Interview with Susan Zurenda, Author of Bells for Eli, A Novel
The point-of-view is something I believe writers would enjoy debating. How did you settle on this narrator? Why not tell it from Eli’s perspective? Did you experiment with different points-of-view or was this something you were firm about from the beginning?
I did debate whether to tell the story from a first person narrator’s perspective or third person limited, but I always knew the story would come from Delia’s heart and mind. After experimenting a bit with both points of view, I decided on first person because it was more intimate, and I wanted the reader to feel close to Delia. Keeping readers out of Eli’s head was a given because Eli is a child and later a young man who not only keeps his feelings to himself, but tries not to examine his own feelings. One of the tragic consequences of Eli’s childhood trauma is his need to escape his feelings by any means possible. Also, Eli is stoic by nature, so instead of knowing any specifics about the physical and emotional pain Eli endures, the reader feels Eli’s pain through Delia. To have the story come from Eli’s point of view would have defeated some of my main purpose for the character.
I couldn’t help but notice that Eli’s name is also found in Delia’s name. It made me think about William Shakespeare’s famous quote: “What’s in a name!” I assume this was not accidental. What is the significance behind your choice in these character’s names?
I chose the name Ellison to connote Southern aristocracy. Ellison is often a surname, and Southerners are crazy about naming their children for last names reminiscent of a family line. I gave him the nickname Eli because Ellison seemed too heavy a name for a child; plus, Southern children often have nicknames. The name Adeline has a lovely old-fashioned charm, and traditional Southern parents often choose “old” names. I learned the name Adeline suggests a desire for love and companionship as well as a penchant for adventure. My character Adeline fits this description. I gave her the nickname Delia for the same reason I gave Eli his nickname. What I did not consciously realize when I created these names is that the name Eli is literally inside the name Delia. A close friend with whom I taught English for many years asked me about the connection after she read my early manuscript. She thought I had created the names on purpose to fit together, but I did not. Thus, I consider the names Eli and Delia to be an excellent example of how a writer’s subconscious works!
Do you think the bells, especially ones specifically pointing to a certain chime or song, create a pseudo soundtrack to Bells For Eli?
I played the piano for many years and started college as a music major, graduating from college with music as my minor. Maybe for this reason I wanted Eli to be a musician. Who knows? At any rate, he is a talented musician with a particular love for percussion instruments, especially bells. There’s a lot of music in Bells for Eli, and I like your idea of considering all the pieces in the novel as a playlist that helps to define both Eli’s and Delia’s characters. Whether it be “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin lifting Eli into a sense of peace or “Love Can Make You Happy” by Mercy causing Delia’s heart to ache for her cousin, music underlies feelings and circumstances in Bells for Eli.
Was there anything symbolically you would like to add about your use of bells? Or, John Donne’s poetry that maybe readers haven’t picked up on?
Bells have many meanings in the novel, both literal and symbolic. I’ll name a couple as a teaser, but I don’t want to take anything away from the reader’s own satisfaction in discovering how bells enrich the novel.
As bells are said to herald the arrival of a supernatural power or spirit, to be the voice of the sound of revelations, I hope bells provide imagery to deepen the strong mystical/spiritual element in the novel. Bells often announce momentous occasions, and Eli, with his adventurous and risk-taking nature, is always making an “announcement” of himself in adolescence.
I’d like to leave the connection of John Donne’s bells in his beautiful poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to situations in Bells for Eli for readers to experience at the end of the novel.
Is the town of Green Branch and Magnolia Manor based upon/by inspired real places?
Green Branch is typical of many small towns in the South in the 1960’s-70’s, but it is not based on a particular town. Much of Green Branch is imagination, but there are definitely bits and pieces of several towns I’ve known incorporated into my fictional setting. For example, the model for the town clock that Eli and Delia climb sits on Main Street in Winnsboro, SC. It is the oldest continually working clock in America. Congress Street, where Eli and Delia live, has an eclectic array of houses built over a number of decades, not unlike an old downtown neighborhood in Spartanburg, SC, where I live. The model for Magnolia Manor is my great-grandparents’ home out in the country in Lancaster, SC, my hometown. This home actually has an old bell alarm tower that I climbed as a child. It’s still standing today.
Will you describe the readers’ reactions to the relationship between Delia and Eli?
I have been deeply touched by readers’ responses to Delia and Eli and their relationship. I can’t tell you how many people have told me their relationship moved them to tears. I love the words a reviewer used recently, saying Delia and Eli’s relationship was treated with “such tenderness and delicacy.” Overall, readers have been tremendously receptive to the love that binds Delia and Eli, and I am grateful that my characters have this effect.
What is next on your agenda? Do you have any current events coming up? Have you started writing anything new?
I had over 50 events scheduled among 8 states between March-Memorial Day, most of which were postponed or cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Slowly, I’m starting to do live events again, small or private ones with proper precautions in a controlled environment. I have a dozen or so events coming up from August-October. But people are still cautious, as they should be, as I am.
I have begun writing a second novel which doesn’t even have a working title yet. I’m about three chapters in. The story requires three points of view, and I’ve got to see if I’m up to the challenge of keeping the threads from each viewpoint both connected and separated. These three main characters are a high school English teacher, a privileged, brilliant Caucasian teenage boy, and an impoverished, equally smart (but without the boy’s educational advantages) biracial teenage girl. We’ll see where it goes!
TO CONTACT SUSAN ZURENDA: firstname.lastname@example.org
More about Susan Zurenda:
After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice). Since 2018, she has published six stories in literary magazines. For future events and to learn more about Susan Zurenda, please visit: www.susanzurenda.com.
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