Popular novelist and longtime Port resident Susan Isaacs discussed her latest book, Past Perfect in a presentation at Landmark on Main Street and in a telephone interview with the Port News. Somewhat different from much of Isaacs' past work, the novel features Katie Schottland, a Manhattan screenwriter for a TV espionage show. Fifteen years earlier, Katie had worked for the CIA in a job she loved and was abruptly and mysteriously fired. Despite her success in the TV world, she hasn't been able to completely get over this incident. A telephone call from a previous colleague sets Katie off on an investigation. In endeavoring to uncover the truth about her own past, she uncovers shocking truths about the intelligence community at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.
The protagonist is an urban professional, as contrasted with some of Isaacs' early novels that featured Long Island suburban housewives, but what virtually all the novelist's heroines have in common is intelligence and gutsiness. In response to our question about how she came to choose this particular plot, Isaacs said, "It was really a combination of many things I was thinking about, from the comfort of family to the botched war in Iraq. One thought leads to another." About the Iraq war, she said, "I saw the analogy with East Germany and breaking down the Berlin wall where the administration was apparently taken by surprise." She commented that, just as with Iraq, "The information was there. It was really more about the 'powers that be' and the people in the agencies wanting to please them and everybody sticking to their own stories." Isaacs added, "This is okay for me to do; everybody knows I'm writing fiction. But it's not a good thing when the government makes decisions this way."
Isaacs discussed the joys and travails of being on the road to promote her book. She said that writers by nature prefer to work in isolation, but "then we're put out on the road to be a living advertisement." Despite the exhaustion of travel, and the inevitable delays out on the tarmac, Isaacs said, "It can be a lot of fun." Among the joys: meeting interesting people, room service, lots of luncheons and dinner and "getting fatter and fatter," and serendipitous experiences like the beautiful picture she happened upon in a store window in a "kind of funky" neighborhood in Baltimore.
During her delightful and witty presentation, Isaacs told the Landmark audience that the most frequent questions people ask is about how she works. She said, "No two of us [writers] do it alike. What is right for me would not be right for someone else." She added that her working mode now is very different from what it was when she wrote her first novel. She said, "Then, I was raising children, and sometimes I could only write four or five pages a week. Now, "I get up every morning, and in the absence of actual writing, I do research." She added that she tries to use a computer with speech recognition. But, in the final analysis, Isaacs said, "It's a job."
It is clear from her discussion that, as with many novelists, her characters are very real to her. She talks with them as she is working out the plot. In answer to one resident's question, she said that she does not have trouble letting the characters go after the book is out. In response to another query, she said that she does not base her characters on family members or friends or on other people whom she knows. She said, "I have stayed away from using the life of others. It all comes out of my own background."
She also talked about the extensive research that she had to do for this novel. Critical to the novel was getting background on the CIA, both by reading and in person. They were surprisingly welcoming. "I spent a lovely day at the Bronx Zoo with this nice man [from the CIA]," she said. She also consulted experts on East Germany and even had to look into the "lingo" of psychotherapy for the character of the protagonist's mother.
Isaacs was born in Brooklyn, and attended Queens College. She began her writing career as an editorial writer for Seventeen Magazine. Past Perfect is Isaacs' 11th novel. All of her previous novels have been listed on The New York Times bestseller list. They include Compromising Positions; Shining Through; After All These Years; Red, White and Blue; and Any Place I Hang My Hat. She also had a stint at writing a screenplay when Compromising Positions was made into a movie. Isaacs discovered that it was not her cup of tea. She said, "That cured me of screenwriting. In a film everybody collaborates, and I don't want to collaborate."
Isaacs has been married to attorney Elkan Abramowitz for almost 40 years. To call him "supportive" would be a cliché and an understatement. He is her "first read" for most if not all of her writing. He sat in the front row with their son Andy, who is also an attorney and is president of Landmark. Both were clearly proud of her accomplishments. The couple also has a daughter who teaches at the University of Maryland. Isaacs and Abramowitz have lived in Port for about 35 years. She said, "I love it here." In response to our query, she named some of the things she loves best about our community: the diversity (although, she said, "We didn't call it that then"), the combination of sophistication and informality, the great public schools, and the advantages of living in what she termed "a medium-sized town." "I'm always running into people that I know," she said, "and when my daughter visits, she spends a lot of time with her high school friends." Isaac summed it up, "It's a happy place to be."
Isaacs is already working on her next book, which is a mystery novel about a young mother who is a flower designer. She said, "I have already been in touch with Joan Smith [from local florist Branching Out] to arrange to hang out there and do some research."
After the event, which was sponsored by Angela and Scott Jagger and co-sponsored by Dolphin Book Shop and the Port Washington Public Library, Susan Isaacs stayed on to sign books for her many local fans.