In 2011 Susan Coll routinely walked Reno Road. At the time, her marriage of almost 30 years was breaking up. And she was reading a lot of memoirs by women who’d gone through their own major life crises.
But Coll, who moved a lot as a child and then followed her journalist husband to various postings around the world, wasn’t interested in hiking along the West Coast, like Cheryl Strayed, or searching for her true self in foreign lands, like Elizabeth Gilbert.
“I don’t want to go have an adventure,” she remembers thinking. “My life has been so full of adventure. I’m so tired of adventure. I just want to live a normal life.”
So she walked the Northwest D.C. thoroughfare from her home in Cleveland Park to her new job at the independent bookstore Politics and Prose, and along the way she decided, “Well, all right, this is not quite the [Pacific Crest Trail], but this is my way forward.”
And she wrote, as she always had.
Coll is best known as a satirist, skewering modern suburban life in general, and affluent Bethesda families in particular. In 2005 she published “Rockville Pike: A Suburban Comedy of Manners,” which took the avenue of big-box stores and bagel chains as its backdrop. “Acceptance,” released in 2007, sets its gaze on the hyper-competitive college admissions process, while “Beach Week,” which came out three years later, looks at the inanity of a graduation tradition that has well-meaning parents trying to regulate a week of teenage debauchery, seaside.
Her new book, “The Stager,” traces the crackup of an increasingly dysfunctional family, as their 6,200-square-foot Bethesda McMansion is professionally decorated pre-sale to give it the sheen of anonymous perfection.
Coll began the novel before her own marriage ended. But the book benefited, she says, from the long span of time she took to finish it, and perhaps even from the pain she experienced in the midst of writing it.
“I took a difficult phase of my own life and turned it into comedy, and that’s the way I deal with things in my life,” she says from a sitting room off the kitchen of her brick home. “To make something good of the darkness.”
Her father’s nomadic career in retail was particularly hard on Coll, who is shy by nature. With each new stop she turned inward, first to books, then to writing.
As a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, she met her future husband, Steve Coll, who would go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes and spend six years as managing editor of The Washington Post. They married a few years after graduation, and by age 25 Coll, had become a mother to the first of her three children.
After her second baby was born, Coll, who was on what turned out to be an indefinite hiatus from law school, enrolled in a fiction-writing workshop at NYU. The bit of encouragement she received from her instructor was enough, she says, to give her some small measure of belief in her own talent.
When her husband’s foreign post took the family to India, Coll began freelancing feature articles and writing fiction on the side. She promised herself that if even one short story sold, she’d give herself a crack at a novel.
As soon as the BBC picked up a story, she began drafting a book set in India. But it never sold. In hindsight, she says, that is probably for the best, and she learned enough from the process to want to try it again.
While living in London, Coll became fascinated with the life of Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, whose story she transformed into a work of historical fiction eventually called Karlmarx.com.
Coll considered it a serious, tragic tale, but as her agent shopped the book around, one editor after another deemed it funny and asked that she cut back the history and pump up the comedy.
When her eldest child was in fifth grade, Coll and her family returned to Washington for what they thought would be a two- or three-year stint. She found fertile ground in the world of competitive parenting, adolescent angst and suburban malaise.
At her first back-to-school night in Bethesda, her daughter’s teacher kept referring to something called “GT.”
“I finally raised my hand and said, ‘What is GT?’ And she said, ‘Uh, Gifted and Talented?’ ” Coll recalls. The insinuation being: “ ‘Obviously you are not in that track.’ It was just really intense.”
When their youngest child went off to college, the Colls decided to trade the suburbs for city life. As they prepared to put their Bethesda home on the market, their real estate agent suggested they hire a “stager” to polish the place for prospective buyers.
“I didn’t feel very attached to that house, or the way I had put that house together, until a stranger came in and started tearing it apart. She would basically say, ‘That picture that’s been hanging on the wall for 12 years? No. That’s going into the attic.’ So it was traumatic,” Coll remembers. “And it took me a few days to actually become upset. The Realtor said I had hung in there longer than most people — that most people start weeping on day one.”
The couple bought an apartment in New York City and the house in Cleveland Park, where Coll reveled in watching city buses roll past her front porch.
“It’s only four miles down the road,” she says. “But I did feel exhilarated being back in more of an urban environment.”
She was at work on “The Stager” when her marriage collapsed. She prefers not to discuss the details of her divorce, but she says the marriage in the book — in which a beautiful, ambitious businesswoman is married to an overweight former tennis pro whose arsenal of anti-psychotic pills is spinning him into a world of delusion — is not based on her own.
While the book was in its infancy and she was struggling to reimagine her future as a single woman, Coll was working long days at Politics and Prose.
She was the first employee hired by the store’s new owners, Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, and has greatly expanded Politics and Prose’s course offerings and travel programs. Coll now oversees all of the bookstore’s events.
“She has a knack both for thinking inventively and for executing well,” says Graham, a former Post reporter. “And she has become, for the staff, a big shoulder to lean on . . . someone who other staff can confide in and talk to about a whole range of things.”
But she kept her own personal struggles largely to herself.
The shining light during that period was her job. It was, she says, “my lifeline.”
“Some days when I felt like I was not in a good place, the minute I walked in the door there, that just evaporated,” says Coll, who remains friends with her ex-husband, who is now dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. “It’s so busy, there’s so much going on, I just got sucked into that other world. And one could spend an infinite amount of hours there.”
Chafing against the competitiveness and society circles, she used to tell her husband she wanted to reside “anywhere but Washington.” But living in Cleveland Park and working with a bunch of literary-minded young people helped her grow to love the city, and this new chapter of her life, in a way she never expected.
Her own book took shape in early morning writing jags and was sold to Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, before it was finished. The final 80 pages, poured out of her in “one of those rare, magical writing experiences,” that twisted all of her characters together in a way that surprised even Coll.
Already the viciously funny book, which is told from multiple points of view, including that of a precocious child, is being categorized alongside Maria Semple’s 2012 bestseller, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”
Coll says “The Stager” feels like the kind of work she was meant to be doing all along.
“I think that I had resisted the comedy a little bit throughout, because I wished that I was writing something more lofty,” she says. “But this book I felt like I was finally able to realize my dark comic bent.”
On Tuesday at 7 p.m., she’ll read from “The Stager” at Politics and Prose, a place she deeply adores, even as her colleagues tease that she’ll have to set up her own chairs for the event.
She is not sure what her next book will be, though she has repeatedly promised Graham and Muscatine it will not be “a comic novel set in an independent bookstore.”
What she does know is that there will be a next project. Because there has turned out to be plenty of life in the future she never imagined.
Those walks down Reno Road led to many good things.
“There’s a lot in me,” she says. “I feel like I’m just getting started, really.”