Suzanne McKenna Link is the indie author of “Saving Toby” and its sequel, “Keeping Claudia.” A Sayville resident and native of the South Shore, McKenna Link puts a modern edge on the clichés of the old-fashioned Romance novel. She skillfully fuses the high drama of the Brontës while navigating the complexities of modern love: the fine line between love and lust; choosing between the independence of pursuing career and the sacrifices of a relationship; and grappling with society’s expectations of marriage, just to name a few. Not to mention, McKenna Link’s characters are so authentic that their behavior has often thrown readers and reviewers alike into frenzied, impassioned debates. McKenna Link will be appearing at two upcoming events: the Fall Festival and Local Author Event at Sachem Library on Saturday, Sept. 16 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and East Islip Library’s Local Author Night on Tuesday, Oct. 24 from 7 to 9 p.m. Attendees will be able to talk with the author and purchase autographed books. McKenna Link spoke with The Suffolk County News about her writing process and how she puts an original spin on timeworn romantic tropes.
Suffolk County News: What first inspired you to tell Toby and Claudia’s story? Was the inspiration based on character or plot?
McKenna Link: I’d say character first. For many years I’d had the idea of my main character, Toby Faye, in my head. The story I envisioned telling back then was a Cain and Abel tale of sorts—a young guy coping with abuse at the hands of his brother. When I started writing, I had the most rudimentary concept of story structure—escalating conflict, climax and ending— and blissfully ignorant, wrote scenes as I thought of them. It was amazing to write so freely, but I soon learned writing a story without a plan leads to lots of rewriting. Internal conflict is first and foremost what drives my storytelling, but it takes many elements to craft a well-told story. Like building a physical structure, forget even one support beam, and the foundation becomes unstable.
SCN: Both of your novels are told in the first-person point of view, but you skillfully alternate chapters between telling the story exclusively through both Claudia and Toby’s perspectives. How did you decide on this narrative style?
McKenna Link: Funny thing is, I never intended to write Toby’s point of view. That came during a writing exercise that suggested telling a scene from another character’s perspective. I assumed as a woman, it’d be easier to write a female protagonist’s viewpoint, but telling the story from Toby’s point of view was great fun. Writing his dry wit, and his dark despair too, came easily. His side of the story had to stay. Claudia, the series’ female protagonist, was more challenging for me—not because I didn’t understand her. Her character is linear and makes sense to me, but in being true to her character, I made her more unyielding than most women believe they would actually be in her situation. Readers have responded to her with mixed reviews. Some adore her confidence. Others call her selfish. I call her a driven, Type A personality with staunch principles. In “Keeping Claudia,” the focus is on Claudia’s upbringing and the circumstances that brought about her tenacity.
SCN: I for one appreciated a female character that was driven rather than aimless, which I think can be a catchall stereotype for young millennial women. That being said, you really have a penchant for writing vivid, true-to-life and nuanced characters. What are your methods for character development?
McKenna Link: I’m extremely pleased when people boast that my scenes play out like a movie. I credit this to the dynamic dialogue, which comes from the extensive personality studies I did. I’ve always been intrigued by behaviors and the reason behind them. I’m a people-watcher, constantly observing behavior, noting and cataloging the quirks and mannerisms of people everywhere. While I didn’t base any characters on real-life acquaintances, details were taken from people I’ve met and known. Growing up, I had a friend whose father’s rigid rules defied logic, just like those of Suffolk Police Department officer Donato Chiametti. My kids, being in the same age bracket as Claudia and Toby, definitely helped me articulate character mannerisms. The young women of my daughter’s Girl Scout troop framed Claudia’s altruistic, self-driven nature, and my son was a terrific resource on how to turn outdated phrases into language today’s 20-somethings use.
SCN: Sayville is the main setting for your novels, and many readers will be pleased with your descriptions of Main Street, Fire Island, and even Corey Beach. What was it about Sayville that inspired you to make it the setting?
McKenna Link: As a lifelong resident of the South Shore, it came easy to write about the novelties of our local towns and Fire Island. Surprisingly, outside of New York State, few know of our unique and beautiful barrier island. I chose our area’s quaint, small hamlets chiefly because I wanted to instill the characters’ strong sense of familiarity with their location—to the point of tedium. When the story begins, there’s a sense that judgments have been passed, and their roles defined. Life in a small town becomes an added element of angst for Toby and Claudia because at some point, each feels arrested by it.
SCN: Claudia works in geriatric care and Toby becomes a skilled carpenter and builder. How much research did you have to do in both of these career paths to portray them with such unforced detail and accuracy?
McKenna Link: In my opinion, these career paths work well for Toby and Claudia’s personality types, showcasing their strongest attributes. With geriatric care, I had homework to do. I researched advanced degrees in the field and got familiar with what senior living facilities offer. Google was immensely helpful with that. As for the carpentry element—I attribute that to all the home improvement shows my husband and I watched in the ’90s. As newlyweds renovating a home, back then our television was tuned regularly to anything with Bob Vila and HGTV.
SCN: Can you discuss your use of metaphors, such as the waves of the ocean, a whale sighting, birds in flight and even a turbulent nor’easter, to convey the emotional turmoil and exuberance of Claudia and Toby’s relationship? The use of the elements as metaphors for characters’ emotions harkens back to Victorian Romance novels, such as the Brontës’ “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” Were those literary influences for you?
McKenna Link: I remember pulling apart those stories in my English classes. I was, and am still, amazed at the cleverness of writers like Shakespeare and the Brontës, whose brilliantly crafted sentences stretch far deeper than the apparent surface. I assure you, though—my metaphors were not done with conscious intention—at least not at first. Every element in a book should add to the protagonist’s journey and move the story forward—nothing should be random—even the most beautiful of prose. Scenes like the whale sighting, the seagull dance and the gathering storm let me stretch my writing legs, but they had to be relevant to the story. I think I was successful marrying them into the scenes.
SCN: Your novels skillfully fuse elements of classic literary romances with the complexities of modern-day relationships, and I’m wondering if you had a desire to offer a new and refreshing perspective on some worn-out romance clichés.
McKenna Link: Toby and Claudia’s love story is integral to the books, and I market the series as contemporary romance. The love story could not be removed without altering the storyline, but the dark, realistic elements do not fall neatly within the genre of mainstream romance. I guess I’m a romantic at heart, but more so, a realist. I focus mainly on writing emotional fiction, the dichotomy of how my characters handle personal relationships—how they hurt, heal and interact with one another—be that romantic or otherwise. I try not to think too much about marketing trends and labels, and just write what I want to write.
SCN: What is the most important theme or message that you want readers to take from your novels?
McKenna Link: I hope readers will be moved and inspired by the stories. I’m an advocate of personal growth, and I intentionally wrote to reflect that. Toby and Claudia face some disconcerting truths about themselves and their past. I believe the stories’ most powerful message comes from seeing the two of them become more self-aware. They realize if they keep doing what they’ve always done, the end result will be much the same. And they won’t ever truly be happy. They need to make some hard choices to change, and follow through. I want my readers to come away from my stories stirred up, to believe that no matter what situation they consider themselves ‘locked into,’ there’s always a way out.
SCN: What’s next?
McKenna Link: I have my marketing hat on right now, working on getting the word out about “Keeping Claudia.” I have a few author events planned, both online and at two local libraries. The book will be featured on NetGalley, a reviewer website, for a month starting Sept. 18, and I have a virtual book tour with Xpresso Tours (www.xpressobooktours.com), Oct. 2-6. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to decide which one of my story ideas I want to jump into next. One is a family drama, the other about a female UFC fighter. I hope to be able to sit down very soon and focus only on writing.
Suzanne McKenna link will be at the Fall Festival and Local Author Event at Sachem Library, this Saturday, Sept. 16, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Local Author Night at East Islip Library, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 7 to 9 p.m. where attendees can talk with the author and buy autographed books. “Saving Toby” and “Keeping Claudia” can be purchased online at Amazon and “Saving Toby” is available at area libraries. To find out more, visit the author’s website at www.suzannemckennalink.com.
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