Out of Twenty: Liza Gyllenhaal, Author of A Place For Us, Answers Seven Questions

Liza Gyllenhaal

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Liza Gyllenhaal’s A Place For Us deals with a post-9/11 sex scandal concerning the teenagers of a wealthy family. Here is what Liza had to say about reading, writing, and how Social Host Liability Law informed her latest novel.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of Liza Gyllenhaalbooks you like to write?

I was raised in a small town in Pennsylvania. After college, some of which was spent at the University of Iowa Writing Workshop where I studied poetry, I moved to New York City and began a career in publishing and advertising. In the late 1980s, I founded an advertising agency that specialized in book publishing accounts and watched it grow over the next couple of decades. About the same time I started the agency, my husband and I began to spend weekends in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, eventually buying a small cottage there. Like so many weekenders, we found ourselves drawn more and more to the serenity and natural beauty of the area—the corn fields, dairy farms, and rolling hills. When I was able to sell the agency several years ago to devote myself to writing, we also decided to spend more time in this part of the world.

I’d long been struck by the differences between the small, close-knit rural communities in the Berkshires and the upscale urban weekenders. All three of my novels for NAL — Local Knowledge, So Near, and now A Place for Us — are set in this area. They’re mostly about family life, the tensions and joys of living in a small town, and the longing for a sense of community.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

During the years I worked in advertising in New York City, I would try to fit in an hour or two of writing every morning in my cramped apartment. I used to dream of one day having my own writing studio. If Henry James thought “summer afternoon” were the two most beautiful words in the English language, I began to feel that “writing studio” took a close second. I imagined it in the woods somewhere with a fireplace or wood-burning stove — rustic and musty and so quiet you could hear the mice scrabbling around in the walls.

When I sold my advertising agency I was able to buy my dream — a place in the country which included a small farmhouse and an old horse stable which became my “writing studio.” It still has the old iron stall feeders and leather harnesses on the walls. It remains permeated by a wonderful smell of animal and old hay.

I wake up early and reread and rewrite on my laptop in the house, but in the afternoon I go out to the studio, bolt the door, and start the hard work of writing the next new word, sentence, paragraph, chapter. In the winter I have a fire going in the Jotul stove, in the summer I have all the windows open and can hear the seasonal brook and birdsong. In the summer I can watch our family of wild turkeys parading up and down in the old paddock. Other sightings: woodchuck, coyote, fox, and early last spring, when the trees were just greening out, a big black bear. It was a breathtaking moment when this wall of darkness lumbered right past me — so close that, if the window had been open, I could have reached out and run my hand through the bear’s ink-black fur.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

A few years ago I heard a news story on our local public radio station in Massachusetts about a married couple who were being arraigned under the Social Host Liability law. Two teenagers had been seriously injured in a car crash after drinking with the couple’s son at a party in the family’s basement.  Though the parents had been asleep upstairs and unaware of the underage drinking, one of the injured teenager’s family was bringing a law suit against the couple. Understandably, the rural community where the accident occurred was upset  about the incident — but also divided about where the responsibility rested.  As someone who loves writing about families and small towns, the story couldn’t help but capture my A Place For Us by Liza Gyllenhaal coverimagination.

It also brought back to me a tragedy from my girlhood — two teenagers from my town who were killed in a car accident on their prom night; a bottle of whiskey was found in the front seat. As I began writing the novel, a very similar incident took place in a town not far from us in the Berkshires.  In this case, tragically, one of the teenagers involved in it was killed. This senseless death brought home to me how serious and pertinent  — and ongoing — the problem of underage drinking remains.

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?  Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?

I read a lot — poetry, fiction, history, memoir.  I loved spending time in 18th century Russia with Robert Massie’s fascinating biography of Catherine the Great. Recently, I relived the Kennedy assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s remarkable early achievements as President via Robert Caro’s latest installment of Johnson’s life.  I loved Anne Patchett’s most recent novel State of Wonder and Edith Pearlman’s collection of short stories Binocular Vision. I’m currently writing a new novel that revolves around a mystery, so I recently reread all my favorite P.D. James novels and I’m currently working my way through Agatha Christie.  After Nora Ephron’s death, I read everything she wrote in book form — and laughed out loud for a couple of days.

 Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

I know that some writers have a hard time reading when they’re working on their own books, but reading, for me, is an almost physical necessity.  I’m not sure I could breathe without it!  And I certainly wouldn’t be able to write.  Books do influence what we do and how we think — and great writing can be a wonderful inspiration.

Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?

I tend to research as I write. I spent a lot of time on the internet reading up on the Social Host Liability law and the many cases in Massachusetts that have resulted from the law’s passage.  The more time I spent researching different stories and exploring various sites, the more the name of Richard P. Campbell kept cropping up.  Digging a little deeper, I discovered that Mr. Campbell is the founder of a prestigious law firm in Boston, President of the Massachusetts Bar Association, and a driving force behind Social Host Liability legislation. He created a multi-media program, Be A Parent, Not A Pal, to educate students, parents, teachers, and members of the community about the Social Host Liability law. It’s a first-rate tutorial on the subject.

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to interview Mr. Campbell by phone one afternoon.  He had agreed to a one-hour session, but we ended up talking for much longer than that.  He was outspoken and full of great anecdotes. And he was tremendously helpful, clarifying many complicated legal issues for me. He was also a passionate spokesperson for a cause he obviously believes in very deeply.

What’s next?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m starting to write a new novel with a mystery at its heart.  It won’t be a traditional police procedural, though someone will be murdered and the story will explore the reasons why — and probably end with the discovery of who did it.  But I’m hoping the novel will be more about the characters and the small New England community where they live.  I’m an avid amateur gardener and I loved writing about gardening in So Near and talking about my garden on my blog, so I’m pretty sure I want my main character to be a landscape architect/professional gardener.  I also know who gets killed — and when.  But I still have a lot of things I need to figure out.  A lot of the joy of writing — just as it is in reading — is discovering what’s going to happen next.

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