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Suzanne Redfearn uses her architectural mind to build fictional worlds and a thriving literary community 

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Every good novel includes a few essential ingredients: strong characters, a compelling plot, some unfulfilled desires, and lots of obstacles. Done well, there are also difficult questions that lie at its core – sometimes philosophical or spiritual, sometimes ethical or practical, but always universal. What is the nature of good versus evil? What happens when evil is disguised to seem good? Where is the line between helping our children and hurting them? Will we recognize it when it arrives? How far will we go to save them?

Suzanne Redfearn’s life reads like a great novel. She’s a strong, purposeful, and driven central character with an intense desire to create new worlds from nothing. And she’s had some obstacles to overcome along the way. More important, she’s curious about life’s big questions – the meaning of marriage, the dangers of celebrity, the delicate balance between risk and reward. Curiosity, more than anything, motivates Suzanne’s love of fiction. One can always tell the writers driven by a desire for fame, or book sales, or (God forbid) money. Suzanne is in it to discover. That makes all the difference.

Suzanne Redfearn closeup

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Suzanne Redfearn, architect, novelist, and Literary Laureate

Starting from scratch

At age 15, Suzanne’s life looked a lot like that blank page every novelist faces for the first time. She grew up on the east coast, and alludes to a less-than-perfect childhood (always a good foundation for any future novelist). She moved, on her own, to Santa Barbara, putting herself through college beginning at age 16, and eventually earning a marketing degree.

While working as a server at Corona del Mar’s former Oyster’s Restaurant, she met owner Cary Redfearn. What began in friendship grew into a marriage that’s lasted a quarter of a century…and counting. Cary encouraged Suzanne to pursue a career in architecture, and supported her through school. “I always wanted to be an architect,” Suzanne says. “But it felt crazy. Like being a writer, it didn’t feel like a real job. It just felt out of reach.” Proving again that nothing is out of reach for Suzanne, she graduated summa cum laude from California Polytechnic University. 

When Cary closed Oyster’s and purchased the Lumberyard Restaurant ten years ago, Suzanne’s architectural talent paid dividends. Her vision transformed the space, retaining its historic foundation while updating the interior to lend a more contemporary feel. Nearly a decade later, she would go on to design the beer cap sculpture in Slice Pizza across the street, which she and Cary opened last year. 

Along the way, Suzanne also owned a cookie company, worked as a graphic designer and copywriter, and invented Wonder Laces (“the better shoelace – healthier for your feet, more comfortable, [with] six times the knot strength of normal shoelaces”). She’s the mother of two grown children, an avid surfer, golfer, skier, and Angels’ fan. Curiosity, ambition and creative energy have led her in a lot of directions, every one of them fulfilling and fun, most of them solitary, and all of them good fodder for fiction.

There are three things in life, Suzanne tells me, that determine happiness and satisfaction: your spouse, your hometown, and your career. “I feel like I hit the Triple Crown,” she says. Suzanne discovered Laguna because of Cary, and her career aspirations – both as architect and novelist – flowed from there. “It all came down to that first good decision of finding the right person. Without that,” she says, “the rest just wouldn’t have happened.” 

The architecture of a novel

Architecture and writing have always struck me as intellectual sisters. Beyond vision and creativity, they both demand careful construction. “I wouldn’t be a novelist if I hadn’t been an architect,” Suzanne says. “Both require you to start with nothing. It’s overwhelming, and it’s long-term.” Much of Suzanne’s life has required faithful leaps, from her move to the west coast to settling into an uncertain career in architecture to the terrifying decision to undertake the novel. But one leap begets another. Each one builds confidence and establishes trust. 

Suzanne approaches books the ways she approaches buildings. “I walk into an empty space and know it only works one way. That’s its true self.” 

Terroir is an oenological term referring to the natural environment in which a particular wine is produced. It includes factors such as soil, topography, and climate. Suzanne says, “I allow the terroir – the essence of the site – to dictate what the building is going to be. You can’t come in with a preconceived idea. It won’t work.” That principle applies equally well in writing. “The story wants to be what it wants to be. You have to allow it to grow organically. The characters dictate what’s going to happen.”

Suzanne sees herself more as a conduit or channeler of stories, rather than their creator. “The story is there – the characters are on their journey. I just have to keep reeling it in. It knows what it wants to be, so when I finally find it – it’s natural.” That might mean writing 800 pages to end up with 400. Suzanne likens it to a maze, with a lot of dead-ends. But, ultimately, there’s only one obvious solution. 

“Drive time is when it comes together. When I’m not actually thinking about the story, that’s when I come up with the solutions,” she says. “The unexpected is always where the beauty lies in the story.”

The magical moment when life leaps to fiction

When Suzanne published her first novel, Hush Little Baby, in 2013, Cary wore a shirt to her launch party that said: “It wasn’t me.” Superficially, Suzanne’s protagonist looked a little familiar – Jillian Kane had a successful career as an architect, a gorgeous home, a doting husband, and two perfect kids. But Jillian’s marriage was privately dark, decidedly abusive, and obviously nothing like Suzanne and Cary. Still, those surface similarities gave Suzanne the ability to access Jillian’s character. After that, like every great book, all bets were off.

Suzanne Redfearn books

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Suzanne holding Hush Little Baby and the anthology at Laguna Beach Books

No Ordinary Life came out just three years later. It explores the price of fame and the risks embedded into the lives of child celebrities. It also returns to one of Suzanne’s favorite themes – the lengths mothers will go to protect their children. The idea came to her while waiting in line at the grocery store, scanning the tabloid headlines. Zac Efron, who is roughly the same age as Suzanne’s son, had just reentered rehab for the second time. It made her curious about the dark side of celebrity. This is the recurring motif in any novelist’s life: I saw this thing, and it got me wondering…

In An Instant, her third novel, is due out in early 2020. Suzanne scored a two-book deal with Lake Union Publishing. I won’t spoil the surprise here, but for fans of The Lovely Bones, you’re in for a future treat. 

The limitations of talent and the need for persistence

Successful writers will tell you that talent – while necessary – is less essential than perseverance. For every novel Suzanne has on bookshelves, she has two or three more in her drawer. Slow and steady is the necessary recipe for achievement. Novelists sometimes look like overnight success stories, but they often have a decade (or more) of quiet toiling in their past.

Persistence is something Suzanne knows about. She doesn’t miss a day of work. She arrives at Starbucks early in the morning for a two to three hour stretch, and shows up again mid-afternoon for another session. Writing, like any job, requires the author to show up. Lawyers, plumbers, veterinarians – none of these professions tolerate waiting around for bouts of inspiration or the arrival of the muse. Writing is no different. Novelists, of course, only get paid for the books that sell. Writing a dozen manuscripts that never make it to bookstores is a thankless task, which is why it requires the love of the journey, and a near disregard for the destination.

It’s all about living outside your comfort zone, taking on terrifying things, uncertain about their outcome.

Laguna’s Literary Laureate

Speaking of taking on terrifying things…earlier this year, Suzanne was appointed Laguna’s Literary Laureate (along with co-Laureate Lojo Simon). Suzanne was less interested in the title and recognition, and more excited to serve as a cheerleader for the arts. She’s created and facilitated several events allowing local writers opportunities to gather and be heard. And she’s become an ambassador for the written – and spoken – word. 

Take, for example, poet and spoken word artist Phil Kaye. Suzanne brought Phil to Laguna last month for a one-night performance at the Forum Theatre at FOA. She invited five high school poets to share their own work as an opening act. “These kids had been harboring this inside. There’s no venue for this. There’s no reason for them to do this,” she says. “It was poetry. It was art. I was blown away.” 

Like architecture or writing, Suzanne feels her position as Literary Laureate is another experience that’s telling her what it wants to be, and she’s merely acting as its conduit. “I feel like I’m just along for the ride,” she says. “I’m always thinking, Wow…so that happened! It’s a position that tells you what it needs.” 

Like all her prior endeavors, the job also requires faith. “It’s believing. No matter how bad or scary or overwhelming – you have faith you’re going to get there. I can’t tell you the knot in my stomach over these events. But I show up, put it out there, see what happens, and have faith that it’s going to find its way.” 

Suzanne also initiated the citywide poetry and prose contest, inspired by a photograph taken by Jeff Rovner in a Burmese monastery last year. “Another project that took on a life of its own,” she says. Forty-three writers contributed their works, which Suzanne turned into the book, Laguna Beach Anthology of Poetry and Short Fiction.

“A lot of credit goes to Third Street Writers and Jane Hanauer (owner of Laguna Beach Books),” she says. “The people who are already doing this around our community.” 

The builder who builds community

Suzanne loves the collaborative environment Laguna inspires. “It’s not so competitive here,” she tells me. “We’re all creative in our own ways, and we’re invested in building each other up.” 

Suzanne Redfearn Shoreline

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Suzanne and Tami Cahill, building community at Laguna’s Shoreline Project last weekend

A city that encourages the arts makes each of its members better. Even those who aren’t artists benefit from being surrounded by beauty, inspired by creativity, and supported by women like Suzanne. She’s spent her career building both structures and fictional worlds. But perhaps Suzanne’s greatest gift to Laguna is building community, which also requires perseverance and faith. And, just like architecture and fiction, the unexpected is always where the beauty lies.