The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

Persistence and Grit Guide Rivers and Her Heroine  

An exclusive Authorlink interview

By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

March 2017


The Second Mrs. Hockaday
by Susan Rivers

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When Susan Rivers’ agent told her she wouldn’t debut with her first novel, Rivers was disappointed. These words are spoken to many writers, but they came at a particularly difficult time for her. She was teaching freshman composition, caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s, her husband had lost his job and they had recently lost their home.

“I thought I was never going to get published then. This freed my imagination to write the book I wanted to write. . .”

“I thought I was never going to get published then. This freed my imagination to write the book I wanted to write,” said Rivers, author of The Second Mrs. Hockaday, an epistolary novel about a wife surviving hardships on the home front as her husband fights in the Civil War.

Working at Cherokee County library near her home in South Carolina, Rivers came across a summary of an inquest related to the birth and burial of a baby to Elizabeth Kennedy, a young farmer’s wife in Georgia in 1865. Her husband Alfred was away serving in the Civil War for four years and could not have fathered the baby.

“The fact that this young woman never explained what happened and wouldn’t speak of it inspired me so much. She couldn’t tell her story in 1865, but I realized that I could write it in 2014,” said Rivers.

“I didn’t plot it out. I just began writing out what she was telling me. “

What followed was a whirlwind of writing that told the story of 17-year-old Placidia (Dia) Fincher, who quickly falls in love with and marries Major Gryffth Hockaday, a widower. After two short days together, Dia is left to run the plantation and care for Gryffth’s 2-year-old son while the major returns to war. She faces natural disasters, thievery, illness and a host of other challenges. Hockaday returns to find that in his absence Dia has given birth to and buried a child of unknown paternity. 

 “I was driven by Dia’s voice telling me the story she tells Mildred in the first letter in the book. I didn’t plot it out. I just began writing out what she was telling me. Forty or fifty pages in, the characters stood on their own two feet and even got out ahead of me. They had a destiny that was all their own,” said Rivers.

Told through letters, court records, and diary entries, the novel is a powerful exploration of race, the role of women and the nature of love. By telling the story in a non-narrative form, through the use of fictional primary sources, Rivers said, “The story came to me telling me how it wanted to be told. It wanted intimacy and immediacy.”

She noted that each character in the novel has a piece of the tale and none of them knows the whole story. It is the reader who pieces together the seemingly random bits of information that bring the story together as a whole. 

As a playwright, Rivers sees scenes between characters in terms of their dramatic value, so the letters are infused with descriptions of pivotal moments between characters. Inquests, which offer a matter of fact recounting of events from the various parties involved, are also used to tell the story.

“It is reader as juror,” said Rivers, “Dia represents many real women who have lived through hardships during wars. I had a strong investment in representing her well because of that.”

In addition to depicting the Civil War era south, the book goes forward thirty years as the descendants of the Hockadays try to piece together the events of the past using Dia’s diary entries, which were inscribed inside an old copy of Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” In doing so, they connect with the descendant of a former slave.

“I went forward in time because we needed to see that they prevailed in building the new south,” said Rivers.  Ultimately the book depicts a triumph of the will and a search for a better way. As Dia herself writes in letters to her cousin, “What I gained by marrying Gryffth Hockaday was a harder version of myself, but a less deluded one. Happiness may not have been a benefit of taking such a man for a husband, but survivability was.”

Rivers completed the first draft in around 14 weeks. “I spent four months writing it and 20 years living in the south, researching and experiencing the region, so I knew enough to write it,” said Rivers.

“. . . take your role as a writer seriously. Insist the people in your life take it seriously. Demand respect for yourself and your solitude.”

She worked with editor Kathy Pories at Algonquin to revise the book, writing four drafts in all.  Her greatest challenge throughout the creation of the book was having a limited amount of time.

She advises other writers to “take your role as a writer seriously. Insist the people in your life take it seriously. Demand respect for yourself and your solitude.”

With The Second Mrs. Hockaday getting strong reviews, Rivers is working on a novel about the residents of a mill town in South Carolina who experience the Pacolet River flood of 1903.

About the Author

Susan Rivers was awarded the Julie Harris Playwriting Award for Overnight Lows and the New York Drama League Award for Understatements. She is also the recipient of two playwriting grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and has had short fiction published in the Santa Monica Review. In 2007 she earned an MFA in fiction writing from Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, where she was also awarded a Regional Artist Grant from the Arts and Sciences Council. She currently lives and writes in a small town in upstate South Carolina. The Second Mrs. Hockaday is her first novel.

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About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.