Susan Taylor Chehak

Susan Taylor Chehak is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of several novels, including The Great Disappointment, Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her most recent publications include a collection of short stories, It's not About the Dog; a new novel, The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci; and a work of nonfiction, What Happened to Paula: The Anatomy of a True Crime.

Susan's other ongoing projects include All The Lost Girls, a website devoted to exploring the lost girl archetype and the grip  ...See more >


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"An acerbic, stirring collection from a master of the craft."

Kirkus Reviews


AWARDS, PRESS & INTERESTS

Edgar Award Nominee, 1989: THE STORY OF ANNIE D.

Hammett Award Nominee, 1995: Smithereens


BOOKS REVIEWED BY KIRKUS:

Pub Date:
Page count: 95pp

A collection of short stories centered on the complications of love and the disorientation of grief.

Chehak (It’s Not About the Dog: Stories, 2015, etc.) isn’t cowed by the notion of tackling the most exigent existential issues in this assemblage of 16 tales, all but one previously published, mostly in literary magazines such as The Minnesota Review. Many of them confront the pain of loss. For example, in the first, titular piece, Nessa Lowe, a 60-year-old woman, struggles to get her bearings after her longtime husband abandons her for a younger woman—a fate that’s no less humiliating for being clichéd. Nessa contributes to her own solitude by alienating her other family members, as she’s an ungovernable alcoholic, inclined to mercurial acts of violence. Similarly, in “Helium,” Maudie’s spiritual desolation after the death of her husband reduces her to finding companionship in an artificial boy fashioned from balloons. As is characteristic of Chehak’s writing, the story manages to seamlessly weave despair with morbidly outlandish humor, as characters use the latter as a means to negotiate the former. In “Idiot,” a story that’s less than a page in length, an unnamed protagonist returns to her ex-boyfriend’s place to retrieve a pair of shoes only to hurl them into a lagoon shortly after—an act of self-redemption following a self-betraying submission. The author seems keen on flouting conventions; the story structures aren’t always linear, and many of them feel more like quick, impressionistic portraits of emotional states than they do literary chronicles of events. The concluding piece, “That is This: Resurrection,” resembles narrative verse with its series of short questions and declarative statements: “Is she dead? She is dead.”

Chehak’s prose offers an impressive variety of styles, ranging from long, cascading sentences to linguistic parsimony, from short snapshots to longer, more plot-driven narratives. She has a talent for packing a lifetime of retrospection into one or two sentences, such as these, from “Coxswain”: “We ran through the streets, chanting for justice and an end to the war and peace on earth and love and he held my hand and I threw the rock that smashed the sign. There was darkness then and he kissed me then, he shattered me like glass.” Most of the pieces in this book are driven by character, and even the unnamed figures in them are powerfully drawn, if enigmatic. In “Suffer the Children: Four Quartets,” for instance, readers don’t know much information about Ellen—a woman in search of a new home, away from her mother—or about Mrs. Norton, the grifter posing as a house seller, but the mad desperation of both women is palpable. The author also sensitively juxtaposes personal anxiety with its global iteration; in “Apocalypse, Tonight,” the unnamed protagonist—her anonymity conspicuous in a story brimming with named characters—makes elaborate preparations for a New Year’s Eve party that could possibly include a Y2K catastrophe, but lurking in the background is the impending death of her father.

A poignant assortment of stylistically daring stories.

FICTION & LITERATURE
Pub Date:

Chehak (What Happened To Paula: The Anatomy of a True Crime, 2014, etc.) returns to fiction with a collection of short stories.

A woman hosts her free-spirit sister, who has returned home to deal with a family crisis. Another copes with her husband’s violent death while his mistress, who witnessed it, collects all the sympathy. A husband and wife, both on their second marriage, confront what makes them need to be with someone. In these 17 stories, Chehak delivers a passel of perspectives from the wiser sides of love and death. Her protagonists are largely in the second half of life; they have reached maturity and yet they are no less hungry for understanding. Generally, they do not react to specific problems in their lives but rather to the aggregate problem of life itself. A wonderful sensation of numbness pervades the stories: Readers don’t witness events so much as sift through memories of them. It is not that Chehak’s characters are unreliable; they simply aren’t interested in feeding the reader a straight account. It’s a haunted world of incidental music half heard or imagined, of tragedies witnessed from a distance or not at all. Characters tread through their realistic, complicated inner lives with a fatalistic sense of humor. The prose is a delight of turned-in logic and vernacular philosophy, allowing the occasional halting statement of bleak brilliance. Never predictable, the narratives twist to unforeseen ends: Characters prove to be not as petty (or far more petty) as previously believed. There is an emotional truth to their lives that readers might like to reject but can’t. Despite all the ways men and women dress themselves up, in houses and marriages and careers and middle age, they can’t help but remain self-preserving beasts at heart. The turns these stories take, structurally and emotionally, prove that Chehak is not only a daring literary artisan, but a connoisseur of human frailty.

An acerbic, stirring collection from a master of the craft.

THRILLERS
Pub Date:
ISBN: 0-385-48452-6
Page count: 352pp

A thriller that hoards most of its power for the last chapter and even then is not a happy or attractive reading experience. Chehak wrote 1993’s Dancing on Glass, among others, and here again (like in some Faulkner) one spends a lot of time peering through the murk of excess and outsize words, trying to grasp what’s happened—and why. Rafe Ramsay is surely insane, or at least psycho. We first meet him in Monarch, Oregon, where he kills the foster parents of four-year-old Joliet Anne Ray; kidnaps the girl, and returns to his home in Rampage, Iowa. Then that story fades and the focus switches to the return of Madlen Cramer and her own two children from Los Angeles to her family home in Rampage, where she—ll live with her widower father, Deem Malek, whose wife, Grinnell, killed herself after cuckolding Deem and taking up loose living and barn dancing with almost anyone who asked her. Deem has now married the much younger Ruth, who’s about to deliver their first child. Meanwhile, we also learn that Madlen’s late husband, Haven, with whom she grew up—and with whom she and Rafe swore a blood pact—had lost interest in Madlen, acquired a mistress and a second apartment, and was then killed in a blazing auto accident. We discover, too, that Madlen’s daughter Claire had seen Rafe hanging around the vicinity of their Los Angeles apartment, and—what’s more—that jealous Rafe may have had something to do with Haven’s death. He certainly had a lot to do with the death of Grinnell’s lover, Jack Daggett, whom Rafe had beaten when Jack collapsed from a stroke. After all, Jack had thrown Rafe out of a hayloft when Rafe found Jack making love to Grinnell. And so on, and so on. Pages and pages of fine observation fatally delay any possible whiff of suspense.(Author tour)

THRILLERS
Pub Date:
ISBN: 0-395-60198-3
Page count: 256pp

 A murky, ingrown tale of violence and homosexual attraction by the author of The Story of Annie D. (1989) and Harmony (1990). The story opens with Katherine Von Vechten floating prettily to her death, in 1968, having crashed through a skylight of the country club in Cedar Hill, Iowa, and then it jumps forward 25 years as Katherine's husband Bader returns to Cedar Hill, having learned of the death of Roy Kimbel. Roy who? (Chehak's latest is nothing if not confusing.) Very slowly, it emerges that the two key years are 1919 and 1968. In 1919, a rift occurred between the town's leading families when 15-year-old Wolfgang Von Vechten, disapproving of his mother's remarriage to her dead husband's business partner Horace Craig, shot old Craig to death and then hanged himself. The surviving Craig sent the surviving Van Vechtens packing. Forward to 1968. Wolfgang's nephew Bader, both his parents dead in a car crash, shows up in Cedar Hill, a presentable college graduate. Has he come to practice law, sell real estate? Fat chance. Bader's mission is to write a book about Wolfgang's crime, but he's distracted by the delectable Katherine Craig, whom he marries in short order, though her charms have already paled beside those of 15-year-old Lee Kimbel, son of Bader's blue-collar neighbor Roy. (Curiously, the Kimbels, a thoroughly depressing bunch, get far more attention than the Craigs.) It is here that Katherine, suspecting she has a rival, sails through the skylight; soon after, Lee, protecting Bader from Katherine's old man Archie, shoots him with the exact same shotgun Wolfgang used, then kills himself. Before leaving town, Bader confesses his love for Lee to Roy and is beaten to a pulp by the outraged father. ClichÇ-ridden nonsense.

MYSTERY & CRIME
Pub Date:
ISBN: 395-51013-9

Narrated by an aging widow in the kitchen-table idiom of rural Nebraska, a quietly confiding first novel about domestic tragedies and village violence, of women and young men bucking destiny, of lingering love, death and dalliance. Great-granddaughter of a 1859 homesteader, "Annie D."--so nicknamed after her peaceful if passionless marriage to newly emigrated German Dr. Diettermann--was the daughter of good-hearted, plodding parents Harley and Mona, who taught her "airs and graces" and Latin. (latin saws announce each chapter.) Mona, hating farm life, was determined that her daughter would not be "another poor farm girl up to her knees in mud and muck." The good Dr. Diettermann promised liberation, and when Annie was six months pregnant, Mona left--forever--her task accomplished. Annie is content with the doctor and adores their two sons, Gunar and Bo. Meanwhile, she observes the blooming loves and miseries of her neighbors. There's her "friend" Phoebe, who is such a "snob and crosspatch" that Annie doesn't really mind seeing her suffer, as Phoebe does before her odd death. There's Phoebe's daughter Lacey, who comes into town in time for her hated mother's funeral, and who had double-crossed Phoebe by refusing to give up her illegitimate son by Casey Boots. Casey's the offspring of the abused, deserted, but resilient Mrs. Boots, whose doomed daughter Neva Jolene won't stay long with any man. But with sudden and terrible violence--both in the town and earlier, overseas--Annie D., now a widow, will bear the full brunt of loss, and make, finally, a terrible sacrifice. A plethora of miseries and meaningless deaths, as well as oases of happiness, give a certain space and warmth in the colloquial, unrushed narration.

ADDITIONAL WORKS AVAILABLE:

HARMONY
Literary, Psychological Suspense

This powerful novel of love and adultery recounts the story of Clodine Wheeler and the small Midwestern town where she was born and raised. As Clodine tells of her upbringing, courtship, and marriage, her narrative circles ever closer to the troubling secret and shocking death that stand at its center. It is a tale of passion and domestic violence – and their incalculable consequences. No one knows exactly when Lilly Duke, wife of a convicted killer, arrived to seek refuge in a cabin on the shore of Harmony Lake, but her arrival changes Clodine's life forever. At first Lilly finds no friends except Clodine – and Clodine's wayward husband, Galen. But after her child's body is found drifting on the lake, the town crowds to Lilly's aid. Still, no one can explain what Lilly was doing when her baby crept out of the cabin. The answer to this question leads to the shattering climax of this unforgettable novel. "Haunting . . . Clodine Wheeler is the bemused narrator who strings together brilliant beads of descriptive phrases as she sorts through her memories . . . Chehak skillfully depicts small-town meanness and ironic generosity . . . . Her mesmerizing tale has classic resonances." – Publishers Weekly

Published:
ISBN: 0996040811
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SMITHEREENS
Suspense, Crime, Coming of Age, Literary

Los Angeles Times Bestseller. International Association of Crime Writers Hammett Prize Nominee. "Vivid [and] intense SMITHEREENS has brooding, ominous atmosphere, sexual awakening, loss of innocence, murder. It could be described as a gothic coming-of-age novel, but it's far too good to lend itself to any label. Susan Taylor Chehak is a meticulous writer, an evocative stylist whose mastery is evident on every page." —The Boston Globe Set in the heartland of America, this novel pairs two unlikely friends in a dark tale of seduction and murder. It is May Caldwell's sixteenth summer, and life couldn't be more dull in Linwood, Iowa. Vaguely suicidal and haunted by half-remembered scenes from her early childhood, May is a girl waiting for her life to happen. And happen it does with the unexpected arrival of Frances Anne Crane, a.k.a. Frankie, a girl with too much past and nothing to lose. Together they seduce an older man as Frankie awakens all that May has been holding inside: the mystery of her uncle Brodie's illicit past, the painful truth of her grandparents' slow dissolutions, and her own emerging sexuality. Where Frankie leads, May follows, and what's left is a murder no one can pin, a family's buried past resurfaced in a wild night of mayhem, and May's safe world blown to smithereens in this unforgettable of betrayal and desire.

Published:
ISBN: 0996040846
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THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT: A CONFESSION
Literary, Dark Humor, Coming of Age, Romance

"How about if, for now, we skip the once upon a time? That, and who she was and where she was born, how she grew up with her mom (accountant) and her dad (actuary) in a world of numbers and dates and formulas and facts with one living sister (Janet, seven years older) and one dead brother (Horace, the infamous unborn twin) in a smallish brick house in Nowhere, New York, with trees in the yard (maple and oak) and bushes by the windows (juniper) and flowers in the garden (roses, lilies, irises) and one of those quilted covers over the toaster that matched the oven mitts above the stove—just to give you a feeling for Mrs. Mifflin and her sense of style (toilet seat covers, refrigerator magnets, pastel sweater sets, sensible shoes). How about instead we go right to the point where she found herself at the end of this story, all out of options with nowhere to turn because she'd already done everything that she could think to do to put things right again when they had all gone so terribly, and to her mind tragically, wrong? Which was: holed up in the English Department offices on the third floor of Stanley Hall at Springer College in Brevity, Iowa—Veritas Odit Moras—with the triple loop of a fully loaded Ping-Pong ball bomb collar around her neck like a string of oversized pearls on a little girl playing pretend, which is pretty much what she was. Except that this was not a game, it was real. One flick of the Bic and ka-boom. What else do you want to know?..."

Published:
ISBN: 0996040838
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THE MINOR APOCALYPSE OF MEENA KREJCI
Literary, Contemporary Women, Psychological Suspense

"It begins like a storm—with that pensive heavy stillness of dead air pressing in, with a soft rustle of the wind just barely stirring in the trees, a bruising over of the summer sky, a somber gray and yellow horizon glittery with lightning, bloated full of thunder, swept by sheets of rain—it begins when old man Krejci bumps his head. And then—like that same storm spent, blown past to leave the ground and the air around feeling new and fresh and washed crisp clean—the next morning when Meena peeks into her father's sun-spilled bedroom to find that he has not moved, but is still lying on the bed with his head flat back on the pillow, in just exactly the same way she left him there eight hours before, everything will be changed..." It begins when Meena Krejci, not sure what to do and fearing she'll be blamed for the injuries that have caused her father's death, panics and takes flight, driving west across Nebraska and into Colorado, where she encounters an apocalypse-predicting madman, his captive sister—the troubled young woman in whose release Meena will create a violent version of rebirth for herself—and a bear. Told through alternating narratives—a portrayal of the last few days of Meena's life and an account of the events in the past that have brought her to where she is now—this is the story of a woman running away from home for the first time and the strong, nearly universal desire to shed one's identity to become somebody else.

Published:
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