This is the fourth of what I hope will be many interviews in the Author-Author series.
I’m grateful to the many readers of this blog for posing most of the questions I’ve asked in these interviews. Without that help, I’m pretty sure nobody would have agreed to be interviewed. So, thank you, dear readers and I hope you enjoy the fruit of your labors.
Lisa Alber is a novelist and short story writer. One of Lisa’s stories is forthcoming in a collection edited by novelist Elizabeth George called Two of the Deadliest (HarperCollins, April, 2009). Another of Lisa’s stories has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Thanks to a grant from Elizabeth George, whose workshops Lisa attended, Lisa is taking a year off from work to concentrate on writing.
Lisa graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in economics and a minor in Spanish literature. Later, while writing her first prose in the form of vignettes, she worked as a financial analyst in South America. Many years and many jobs later, the writing finally took over her life enough that she quit pursuing a “real” career altogether. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with a dog and a cat who appreciate that she’s home a lot.
How’s your work coming along these days?
I feel like I’m in a holding pattern at the moment. Trying to figure out the next step and asking myself a lot of questions. This is one of the difficulties of pursuing a career as a novelist: the need for patience and perseverance and a quiet mind. I recently completed the first draft of a novel, that, unfortunately, follows on a previous novel that my literary agent was unable to sell. So, what does that mean? Do I alter the current project so that it stands alone, or revise it, as is, with faith that both of the novels will find their public in the future?
Meanwhile, I’m reading through and revising an older novel that’s been sitting around awhile. I’m hoping that with revisions, it will be worthy of a send-off to my agent.
People love to hear how writers overcome difficulties- the long slog of getting from a brilliant idea to the end of a work, the strings of rejection so long they could circumnavigate the globe, the mean reviews, the weird reactions of loved ones to your work, the moment you see your book on the remainder pile. Can you talk about the dark nights of the soul and how you kept going, even though the lights seemed to be out?
Oh, man, I’ve got a story for this, but, unfortunately, I can’t tell you the villain’s name because he’s a local novelist of renown with many a groupie from his various workshops and writing groups. I wouldn’t say I was a follower, but at one time, I thought to learn something from him so I signed up for an weekend writing workshop in which each participant started off reading the first pages of a work. I had just begun my first attempt at my first novel. I was a babe-in-the-woods, trying to find my way, knowing nothing. To make a long story short, this renowned novelist provided no helpful feedback. Instead, he proclaimed the novel little better than the “trash” you’d see in airport bookstores.
There, in front of a room full of strangers, I cried. I managed to haul my tush back for the rest of the weekend, but my heart wasn’t into it by then, and I didn’t write for a long time after that. I was crushed. (What’s worse, the renowned novelist had the gall the psychoanalyze me, telling me that I certainly had daddy-issues – can you imagine?)
That period was a dark night for my writing soul, but in the end, after a long while, I took the novel up again as naturally as a baby learns to walk after falling. Some things can’t be denied, can they?
I kept a souvenir from the weekend that helped: a note that one of the workshop participants passed to me while I cried. She’d written: I think this is terrific. A glimmer of hope that I still have.
Why do you suppose so many people want to know where you get your ideas?
The way I figure it, some folks wonder about writers the way I wonder about math brains. It’s that fascination with people whose synapses fire in ways that seem unfathomable and almost magical.
I imagine that people who don’t write fiction might think WOW about us because writing stories could seem as impossible and magical to them as generating formulas does to me. Creating stories is kind of like magic, isn’t it? Who doesn’t want to know the magician’s secrets?
On a personal level, I suspect that people who know me wonder what’s going on my head because, truth is, in person I’m rather reserved, more likely to listen than to talk, and not likely to reveal too much of myself. I’m much better in writing, in other words, so sometimes I get the feeling that people wonder how it is that mundane-old Lisa has story ideas!
So then, where do you get your ideas, if I may ask?
I don’t know! That’s one of those questions I get a lot, and that I don’t know how to answer. In fact, I tried to document the idea-development process when I started my latest project so I could answer this very question. Here’s what my notes says:
1. Started feeling fear: what to write?
2. Started collecting “shiny things” – reading, reading, reading.
3. Eventually, an image stuck. The image included two people walking down a lane.
4. Asked myself: Who are these people?
5. Brainstormed like crazy – a messy process for me what included the age-old “what if?” questioning – and eventually ended up with a decent story idea.
6. Brainstormed on the initial story idea until it expanded out enough that I could do character analyses.
7. In-depth character analyses. It’s like the method-acting approach to story development. I do so much work on character development that I have oodles of material that doesn’t make it into the novels. During the analyses, plot points suggest themselves.
The business of being a writer – finding an agent, placing stories and poems in literary journals, getting a publisher to buy your stuff – can be difficult to navigate. What do you wish you’d known starting out?
This question is easy, and it was huge lesson to me: Do not rush to find an agent or publish your novel until you’ve revised and revised and revised! In fact, forget about the business-side of writing all together. Concentrate on learning your craft, take your time. The first novel I wrote didn’t land an agent because I sent it out too early. For the second novel, I did the opposite and landed an agent.
How do you balance the rest of your life with your writing life?
At the moment, I have an easygoing lifestyle with few responsibilities because I’m living on a writing grant. However, I don’t balance well. I have to live a simple life or I get too scattered and mentally fatigued. This is because I tend toward depression. I admire people who work and raise kids and clean house and workout and socialize and still manage to write write write.
But, I’m not like that, so I had to leap and leap big-time away from financial stability and career, and into the part-time freelance world. Since boundless energy isn’t one of my strengths, this was the balancing decision I made so that I’d have the energy to pursue fiction.
Do you think most writing is autobiographical?
Nope, and I may be a minority opinion. I have a narrow definition of what makes for semi-autobiographical fiction. Obviously, aspects of the writer litter her work, and I would bet that people who know me well would see me in my stories – flashes here and there. But is this autobiographical? Not to my mind. Is John Grisham, the former lawyer, writing autobiographically when he writes his legal thrillers? Not to my mind.
To me, using facts gleaned out of our lives isn’t necessarily autobiographical writing. That’s just writing what we know – in Grisham’s case, lawyering. However, taking the emotional resonance of an experience, place or time and centering a story around that, to me, is semi-autobiographical.
I have a friend who expressed amazement because I create my plots from scratch – they have nothing to do with my life. She, however, uses her life experiences as jumping-off points to generate plots. She said she’s not creative enough to come up with plots on her own (so to speak). I’m not an autobiographical writer, but I would say she is.
Lisa can be found online at Lisa’s Words at Play.