The Fall Of Lisa Bellow with Susan Perebo

With a delivery both straightforward and dynamic, author Susan Perabo read the second chapter of her latest book The Fall of Lisa Bellow to a rapt audience in Danforth Conference Room last Monday. A Professor of English and Writer in Residence at Dickinson College, a small liberal arts college about a three-hour drive away in Carlisle, PA, Perabo has published numerous works of fiction over her career, in both literary magazines and as four books. The Fall of Lisa Bellow is her second novel, and her other two published books are short story collections.

Prior to her reading in Danforth, Perabo visited an introductory fiction course where she talked to students about her craft, her writing process, and her experience as an author. In her introduction to the students in the course, Perabo mentioned her surprising evolution into being the author she is today. She was initially interested in film, and in the course of studying film at college took a writing course to help with her screenplay skills. From then on it became a passion, and she eventually went on to get her MFA.

Her work, particularly her short story work, seems a little at odds with her confident, no-nonsense demeanor. Her work in Why They Run the Way they
, a recent short story collection, explores deeply emotional themes of infidelity, loneliness, and coming to terms with a life one might not have envisioned for oneself. Her characters are always complex, and a bit acerbic, and their emotional lives seem to pop off the page. Perabo said it herself that she wouldn’t define herself as an “emotional person,” or a person who wears their heart on their sleeve. This contrast between her more stoic public persona and the intimate and vulnerable character portrayal in her writing makes reading these works all the more fascinating.

Her newest novel seems to continue her thoughtful and emotional examination of her characters’ lives and ways of thinking. The Fall of Lisa Bellow follows a middle-school aged girl Meredith and her mother Claire as they recover from the abduction of Lisa Bellow, a classmate of Meredith’s who was kidnapped in front of Meredith in a sandwich shop. Due to the use of these two protagonists, the book is as much about Meredith’s process of coping with the tragedy and her coming-of-age story wherein the horrific event of the abduction features so prominently as it is a thoughtful rendering of a mother who is trying to navigate the process of supporting her daughter through a life so completely altered by something out of her control.

The chapter she read to the audience on Monday — an audience made up of English professors, students, and other interested parties — mapped the inner dialogue and thought progression of Claire. In the chapter, Claire is thinking back to when Meredith’s brother Evan was being bullied in elementary school, and how angry and overwhelmed it made Claire feel. How does Claire handle it when her children encounter adversity? What are her instincts? How does she cope with the challenges facing her offspring?

The chapter essentially took place solely in Claire’s head. She feels the urge to curse at the students who called her son a “porker,” despite Evan’s assurances that he’s fine. She demonstrates restraint, but it is not without significant effort. The chapter ends with a scene where Claire has her son’s bully as a dental patient, and causes him unnecessary and profound pain during a superfluous dental examination. The scene made me viscerally uncomfortable, a sentiment shared by audience members during the question and answer portion of the event after the conclusion of the chapter.

When asked about her use of individuals from her life as a basis for fictional characters, Perabo stated that no person on the page was a representation of someone she knew, and that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to do justice to a living individual through a fictionalized account. However, she mentioned, she remembers feeling intense anger and confusion when her children faced undeserved nastiness in school. While she never went to the lengths that Claire did, in developing the character of Claire Perabo tried to imagine what type of person would actually act on her feelings of frustration with a stranger’s child. Thus the dentist section was born. In imagining what sort of person might have the opportunity to lash back out to a young offender, she fell upon dentistry as this sort of opportunity for her character.

During the question part of the afternoon, Perabo talked further about her writing process, such as having an ending in mind prior to beginning, or at least close to the beginning of a narrative, as well as her first published piece, and her editing process. Unlike some fiction writers, Perabo does very little research, and instead likes to get the story on the page, and then during revisions, fill in the vague depictions with accurate descriptions and terminology. Though of course an endlessly challenging endeavor, Perabo’s visceral, thoughtful, and introspective narratives seem to demonstrate a more clinical process than an overwhelmingly emotional one.

When thinking about flighty and emotionally unstable authors of fame and fortune, getting to see Perabo’s genius coming from a place of intense thoughtfulness and non-neuroticism was a privilege.