‘The Liability of Love,’ the third novel by West Hartford resident Susan Schoenberger, was published in July.
By Ronni Newton
Susan Schoenberger’s latest novel was seven years in the making, but as the gripping story unfolded and evolved along with the state of society, it became even more relevant than ever.
“The Liability of Love” may be set 40-ish years ago, but it’s certainly a story for today.
The novel features Margaret Carlyle, an intelligent but naïve young woman who heads to Trinity College in 1979, shortly after the death of her beloved mother. On her very first date she is assaulted by a “big man on campus,” a charismatic future movie star. The resulting trauma, the secrets she keeps, her ability to form relationships with men, and the overall course of Margaret’s life are profoundly impacted. The novel explores unrequited love, loss, survival, feminism, and class privilege.
The characters, the familiar setting
“My characters kind of emerge as I’m writing,” Schoenberger said.
They’re multi-faceted, and they’re not always who you might expect them to be.
Margaret’s husband, Douglas, and the other primary main male character, Fitz, both have body issues, uncommon for male characters.
“Some of the characters came to me fully-formed,” she said, Fitz being one of them. She’s always had many close male friends, and said Fitz is a compilation of many of them.
Elmwood neighbors Ollie and Tiffany also came to her mind as complete characters, and with a laugh she said they were probably slight exaggerations of some of the people who attended her high school in New Windsor, NY.
She won’t name a favorite character. “That’s like asking who is your favorite child,” she said, but did admit “Fitz is probably the one I’m most proud of.”
Area residents will recognize many of the scenes in the book.
Schoenberger didn’t have a street in mind for the Elmwood ranch that Margaret and Douglas inhabit, but said when she and her husband moved to West Hartford in the mid 1990s, they looked at many starter homes that are similar to the setting she created.
While Trinity College is real, she takes some fictional license with the geography of West Hartford, and the insurance company Fitz works for is completely imagined.
Schoenberger has three adult children, two of whom are daughters. While it’s not ancient history, for them reading about what life for women in the late 1970 and early 1980s, the way it appears in “The Liability of Love,” is like reading historical fiction – and it’s very different from how they experience the world.
She’s made her attitude clear to her children all along.
“I’m a strong feminist,” she said. “I think [my kids] were aware all along that women had a difficult road ahead.”
Authors, even of fiction, tend to write about what they know – so having a novel set in Hartford and West Hartford is not surprising, because Schoenberger has lived in West Hartford for more than 20 years. But the pivotal event in Margaret’s life is also something with which she’s had first-hand experience.
Unlike her character Margaret’s attacker, “It was a stranger,” Schoenberger said. “I was very fortunate I was never raped,” she said, yet an incident that happened decades ago was something she was unable to fully process at the time, and one that haunted her and influenced her life for years.
Back in the 1980s, when Schoenberger was a rookie reporter working for The Day in New London, she fought off a man who attacked her in the parking lot as she was leaving work late one the evening. It was the night before the space shuttle Challenger exploded, and that tragedy overshadowed everything else that was going on – especially for someone who worked in the news business – so she pushed the attack to the back of her mind.
But although she rarely talked about it, the incident profoundly affected her own life, where she chose to live, the hours she worked. “It’s a motivating factor for so many decisions you don’t even realize you’re making.”
The “#MeToo” movement didn’t even exist when Schoenberger began writing “The Liability of Love” in 2014, and like the world view, the novel evolved.
“I wrote an entire version that ended very differently,” she said. Then #MeToo began unfolding in 2017-2018, and the storyline began to change. There were scenes that she completely delted, and others that ultimately made more sense to include.
Assault is just one of the things that happens to Margaret, but bringing that to the forefront made “The Liability of Love” a stronger book, Schoenberger said. “It’s about the things we push aside.”
In the earlier iterations, Margaret’s husband Douglas was the main character. Based on advice from her agent and others who read the manuscript, the focus shifted.
Schoenberger has had the same agent since 2007, when she began working on her first book, “A Watershed Year.”
“She’s brutally honest but I trust her instincts,” Schoenberger said.
“I try not think about all the stuff on the cutting room floor,” she said. Sometimes she will read entire books as background for a character who never even makes it into a book.
Without giving away the ending, Schoenberger said she believes readers will leave the story at the right time.
“It’s tough, it’s one of the toughest things because you want to have a resolution but leave people with an ability to imagine what happens next,” she said of coming up with the right ending to a story.
Deciding how to go approach that in her writing is something Schoenberger said has evolved from doing a lot of reading.
The process of releasing a book in 2021 is dramatically different than it was in 2014, when Schoenberger’s last novel was published, in part because of the pandemic, but also because of social media.
To promote “The Liability of Love,” she’s done Zoom talks, and has been building her social media presence, particularly on Instagram (@schoenwriter). She did a reading outdoors in early August at Books on Pratt in Hartford, and has been writing a newsletter. For more information, visit her website, susanschoenberger.com.
“The Liability of Love” is Schoenberger’s third novel. “A Watershed Year” was published in 2011 (re-released by Amazon in 2013) and “The Virtues of Oxygen” was published in 2014.
Schoenberger is a native of New Windsor, NY, and earned a degree in English literature (with honors) from Dartmouth College in 1984. She spent years in various roles with newspapers, including The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), The Baltimore Sun, and The Hartford Courant, and is currently Director of Communications at Hartford Seminary.
She lives in West Hartford with her husband, Kevin Wyman. They have three adult children and a rescue dog named Leo.
Schoenberger does most of her writing early in the morning, before work, and on weekends.
“The Liability of Love” was released in July 2021, and is published by She Writes Press, a company that works exclusively with female authors.
Schoenberger is thrilled that it’s received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews: “In matter-of-fact prose studded with pithy observational gems. . . the various players can only get what they deserve by speaking their own truths. A keenly observed, compassionate, and absorbing work.”
Schoenberger said “The Liability of Love” is great “book club fiction,” and while she anticipates the audience will continue to be heavily skewed to females (who buy 80% of fiction, she said), she would love to attract male readers as well.
“The one thing that really matters to me is hearing from readers,” Schoeberger said. “That’s why I write.
Novel number four is already a work in progress. “I know that it’s probably going to change,” she said, but as of now it’s about a hyperpolyglot – someone who is able to speak and write in many languages. That’s not something Schoenberger herself has mastered, but she was fascinated when she read a book about it.
For more information about Schoenberger, including details about all of her writing, visit her website.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of West Hartford LIFE.
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