Monday, June 29, 2015

Finding the Words: in Memory of Susan Jeffers

Twin Cities, MN - June 2015

Stepping away from characters and even my usual author posts today to honor the friend who first encouraged me to write The Beat on Ruby’s Street. I met Susan Jeffers at a party in New York when we had both come to the city to be actors. Someone introduced her and when she stepped forward, I thought immediately of a young Jane Alexander; a city-sophisticate with a smoky-dark voice, long chestnut hair and brown eyes.

Little did I know she was from Springfield, Illinois, a much tinier town than I was from (Englewood Cliffs, NJ by way of Brooklyn). It didn’t take us long to become deeply enmeshed in a friendship cemented by our mutual passions for theater, acting and writing.

Anyone who knew her will tell you how much Susan loved words and how important it was to her to find the right one, whether she was writing, editing or just sitting around talking story with you. Talking story was one of our favorite things to do because you could gossip endlessly about people and get away with it. That was because the people you were talking about weren’t real.

Ruby popped into my head for a number of reasons I’ve explained elsewhere—on my website and in this post. But when I talked to Susan about it, Ruby came alive in ways she hadn’t before. In fact, Susan originally talked about writing it with me, but then realized her work as an editor at Scholastic and other projects would make that impossible. “Besides,” she said, “Ruby is really your baby.” And I knew she was right.

She did edit the original manuscript with her usual thorough attention to detail, researching whether common law marriages were legal in New York (in fact they aren’t) and other issues that would be likely to trip me up with my readers. She needled me gently when she felt plot points weren’t working, and praised me when they were. And she made sure, always, that I was able to say what I wanted to say with clarity, while holding fast to my vision and Ruby’s voice. 

Susan was also a superb actor and writer. She wrote the first and only radio play that I was featured in with another old friend, Jorie Latham, so I got to play the lead role of “Cara Standard” and hear the play broadcast on WBAI in New York. She was there when my play A Body of Water opened off Broadway in New York at Circle Repertory Company and cheered me on at numerous readings of other plays. And she was the first person to encourage me to be a playwright as well.

We had been acting for a while when I decided I wanted to write a musical. I had a composer and I myself was a lyricist, but had no idea how to write a play. I asked a playwright friend who said she didn’t think it would work for her, but she thought I could write it myself because I knew so much about the subject matter.

Susan thought so too. “But I don’t know anything about writing a play,” I said.

“But you know plenty about being in one,” she replied. “And you could write a scene, couldn’t you? One little scene?”

I did, and found I loved writing it—so my life as a playwright was born. But we did a lot more than work together. We laughed, partied late into the night, swam, cried, danced, whispered together and kept each other's secrets. Susan was the kind of person who would go to hell and back for her friends and she certainly did for me, more than once. She is irreplaceable in ways I can never explain but in ways everyone who has ever had a friend they cherished will understand. Now she is gone, at least physically, and yet I have her presence always in the corner of my eye.

In March of this year, Susan became terribly ill and it was discovered she had Stage III ovarian cancer. She died on May 23 but a few days before that, I had a dream that I went to visit her in Springfield and she was standing there waiting for me when I got off the bus. “Come on,” she said, in that smoky voice of hers. “Let me show you my town.”

I woke with an empty heart and the knowledge that I’d probably never see her again. But I hope some day she’ll be waiting for me when I get off the bus. And I’ll say, “Hey, darlin’! Come and show me your town.”