A Conversation with Laura Wiess, author of Such a Pretty Girl
Q: What was your favourite childhood book? LW:Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, the true story of a family with twelve kids. I read and reread it, did school book reports and very much wanted to have real-life adventures with the Gilbreth family
Q: Which book has made you laugh? LW:There are plenty, but Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel Belles on Their Toes are always the first that come to mind. Dave Barry and James Herriot are also very good at making me laugh.
Q: Which book has made you cry? LW: All of James Herriot's books have made me cry (and laugh) more times than I can count but I always go back for more.
Q: Which book would you give to a friend as a present? LW: It depends on the age and reading preferences of the friend. I usually spend hours trying to find just the right book for the recipient. If I can't, I give a bookstore gift certificate which is always received with delight.
Q: Which other writers do you admire? LW:My reading tastes are pretty erratic, and there are so many authors whose work I enjoy that it's hard to name only a few but here goes: Anne McLean Matthews, Sarah Bird, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, A.M. Jenkins, Amy Tan, Betty MacDonald, Dave Barry, and the list goes on.
Q: Which classic have you always meant to read and never got round to it? LW:Sad to say but this list is a long one, so I'm starting with Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, and reading on from there.
Q: What are your top five books of all time, in order or otherwise? LW:Well, the list is constantly evolving, so in no specific order Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, The Blood Countess by Andrei Codrescu, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and the All Things… set of books by James Herriot.
Q: Is there a particular book or author that inspired you to be a writer? LW:Not that I can recall, although I wouldn't be surprised to discover that in some way, every one of them did. Loving a book is a great inspiration, as is loathing a book or wanting to read a story you can't find, and so must write yourself. These are pretty strong motivators.
Q: What is your favourite time of day to write? LW:Late at night, when there's nothing around to distract me.
Q: And favourite place? LW: At my desk in the sunroom, looking out over the garden and the woods. The good part is that it's my favourite room in the house; the bad part is that the view is very intriguing, which is why I do my best writing at night when it's too dark out to see.
Q: Longhand or word processor? LW:Most of my writing is done on the computer but when it comes to choosing character names, I usually grab a spiral notebook and list all the options by hand. Not sure why, unless it's to see which ones flow naturally with the last name list, or feel right as a character's signature.
Q: Which fictional character would you most like to have met? LW:Moll Flanders, Auntie Mame Dennis and the Herriot/Siegfried/Tristan crew. Impossible to pick just one!
Q: Who, in your opinion, is the greatest writer of all time? LW:I'm going to pass on this one, because I honestly don't have an opinion. I don't think I'm capable of choosing just one of most anything!
Q: Which book have you found yourself unable to finish? LW: If I love the characters I'll pretty much follow them anywhere, through darkness, happiness, trauma and triumph. If I can't connect emotionally with a character, if I find myself not caring if they live or die then I know it's time to stop reading that book and try another. This happens every so often, but no one specific title comes to mind.
Q: What is your favourite word? LW: Well, 'determination' first, along with 'freewill, stubborn, husband, Mom, Dad, sister, brother, nature, animals, perseverance and passion.'
Q: Other than writing, what other jobs or professions have you undertaken or considered? LW:I've held an interesting assortment of jobs including waitress, dry cleaner clerk, bartender, mortgage tax disburser, assistant supervisor in mortgage assumptions, lawnmower sales clerk, customer service/sales for a bearing company, assistant landscaper, and lunch truck driver, which was actually a great summer job. Good money, very free-wheeling, plus I met my husband on my route.
Q: What was the first piece you ever had in print? LW:If we don't count Letters to the Editor in the local newspaper, then it was a short story written for middle readers and published by a small literary magazine with payment in contributor's copies. That sale thrilled me, and fired me up enough to keep writing, learning and trying no matter how many rejections arrived in between sales.
Q: Can you think of a question that we didn’t ask you? LW: Well…yes. You didn't ask me to tea.
Q: What would the answer be? LW: Why, I'd love to, of course!
I very much enjoyed talking books, writing and answering such fun questions. I also enjoy hearing from readers and if anyone is looking for additional information about SUCH A PRETTY GIRL or the upcoming LEFTOVERS, please feel free to visit my website at http://www.laurawiess.com or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again!
A Conversation with Laura Wiess, Author ofHow it Ends
1. How It Ends is extremely inventive and touches on a wide range of topics, from love and family to taxidermy, animal rescue and women’s reproductive rights. What inspired you to write this book? What kind of research did you have to do to incorporate so many topics in this novel?
How It Ends began when I was wondering about the experiences people keep hidden in their hearts, thinking about how there’s always so much more to people than we see, and what a huge mistake it is to believe we know everything there is to know about a person, whether it be a stranger, family member, or friend. It shifted into higher gear when two of the images I’ve been carrying around in my mind for years surfaced and wove themselves into the mix.
The first image came from one of the stories my mother used to tell me, about how it was back when she was a little girl in the 1940s. She lived in a neighborhood where all the kids used to play out in the street, and although no one talked much about the kinds of men who offered candy to children, all the kids were warned by their parents not to go near this one house on the block where an old man and his invalid wife lived, especially if it was dusk or he called you into his garage for any reason.
The local kids ran away from this guy whenever he beckoned but one day there was a new girl of about fifteen living there, a state kid, an orphan, placed with them to live and work. She had no one, and so was trapped: on the surface the old man and his wife looked harmless but behind closed doors, it must have been an unimaginable hell. She was rarely allowed to come out and play with the other kids and did not even go to school. I asked my mother—who had been maybe 9 or 10 back then—what happened to the girl and it turns out she got pregnant, and was sent away in shame for getting herself into trouble. Can you even imagine? She—an orphaned child—was an unpaid servant, denied an education, sexually molested, impregnated by her foster father, and then punished for it, whisked away as if it were all her fault. How convenient.
The image of this faceless, anonymous girl trapped in a house of horrors, has haunted me for years.
The second image was from a story I read years ago about a man who was supposedly a deer rehabber and an amateur taxidermist. (Anybody else see a conflict, here?) Wildlife rehab is a wonderful, difficult, heart-and-soul endeavor if it’s done correctly and with the best interest of the animal in mind, but supposedly this guy had been taking in orphaned fawns and shoving them into a dark, dank outbuilding along with deer corpses in various stages of decomposition, dissection, taxidermy experiments, chemical treatment, etc., and basically leaving them there to die of starvation.
It was not a stretch for me to imagine the imprisoned fawns confused, hungry, scared, and locked into what could only be a living hell with no food or water, with the thick, unrelenting scent of terror, death, and rot all around them, no sun, no breeze, no grass, no freedom, laying in chemicals that burned through them, blood, feces, mud . . . I couldn’t get such selfserving cruelty out of my mind and wanted to know why? Why would someone do this? So I began to imagine an answer.
Somehow the anonymous orphan girl and the fawns wove together, along with the idea that no one is ever all they appear to be, a fascination with the imprints we leave on each other throughout our lives, and wanting to explore how love is born and how it dies. These threads became the fictional How It Ends.
As far as research goes, I explored taxidermy, the old mandatory sterilization laws for the unfit, medical pieces regarding the treatment of women and the maladies supposedly born of their reproductive organs, the Hunger Winter, mandatory community service, Parkinson’s disease, physician-assisted suicide, and the right to die.
2. How do you capture the lives and emotions of teenagers so realistically? Do you spend time around teenagers? Or do you just have a great memory of what it’s like to be that age?
Both, I think. What intrigues me most about the teen years—besides the fact that you’re coming up and everything is new, you’re jockeying for position and trying to feel your way through an unfamiliar world filled with hazards, pitfalls, excitement, and experiments—is “kid logic.” I love kid logic even when it completely unnerves me. I remember it very clearly because my own kid logic sprung from wanting to get out there and live my life, and not get caught or get in trouble for doing whatever it was I was doing.
3. Some of your interests show up in this novel—you’re an animal lover and rescuer and, like your characters, live in the country. Was this a conscious decision or did it happen as you went along?
I think it happened as the characters became known to me, and their concerns placed them in an environment where the dreams they had left had room to grow. Helen and Lon, going through what they had in the past, needed space to live their own way. Helen was attuned to the suffering of those who couldn’t speak for themselves and so she tried to find an active and ongoing way to help by providing food and shelter, spaying/neutering for the cats and a home base. Hanna grew up seeing this behavior as normal but when she had to fill in for Helen, she thought it was a pain. Then she looked harder, saw the need, stepped up of her own free will, and chose to help, too.
I see the place where Helen and Hanna live as the far, wooded outskirts of town—a small town—with the inevitable development creeping toward them but not quite there yet. There are still woods to support the wildlife, and it’s still a place where people can live privately and have room to stretch out.
So no, I’m not surprised that living in the country has sort of bled over into this book. After growing up in central Jersey, living up in the mountains now is an ongoing adventure. Kind of a culture shock—no pizza delivery here—but it’s worth it. I learn something new every single day—which of course means that I get to feel stupid every single day, too, because I don’t know what I’m doing—and it’s tickling me to death. I love it.
4. What else in your life informs your writing? How do you think you work best? Tell us about your writing style.
Lots of things become fictionalized and feed in: moments, issues or causes I find intriguing or am passionate about, things I learn along the way, emotions I wonder about and more. I have to feel what the characters feel as we go along, especially when I’m sitting firmly on one side of the fence and the challenge is to try and see a situation or a belief from the opposing side. Doing that opens new doors in my mind, helps me to understand different points of view and respect other sides, even if I still don’t like or agree with them. It creates a wonderful chaotic jumble of thoughts. I work best when I’m not interrupted, alone in my studio, sometimes with silence, sometimes with specific music playing low in the background. I do a lot of research in every direction that seems interesting, exploring whatever strikes my fancy, and let it all simmer together until something sparks and a character with a question is born. I never know what that character is going to be made of until they show up.
5. The reason for Hanna’s parents’ brief split is not revealed. Did you have an idea in mind of what they went through?
I don’t have an absolute, but I know it wasn’t any one big thing that split them up, more like they came together with two separate, naive fantasy ideas of what their young, happy lives together would be—eternal romance, eternal hot sex, no fuzzy slippers or baggy sweats or overdue bills, no zoning out in front of the TV or the dreaded, frustrated Um, honey? We have to talk moments—and were not prepared for the ups and downs of reality or the warring expectations, which bred discontent and disappointment, resentment and the pain of watching love founder and almost die.
I’m glad they found their way back to each other, though.
6. Did you do a lot of research while writing the story-within-a-story audiobook How It Ends?
Here’s where growing up in a family of storytellers came in handy, as the old days—in glorious, vivid detail—were always offered up as a companion to progress. The stories were bizarre, funny and interesting, and I must have absorbed far more than I thought I did, because they’re definitely coming in handy now.
There was serious research too, of course, especially when it came to things like mandatory sterilization for whoever was deemed unfit (want to chill your blood? It was still happening in the 1970s), the Hunger Winter, Parkinson’s disease, the right to die and more.
7. What are you currently working on?
I have several stories in the works but there’s a certain romantic comedy that seems to be a little more irresistible than the rest. . . .
8. Who are some of your favorite writers? Did any particular works inspire How It Ends? What did you most enjoy reading when you were Hanna’s age?
I’m bad at pinpointing favorites—they shift along with my moods—but at Hanna’s age I liked funny, heartwarming family stories like Cheaper by the Dozen (the original book by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, not the movie), thrillers, Gothic mysteries, horror (Stephen King), drama, love stories, and nonfiction back-to-the-land books. Animal stories, too. Stories with characters that made me invest everything I had in their happiness, fret over them, and get really depressed when the book was over and I could no longer walk with them.
Hmm, come to think of it, these are still pretty much the books I reach for. Give me a character to love and I’ll follow her or him anywhere.
9. There are some pretty devastating scenes in this book, particularly as we near the end. Were any of these scenes painful for you to write? Do you get emotionally attached to your characters?
Yes, the scenes you refer to were very hurtful to write. Being trapped with absolutely no escape, being inside the minds’ of Helen and Lon, feeling the pain, desperation, and helplessness they felt, running panicked and terrified with Hanna . . . none of it was good. I cried a lot, because yes, I do get emotionally attached to my characters.
10. Even though this book is categorized as a young adult novel it is also appropriate for older readers. Do you consider yourself a YA writer? Do you write with any particular audience in mind?
Based on the reader e-mail I’ve received so far, Such a Pretty Girl and Leftovers both have a pretty wide audience, ranging from about fourteen years old to readers in their seventies. Those books are about teens but maybe not necessarily only for teens.
But yes, I do consider myself a YA writer.
11. Was there a message for young people you were trying to convey? Does writing for a YA audience lend itself to lessons?
No, I hope no messages but rather questions asked, and for these characters, hopefully answered. How does love begin? Is any love good love? What do you bring to the partnership? What do you allow in the name of love, behavior-wise, and what do you reject? Is there sacrifice, and if so, why? How does love end? What about perfect, fairy-tale love? If we believe in that, are we doomed to disappointment or can it possibly survive reality? What if no one is ever really who you think they are? What then?
I love questions, and I love them best when I can find some answers.