Susan Schoenberger’s Liability of Love explores themes of class conflict, grief, trauma, and ultimately depicts how the stories we tell ourselves have the potential to both wreck us and save us. Kirkus Reviews calls it, “a keenly observed, compassionate, and absorbing work.”
In 1979 the term “date rape” hasn’t yet entered the parlance, so when shy freshman Margaret Carlyle is assaulted by a charismatic upperclassman, she thanks him for dinner and tells no one. The secret will haunt her for years. Margaret’s misplaced sense of shame colors every decision she makes after that night, warping her relationships and burdening her with the fear that her broken body will be unable to bear children. Through shifting points of view, we see not just Margaret’s struggles, but the way she is misunderstood by those drawn to her.
Dead Darlings is pleased to bring you this conversation with Susan Schoenberger.
The #Me Too movement has exposed a number of perpetrators who resemble your antagonist, Anders. Did the current climate inform this novel at all? What inspired you to set the story in the 1980s?
I started writing this book in 2014, so well before the #MeToo movement began, but as it swelled in 2017-18, that thread became more prominent in the story. The book is set in the 1980s because that’s when I went to college and entered the workforce and had some experiences similar to Margaret’s.
From Margaret’s fantasies of a Thornbirds-inspired love story to the “magic object” appearance of the rosary beads towards the end of the novel, the Catholic church acts as a kind of off-stage character. How did the expectations (and comforts) of the Catholic church shape your story?
I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone that I was raised Catholic, or that I read The Thornbirds at a tender age. I think the sexual mores of the Catholic Church–the idea of keeping your virginity until marriage, for example–made young Catholic girls very susceptible to the idea of being swept away by love. Margaret also has several interactions with the church or its holy objects–the rosary beads, of course–but has to come to her own conclusions about whether the church’s teachings make sense to her.
While Margaret is clearly the protagonist of the story, the alternating points of view help us understand her more fully. How did you decide which characters would get a voice in the novel?
This novel evolved slowly over a number of years, and I threw away my first draft almost completely except for characters named Margaret, Douglas, and Fitz. I added Brenda to the story later when I realized Fitz needed someone to love him ,too. It made sense to me to tell the story of their relationships from different points of view. It reveals how married people or close friends still have no idea what the other person is thinking.
Speaking of characters, I have a little crush on Fitz! It’s such a refreshing shift to see male characters battling their weight and body image. Margaret’s husband Douglas has a similar struggle, gaining more weight than his wife in the early stages of her pregnancy. Can you talk about why you chose to include body image as a “wound” for these two characters?
Quite a few early readers have pointed out how unusual it is to see male characters struggling with body issues, but I see it in all segments of society. I also wanted readers to bond with Fitz, even when he makes poor decisions, and his struggle with his weight makes him so endearing. Douglas’s issues have more to do with his insecurity in his marriage to Margaret.
You mention that you began to write fiction seriously after attending the Wesleyan Writer’s conference in 2001. We love writing conferences here at Grub Street! How did the Wesleyan conference inspire you? Since writing can be such a solitary endeavor, outside of conferences how do you find everyday inspiration?
The Wesleyan conference helped me to comprehend how challenging it would be to write a good manuscript, find an agent, and get it published. But it also gave me a road map. I understood that I had to build my writing resume, work on the craft, publish short stories, and learn about the business side of the industry. It was a mini-MFA in about a week. Outside of conferences, I find inspiration in other writers. I read all kinds of things–history, fiction, graphic novels, short stories, news articles–in a search of new and interesting ways bring words to life.
Liability of Love is your third novel since 2011. You’ve had quite a prolific ten years! Can you tell us about your writing routine?
It’s funny, I don’t feel prolific. I published my first short story in 2003, and that was essentially the first chapter of my first novel. So it’s really been three novels over a total of 18 years. With a full-time job, I usually set aside a little time before work to write, weekend mornings, and sometimes vacations where I set a word count goal. But my novels seem to need time to breathe and to change, so even if I had more time to write, I’m not sure it would go any faster.
About Susan Susan Schoenberger: Susan Schoenberger has been a writer, editor and copy editor at various newspapers, including The News and Observer, The Baltimore Sun and The Hartford Courant. Currently, she is director of communications at Hartford Seminary, a graduate school focused on interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding.