In January, we shared the first half of a conversation between Lise Haines and Elizabeth Searle, where they talked about recent projects, like Lise’s novel Girl in the Arena and Elizabeth’s rock opera Tonya and Nancy, and otherwise explored the writing life and their life as writers.
In this second part of the two-part conversation, they discuss new trajectories in their careers, the things you don’t talk about in polite society (but you write about in interesting fiction), and the fun kind of suffering that is a writer’s work.
Elizabeth: I’ve noticed that we’re both going on a new trajectory, in our careers. You could say that our earlier works would be classified as literary, capital L, which is sort of like the word liberal, people don’t say it anymore. And with Girl in the Arena, not that it’s not still the high quality literary writing, but it’s definitely got the page-turner, plot element that’s very clear and strong. And I also feel that Girl Held in Home will be a plot-driven book. It was based on an actual incident in our neighborhood, where a girl – in real life, it was a grown woman – was being held in a wealthy home as an unpaid servant, and her visa was under the family’s control. They had frightened her somehow into believing that she had to do this. In my version of it, a teenage boy discovers this situation and gets a crush on the girl. In his All-American way he wants to help her but in a way he’s exploiting her. What set this book in motion was that some of the boys who lived in the real-life house where the woman was being held did a very strange thing on Halloween of 2001 – right after 9/11. They came from a family that claimed to be related to the Saudi royal family, and they went Trick or Treating in the neighborhood dressed as, in their own words, a terrorist and a dead American. In my fictional version, they have a reason: in their own misguided way, they think they’re protecting their family. I have no idea why, in real life, they did what they did. But it was one of those incidents that I wanted to explain to myself, to delve into.
Lise: It sounds like we’ve both found ourselves wandering into a very political area. Why do you think that is, for you?
Elizabeth: I come from a very political family. You mentioned 9/11. Girl Held in Home is very much a post-9/11 book. And Girl in the Arena strikes me as a post-9/11 book.
Lise: I still write mainly about families, triangulated relationships, how we move on from loss. But suddenly, I found I couldn’t hold back about something larger. It feels as if all of the stakes are higher, now.
Elizabeth: Have you ever written scripts?
Lise: No, I haven’t.
Elizabeth: You’re the one writer in America who’s held out and not written a film script!
Lise: I’m giving serious consideration to the screenplay, and maybe a graphic novel at some point.
Elizabeth: You should do a graphic novel of Girl in the Arena – do the sequel! I love that form, and you’re such a visual person.
Lise: I’m finishing up a novel as we speak, and then it will be time to clear the board again. I like this concept of transmedia overall, where one creative product can take many forms: a novella becomes a libretto becomes a film becomes a rock opera. And can’t you just see Tonya and Nancy The Game? It’s such a playful concept, that we can invent and reinvent and completely torque things around. And maybe in some ways this keeps us ahead of some of the unending anxieties with bookstores closing, lower profits on e-versions, the closing of libraries, less people reading in a traditional way. It would be very easy to simply get depressed and derail. But I think we have to fall back on that adage about the mother of invention and get re-energized. And that gives us the steam to do the fundraisers and other events to help the libraries and bookstores, and so on.
Elizabeth: The direction I’ve moved in is mixing writing and music. I’m a huge music fan, so putting words to music is such a joy to me. I got to do this for the musical and for the rock opera, and now I’m working on a new full-length opera with a terrific locally based composer, Pasquale Tassone. It is based on a play by an Italian playwright, and I am translating it into a libretto.
Lise: Do you sleep?
Elizabeth: I don’t. I don’t sleep. My son goes down around nine, and the hours between nine and one AM are very key for me.
Lise: That sounds like my schedule, though my daughter stays up late too. I usually get about four and a half hours of sleep.
Elizabeth: But nighttime is a great time to write, because everything shuts down. I get a lot of work done during those times. And I enjoy it.
Lise: Another thing about graphic novels and musicals and the themes of celebrity: it’s an interesting blend of high art and low art.
Elizabeth: I love that blend. It’s a very current thing.
Lise: We have that impulse to turn everything upside down and re-examine it, make sure we haven’t boxed ourselves into a corner with art that nobody can relate to.
Elizabeth: I think the current generation – even including us – is so steeped in pop. Pop culture and popular entertainment are about the only things America does well. That’s why the words “Celebrities in Disgrace” mean so much to me. (Ed. note: “Celebrities in Disgrace” is the title of Searle’s novella, short film, and blog.) That’s a title that came to me with the Tonya and Nancy incident, back in ’94, but to me, it just becomes more and more what our culture is all about. I feel like that part of a writer’s job is to engage your times, whatever they are, and our times are certainly tabloid times. These are our stories, our folk tales. And that is in a way what my blog is all about. Not only do we just dish on celebrities in disgrace and indulge in it, but especially in the guest posts, people talk about the weird deep emotions they feel about some of these people. One of the impetuses of the blog was a conversation I had with Steve Almond. At the time, he was worried, he said, about Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise was having his jumping on the couch moment, and not many people were sympathetic to him. But Steve was reading all sorts of mid-life crises things into whatever was happening with Tom Cruise. And I know that feeling. Again, I think people can identify heavily with something from a tabloid story. Maybe they don’t want to talk about it. But those are the most interesting things in writing, these weird feelings you wouldn’t talk about in polite society. But you would on my blog.
Lise: Okay, to switch tracks for a second. Here we are in an organization that supports and funds artists. What do you think it takes to feel really supported in this culture? Do you think we’ll see a point in time where people can no longer create art because they simply cannot afford to produce it?
Elizabeth: I feel the thing that writers, and artists in general, can do, that can save us, is to band together in groups and support each other. I feel, for instance, that self-publishing can work, but it’s often not a good model. It’s one person doing everything. If only these people would band together, form a collective – there are models for that in poetry publishing, like Alice James Press. People are constantly bemoaning how many people are studying to be writers. Why can’t that work for us? We could support each other, buy each other’s books, support our local small presses.
Lise: So what’s going to happen when we see the day, as with music, when you can download literature for free? And suddenly, all of those years of the writer crafting an individual property, a novel…
Elizabeth: With e-books, I think there will be, as a literary agent acquaintance of mine told me, a period of chaos. And then things will start sorting out.
Lise: Although, the difference between the writing world and, say, the music world is that the musicians are living off their performances, right? We don’t have that track.
Elizabeth: But I feel like we’ll come up with things. It’s not like we’ve been making a mint the old way. Just to come back to Literary Death Match (Ed. note: discussed in part one.), which was packed with people: if you make it – whatever it is – a fun, interactive experience, you give people a reason to get off their couches and come out for an event or off their computers and into your book.
Lise: That brings up the idea of how much art is here to entertain, and how much we’re afraid of that idea, that it’s somehow too commercial if we actually entertain someone through our art. But look at the classics. Dickens, that’s pure entertainment, with those really deep notes in it.
Elizabeth: He would have won the Literary Death Match! People would pack the halls to see him read. The global economy has had a terrible affect on fiction publishing, but I think the smart, small presses are going to find ways to make it work for them – like e-books, like events.
Lise: I think as life gets more sketchy on the financial end, my characters go more and more into survival. The novel I’m working on now certainly echoes that.
Elizabeth: Writers tap into the zeitgeist.
Lise: Where does your sense of humor come from?
Elizabeth: Well, I think a dark place. (Laughs) I often find things funny that I don’t know if everyone does. The various plots I’ve mentioned are terrible things, really scary in real life. But they have a dark humor to them that’s appealing and interesting to me. It’s just where I’m drawn. You are not on the bubbly bright side of humor, either!
Lise: No, it’s a very dark humor. I think mine comes primarily from my stepfather, whom I call my dad. He just has a certain sensibility. Kind of wry and dark. I see my daughter has it now.
Elizabeth: The kids these days!
Lise: Humor is, in another way, a survival skill.
Elizabeth: I remember something you said once at a reading, Lise, “I dedicate this reading to my daughter, who will never be old enough to read this book!” (Laughs) That, I totally relate to. I told my son that. He’s starting to get all-too-curious.
Lise: Yes, that was my first book, In My Sister’s Country. Another story I tell is that when Sienna was a baby, I was very focused on her as a stay-at-home mom. So when she napped was just about the only time I would write. Sometimes if I was right at the end of a scene, I’d turn up the heat a bit in the house. So she’d keep sleeping.
Elizabeth: I can remember doing that in my car. If we were driving along; I’d turn up the heat so he would fall asleep, and I could sit up in the front seat and get some writing done. Every writing mom knows those feelings.
Lise: And you can also change the type of project you’re writing. When my daughter was little, I wrote in small sections – prose poems or flash fiction that I eventually strung together.
Elizabeth: I’m glad you mentioned that, because one of the factors in me getting involved in theatre and film writing was that it much better suited having a young kid. I hadn’t had a book published in a while, partly because I tried a couple of times to write a novel with a young child, and I just could not get that continuous trance that you need. But I got the opportunity to write for the theatre, and I found I could do that in short bursts.
Lise: So when you actually sit to write… for me, I’m probably the happiest when I write. The actual act of writing-
Elizabeth: Is always fun.
Lise: Is such an absolute high.
Elizabeth: And if you lose touch with that, you’re in trouble. I’ve never lost touch with that. If I’m not happy with what I’m working on, I switch to something different. That’s the advantage to having all of these different projects.
Lise: But there have been well-known artists and writers who really suffer all the way through-
Elizabeth: You do suffer, but it’s a fun kind of suffering!
Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines was recently nominated for a South Carolina Book Award.
Elizabeth Searle is among the authors participating in Books in Bloom at the Robbins Library in Arlington, MA, on Friday, March 4 at 6 PM. Watch for another production of TONYA AND NANCY: THE ROCK OPERA in Summer 2011.
Lise Haines is the author of three novels: Girl in the Arena, a CYBILS nominee in 2009, was published in the US (Bloomsbury) with foreign rights sold in Turkey (Alfa-Artemis Yayinevi) and Brazil (Editora Underworld); Small Acts of Sex and Electricity (Unbridled Books), a Book Sense Pick in 2006 and one of ten “Best Book Picks for 2006” by the NPR station in San Diego; and In My Sister’s Country (Penguin/Putnam), a finalist for the 2003 Paterson Fiction Prize. Her short stories and essays have appeared in a number of literary journals, and she was a finalist for the PEN Nelson Algren Award. Haines has been Writer in Residence at Emerson College since 2002. She has been Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, and her other teaching credits include UCLA, UCSB, and Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. She holds a B.A. from Syracuse University and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She grew up in Chicago, lived in Southern California for many years, and now resides with her daughter in the Boston area.
Elizabeth Searle‘s new novel, Girl Held in Home, will be published in Fall, 2011. Her previous books are: Celebrities in Disgrace, a novella that the New York Times called “a miniature masterpiece”; A Four-Sided Bed, a novel, and My Body to You, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. Celebrities in Disgrace was produced as a short film in 2010 by Bravo Sierra. Elizabeth’s theater works have been featured in stories on Good Morning America, CBS, CNN, NPR, the AP and more. Her Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera was reviewed as “brilliant and touching.”
Images: cover art for GIRL HELD IN HOME by Elizabeth Searle (New Rivers Press, Fall 2011); praise by author Tom Robbins, from the back cover of GIRL IN THE ARENA by Lise Haines (Bloomsbury, 2009); Elizabeth Searle with the cast and creative team of TONYA AND NANCY, performed at Club Oberon 1/31-2/2 (photo by Barry Weiss); cover art for IN MY SISTERS COUNTRY by Lise Haines (Blue Hen, 2002).