Isaacs, the author of fourteen novels, says the library was “my Versailles, the palace of excess. So many books!”
All she ever wanted from a library “was permission to enter and to leave with my arms full of books. To create my own education, to explore the universe on my own. I got precisely what I wanted. Even now, I am filled with gratitude.”
The author uses libraries today to search for a novel she may have missed and to do her research, and she appreciates the value only librarians can offer. As she explains, “Sure, it’s easy to Google ‘Russian mob in US,’ but then you get the answers—too many, and how do you weigh their value? When there’s an obscure journal cited or simply too much information to pursue, I depend on the wisdom of librarians. They know where and how to look.”
Her latest book, which comes out in October, is inspired by the push-pull between adventure and secure ordinariness. It tells the story of a woman who is retired from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, ostensibly enjoying normality in the suburbs with her family. While working as a book scout for contemporary Arabic literature and lunching with a freelancers group, she spots something “off ” and sets out to investigate it.
Isaacs says that her female protagonists have always fought to be strong in the face of adversity. Now that she’s writing a mystery series, she wanted her investigator, Corie Geller, to be “multifaceted enough to hold the reader’s interest from book to book.” Isaacs’ goal as an author? “I want to write the book I most desperately want to read.” She wishes she could write like Fran Lebowitz and is delighted by David Sedaris, Kate Atkinson, Edmund Crispin, Nora Ephron, and Mark Twain. “I like writers who have a delicious sense of the absurd but who are aware of the darker side of life,” she says.
Writing, she believes, “is an idiosyncratic act, like making chicken soup or making love. No two individuals do it quite the same way.” As an author, she is her own boss and writes for two to three hours every morning, followed by afternoons of editing. “If I viewed being a novelist as a calling rather than as work, if I waited for a muse to whisper in my ear, I would not be a novelist,” she maintains. “At best I would be a chapterist.”
She advises would-be authors who already have a job to make their writing their second or third job and set regular hours—even if it’s only three hours every Sunday afternoon. Thinking about her process and what motivates her, Isaacs says “it helps not to think of my work as a choice. It’s a job that I have to go to, and then I have the rest of my day to do what I want to.”
She has been compared to Jane Austen, for whom she has boundless admiration. “I like to think that right under the tablet the Statue of Liberty holds is a copy of Emma.” Reading led her to write her first novel and gave her an awareness that not only could she write, but she really wanted to do so. She jokes that she was having some dental work done when a character came into her head—a housewife who pushes to investigate a local murder—and so the choice of victim, a local periodontist, was easy.
The past president of Mystery Writers of America and the current chairperson of the board of Poets & Writers, she writes in many genres and explains that her main characters dictate the form of each book. For Takes One to Know One, she says protagonist Corie Geller asked for a whodunit/ thriller. Her favorite genre is the crime novel as she likes how the “world is set off-kilter by a violent act and how the scales of justice are righted by the detective.”
Isaacs believes reading should transport you into another world, as her current reads do: “Right now I’m reading Kate Atkinson’s mystery Big Sky and Mark Galeotti’s book The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia. With both, I’m taken out of my life on Long Island and into two very different universes.”
After more than a dozen books, she realizes that knowing who you are is essential. “Figure out who you are and don’t let other people define you. I’m still working on that,” she explains.
Photo of Susan Isaacs by Linda Nutter.