After five books and over a decade of writing, Susan Coll wants to make one thing clear about her fiction: It’s a little bit twisted. “I think a lot of the time my books are packaged so that they look like they’re going to be kind of beachy,” she says, “and then they turn out to be kind of dark.” The unnerving cover of Coll’s newest novel, The Stager, sets it apart from her other books, but it shares the slightly off-kilter depiction of modern suburban life that runs through Coll’s earlier work.
The version of suburbia in The Stager is a particularly bleak one, full of empty subdivisions, neglected pets, and overmedicated residents. The novel’s plot follows a family of three—Bella, a successful businesswoman whose new job is taking them to London, Lars, her depressed, overweight former tennis star husband, and their daughter Elsa—as they struggle to sell their house in the suburbs of D.C. Elsa’s pet rabbit’s penchant for destruction doesn’t help, nor does Lars’ online shopping habit. So the realtor hires a professional stager to make the house more appealing; unfortunately, the stager turns out to share a rather complicated history with Bella.
Coll was inspired by a similar encounter: When trying to sell her own home, she hired a stager who kept insisting that she knew her. She found the experience “of having someone come in and just start passing judgments on the way I had arranged the house” unsettling, but thought the process of trying to create a specific image of a life could provide a rich starting point for a novel.
As she delved deeper into the world of professional staging, and the real estate industry in general, Coll realized that it was a perfect fit for her comedic sensibility. Books on home staging, she says “all tend to use a lot of exclamation points, which I found amusing. It’s a very chirpy industry, the whole real estate business.”
She found the planned developments particularly bizarre. She saw an ad for one such place that promoted it as the place to live for fans of NPR and the New York Times, which, she says, “sounded kind of hellish, actually.” For the novel, she invented an even more extreme example—a development called Unfurlings that was going to have a five-star hotel, a three-thousand-seat concert hall, and communities based around specific interests like literature and foreign policy, until it went into foreclosure.
Coll’s own experience in suburbia was far more prosaic, though no less initially shocking. When, after living in New York, London, and New Delhi, Coll moved to Bethesda, Maryland, it felt more foreign than India ever had. “I didn’t really know what a mortgage was until then,” she admits. Though the regime of carpooling and soccer practices was initially depressing, she soon learned to see the humor in her new life. Better yet, her outsider perspective made her uniquely qualified to chronicle suburban life. She compares herself to a cultural anthropologist or a foreign correspondent—someone who can see her social environment with a fresh eye.
However, Coll is quick to point out that her satire of suburbia is essentially good-natured. “I’m not really making fun of it,” she says. “I think I’m observing it.” The suburbs may have their quirks, but they also provided an “idyllic” setting for her kids to grow up in.
Coll has since returned to the city—she lives in Washington and works as the Events and Programs Director at Politics & Prose Bookstore. She loves her job, even though working on the business side of a bookstore, and seeing just how many books get published and how many of those are ignored, can be dispiriting. “Counterintuitively,” she says, “that just makes me want to write anyway, because I know that it’s not really about the numbers.”
Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in New York. You can find her on Twitter.