Suzanne Halmi

Interviewed by Tarah Dunn

Where are you from? What do you do?

I grew up in northwestern New Jersey when it was more rural than it is now, although there are still a lot of farms and wooded areas despite more and more development. I was a librarian and then a doctoral student (English), but now I’m a stay-at-home mother with young children.

As the mother of a young child, I find it difficult to achieve the intensity of concentration that’s required to write while caring for my daughter. What strategies have you evolved to carve out time to write?

Somehow, I find the time to write every day. I try to be very disciplined about it. I used to need peace and quiet in order to read or write. That’s no longer the case, and I manage to get a lot more done in less time.

Having worked in a library, and as a prospective PhD student myself, I’m curious what your thoughts are on these occupations. How has working with books in various ways informed your writing?

I love to read, and I couldn’t live without books. I suppose everything I’ve done (cataloging books or examining them critically) informs my work as a writer.

The shift of the narrative perspective in “No More Happy Birthdays” from Ted to Laurel and back again is really subtle. What was the motivation behind including Laurel’s perspective?

Because of the narrative voice in which I began the story, I felt comfortable including Laurel’s point of view. I thought it was important to include Laurel’s opinion that the Keck brothers are socially unacceptable to her, that she wants nothing from them, not even their approval of her as an attractive girl.

One of the things I find particularly fascinating about your story is that even in the midst of being rebellious teenagers, Ted and Laurel are preoccupied with observing and interpreting the socioeconomic clues that they discover in the physical structures—the homes of their peers, the graveyard, the police station—that surround them. Tell us about how you see Tom and Laurel.

I saw this story as about power and how money creates a hierarchy of power. Objects are the most obvious markers of power in our culture. Ted’s family has money, but is currently falling down on supporting their son. Laurel’s family is more supportive, and not so much based on having money, and this gives her a higher position, too.

The balloon that Randy Keck ultimately chokes to death on is such an unexpected presence in the story. Can you tell us how you came upon the idea of the balloon?

Playing with the balloons (like little kids at a birthday party) while drinking beer in the woods simply escalated into the idea that Randy wouldn’t spit out his balloon when he should have, or wouldn’t know that he shouldn’t have been chewing on a balloon in the first place.

What are you currently working on?

I’m writing another story set in fictional Woodhouse, but I recently began a longer project.

Suzanne Halmi’s story “No More Happy Birthdays” appears in Subtropics 5.