Campus News

Suzanne Overstreet Discusses Debut Novel

September 20, 2016

Amanda Nagy

Suzanne Overstreet is seated in a room with unfinished walls
Suzanne Overstreet sits in the space where she did most of her writing, which used to be a playhouse for her kids.
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

As the creative writing program coordinator, Suzanne Sanders Overstreet has been the backbone to the program’s faculty and students for 14 of her 28 years as an Oberlin employee. Now, she’s a published novelist.

Overstreet’s book, Wait for Me (eLectio Publishing), was released August 16. The work is a historical fiction based on true family events and the letters her father wrote to her mother while he was deployed in the army during WWII.

In July 1942, Dorothy Carlin says goodbye to her boyfriend Clyde Justin as he leaves for boot camp. Through a twist of fate, she meets Duane Sanders. Duane’s family has been through many challenges and hardships during their lifetime, but somehow they always manage to look forward without bitterness. The country at the time is immersed in the war and doing their part to defeat the enemies and bring home their sons and daughters.

“The book is about core family values and a family that went through several hardships—some of which I didn’t know about, my relatives didn’t know about either, or weren’t fully aware. It was very emotional for me to find out the actual truth,” Overstreet explains.

Her family is rooted in Lorain County. Her mother, a long-time Oberlin College employee, was originally from Elyria and moved to Oberlin in the eighth grade. Her father was born in LaGrange and moved to Oberlin when he was a very young boy. Both of her parents graduated from Oberlin High School, as did the other major character in the book, her father’s best friend Clyde Justin. Overstreet also was raised in Oberlin and graduated from OHS in 1974.

In addition to her full-time job, she and her husband manage a grain farm in Grafton. She has seven children ranging in age from 37 to 19.

She says the initial idea for the book started when her father died about 17 years ago, and her youngest son was just a toddler. “It concerned me that he would not remember his grandfather. So I started thinking that I should put down in writing some of the stories he told. That simmered for a while, then I learned that my mother kept some of the letters my father wrote to her during WWII. After reading those, I decided I wanted to write a story based off of that.”

As the book’s title suggests, Duane Sanders asks her mother to wait for him during the three-plus years he was stationed around the world: first in Iran, transporting supplies for the allies, then in Germany and France, and finally in Okinawa at the war’s end.

“Reading those letters, I could feel my father’s emotions about how much he missed home, how he would appreciate simple things like eating on a regular plate and not out of a can. It was helpful to be reminded how fortunate we are. We have FaceTime and new technology, but they had to wait for the letters. Sometimes I think we take that for granted.”

The book took about 4 ½ years to complete. “People tell me that’s an acceptable amount of time to do a book, but for me it felt like I was never going to complete it,” Overstreet says. “One of my biggest difficulties was carving out the time to work on it. I felt frustrated when I wanted to move forward with the project and really couldn’t. Then, there were surprising times when I thought I wouldn’t have time, and it turned into a block of hours that went well and I would get a lot done.”

In 2007, Overstreet took advantage of her employee benefits by enrolling in some creative writing courses to further develop her craft. When the time was right, she shared her completed manuscript with Oberlin creative writing faculty Sylvia Watanabe and Lynn Powell, as well as Azita Osanloo, a former visiting assistant professor, for editing and advice.

Upon reading the manuscript, Powell says she discovered that Overstreet had devoted herself to a labor of love.

“It's always exciting to get to read what a colleague has been writing in those hours you don't see them,” Powell says. “Suzanne had to do the work of a nonfiction writer by researching and piecing together the unspoken and forgotten history of her family; she had to do the work of a fiction writer by recreating that story as if it were happening right before our eyes. I'm thrilled that Suzanne's moving story is now, beautifully produced, in our hands.”

Overstreet says she wrote the book mostly as a tribute to her parents, but as she started writing the story it became apparent that the book would also memorialize her father’s friend Clyde Justin. She hopes readers come away with a sense of resilience that was particular to a bygone era. “You find out when you look back into history, specifically this story… they may have had issues to deal with and difficult challenges to get through, but they didn’t run away; they didn’t use alcohol, they didn’t do other things to cope. They worked through it, they made the best of it, and they progressed forward.”

Overstreet will read passages from the book during a launch party at 4 p.m. Saturday, September 24, at Mindfair Books.

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