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Healing Laughter: Wayne Pond Interviews Lisa Alther
WP: I'm just delighted to be here to talk with you, Lisa. I hope that you all realize what a treasure Lisa is. She is the real thing when it comes to literary fiction. There are many directions that we could go in. We've touched on so many wonderful themes in the excellent papers we've heard. The good part about coming last is that you have a sense of what everybody has said; the bad part is that you have to struggle to find something new to say, some new points to touch on. But I thought we might begin, Lisa, on a biographical note. You were born in Kingsport, Tennessee, in 1944. Your dad was a doctor; your grandfather was a physician. Your mom is from Rochester, New York. Give us a sense of how your childhood relates to your life as a writer. I know that this is an enormous question, but that's what people do in interviews. Tell us a story or two about growing up in Kingsport and how those experiences connect to your life as a writer.
LA: I guess that the most helpful thing to me growing up, wanting to be a writer, was the style of conversation that surrounded me all the time, among my friends, among the parents of my friends. People just talked, all the time, in terms of little stories. If they were trying to make some serious point, it was usually couched in an anecdote that was amusing. That's how I learned to think. I never could think abstractly. When I got to college, most of my friends were from the North, and they would sit around and argue about politics. I could almost never join in because my mind didn't work that way.
WP: Your brother John [sociologist John Shelton Reed] tells me that you're "a local girl, a child of the Appalachians, determined and iron-willed." He said that in the schoolyard one time somebody wanted to pick a fight with you about your being the sister of John Reed and you said, "Yeah. What do you want to make of that?" Is that true?
LA: Yes, that's true. She said sneeringly, "Are you John Reed's sister?" and I said, "Yeah, you want to make something of it?"
WP: Same thing might be said of what you do at the word processor or with a pen and pencil. As I said, your dad was a physician, and I want to come back to the large, important issue of healing. I find that your fiction offers readers a wonderful healing impulse. Is it too much of a stretch to say that that impulse arises because you came from a family in which medicine figures prominently? Your sister Jane is here, and she's a physician. Is that motif a conscious thing, or is it the sort of thing that interviewers impose on your life from the outside?
LA: I think it's a valid question, though I don't know quite how to answer it. It's true that one of my grandfathers was a doctor. My other grandfather wanted to be a doctor, but he got to medical school late and they wouldn't let him enroll so he became a lawyer instead. My father was a doctor and three of my siblings are doctors: my sister who's here and two of my brothers. It was certainly an important part of my family growing up. We would sit around the dinner table, and my father would tell us about all the operations he had done during that day--in great, horrible detail. So there was kind of an expectation that medicine was the family métier, but my problem was, as in the story I read last night, that I was incredibly squeamish. I had a severe blood disease when I was seven where my nose started bleeding and wouldn't stop. I had bruises all over my body from subcutaneous bleeding, so I think at that point I developed a real horror of blood. Obviously, you can't be a doctor if you're horrified by blood. So I think maybe I did feel, "Well, I can't be a doctor but maybe I can do something along those lines with words." But it's not something I ever set out to do to heal somebody else. It's more to heal myself.
WP: When you and your siblings talk--three doctors, a writer, and a sociologist--who says you got it right and who says you got it wrong?
LA: You mean in terms of our choice of careers?
WP: Yes, in terms of sibling rivalries and all that?
LA: Well, I don't know. My mother was an English teacher and an avid reader and a wonderful writer of letters. My brother John and I were with her when my father went away to World War II, so she kind of got us. We both became writers. Then my father came home, and the three younger children are doctors, so he sort of took over when he got back. Instead of competing with one another over our career choices, I think we enjoy the diversity. I love hearing about their medical knowledge, and they seem to enjoy John's and my writing.
WP: For those of you who don't know his work, John Reed is a rare exception in the field of sociology because he can write. He's a wonderful, graceful writer. I don't know whether he imitates you or you imitate him, but it works very well.
Lisa, let's talk about some of the ways we've heard your work categorized in this festival's papers. We've heard you described as a comic writer, a writer of satire, a novelist of manners, a comic genius--any number of labels. The line that came to mind is from one of my favorite politicians. When asked about his political ideology, he said, "Well, I resent the label, but I enjoy the company." Would you tell us how you think about yourself as a writer, or is it even important that you think of yourself as a writer about sexual themes or comic themes or tragic themes?
LA: I guess I've always felt that I write whatever I have to write for my own internal reasons. Then once the work is published, it gets categorized, and that's really out of my control. Frankly, I'm just flattered whenever I get any kind of attention for my writing, and flattered to be included in any kind of group. Sometimes I'm called a woman writer, or a Southern writer, or an Appalachian writer, or a terrible writer. That last one I'm not so crazy about. All the others I'm flattered to hear.
WP: One of the words we haven't heard in this panoply of labels and categories is the term "moralist." Now, that's not a dirty word necessarily. Are you a moralizing writer?
LA: Well, I think that the impulse for my writing has always been what one would probably call spiritual, in the sense that writing is the format I've always used to try to understand such questions as why am I here, what am I supposed to be doing while I'm here, what does it mean to be a good person, how am I supposed to treat other people. So I'm trying to find answers to those sorts of questions for myself through the vehicle of my fiction. Insofar as the conclusions that I come to are congenial to anyone else who reads my books, I suppose in that sense I would be considered a moralist. But it's not something I do deliberately.
WP: So your concern is not with the reaction of the reader?
LA: Right. When I began writing, I wrote for fourteen years and couldn't get published. So I got used to the idea of not having an audience. I knew that if I were going to continue writing, I had to find other reasons than fame and riches and reactions from readers. I decided that I love to write, that it's the most fun I have, so that makes it worth doing; and I use writing to figure out things about my life and the world, so that makes it worth doing; and it's a craft and I can feel that I'm getting better at it and thus may hope eventually to get published, and that makes it worth doing. A lot of writers talk about how they had an ideal reader in mind. John Updike, for instance, talks about thinking of a young boy in the Midwest as his potential reader. But since I didn't have anything published, I didn't have any idea of anyone ever reading my work. In a way that situation was very freeing because it meant that I could pull out all the stops and not worry about whom I might insult.
WP: Philip Roth says that there are only sixty thousand real readers on the planet, and I'm sure that every one of them knows your work.
You just mentioned the craft of the writer, the work of the writer, so to speak. I'm perennially interested in the question of the interplay between the writer's imagination and the writer's experience. Now when I interviewed you sixteen or seventeen years ago, I commented on all the crazy things that happen to your characters, all the kinky, sexy scenes and all the crazy ideas they entertain, and you said, "I really get tired of being asked, 'Is that you? Did that happen to you?' So I always say yes." I won't ask you that question, but I will ask you this: Whether or not those things happened to you, why is it important that you write about things that are crazy and kinky and weird and strange, and how does the blend of your imagination and your experience bear on how you put these things down in your books?
LA: Well, particularly with Kinflicks, people always talked about my satire and my weird, kinky incidents, but I always felt, frankly, that I was writing documentary. I know a lot of crazy people.
WP: So there is some biography, not necessarily autobiography, at work here?
LA: Well, I often say that if I had been doing all the things my characters do, I wouldn't have had time to write five novels. But I have a variety of sources for my material. One is things I do myself. Another is things my friends do. Another is things I read about in the National Enquirer. Another is my imagination, incidents I just make up. So it's an amalgamation, and one of the reasons I have such crazy characters is that they entertain me. If you're a writer, you spend long periods of time in solitude, just writing, and you have to keep yourself entertained or else you couldn't stand it.
WP: You sound like Clea of Bedrock, with her preoccupation with the prospect of sitting alone in a room by herself and not going crazy. Is that what writing is like for you, being in that room alone?
LA: Well, I think when somebody says that he or she wants to be a writer and what advice do I have, I always say that the really important question is how much time can you spend alone, how many hours in a day, how many days in a week, how many weeks in a month. If that's something you can do and that you enjoy, then you have a pretty fair chance of being a writer. But if you can't, then find something else, because it is a solitary life and that solitude is a job requirement.
WP: I remember your saying when I interviewed you the first time that the principal requirement of writing is to have a low overhead. Why?
LA: Because writing pays so badly. I think I read somewhere last year that the average American writer made $ 7,000 from his or her writing. So it pays very badly for most people. If you want to have the freedom to write, you can't have a lot of outside expenses that you need to meet. Either that or you need a day job. Or both. Otherwise, you find yourself writing in order to meet a deadline to pay a bill, and oftentimes those demands can simply cut off the impulse to write, especially to write fiction. So that's actually a very practical piece of advice: either have a day job to make money or live very simply and be content not to have a lot of money unless you're extremely fortunate. A few writers do make a lot of money--but not many.
WP: We've heard so much in this festival's papers about the many wonderful characters you've created. Do you have a favorite child, so to speak, in your fiction? Or is that a fair question to ask a writer, any more than it would be to ask a parent?
LA: A lot of parents would say (as I look at my sister) that their favorite child is the youngest. I think my favorite character is always the one I'm working on in the present, so I guess my favorite would be the main character in my new novel, the little shepherd boy named Diego. I like all my other characters, too. In fact, I miss them. For me, characters often become like imaginary playmates are for a child. During the period of time when I'm writing a book, I'm hanging out with them in the ether every day. Then when the novel is finished, they vanish, and I'm left wondering what's become of Ginny Babcock [of Kinflicks], how's she doing. I worry about her; I fear that she's not doing well. So I like them all, but I have a real affection for the one I'm trying to bring to life.
WP: We were talking a moment ago about your own work as a writer and satisfying your own standards and goals and coming to terms with yourself as a writer versus the reaction of readers. Let's talk about the reaction of one particular set of readers--the critics. Do the critics matter to you? Are you the kind of writer who rushes right out to read the reviews and who holds personal grudges? Or do you just dismiss such things? What is the function of criticism for you?
LA: I think it's important to make a distinction between reviewers and critics. Reviewers are the ones who do pieces when the book first comes out. The reviews are usually fairly short and poorly thought through and often based on the dust-jacket copy. Critics are what we've been hearing in the papers today and yesterday, really well-thought-out essays, carefully written, full of interesting insights. I write reviews myself, and I try not to do this, but at the New York Times, for instance, when a review is assigned, the reviewer is told to try to write enough about the book so that the person reading the review won't actually have to buy the book. As an author, I found those guidelines demoralizing. And the other thing that reviewers are trying to do is make a snap judgment: this is a good book or a bad book; you should read it or you shouldn't read it. When Kinflicks first came out, the publisher sent me all the reviews in a batch. I had about 150 reviews, and I read them all, discovering that what one reviewer loved another hated. I quickly found that a book is like a Rorschach test. What the reviewers are telling about is not the book but their own personalities, their likes and dislikes and their state of health on the day they read the book. So after that, I tried not to read the reviews. It's hard not to because your friends love to clip out the worst ones and send them to you. But mostly I try to stay away from them now because if they're very negative (in my case they're usually about 50/50), they can really scar you in terms of having the self-confidence to go on and write what you need to write the next time around.
WP: Whether approving or disapproving, critics write about where writers fit into social and literary history and whether they fail or succeed. You have said that you don't write your books from large social abstractions. You write to learn what you think about an issue, to explore an issue and to think your way through it. What are the issues that you want, consciously or not, to address in your novels?
LA: I think it's impossible, really, not to write out of some social context. Consider feminism, for instance. I would never have been able to write my books without the atmosphere that the women's movement established in terms of empowering women to examine themselves and determine what they were really thinking and feeling in those years before feminism became a dirty word. Writers don't simply write out of their own isolation. But what I meant is that I don't write to promote any party policy but instead to measure myself and my own thoughts and feelings against what I perceive to be the prevailing ideologies of the time that I'm writing about.
WP: Doris Betts says that she loves being asked about her fiction but that she resents the moment that comes when an interviewer asks her to make a pronouncement on a particular social issue: abortion, feminism, the upcoming presidential election. What is the role of the serious literary artist in American society, which is increasingly a society of commodification, of consumerism? Is there a role for the serious artist of literary fiction in such a society?
LA: It's probably a mistake for writers to try to pronounce on political issues too much. We have our job, our craft; it's what we're good at, and that's what we need to do. It would be like giving more weight to any other profession on political issues. When Kinflicks came out and was successful, I was presumed to be an instant expert on everything from aspirin brands to Zimbabwe. Everybody suddenly thinks that the successful writer knows more than other people, but I didn't. I certainly have my
political convictions, and I do exercise them in my private life. But I think that insofar as my fiction comments on such matters that that's the best way for me to make any kind of political statement. It's just what comes through in the course of my novels.
WP: You mention having a private life. This is a society in which privacy seems to be disappearing. Is it important for you as a writer to have a private life, to maintain a private life, and to draw a barrier between your private life and your professional artistic life?
LA: To me it is. It's your private life that gives you the impulse to write what you write. If you're using that life to sell your work, you've sullied the pool, I think. This commodification of the culture is a very real problem for writers. During the last ten years I was living a lot in New York and really got a dose of what it meant to market oneself. I saw people all around me, some of them my friends, who were so eager to push their work that they would have sold their grandmothers into slavery. It sickened me, and that's why I've pretty much left New York lately and have been spending most of my time in Vermont, where I have a house, and down here, where I just find that the values are a little more to my liking, a bit sounder and more sincere.
WP: To the degree that you're a Southern writer, is it a contradiction that you've spent more than 30 years in Vermont?
LA: Probably. I would like to be considered a Southern writer, but I don't know that I've ever called myself one. I also get called a New England writer, so it's kind of confusing. But since my mother is a New Yorker and my father is a Virginian, I guess I have one foot in each camp. I do think of myself as a Southerner even though I've spent 33 years in Vermont because I think that wherever you grow up leaves an indelible stain that defines who you are right through your life. I spent my first eighteen years in Kingsport, and I take those experiences with me--I have them inside me--even though I'm living in Vermont.
WP: Let's assume that we can time travel a hundred years into the future and that we're looking back and considering literary fiction at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. I'll give you an opportunity to be humble and self-serving at the same time. What are we going to read about Lisa Alther's place in the history of literary fiction?
LA: I would just as soon not be remembered, frankly. I think of fiction writers as like the waves breaking on a beach. A wave comes in and breaks, washing the flotsam up the beach, and then recedes. And then the next wave comes in. That's the way I think it should be. Each new generation of writers is dealing with the issues that are important to that generation and to that time in world history. I don't know that it's really necessary to preserve authors down through the centuries.
WP: Maybe you don't want to be remembered, but in your fiction you certainly remember a lot of writers. The epigraphs you use range from Indian mystics to Napoleon, from Mark Twain to Oscar Wilde. Who are your literary heroes and heroines? How do you want to fit into that cavalcade?
LA: Well, that's true. I do think that it's important for writers to have literary forebears, foremothers and forefathers, a sense of a tradition that the writers are trying to fit into and hopefully extend. It would be wonderful, of course, if some writer or reader in the twenty-first century, looking back, found something in my work that had endured the ravages of time, but it's not for me to suggest what that might be. I was saying to Jan Hokenson after her talk that I was struck by what she had to say because one of my favorite books is entitled The Wisdom of the Idiots. It's a compilation of Middle Eastern tales that feature the fool figure in a variety of situations in which he turns out to be the wise person. I must have read that book more than a dozen times; it's one of my very favorites. I like folk tales. In terms of the fiction writers who have influenced my work, when I was growing up all the Southern women writers were very important to me--Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter--partly because they showed me that women could be good writers, partly because they were dealing with material that was familiar to me, so they showed me that I didn't have to set my stories on a moor in England, that I could set my stories right here in the mountains of East Tennessee.
When I started writing myself, probably the writer who was most important to me was Doris Lessing. I read all her work one summer, and it was like an illumination for me because she was dealing with dating, pregnancy, childbirth, house work--all the things that were considered inferior because they weren't wars or exploration into the wilderness or going to sea in ships. Her books made me realize that if you take what your life really is and can tell it in an interesting way, then you have a novel. I wrote her a fan letter, and she wrote me back. And I wrote her back and thanked her, and she wrote me back and thanked me for thanking her, and then we started a correspondence that still continues. She read Kinflicks when it was in manuscript and liked it and helped me to get it published, so she's been sort of my mentor over the years.
WP: Tell us what you think about the publishing industry today.
LA: I'm very unhappy with it. It's wrecking literature. It's very much focused on profits for the large conglomerates that own the publishing companies. Fewer and fewer beginning writers have a chance. So-called mid-list writers, many of whom have four or five modestly successful books, are unable to get their new books published. It's just a shambles. I guess it's a time of transition. We're going from paperbound books to some kind of electronic media, but publishing hasn't sorted itself out yet, so there's real chaos. Many writers I know who can afford to retire are simply retiring because they're so fed up.
WP: You're not one of them, I hope.
LA: No. I've got the habit.
WP: You mentioned Flannery O'Connor a moment ago. O'Connor is the writer who gave us the memorable phrase about the South, "the Christ-haunted landscape." You also talked earlier about issues of the spirit. Now I could accuse you of being deeply cynical about religion. You sometimes satirize religious characters--Daryl, the lunatic minister in Bedrock, for instance--and you have some unkind things to say about Southern Baptist ministers, too. But there is also, for me at least, a great force of consolation in your fiction. Are you a religious person? Is it important that readers know that you think about religious issues to understand your fiction? How do spirit and your fiction work together?
LA: I guess I would say that I am deeply cynical about religion but not about spirituality. The distinction I would make is that religion is the institutionalization of spirituality. The spiritual impulse is essential, and it's in everyone. It wells up and it takes different forms. But it seems to me that when a religion gets hold of that impulse it distorts the impulse in various ways. It becomes a question of power and real estate. That's how I feel cynical about religion. As for whether it's important to know that about me to enjoy and understand my books, I would say that my books are really written on several different levels, and the deepest level usually deals with some spiritual question that I'm posing to myself. But you can read the book and enjoy it without knowing that that's so.
WP: A secular variation on what you're saying might be the great American preoccupation with reinventing oneself, redeeming oneself, finding a new direction, finding a new sense of spirit. Your books are filled with people who are searching for new ways to live their lives. Is it "ism-jism"? That's the memorable phrase that you use in Bedrock, I think. Why is this important to you, this idea of reinventing oneself or having characters reinvent themselves?
LA: I think that before you can get to the layer that's really spiritual, you have to go through all the answers that are given to you, all the "isms." Again, it's an institutionalization of that spiritual impulse. You have to take those isms and examine them and participate in them and allow them to disappoint you before you can know that they're not the answer and so cast them off. A lot of my characters go through a kind of stripping process in which they are converts to whatever ideology surrounds them and they try their best to participate in it and then find that it doesn't answer those ultimate questions and so they have to shed it and move to the next one until finally they're stripped down to the bare bones, the essence. The fundamentalist streak that runs through this area's culture has done us a real disservice by defining what Christianity is so narrowly and asserting that if you don't believe these things then you're not a Christian. A lot of us are Christian and don't agree with that kind of definition. But the other strand of spirituality that runs through this part of the country is the Cherokee spiritual tradition. A lot of the people in this area, including my family, are, say, one-sixteenth Cherokee. The Cherokees weren't all sent to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. A lot of them hid out in the mountains and intermarried with Anglo-Saxon people and stayed right here. That spiritual tradition is an undercurrent in the mindset of this region, with the idea that each creature and each object has an essence and that essence is the same in everyone. It's what links us. They called it the Great Spirit, but you could call it God. So to me this region gives with one hand and takes away with the other when it comes to spirituality.
WP: You're circling around your comments last night when you mentioned the new book you're writing about the Melungeons, and here you're talking about the Cherokees and Native Americans. I thought to myself when I first heard that you were writing a historical novel that this is very new material for Lisa. And then I thought, wait a minute. There are several important historical episodes in your earlier books. In Five Minutes in Heaven you have Jude visiting her grandparents, who get into a terrible argument about the year 1572, when "my" people attacked "your" people. So there you were working with historical material. Let's elaborate on this matter. Southern writers love place. Southern writers love the past. In what ways do you see yourself writing historical fiction? You can talk about your previous books, or you can talk about this new novel on the Melungeons.
LA: It’s true that I have, in tracing a character's past and assessing what he or she is in the present, increasingly gone further and further back to determine what the past was, to the racial past, the different elements that make up a person. I guess that's something that happens as a writer gets older; you get more and more interested in genealogy, in who came from where and in what characteristics they brought with them and transmitted to the family that have come down to the present.
WP: "Why am I the way I am?"
LA: Yes. Everything I've ever written has been fueled by that question--and everything that a lot of writers have ever written. Often fiction is a means of self-exploration, self-definition. If you didn't have a pretty strong drive to figure something out, you probably wouldn't have the stamina to go through the years that it takes to write a book.
WP: As my wonderful teacher Hugh Holman used to say, all it takes is a weak mind and a strong back.
LA: It used to take carbon paper. Now it takes a computer. But it's true that this new book I'm writing is my first attempt to do a real historical novel. It's the first one that hasn't been set in the relatively contemporary years.
WP: You're a very experienced writer, Lisa. You've done five novels; you've done lots of short fiction; you've written reviews. Is this a new experience for you, to write this book? Do you tremble, as it were, as you approach this project because the novel goes so far back into the past?
LA: Yes, that's one reason why this conference has been so wonderful for me, to hear the three critics who have spoken to us, because in a sense I'm wrapping up one cycle of my writing life. I've done five novels that are contemporary and psychological. So to be able to hear the insights of these critics on all five novels has been absolutely wonderful for me because they help me see that cycle for what it is and get ready to move on. In order to know where you want to go next, you have to know where you've been. It is kind of with fear and trembling that I approach this new project. Historical fiction is a whole new undertaking for me, and in that sense it's very revitalizing because I don't know how to do it. I'm having to figure it out, having to read books and imitate what other people have done. So at my age of fifty-six, to be this excited about something is a real gift when so many of my friends are retiring.
WP: Speaking of gifts, in all of the papers we've heard, I've been reminded how you give us the gift of laughter. You console us, to come back to an earlier point. That is finally a kind of mystery, isn't it, how laughter works in our lives? Do you write to console yourself?
LA: Probably. I certainly write to entertain myself.
WP: Do you laugh as hard when you're sitting there working on your fiction as you make us laugh when we read these books?
LA: You're very sweet. Thank you. I'm sorry to admit that I do sometimes laugh out loud. But humor is actually, in some ways, very serious. I think it's a very important quality, and it's one of the traits I use to judge people. If somebody has no sense of humor, I'm scared of them. I tend to shy away from them. I certainly don't pursue them as friends. The reason I say that is that I see humor as a very important psychological balancing mechanism. If you can make a joke, it means that you can step back from a situation and detach yourself from it. If you can't do that, then you're a fanatic. I doubt that Hitler laughed a lot, for instance. I doubt if any of these political demagogues laugh a lot. Humor is almost the most important psychological assessment tool I have.
WP: Isn't it H. L. Mencken's definition that Puritanism is the deep, deep fear that somewhere, somehow, somebody is having fun?
LA: That reminds me of what the Australians said during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal: Thank God the Americans got the Puritans and we got the convicts.
WP: As I look into your eyes, I can see that humorous twinkle, and it is at once dangerous, and appealing, and enchanting. And I think that all of those words apply to your fiction, too.
Let's take some questions from the audience.
Question: Can you say something more about being raised as a tomboy? How did our mothers, in that period after World War II, have the wisdom to give us that freedom, to let us be tomboys?
LA: I think that the world was a safer place, for one thing. I used to just run wild, all over the neighborhood. Now parents feel that they really need to know where their children are, and I guess we probably do because there are so many horrible things that happen. Perhaps my mother, who is in the audience, can answer that question.
Mrs. Reed: We had no choice. We just had to let you go.
Question: I really like your characters' names. How do you come up with them? Do they occur to you before you develop the characters or afterwards?
LA: Usually I have to find a name. I often start out with a name, and it leaves me uneasy; it doesn't fit. Often I put ten or twelve names on a character until finally there's one that sticks and seems right.
Question: Could you elaborate on how the electronic age has affected the publishing industry?
LA: I think that the jury is still out. I grew up in a book generation, so I can't imagine being content with a hand-held screen. I like a book, the heft and feel of it, and I like to take it in the bath. I guess you could still take one of those palm readers in. The change is probably as important as Gutenberg and moveable type. The problem when you're living through a period of change is that you don't see exactly how it's all going to work out, but the publishing industry is clearly in total upheaval. Stephen King is now publishing a serialized book on the Internet, and the publishers are terrified because if writers take publishing into their own hands, without using the publishing companies as intermediaries, obviously the publishing houses are in trouble. I was a manuscript reader for a publisher in New York for a couple of years, and the problem that I see is one of quality control. I read the books that came in over the transom; it's called the slush pile. There were hundreds of manuscripts. They filled the cubbyholes of a whole wall in the office, and it was my job to read them and send them to an editor if they seemed promising and send them back to the author if they didn't. In my two years of reading I found maybe two manuscripts that I sent to editors. There's a lot of writing being done that isn't ready to be published. Fiction writers need an apprenticeship, the same as you do for brain surgery. You wouldn't send a medical student in to remove someone's stomach. The student has to go through the training period and learn the craft. Writers do too. If suddenly everybody who wants to write is publishing on the Internet, it will be hard to know what's worth reading. There are lots of issues involved. The wonderful thing about this kind of publishing is that it does democratize it. People with controversial points of view who might be censored by the big publishing houses will be able to get their work out. I don't know how it's all going to shake down. It's fascinating, but for those of us who liked the old system and flourished under it, obviously we're not too thrilled.
Question: What kinds of initial impulses lead to your novels? And what sorts of revision do you do?
LA: For me, the initial impulse for a book comes from a mental image, not like a picture postcard but just some vague scene I have in my head. I see characters but I don't know who they are, and they're doing something but I don't know why. Often I know what the opening of the novel will be from a scene like that, and often I know the ending second. The job of writing the novel is to figure out what's going to happen in between. It's sort of like life. You know you've been born and you know you're going to die, but you don't know what happens in the middle. For me it's a very visual process. A lot of times I have a number of scenes in my head. If I get stuck, I just write scenes. I don't know how they fit together, but once they're written I realize that if I rearrange them they form a story that starts to make sense. It's not a very organized process at all. I can't make outlines and know in advance what I'm going to be writing. It's like a discovery, which is part of what makes the process so much fun, because I don't know where it's going and I learn things that I didn't know I knew.
As for revision, I've always done a lot of drafts. It's almost for me like the process for creating a painting. You do a pencil sketch, and then you go back and do another version in which you put in the colors in the background. Each time you go back to it, it gets more and more detailed. For me that's how a manuscript works. I sketch in a rough outline, and then I figure out what the plot is, and then I figure out who the characters are. Usually I do five or six really major drafts. By the time I get to the end, I see the book differently and so have to go back and do it all over again. Actually, I think I could have written the same novel my whole life, but finally I just get sick of it and say that's it, that's the book.
Question: While you may start with one image, you seem to go on to provide a variety of voices, of opposing viewpoints, as Doris Lessing often does. Is this a conscious design or pattern?
LA: That's something that comes later. I don't set out intending to do that. But I realize that the initial viewpoint needs to be challenged by its antithesis, to see if it's a valid position or a feeble one. It's a process of testing ideas. As Harriette pointed out in her paper yesterday, I was quite taken in college with the philosophy of Hegel. In Kinflicks I used Hegel very deliberately. I would posit a thesis and then develop its antithesis and then try to see if they resulted in a synthesis. Usually they didn't, even though Hegel had promised they would. I didn't realize that I had continued to do that throughout my other novels, but when Harriette pointed that out, I realized it was true.
WP: There's a scene in one of your novels in which a character says that the trick to really smart, snappy, clever dinner-party conversation is to find an argument and then immediately take the opposite position.
LA: That's what my brother John does all the time.
Question: How has your work as a painter affected your writing, and how did you become interested in painting?
LA: I haven't painted for the last couple of years, but I was painting for about ten years and am looking forward to getting back to it. I mostly did watercolor. Hopefully, it's going to help me a lot in my writing because with watercolor you don't really get second chances. You wet the paper and then it's drying all the time, so you have to get your idea down and get it down fast and then leave it alone or you'll mess it up. I'm hoping the experience will get me out of doing quite so many drafts as I do. I think that sometimes I overdo my drafts and mess the book up. I love to paint. It's much more fun than writing, actually. All those beautiful colors mix and merge.
Question: Do you paint on the subjects of your writing, or does your writing affect your painting?
LA: I've done a series of paintings, watercolors, that were partly inspired by Other Women. The novel takes place on a lake called Lake Glass, and so I've done a series of paintings that are sort of abstract representational but that have to do with the lake and some of the emotions of Other Women.
Question: Science plays an important role in your writing. It appears, for instance, in many of your metaphors. Do you do a lot of research about science in order to incorporate it into your books?
LA: My use of science probably results from being raised in a medical family, all those dinner-table discussions we had about operations and medicine. It's very much a part of my make-up even if I am too squeamish to be a doctor. Also, I'm very interested in popularized science. I read it a lot, not only because I'm interested but also because it gives me metaphors. That interest comes in part from the Cherokee influence I've already mentioned, the notion that everything contains the same underlying essence. That idea is what allows somebody to write metaphors. You can compare one thing to another because they really are, in a certain sense, the same.
WP: The final turn is to thank you, Lisa, for bearing up under this withering barrage of questions. It's been a great pleasure for me to speak with you.
LA: Thank you. It's been really fun for me to be interviewed by you again after 17 years. Wayne's the best interviewer I've ever had.
IRON MOUNTAIN REVIEW 17 (Spring, 2001). John Lang, ed. Emory, VA: Emory and Henry College.
Lang, John (ed.) APPALACHIA AND BEYOND: Conversations with Writers from the Mountain South.
Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2006. pp. 277-91.