Suzanne Feldman’s award-winning new collection, “The Witch Bottle and Other Stories,” lays bare the complex lives of characters chasing dreams, redemption and belonging. The first two stories introduce us to visual artists scraping by in distressed Baltimore neighborhoods. Twenty-something, restless and driven, these female protagonists desperately want the recognition their work deserves. Opportunities arrive, but not without costs. Characters must consider what they’re willing to sacrifice to get ahead—their artistic ideals? Their self-respect? 

In the collection’s novella, a potter ditches Baltimore for the desert landscapes of New Mexico, trailing past disappointments as well as her mother’s more conventional expectations. Here the first person narrator’s hard-edged perspective rhymes perfectly with the harsh—and often beautiful—setting descriptions. In another story, a Boston teenager finds comfort in a friendship that defies racist taboos in a segregated Mississippi town. And in the title story, a suburban husband and father unravels as he comes to believe his neighbor is a witch.

In each of these narratives, Feldman’s assured voice reveals characters with rich interior lives. Her characters confront setbacks and betrayals with courage and sometimes discover previously untapped strengths. By turns comic and poignant, these powerful stories surprise and delight us. Suzanne graduated from MICA and received a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She taught art in Frederick County Public Schools for nearly thirty years. I caught up with Suzanne to chat about her new book.

Baltimore Fishbowl: One of the features of your writing that I really admire is that your characters’ motivations never feel forced or contrived. This is an elusive trick—how to make characters’ inner lives intimate, surprising and resonant—and one I sometimes struggle with as a writer. Can you talk about the process you follow?

Suzanne Feldman: Writing good characters who are genuinely motivated and have personal lives that extend beyond the page is so hard, and it’s something we all, as writers, strive to do well. With that said, I can tell you that in early drafts of literally everything I write, people say to me, “loved the story, but these characters are flat.” So I’m very aware of this weakness, and I do a lot to compensate. One thing that I’ve found that helps is to write as little as possible and to imply as much as I can about what a character is feeling. It’s a huge accomplishment for me when I hear readers talking about parts of my characters’ personalities that I had no idea were there, and that have been ‘added in’ by the reader’s own experiences. Personally, I call this ‘negative space’ writing, which is a reference to painting and drawing, where the figure is defined not by the drawing or painting of a person or object, but by the shapes and weights of the spaces around them, which really bring that person or object into focus. 

Several stories feature characters who are female artists. These characters tend to be strong, determined, independent and committed to their art—despite the hardships and instabilities that often accompany the lives of artists. If these characters are sometimes set against others who might be inclined to dismiss them, these female characters are also animated by a quiet tenacity. Share some of the inspirations that shaped the way these characters are crafted.  

Being an artist, in any artistic field, is like asking for criticism from both people who know a lot about what you’re trying to do, and from people who have no clue. I know, and I’m sure you do too, that putting your art, or writing out there in the public eye is like walking down the street with a stitch of clothing. People are going to look, and some are going to make comments. A lot of my stories, and my current novel-in-progress, are about developing a thick skin so you can proceed on your artistic journey. My high school art teacher, Mr. Woodward, once told me “All their taste is in their mouth,” and that’s stuck with me all my life. 

BFB: The female artists living in chewed-up neighborhoods in 70s Baltimore really sparkled. Can you describe how your time as a student at MICA in Baltimore and your work as a visual artist informed some of these stories? 

SF: I was very lucky to have been accepted at MICA, and I loved it there. I’d come from UMBC where I thought I was going to be an archaeologist, but that did not come to pass. Instead I decided to enter the highly lucrative field of Fine Arts. And after I discovered that I wasn’t as good a painter as many, many, many other students there, I realized that my true direction was writing (even more lucrative!) when I took a class with Andrei Codrescu. I was in my early twenties, and almost everything that happened in my life at that point had an enormous impact on me—as it happens when one is in one’s early twenties—but now that I’m retired from almost thirty years of teaching art in high school, it’s interesting to look back and see how the directions I took in life really started back there, in art school. An art degree isn’t for everyone, obviously, but going to MICA freed my mind and opened my eyes. 

BFB: These same stories also lightly satirize both the patriarchy and the pretensions of Baltimore’s 1970s art world. You capture some of competitiveness and the indignities artists endure as they jockey to get their work noticed. What was the Baltimore art world like during this time?  

I can’t really tell you what the ‘art for sale’ world was like back then, as I never sold anything, and I didn’t exhibit. But what I can tell you was that I discovered my love for Baltimore, for Baltimoreans, the museums, the universities, the incredible thriving arts community, and the vast array of writers. 

BFB: The title story—“The Witch Bottle”—is about a man who begins to suspect that his neighbor is a witch. It can feel—hilariously—like a man having an argument with himself, as the character’s delusions, doubts and paranoia begin to get the best of him. The story also successfully uses a second person point-of-view. Can you talk about building a story around an absurdist premise?

SF: That story kind of built itself. I had done a Google search on Witch Bottles for some reason, and the story came out of that like a blurt. I was playing around with 2nd person, and it’s so rare to find a story that works written from that POV, I didn’t think it would go anywhere. But Richard Peabody (Gargoyle Magazine) liked it enough to nominate it for a Pushcart. 

BFB: Some of the setting descriptions in your stories are breathtakingly vivid. In particular, the desert landscapes depicted in the novella “Goat Island” really showcase your expert powers of description. How do you see setting details functioning in your work? 

SF: Unlike writing characters, describing things is easy for me—a picture, for me, is worth a lot of words, and I really like to describe things as briefly but as deeply, and as relevantly, as possible. Goat Island is set in the southern part of New Mexico where my mother-in-law used to live (she’s now in Indiana). I would fly there with my wife, and as we drove south from Albuquerque, the things we would see on the highway would just get stranger and stranger. Once we were driving through a flash flood (IN THE DESERT). Once we were behind an enormous Winnebago-type camper and its rolled-up awning came off in the wind and flapped across six lanes of traffic like a wounded pterodactyl. Roadrunners cross the highway and do not get hit because they’re faster than cars and they know it. New Mexico is just one surreal scene after another. I couldn’t not write about it, because it was so weird and compelling. 

BFB: The Witch Bottle and Other Stories is your sixth book of fiction. Can you share some of the secrets to your productivity?  

SF: I treat writing as a job. Now that I’m retired, I get to work around 10 in the morning and work until about 2. 

BFB: Witch Bottle and Other Stories won this year’s Washington Writers’ Publishing House award for fiction. What has winning this award been like?

SF: I feel so fortunate to have won. I was also lucky enough to get a nice grant from the Maryland Stae Arts Council on almost the same day, so I feel super-vindicated as a writer this year! I’ve met so many great people at WWPH, and of course, to be in the company of other writers and to be able to build community and network is wonderful.

**

The Baltimore launch for The Witch Bottle and Other Stories will be held on October 13, at 7pm at The Ivy Bookshop.