Susan Rebecca White talks foodies, religion, and her latest novel

The Atlanta novelist’s latest was inspired by the real-life friendship of chef/cookbook authors Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis

Photograph by Dorothy O'Connor

Susan Rebecca White’s third novel, A Place at the Table, is a character-driven story of souls lost and found, inspired by the cross-generational, cross-racial friendship of two renowned Southern chefs, the late Edna Lewis and longtime Atlantan Scott Peacock. Over iced coffee at Dancing Goats Coffee Bar in Decatur, White talked about cooking, writing, teaching, and finding a place to belong.

Why are so many writers foodies?
For me, cooking is creative in some ways, like writing is. But it’s easier. For the most part, I know that if I whip egg whites and fold them in a soufflé base correctly, I will get a soufflé. But with a book there are so many false starts and new beginnings and revisions. So cooking is creative, but with more consistent results. And I think there’s also just something about the material world. Food—and eating—is the material world, and it’s essential, and I think writers are interested in observing the world. And then there’s probably also the metaphoric connection between reading as feeding the soul, reading as letting you survive.

Did you know how this novel was going to end when you started writing?
No. I started writing this one right before A Soft Place to Land came out, in March of 2010. I didn’t know how it ended really until June of 2012. I was at Hambidge [an artist residency program in North Georgia]. I had an idea, and it just started coming out. I will say that I resisted the ending.

I was very self-conscious of being a white Southern writer taking on any issues of race. I was nervous about it. I just was scared to write it.

What’s your writing process? Do you write every day?
No! [Laughs] I’m a total feast-or-famine kind of writer. I think I would be a happier person if I wrote every day. But I don’t. I take a lot of notes. I’m just starting a new project right now, so I’m an author in search of a subject. I get the Moleskine notebooks and I just write myself notes around things that I’m interested in, and ask questions. A lot of times I will get a voice out of that. With this book, it very much started with Bobby’s voice. It started with the chapter where his brother hides his mother’s underwear in his room. I want to say that it really took off after that, but it really didn’t. This was a book of halting stops and starts and dead ends and tons of pages deleted—and many honest-to-God weepy moments where I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing; this is the end of my career.”

Do you have people read your work as you’re writing it?
I do. I’m in a writing group with Sheri Joseph, Jessica Handler, and Peter McDade—whose little girl this book is dedicated to—and Beth Gylys, who is a poet at Georgia State. We meet about once or twice a month. And my boyfriend, now fiance, Sam sat down with me and went over it, kind of at a crisis moment.

When you’re writing in three very distinctive voices, what kind of adjustment do you make in your head to make those voices true?
I don’t do anything conscious. With Bobby, I’ve got that little, earnest Baptist kid voice in my head. I just have it. To a certain degree, it’s Missy’s voice from my first novel, Bound South. That kid is in me somewhere. Even though I didn’t grow up Baptist, I just know that earnest kid is there. Amelia is probably the closest to my own voice—the closest to my own self. With Alice, I got quieter. I remember sitting in the office and just trying to remember what it smells like to be in the woods—and what it sounds like to be in the woods. Trying to remember what it feels like underneath your feet.

There’s a real sense of belonging—or not belonging, more precisely—in this book. Do you feel like at this point in your life you’ve found where you belong?
Hmm. I’m finding it. It’s funny, because I probably would have said that I had found it five years ago. Yet I look back at that now and know that I hadn’t. The question of belonging is always going to be something I pursue in my writing. I’m from a family of his, hers, and ours—and I’m the “ours.” My half siblings were raised in super-different environments, and I was kind of the link.

Did you feel a sense of responsibility in that?
I think I felt a sense of guilt, because it was a privileged position to be the one kid whose parents weren’t divorced—and the love child. But there was also a lot of responsibility that goes with that. I never had a solid sense of, “This is what my family is. This is who I am.”

I love the line when Bobby is talking about his boyfriend, Sebastian: “It’s as if he wakes up each morning ready to be delighted.” Is there any of you in that description?
I’m sort of a craggy optimist. But I am pretty optimistic. I would say that line is the best of my ex-husband. I do know people like that. I will say the older I’ve gotten, the less enamored I am with cynicism.

It’s exhausting . . .
It’s exhausting, and we’re going to die.

Another line I really liked: when Amelia says, “I am no one’s beloved but my own.” That’s heartbreaking.
I thought about that a lot during my divorce. That was a very, very solitary time for me—and also one of the most empowering experiences I’ve ever been through. I remember tending to myself. I was living in New York the summer when we were figuring out how to separate. So I was living by myself in New York and researching this book. And I would take very tender care of myself. I would fix myself simple but delicious meals, and take a bath, and take a walk around the reservoir. And I remember telling myself that I was beloved, even though I was the only one telling myself that.

How does what’s going on in your personal life affect your writing?
One of the amazing gifts about being a writer is, you get to process your life. And it feeds your art. This book wouldn’t have happened without the divorce. It wasn’t mercenary. There’s no machination: “I’m going to create crisis in order to have this book.” But it really does let there be deeper meaning. It allows deeper meaning for my day-to-day experience. There’s nothing in this book that matches point by point my autobiography. But when Amelia’s riding around on her bike in New York, free of all the weight and masks of her marriage . . . That felt like me. That resonated with how I feel right now in my own life: free to ride around on my bike, happy.

Where do you fall in the religious spectrum?
I don’t know. I definitely have a sacramental view of the world; I’m not a secular humanist. But I get really uncomfortable with too much Jesus talk. I guess in the most trite terms, I’m a seeker.

How does your teaching experience affect your own writing?
It feeds me. Writing feeds me in a specific way that only writing can, and teaching feeds me in a way that only teaching can. This is my eleventh year off and on in the classroom, and I feel pretty competent. I feel competent at establishing a community where people feel safe and comfortable, but there are high standards. I don’t shy away from saying, “I don’t think this is working right here, but here are some thoughts about what you can do.” This is the encapsulation of a great teaching moment for me—and it happens a lot: We were all sitting around a table, talking about a story, and one kid says, “Oh, I hate this. I always walk in with this very concrete idea about how this story works, and I always leave thinking something different.” And I thought, “Awesome!” That kind of energy is really, really exciting. It’s very invigorating.

Is there any one piece of advice that you tell every writing student?
I guess the most basic advice if you’re just scared about writing a story is the Passover Seder rule of writing, which is: Why is this day different than any other day? You ask that at the Seder dinner, and that’s what they need to be asking about their story. Why are we looking at this particular day in this character’s life?

Joshilyn Jackson once told me that she limits the time she spends blogging to twenty minutes a day, because anything more than that becomes “real writing.” How do you balance the time demands of blogging versus real writing?
I don’t think I do! I’m a very infrequent blogger. I’m a horrible social media person, because I don’t know how to just do it for twenty minutes and push it out there. I’m very deliberate, and I need to mull over things. I need to write lots of drafts of things. I can get addicted to the spin of things—check my Gmail, check Facebook, check Twitter. And then hours have passed and that really good, intense, quality writing time has not happened.

You mentioned that you’ve already started kicking around ideas for the next novel. Do you usually have a work in progress?
When my agent took Bound South out to try to sell it, I felt so much pressure on myself about whether or not it would sell. My half sister Lauren Myracle, who is a YA author, said, “What you need to do is go start your second book. The best thing you can do to alleviate your anxiety is to start a second book.” So I did. And that worked well. I feel like in this window right now—when a book is finished and I’m waiting for it to publish—I have this moment of stillness. You don’t know how a book is going to be received, how popular or not popular it’s going to be. It’s just a moment of stillness.

What writers do you read?
I go back to Anne Lamott all the time. I teach Bird by Bird every semester. It’s always helpful. And every time I read it, I learn something new. Also, I love Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I love that it’s good, decent people trying to live good, decent lives. And it’s just so beautifully written. I’m a huge, huge fan of Flannery O’Connor. Her Mystery and Manners is another great writing book. Right now I’m reading the novel Beautiful Ruins. I’m also reading There Goes My Everything. It’s about the civil rights movement as experienced by white people—not necessarily the villains and not necessarily the heroes. Another nonfiction book I loved was Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, which followed this Puerto Rican family for ten years in the criminal justice system. And Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns was amazing. I love nonfiction that is as compelling as a novel.

Do you remember the first book that you read and just loved?
I do. Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster. I remember when eleven-year-old Ellen, a white girl, realizes that she always thought she was better than her best friend, Starletta, who is black. I was sitting in the bathtub, and I remember closing the book and just kind of taking it in. And then All the King’s Men. I read that in my senior year of high school, and I felt like my brain had just gotten a little bit smarter. It was the first big, important book that I really felt like I got—this idea that no one is morally pure and it’s a very complicated universe.

This is an extended version of an article that originally appeared in our June 2013 issue.