Both authors have made careers of writing highly-acclaimed literary fiction; most recently, Lise Haines wrote Girl in the Arena and Elizabeth Searle wrote the novella and story collection Celebrities in Disgrace. And both authors find their creative lives veering in intriguing new trajectories — working with genres, forms, and subjects previously uncharted in their writing lives.
Here, the two authors conduct a reciprocal interview, touching on literary death matches (of various sorts), writing what isn’t comfortable, and the way creative ideas take hold of us and don’t let go.
This is part one of a two-part conversation (read part two).
Lise: You just won Literary Death Match.
Elizabeth: I did! I got a gold metal. It was just like what Nancy Kerrigan always wanted so that was deeply meaningful for me.
Lise: I’ve not been to a Literary Death Match-
Elizabeth: Oh, you’d love it. It’s a literary event that really pushes the boundaries. There’s this great guy, Todd (Zuniga), who runs Literary Death Matches all around the world. He asks bookstore owners and people like that to recommend four writers. Jaime Clarke from Newtonville Books recommended me. Then each writer picks a literary entity to be their sponsor and get some publicity. I ended up being sponsored by Post Road magazine. For the Boston event, we gathered in the Enormous Room, which could not be more fun. I was trying to describe (that space) to my son, and he said, is it like an opium den? And I said yes, actually, it was kind of like an opium den-
Lise: From all your years of experience in opium dens, right?
Elizabeth: (Laughs) But with the giant pillows, it’s so comfortable. It’s a fantastic venue for readings. So they paired us into two groups, and I won my round somehow.
Elizabeth: Yes, exactly.
Lise: And did the crowd vote?
Elizabeth: No, thank goodness. I would not want to be on the applause-meter. There were three judges: Steve Almond, Jennifer Haigh, and Steve Macone, who’s known as the “comedian-for-the-people.” Todd made it very clear: this is like American Idol, only not mean. And they all got into the spirit of it. So those three judged each round, and then you had two finalists. The final round of Literary Death Match was madness, just absurd. Whoever chose the most-followed Facebook authors won. All my Facebooking came into play! And I got the gold metal.
Lise: Okay, so you’ll have a new book coming out in 2011.
Elizabeth: Yes, in October 2011.
Elizabeth: Girl Held in Home.
Lise: If there was a symbol, like the Oprah symbol or the Newbury Award Winner symbol, would you put “Literary Death Match Winner” on your cover?
Elizabeth: I actually would, I would be crazy enough to do that. My work doesn’t tend to be that earnest, so this was my kind of contest, and I was really happy to win it. I think the literary community can do more of these kinds of events. It’s the opposite of sitting on uncomfortable folding chairs in a florescent lit space.
So Lise, you and I both have Girl books: Girl in the Arena and Girl Held in Home. Your novel was a big jump for you. Young adult literature is a hot market, but I know you didn’t necessarily write it knowing it was going to be billed both for YA and adult readers.
Lise: It’s not uncommon now when you have a young protagonist to see your work dually marketed as adult and young adult. I just wrote a book that I had to write, and I think the crazy thing for me was not how it got marketed but why I was writing this book in the first place. I think of myself as a pacifist. Any way to de-escalate violence is a good thing in my mind. And I’ve always avoided watching violent movies or graphic news programs. Suddenly I found myself writing about this girl who grew up in an entirely violent culture, the premise being that in the ’60s, someone introduced an underground movement which became a replica of gladiator sport in ancient Rome, with hints of Fight Club. Now, this girl is 18, and she’s watched six of her fathers die in the arena, because her mother is very embedded in this culture of gladiators. But I couldn’t figure out why on Earth I was writing it.
Elizabeth: But I don’t think you could read that book and miss that you are anti-violence.
Lise: No, but I was entering a world that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable in. About six months into it, I thought, that’s good, that I’m not comfortable.
Lise: That I’m taking a lot of risks and exploring things I would not have done. I think a lot of it was a response to events like 9/11 and the quest to survive in a difficult economy, in difficult times.
Elizabeth: You’re in the arena.
Lise: We all are, every day.
Elizabeth: And (Girl in the Arena is) a mother/daughter story. There’s a lot of resonance. I also liked how you explore the culture of fame. You wrote, “The cameras are like a wall of painful light.” Were you consciously taking on that theme, too?
Lise: So many people who make marks in our world now are suddenly escalated to this crazy place of paparazzi. I saw a documentary recently about a young boy who was functioning as a paparazzo. He was in Hollywood and everyday he’d be out there until two, three AM, shooting photographs of the celebrities. And then because of the documentary, he became a celebrity. And pretty soon, he didn’t know who he was, and what he was doing. It’s hard not to hold a mirror up to that, since it’s such a part of our culture. You’ve focused very much on the Tonya (Harding) and Nancy (Kerrigan) drama. One of the things I love is that that story has created various streams for you. You started out with a libretto…
Elizabeth: Actually, I started out with a novella, Celebrities in Disgrace, although Tonya and Nancy are just background figures in that. And then I did the libretto for the chamber opera, Tonya and Nancy, which we performed at what was then A.R.T.’s Zero Arrow Theatre. Almost all of the libretto are words that Tonya or Nancy or (Jeff) Gillooly – all these various figures who are stranger than fiction – spoke. And then we created a whole different show that premiered a couple of years ago in Portland, Oregon, the home of Tonya. We did a showcase of it in L.A., and we’re going to bring it to Boston. It’s a ninety minute rock opera, with music by Michael Teoli.
Lise: And then you have the film short.
Elizabeth: Yeah, the film short (Celebrities in Disgrace).
Lise: You’ve created an empire.
Elizabeth: Well, sometimes you do find something that, for whatever reason, strikes deep chords.
Lise: So it’s a comic tragedy…
Elizabeth: And that’s something that I love about the Tonya and Nancy story. It has a dark comedy element that’s just absurd. It’s the dumbest crime of the century and yet it’s also poignant and sad if you know anything about either of their backgrounds, really. For those who are too young to know, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were two rival Olympic skaters, and Nancy Kerrigan was dramatically and horribly attacked, her knee was whacked with a steel baton. And she was seriously injured right before the Olympic skate-offs were about to begin. Suspicion focused on her rival Tonya Harding, who was in some way her opposite, and proof was eventually found that Tonya’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly – you could not invent a character like him – was behind it. Tonya was never, it should be mentioned, proven to be in on it. But most people suspect she was. It was one of the first crazy tabloid stories that took over 24/7 news coverage. One of my inspirations for pursuing it was that at that time, the conservative commentator George Will made the comment, “This is a ridiculous story that has nothing whatsoever to do with life in America today.” And I thought, ridiculous story, yes, of course. But it has everything to do with life in America. I thought that back in ’94; I think it even more now. This story just carries for me. It touches on all sorts of themes of American life: jealousy, the glittery surface of these pretty skirts and girls skating, but violence right underneath it, just brutal violence. And this desperation for attention and fame and acclaim that they both in their different ways had.
Lise: And that phrase that Nancy was shouting out, “Why me?” That goes to the heart of anyone who’s ever suffered a tragedy.
Elizabeth: That got so much attention, and people view it in different ways. Both (Tonya and Nancy) bring up strong feelings. And when we do the show we’re now developing in Boston, it’s going to be very interactive, and we’re going to encourage – and you would relate to this with Girl in the Arena – a Roman coliseum kind of feeling. I would love it if the audience gets into a frenzy and then afterward thinks, whoa, what was that. Because these two women tap into primal stereotypes of women – the good girl, the bad girl. I’ve been working on this crazy stuff for the last six years, having many conversations with people, and they get worked up about Tonya and Nancy.
Lise: When you look at your entire writing career, which has many phases, do you ever wish you could just take all of the marketing end and just hand it to somebody? Okay, you do that, and I’ll go back to my study.
Elizabeth: That’s interesting. I imagine maybe a lot of writers would feel that. I have to confess that I like the marketing side. I look at it as totally different, though, from the creative side. As Bill Clinton used to say, Compartmentalize. The morning time, or the late night, my best mind times, are for writing, and I try to block out everything else. But then I enjoy promotion, otherwise I wouldn’t have either entered or won the Literary Death Match. Now that I have been introduced to Facebook and Twitter, and blogging, I enjoy that, too. But, do you feel differently? I remember a terrific interactive Powerpoint presentation you did at the Belmont Library.
Lise: At the time, I thought, I’m so modern, doing Powerpoint. I guess that’s so last century…
Elizabeth: I thought it was wonderful!
Lise: Two young guys at Emerson recently created a book trailer for my book. We’re seeing more and more book trailers, but I knew that I couldn’t get involved in making an elaborate film. So I talked to one of my former students, and he said, Well, I’d love to do that.
Elizabeth: And then your daughter did some trailers.
Lise: She got dressed up as a gladiator, she and her friend, and they went into Harvard Square and took their shields.
Elizabeth: Thinking about Girl in the Arena, I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies, Carrie. Stephen King knew the true horror begins in a high school gym shower. I think you play on some of the things that happen in a regular teenager’s life; they’re bigger here, and they’re horrifying. Quoting your book: “Survival can sharpen the mind if it doesn’t obliterate it.” That idea is so relatable. And Girl in the Arena strikes me as so filmable. Really, all of your other novels are very filmable, In My Sister’s Country and Small Acts of Sex and Electricity.
Lise: Maybe it’s because I have such a passion for film, almost as strong as my passion for literature.
Elizabeth: When you’re writing, do you see the scenes cinematically?
Lise: I think my mind is very cinematic when I write. For me, an average day has three realities. Along with dream/sleep time and the waking world, my writing life is like a very vivid daydream. I feel like part of my job is to report back on this third reality.
Elizabeth: That’s a great metaphor. You’re mixing, in that dream-like way, so many things from your real life. But it creates something new.
Lise: And once a character exists in your mind, you can’t really change their actions. You can change their stimulus – you can create a car crash, you can have somebody walk out a door – but the person you’re really invested in, that main character, you can’t ask them to make any decisions than the ones they have to make. Even if those decisions are suddenly so crazy and wild and bring out some different aspect of their personality.
Elizabeth: Knowing you, I could tell as I read Girl in the Arena that you were being led along. At a certain point, you were following what the characters you set in motion needed to do. One of the lines that really struck me was, “I am everything I am not.” (Your protagonist) becomes her opposite – which is great in fiction, a classic thing – she becomes the opposite of everything she stood against, at first.
Lise: And that line that keeps threading through, which is a Biblical line, “We know not what we do.” We’re compelled, we’re following this course, but we don’t really know exactly what we’re setting up, or where this could take us.
Watch for part two of this interview, where the authors talk new career trajectories, new trends in publishing, and writing what you don’t talk about in polite society!
Lise Haines will appear at Books in Bloom, a library fundraiser open to the public on January 28, 2011, 6:30 – 9:00 PM at the Belmont Public Library along with Leah Hager Cohen, Ellen Fitzpatrick, Daniel Golden, Megan Marshall, Mameve Medwed, Tom Perrotta, Clara Silverstein and Greg Tang.
A new production of the rock opera TONYA AND NANCY by Elizabeth Searle, music by Michael Teoli, directed by Janet Roston, will be playing January 31, February 1, and February 2 at Club Oberon of the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Harvard Square.
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 grew up in Chicago, lived in Southern California for many years, and now resides with her daughter in the Boston area. She holds a B.A. from Syracuse University and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.
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 being developed for film 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 IN THE ARENA by Lise Haines (Bloomsbury USA, 2009); cover art for CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE by Elizabeth Searle (Graywolf Press, 2001); Elizabeth Searle in the final round of Literary Death Match; avatar created in Second Life by Sienna Haines, based on GIRL IN THE ARENA; poster for TONYA AND NANCY playing at Club Oberon in Cambridge Jan 31-Feb 2.