Award-winning author and UC Riverside creative writing professor Susan Straight doesn’t need to travel far from home for inspiration.

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She finds it in the people and places of her hometown of Riverside, from the elderly woman who used to collect wasp larvae in her neighborhood, or the kindergartner with the cigarette burn at her daughter’s school, or a simple piece of conversation overheard at a potluck.

“My characters are based on the people around me,” she said. “I would sit there and listen when someone told me a story and it always seemed fascinating.”

Straight’s approach to writing, inspired as it is by her everyday surroundings, also comes out in the classroom, where she routinely tells her students to not be afraid to write anytime, anywhere, and that what they need to succeed is a good imagination and the ability to listen. It’s an approach that has allowed her to capture the imagination of readers nationwide, inspire generations of students here in California and reap many awards.

The first of her 10 novels, “Aquaboogie,” published in 1990, garnered the Milkweed National Fiction Prize. A subsequent novel, “Highwire Moon,” was a National Book Award finalist in 2001 and “A Million Nightingales” was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Fiction in 2006.

On April 11, Straight will receive the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.

"Susan Straight is a Southern California original and a tireless supporter, and creator, of our literary culture," wrote LA Times book critic David L. Ulin in announcing the award. "Her novels opened up not just California literature but American literature to the Inland Empire and to the often-neglected voices of the people there.”

Straight previously won a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Prize, among other accolades.

Straight’s novels, which tackle the themes of migration and love, revolve around working class men and women struggling for a better life against a backdrop of poverty, crime, racism and drugs. Many of her books are set in Rio Seco, a fictional culturally diverse Southern California town modeled after Riverside, where Straight was born and raised and still lives.

Her books are equal parts imagination and research, much of it conducted at the campus library or on trips where her characters hail from such as Louisiana or the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico.
Each of her 10 novels and more than 200 short stories, essays and reviews were all written on yellow legal pad after yellow legal pad, with nothing more than a Papermate gel pen.

Straight often writes on the go, in her car waiting for her daughters to finish basketball practice or waiting outside a dentist’s office. She writes wherever she finds herself with a spare moment, whenever something moves her.

This is the advice she gives her creative writing students too: Anyone can write, anywhere, no fancy technology necessary.

“All you need is a notebook and a pen,” Straight said. “You don’t need to have an iPad.”

Do your research but don’t forget to use your imagination. And listen. Listen carefully.

“Listen to the stories around you, whether it’s a story your grandmother is telling or a conversation at the table next to you at Starbucks,” she said. “To have a good ear for dialogue and dialect, you have to listen.”

Straight co-founded the Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts programs at UC Riverside, where she has taught for 26 years. She regularly develops new classes that break new ground, such as “The Mixed Race Novel and the American Experience” course that has piqued the interest of universities beyond UC.

“I love teaching,” said Straight, who has missed class just three times over her long career. “What I love about my students is their complete openness and receptiveness.”

A champion of creative writing, she recently testified at a state legislative hearing on the impact of the creative writing major on students — many of them the first in their families to go to college — and on the economy at large.

Straight’s dedication in the classroom has not gone unnoticed.

“Through her work as a teacher, she has inspired a new generation of California writers," Ulin wrote.