Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Half Dozen for Novelist and Short Story Writer Laurie Foos

(A Brief Explanation of A Half Dozen: This is a new, recurring feature that I've put together. It's simple. I send a bunch of questions to an author I'm interested in, and they choose a half dozen to answer. I post the results. The idea was sparked by reading Joshilyn Jackson's wonderful blog Faster than Kudzu. Half Dozens will include established bestselling novelists as well as debut writers and OCCASIONAL book give-aways. Two upcoming Half Dozens will be Melissa Senate whose latest -- The Love Goddess' Cooking School -- has just popped and Heidi Durrow whose debut The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is a critically acclaimed bestseller.)

And now ...


Laurie Foos is the author of the novels EX UTERO, PORTRAIT OF THE WALRUS BY A YOUNG ARTIST, TWINSHIP, BINGO UNDER THE CRUCIFIX, and BEFORE ELVIS THERE WAS NOTHING. Her new novel, THE BLUE GIRL, is forthcoming. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines, among them The Greensboro Review (for which Julianna Baggott was once Fiction Editor -- Laurie put that in there) and many other magazines and anthologies. An essay about her father’s last days, “On Bearing Witness,” will appear in the anthology, TWELVE BREATHS PER MINUTE, in June 2011. She teaches in the low-residency program at Lesley University and lives on Long Island with her husband and two children.

Find out more about Laurie at

1. I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I’d say first of all that I’m generally in agreement with you regarding the question of inspiration, though I have had moments that, as you say, defy explanation. Some of those moments have begotten other moments, but generally speaking, my experience has been that while the initial idea clearly springs from my unconscious (and therefore feels “inspired”), the work of a first draft and then the subsequent work of revising and revising—which I love—can be brutal. There is a period, in every novel I’ve written so far in which I have that panicked feeling that I’m the juggler in the ring, that all my balls are in the air, and God help me but let me keep them from crashing down on my head. My first novel, EX UTERO, truly did feel like a gift, as it came to me in that half-dream state before sleeping, and thank the gods I got up and got myself a notebook. This new novel, THE BLUE GIRL, has had in common what all the others have shared, and that’s the first line. That is always where I begin, with the first line or the first image. But that line has to come on its own, and there’s no forcing it. That line came, and I wrote a flurry of pages some years ago at an artist colony, but then set the book aside in favor of another one I’ve since shelved (how’s that for irony?). This novel also has six 1st person points of view (what the hell was I thinking?), and I’m not sure they’ll all remain. But for now, I am letting each of them speak, and I do have to wait for the voices to come back. There’s probably medication for this sort of thing. J

I did want to say, too, that I’ve always found it intriguing that Amy Hempel has always maintained that of course writers work on inspiration, and that of course we have to wait for it. She says she’s always worked that way, and it’s certainly worked well for her.

2. Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

When I was younger, I’d have more definitively and, without hesitation, said, “I love writing.” It’s not that the process has changed for me, but I’d say my relationship to writing has become more complicated as I’ve gotten older, had children, lost people I love. There have been times in the last couple of years that I’ve questioned whether I’d continue. I wonder if other writers feel that way; I tend to think they do. A good friend of mine, a well-known Y/A writer, told me recently (I’m not naming him only b/c I’m not sure he’d want his editor to know this) that when he’d finally finished the latest novel in the series he was working on, his wife congratulated him, and he felt a momentary high. Then, almost immediately, he said, he felt utterly dejected and said, “But now I’ve got to f-ing do it all over again!” We laughed and laughed over that, but I completely understood what he meant. I’d still say I love writing, and for me, when I’ve written and the results have been good, bad, or indifferent on that particular day, I feel like my truest self. Like the self I was meant to be. Worries about kids, money—pshah! The world could fall down around me on those days. I wrote, goddamnit. And I am certainly most sane when I am writing regularly. Times when other obligations or sick kids get in the way of writing time, I suddenly wish more than anything else that I had time to write. I still feel that the moments in which time moves of its own accord, and I look up at the clock to realize hours have gone by, are the moments that keep me going. Other times you just need to grit your teeth and do it, despite yourself, and just do your best to get out of your own way—chained to the chair, as you are.

3. Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

I’ll tell the good one—the best one. (There’s a horrid one, and one day I’ll write it, sooner rather than later, I think). I was rescued from the slush pile by an intern at Coffee House Press. (Bless that girl’s heart). Until then, I’d aspired to be a short story writer, and by that I mean I felt that the short story was the highest art form. I came of age when Carver was at his peak, on the front cover of the NY Times Book Review, and having a career as a short story writer had been possible. With the exception of Alice Munro and a handful of others, I’m not sure that’s possible any longer. So I’d written this novel—I was terrified to call it a novel, even, and referred to it as “the long piece”—and decided, “Okay, I’ll send it out to a few places, and if I get some nice rejections, I’ll probably leave it at that.” Acquiring an agent was furthest from my mind. This was a book about a woman who’d lost her uterus! I sent out some queries and sample chapters, and within a couple of weeks I got a note back from Coffee House asking to see the whole novel. Nothing within the publishing world, for me, has ever exceeded that day in my kitchen when I answered the phone and heard, “This is Allan Kornblum from Coffee House Press. We’d like to publish your book.” Apparently the intern had been dispatched to pass a few hours reading from the slush pile and kept saying, “Eww!” until Allan asked what she was reacting to. She said, “We wouldn’t want to publish a book about a woman who loses her uterus in the mall, would we?” and Allan said, “Pass that on over here.”

4. What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

Flannery O’Connor said that writers are writers by the time they are seven years old. That was true for me. The desire to write, to put words to paper, emerged for me at a very early age. I can remember being in first grade or so and watching a documentary about Abe Lincoln, of all things, and sitting down to write several pages about him. Somehow I knew this was something I should show the teacher, and I did that next day. I was a very quiet little girl, very introspective, probably much too deep for my own little age. Then in fourth grade I had a teacher, with whom I am still in touch, who told me that I was going to be a writer. My father was a mailman and worked in a side business cleaning offices, and by that I mean vacumming, scrubbing toilets. He worked long hours—sometimes sixteen hour days—in jobs that mostly, he hated. In my early childhood my parents were superintendents of an apartment building, so what I knew of writers….well, I didn’t. But they were great storytellers, my parents, and the stories of their childhoods, which I took in even as a small child, were filled with humor, but also with poverty and struggle, and pain. My father had been a naturally gifted athlete and could have become a professional baseball player, but his youth and then recklessness prevented this. When he was sick and dying from cancer, he used to say to me, “That’s why I’m so proud of you, because you kept your dreams. I threw mine all away.” When I use a public bathroom, I think of the person who might have cleaned it. I’ve since come to know writers from a long pedigree, and I think that there must come with it enormous expectation and pressure. Mine was, and is, an inner compulsion, as it must be for all of us. If you don’t feel utterly compelled to write, that you simply must do it, then by all means, don’t.

5. Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

This question makes me think of Grace Paley’s saying, “There is no balance.” Certainly the balance of time was much simpler before I had two children, and I can very clearly recall making a decision shortly after graduate school that writing had to become the center of my life—even if that center existed only in my own head and in my own home—or the perseverance to publish would not be possible. There exists for me, at least, a very definite split between my writing life and the day-to-day life of being a mother to two small children, 5 and 4. My little guy is on the autism spectrum, and his needs and the issues surrounding his way of processing the world take up a good deal of my head space as well as my time. Now that both kids are both in school much of the day, it’s become somewhat easier to carve out time. But I live on Long Island, in the heart of suburbia, and while people are often interested in what I do when I tell them I’m a writer, it’s a bit like the record needle has scratched the vinyl when I say, “Well, my new book is about a girl who is blue, and three women come to feed her moon pies out of their own guilt.”

6. Are you bloggish? Why?

Recently I’ve taken a few tentative steps into the blogging world. I hated the idea of it at first—I’d guess most writers do—but I’ve started thinking about it more and wanting to do it more. One reason is that—let’s be honest—it can be helpful when you have a new book coming out. Another is that it can be out-and-out fun, and the feedback is immediate, and so why the hell not? Still another is that the death of my father, after a seven year battle with cancer, has pulled me for the first time toward the desire to write in my own voice, to write non-fiction. The few blogs I’ve written feel like baby steps. The new book novel to be darker than my past work, and I yearn to write something balls-out funny. That will be next, but for now, my New Year’s resolution is to have more fun, and blogs feel like a great way to do that. Here’s hoping.

Visit Laurie at Facebook (where a recent post states "Laurie Foos has exhausted her supply of trash magazines in these two snowed-in days.") or at