In every writer’s life comes a great editor, someone who tweaks your creative mess, and voila, you’ve got a great piece of writing. So I am in a quandary, writing about my best friend, my best editor, a writer extraordinaire, Susan Swartz, who lived with curiosity, energy, compassion, kindness, style, jokes and was just plain fun.
Susan died last week, ending her life publicly, off the cliffs of Bodega Head. She was 76 and had lost her husband, Bob Klose, last November to cancer.
For nearly four decades, Susan worked as a reporter and columnist at The Press Democrat and after retirement wrote for Sonoma West. She amassed an unusual following of readers who connected with her as a friend. When they chanced to meet her, she was gracious and modest, eschewing adulation of fandom.
Often, Susan’s progressive leaning, pro-feminist columns would incur the ire of conservatives. While attacking their beliefs was never her goal, it certainly indicated she had an impact. A writer’s purpose, she said, is moving beyond speaking to the choir and to a broader audience.
We met 32 years ago and became fast friends when we paired on a series of stories about the county’s most powerful leaders.
Susan was a talented mix. Hard-hitting columns on the NRA and gun control were as important as a discussion about shoulder pads and Jane Fonda looking fabulous at 80 while getting arrested during a protest.
Susan was up for trying anything and encouraged everyone to do the same. She said: “I’ve always wanted to do that. Let’s.”
When she and Bob, also a writer and newspaper reporter, moved to Sebastopol in 1994, they embraced the town as their village, throwing Thanksgiving weekend parties for neighbors and organizing earthquake preparedness groups. She wrote columns for Sonoma West and read them on KRCB radio, even as she worked on another novel. On Jan. 26, she debuted her latest book titled “Laughing in the Dark” to a full house at the Occidental Arts Center.
She had an uncanny ability to stay close with old friends while making news ones through various community groups, like one for retired professional women, a walking group, a book club, a writing group and even a widow’s group that she reluctantly joined upon Bob’s passing. She still found time to babysit her three grandchildren, walk them to the Sebastopol library and treat them at the ice cream parlor.
Having grown up in Pennsylvania, she joked that great pizza and good lobster were hard to find here, but the California climate, the beauty of Sonoma County and the local progressive politics more than compensated.
When she died, she left behind a wealth of friends and her daughters Jenni Klose, Samantha Swartz and Gretta Klosevitz, but left each with some humility, some lesson, some joke, perhaps a scarf, item of jewelry or an arty postcard with personal message.
Exactly a week after her passing on Feb. 26, the results of the Democratic primaries were on MSNBC with Rachel Maddow, which happened to be the favorite news show of Bob and Susan. Bob’s illness had disrupted their daily routine of beginning the day with coffee, a pile of newspapers spread across the bed and public radio news in the background.
When a friend suddenly departs, you recall the last time together and what words were exchanged. Just two days before she disappeared, we and a neighbor ate pretzels and drank wine at my kitchen table as we puzzled over ballot choices: Amy? Elizabeth? Where was Kamala?
Earlier, Susan had spent the afternoon writing postcards, urging people to vote.
“It’s about time a woman was president. Why not?” she insisted.
Now back at that same kitchen table and looking across the low fence at Bob and Susan’s empty house, I recall joking that being next door neighbors for the last 14 years also meant we could finally and truly be like Ethel and Lucy.
As the best of all friends, Susan knew exactly when to tease and when to shift to serious conversation. She was as generous with her favorite lipstick as she was with spending time with her family and walking our dogs as we stepped into each other’s homes and in and out of our lives.
There was much about the very public writer that was true and brave and funny. And also a consuming sadness as cancer took its toll on Bob over the past year.
Imagine that Susan is out there somewhere, smiling big and laughing loudly with Klose — as she affectionately called him — editing each other’s writing, planning their next trip and deciding who should be our next president.
Miriam Silver is a former newspaper reporter and writer who currently teaches English at Twin Hills Middle School.