual Violence Symposium and noted how she saw positive change in the community.

“Seeing all this [support], this very vocal standing up for against violence and sexual assault, has been very, very uplifting,” she said. 

While Furber pointed out the community building currently occurring on campus, she discussed how her sexual assault at Notre Dame was a harmful experience during her time at the College.

“It’s very difficult to talk about [since] you never know other people’s experiences,” she said. “For a long time Notre Dame is the place that I was sexually assaulted.”

Furber said for many years, she did not feel comfortable discussing her experiences of assault. However, movement of survivors sharing their stories, especially after the global response to the murder of Sarah Everard, propelled her to do so herself, she said.

These issues — they are not going away, Furber said. What happens in the book is fictional — what happened to me is quite different. But to be able to own the impetus behind that is nonfiction. It is something I’ve only felt very comfortable doing in the last few years.

Furber stated she believes survivors need to continue sharing their stories. Based on what she has seen at Saint Mary’s during her visit, Furber said she thinks Saint Mary’s seems like an inclusive place for survivors.

We do have to share our stories and we have to support one another, she said. It seems that there is that community now on campus and I would have loved to have been in that sort of environment.

Furber emphasized the importance of coming back to Saint Mary’s because it influenced much of the material in her novel.

’It’s the best feeling in the world, I think, for a writer’

Turning to her current work, Furber explained she is in the process of revising her second novel, which will be a sequel to her first. The book will follow her protagonist Lillie and her life with her husband, who the reader was not formally introduced to in The Essence of an Hour.”

What I would love to do is to track Lillie, alongside the burgeoning women’s rights movements, from sort of second wave feminism with Simone de Beauvoir and things, she said. The second book, what I’m working on, is looking at Lillie and at that 10 year period of why does she write the first novel and we actually meet [her] husband and we understand what happens with that.

While Furber stated her influence for writing The Essence of an Hour as a trilogy comes from reading Edna O’Brien’s coming-of-age series The Country Girls,” she said she believes there are not enough female coming of age stories.

“For as many boy coming of age stories as we have — really tracking them through the ages —we’re really missing that in feminist literature,” she said.

While Furber said she still needs to make revisions to her work, she noted that she is excited by the prospect of her second novel.

“It’s exhilarating to keep going with it,” she said. “There’s still finessing to do. There’s still things to tweak, but that coming into shape is, it’s the best feeling in the world, I think, for a writer.”

‘It’s wonderful to have that platform and that privilege — the opportunity to speak to young women specifically’

Prior to the reading, Furber visited the College’s fiction writing workshop Wednesday and spoke to students who had read “The Essence of an Hour” for class. Students were able to engage with Furber, asking her questions about the novel itself and her overall writing career. 

Madison Suseland, a junior in the course, explained how she enjoyed Furber’s personal attention to the class’s response to her novel.

“It was really excellent to have her in class,” she said. “I absolutely loved the way she was so engaged with her readers, in the way that she wanted to know how we interpreted her book, how we interpreted her characters. I thought it was a commendable effort of attentiveness and how she just really wanted honest opinions.”

Suseland added she particularly valued the experience because the class could speak with Furber in a smaller setting.

“I absolutely felt it was a really unique experience,” she said. “I’ve never been able to do that before, especially in such a small and close community setting, so I thought it was really cool to have that.”

According to Furber, one of the best parts of writing is connecting with young women who are responding to her work.

It’s wonderful to have that platform and that privilege — the opportunity to speak to young women specifically and communicate my experiences and these characters’ experiences and to take away current experiences as well, she said. That is why I write.

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About Genevieve Coleman

Genevieve Coleman is a junior at Saint Mary's majoring in English literature, creative writing and secondary education with a minor in theatre. She currently serves as an Assistant Managing Editor.

Contact Genevieve