Thank you guys so much for your fasci-freakin-ating responses to the query posed in my last blog. I’ve been on the phone almost constantly with Karen as new comments appeared. We’ve been reading them aloud to each other talking about this stuff while drinking too much wine I shouldn’t be having anyway. Oops. Stupid delicious red vibrant empty perfect calories.
Happy Presidents Day, and in honor of GW and the boys, I have a really superb and open and thoughtful interview with the amazing Lori Lansens. I am a big, big, big fan of hers----her second novel, THE GIRLS, rocked my little red boat back and forth all happy in the water, but I think I like the new one ever better. Her writing is just freakin’ luminous, and I loved Mary and was enthralled as she journeyed across North America, starving for an imagined life that never quite came to her. I found the experience of watching her shrink and at the same time grow into herself to be so gorgeous and ultimately so hopeful.
If you want the THE WIFE’S TALE and you do, her publicist is ever so sweetly offering two. Yes, I see you quailing as it does, of course, mean you have to take your chances with that capricious buttmunch, Mister Random Number Generator over at Random.Org. You have until Thursday, February 18th at midnight EST to throw your hat into his slavering-crocodile-filled, random ring by leaving a comment. As always, the complete rules are stolen from Mir’s shoplicious bargain hunting site, Want Not
JJ: Your main character seems to be nothing like you. How do you inhabit shoes different from your own?
LL: The protagonist of my first novel RUSH HOME ROAD is an elderly black woman. In my second novel, THE GIRLS, the characters are conjoined twin sisters. Mary Gooch is the morbidly obese heroine of my latest, THE WIFE’S TALE. On the surface, the only thing I have in common with any of them is that I am, like Mary, in my forties but these disparate characters have given voice to my interests and preoccupations and defined different stages in my life. All three books are set in fictional Baldoon County inspired by the landscape where I was born and raised in southwestern Ontario near the border to Detroit, Michigan. In the first book I drew on the rich history of the place – a hunting and fishing ground for the neutral Indians, a terminus on the underground railroad, a hotspot for bootlegging during prohibition – to tell the story of Addy Shadd, a descendant of fugitive slaves who helped settle the area.
With my second novel, THE GIRLS, I explored the nature of identity, inspired by the birth of my two children with whom I felt an inextricable physical and emotional bond. In my most recent book, THE WIFE’S TALE, I wanted to examine the struggle of a morbidly obese woman approaching her middle ages, not because I’m morbidly obese, but because I understand hunger and the feeling of being out of control.
The overweight female character has been with me since I began to write decades ago. I’m not overweight but I feel keenly the struggle of my fellows. It’s impossible to ignore the epidemic of obesity and where twenty or even ten years ago a woman weighing three-hundred pounds (as Mary Gooch does) would have been rare we see her now with increasing frequency. We work with her. She’s our Aunt, our cousin.
I joke that I’m a method writer, meaning that I inhabit the characters that I write about. Or do they inhabit me? It’s a way to describe empathy. When I was writing RUSH HOME ROAD I had the sense that old Addy Shadd had taken over the keyboard and was writing the story down like it was a memory instead of a creation. With the conjoined twin sisters I had to leave one’s fictional reality in order to find the voice of the other. Mary Gooch and I had some junk food binges together. I lost my appetite when she did and suffered heart palpitations (did hers come first or did mine?) for the duration of the writing process.
JJ: How important is the setting?
LL: Baldoon County serves as a character in RUSH HOME ROAD. Addy Shadd’s response to her journey, which included a perilous boat trip to America then back to Canada, was dependant on the setting. I’d been writing that book in my head for many years before I wrote the first sentence and so much of it was inspired by history and the memories of my youth.
In THE GIRLS I stayed in Baldoon County, a small town called Leaford, because I wanted to find the humanity in the conjoined sister’s situation and didn’t want to present them as freaks, or for them to perceive themselves that way. In small town Leaford where they live and work they’re just THE GIRLS. Had they lived in a large city they would have seen themselves mirrored in the eyes of strangers everyday and I believe they would have grown up very differently. The rural setting was important because the twins, for all their restrictions, find freedom and peace and beauty in the fields surrounding their rundown farmhouse and rely on nature for their spirituality.
I resisted the lure of Baldoon County when I set off to write THE WIFE’S TALE but it kept pulling me back. I was most interested in writing an extreme character – so overweight, and so sheltered, her life so small while she so large, that the small town setting was all that felt right. I considered creating a neighboring town but the fact was that I first saw Mary in my fragmented writer’s imagination, waving from a window in a farmhouse near where THE GIRLS used to sit together on a bridge over a creek. Leaford was the place where Mary and I both felt most comfortable, which heightened the drama of eventually having to leave.
JJ: Describe your journey as a writer.
LL: I started writing in my early twenties and published my first short story – a love story between an obese young woman and an elderly man – in The Wascana Review. The eleven dollars I received as payment for the story bought my young husband and I a six pack of beer and the sweetest victory either of us can remember. I received only an impressive stack of rejection letters for the next six stories I sent out and decided to shift my focus to writing for the stage. I wrote some terrible plays, veered off into acting for a year or so, returned to my typewriter and wrote my first screenplay, South of Wawa, which was made into a film by a Canadian company. More screenplays followed, dozens in fact, most of which were never made into films. For a few years my husband and I made films together but I found writing screenplays unsatisfying and craved a more direct connection with the audience. I tried my hand at being a film auteur and together with my husband attempted to produce a movie based on my original screenplay that I would also direct. Years of frustration followed, a number of false starts, deals that went sour. When finally it was time to let the film go my husband suggested I sit down to write the novel I’d been talking about for years. That novel was my first, RUSH HOME ROAD.
I worked on the story for a year and a half, most of that time while I was pregnant with my first child and without telling a soul what I was writing about. I didn’t know what to do with it when I finished the 500 page tome. I had no connections in the book world and learned from a reference book at the library that I should first look for an agent. I didn’t read the part about most unsolicited manuscripts being sent back and only learned what a slush pile was when a prominent agent called me to say that she had retrieved the ms from the top of hers and invited me in to meet. That begins the charmed part of my journey as a writer although I don’t discount the years of struggle and uncertainty. The book was sold at auction in Canada and the US and made foreign sales before there was an edited manuscript. My second novel, THE GIRLS, was chosen by the Richard and Judy Book Club in the UK, Britain’s version of Oprah. I’ve been tremendously fortunate.
The thing that I struggle with most as a writer is the thing that challenges all working mothers – balance. It’s important to me to be the one who takes my children to and from school and the one who ferries them to sporting events but all of that cuts in to an already short writing day short. I’ve missed field trips for deadlines and deadlines for field trips and I frequently worry that I’ve shortchanged either my children or my work. I know I’ve shortchanged my husband and friends. The focus and obsession that it takes to commit to a character and story for a year, or years, causes deficits in other areas. I know one writer who finds it difficult to be in public during the novel writing phase. She says she walks around with a blank stare she calls “writer’s face” and can’t hear people talk for all the white noise of her characters shuffling around in her brain. I think I have writer’s face too. I know I have writer’s hair. Still, how lucky I am to have the opportunity to sit alone in a room all day making up stories to share, even if I do have to set my alarm so that my children aren’t left at school.