Out of Twenty: Laura Harrington, Author of Alice Bliss, Answers Sixteen Questions

Laura Harrington

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! I’m in the middle of Laura Harrington‘s debut novel, Alice Bliss, the story of a teenager coming of age while her father is deployed in Iraq and am excited to find out more about the author. Laura answered sixteen questions. Here is what she had to say about reading, writing and her magpie moments.

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 books you like to write?
I’m a playwright turned novelist.  I’ve written plays, operas, musicals, radio plays and the occasional screenplay.  My theater work has been produced across the US, in Canada, and in Europe. I turned to writing novels 3 years ago after winning a wonderful award (The Kleban Award for «most promising librettist in American musical theatre») that bought me 2 years of writing time.  Oddly enough I found I didn’t want to write another musical. Instead, I wanted to do something I ‘d never done before. Perhaps just as importantly, I wanted to reconnect to the creative process and be a beginner again.

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?
I start my day with a cup of tea, my journal, reading a verse of the Tao, and then swimming.  In cold weather I swim at our local Y, in summer I swim in an incredibly beautiful quarry.  Before writing, I sit quietly for ten minutes, doing nothing.  Which is incredibly hard for me to do.  And listening.  I’m listening for my characters’ voices, or waiting to see an image, either of which can be the beginning of a scene.  Something as simple as: «Matt Bliss is someone who knows how to be happy,» will set me on my way to creating a character or writing a chapter.  Something as disturbing as seeing/imagining a helicopter crash can become a pivotal plot point. When I’m beginning a project I walk everyday.  Walking clears my head and lets me sort through some aspect of the story, or helps me focus on an important question to ask, or simply gives me a tiny detail to help me flesh out a character.

Books are critical during the writing process.  I find I read even more voraciously than usual.

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?
Writing Alice Bliss allowed me to explore a question I have been writing about and around for several years: the impact of war on those left at home. It has made me more sensitive and more aware of how many families are living through the deployment of a loved one and how little the general public knows about their stories. It turned me into a novelist.

What are you reading now?
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, a gorgeously written book with a character named Corrigan who I am still mourning.  And Eiffel’s Tower by Jill Jonnes.  I love anything to do with France and French history. Graham Robb’s Parisians, An Adventure History of Paris is also next to my bed. I’m savoring it, one chapter at a time.

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?
Virginia Woolf, Thornton Wilder, Balzac, E.B. White, Hillary Mantel, Tim Winton, Tony Kushner, Junot Diaz, Lawrence Weschler, Louis De Bernieres, Toni Morrison, Annie Dillard, Stanley Kunitz, Mary Oliver. It’s given me permission to read even more than usual. And never to feel guilty about it.

Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
Honestly, I feel a little bit like a magpie when I’m writing: everything is interesting to me.  I trust the things that fall into my hands.  Most often the book that does not seem like it will strike a chord takes me someplace unexpected and opens up something new for me.  I read for pleasure, for inspiration, to try to find out how other writers manage to do what they do.

What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book but ultimately decided not to include it?
I began to read my parents letters from WWII thinking that those letters might inspire me or inspire some of the letters in Alice Bliss.  But I think those letters are for another book.

What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers?  Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?
Ellie, Alice’s 8-year-old kid sister is reading the dictionary and collecting long, rare words, so she’d probably go crazy over Anne Fadiman’s lovely collection of essays about reading, Ex Libris. Anne Fadiman was also a collector of long, rare words as a kid.  Perhaps that fact was one of my magpie moments when I was researching Alice Bliss.

In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?
I have to make my life really quiet and simple in order to write a book.  I swim, walk, read, and say no to just about everything else for a period of time.  In the beginning at least, it’s a kind of dream time, and it feels fragile.  Once the book has a certain size, it starts to carry me along.  It has its own velocity.

If you could make everyone read five books, which ones would they be?
Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac, The Bridge Over San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz,  and Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
It was always Alice Bliss. Plus, the sound of Alice Bliss has a musical quality and it lines up visually in an interesting, rhythmic way.  I knew that would make it easy to remember.

Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
Sometimes.  I get several requests every month for permission to use a monologue from one of my earliest plays, which keeps that work very much on my mind and in the world.  And right now I’m talking with Roger Ames, the composer for our musical MARTIN GUERRE, about revising that piece to take it back into the opera world.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
I vowed to read every book about horses in my local, small town library.  When I had accomplished that goal –perhaps six shelves’ worth – my mother took me to the big library in the nearby city.  Rather than being daunted by the number of shelves I found there with books about horses, I was elated. I always knew I was a writer.  I didn’t always pay attention to that knowledge, but it was always there.

How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
Honestly, I can only work on one thing at a time. I don’t start writing until I can see the shape or the arc of the story.  I may not know  exactly what the ending is, but I know what it feels like, and I know it’s there, waiting to be discovered.

Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
I research as needed.  It’s easy to be seduced by research, which I love.  I occasionally have to remind myself that researching is easier than writing and to just get on with it.

What’s next?
My next novel starts with water, as Alice Bliss does.  There’s a large Irish Catholic family with 6 kids. It’s 1966 and the Viet Nam war changes everything.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 On The Shelves: New Releases June 1 15, 2011

About: Laura Harrington‘s award winning plays, musicals, operas, and radio plays have been widely produced in the U.S., Canada, and abroad. Harrington is a two time winner of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award in playwriting and a two time winner of the Clauder Competition for best new play in New England for Mercy and Hallowed Ground. Much of her work is inspired by her fascination with history and her commitment to work that explores the human cost of war, from the Civil War (Hallowed Ground) to WWI (The Book of Hours) and WWII (Fifteen Minutes at Midway). Alice Bliss: A Novel, published by Pamela Dorman Books, Penguin/ Viking, will be on sale spring 2011. She is currently writing a new novel, “A Catalogue of Birds,” as well as a song cycle with composer Elena Ruehr, and a series of choral works with composer Roger Ames.

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  1. I loved this interview! Laura Harrington is such a talented writer and I enjoyed reading about what a day writing is like for her, what inspires her and what she’s reading now as well as the five books she recommends everyone read. Alice Bliss sounds like a wonderful and captivating book. I’m also already looking forward to the book Laura is working on now about a large Irish Catholic family in 1966. wow.

    Thank you Laura and Nicole.

  2. It’s always inspiring reading personal notes of other authors. Myself, I am always working on about 6 books at once… I tend to get ‘inspiration’ on a certain subject and have to write about that thing in the moment whenever possible. I do finish them, sometimes… 😉

    I love the subtitle of your blog, and as a bookworm it’s something I can relate to. It reminds me of Erasmus’ (?) quote “If I have money I buy books. If there is any left over I buy food and clothes.”

  3. Great interview (16/20 questions)! I love how Laura Harrington challenged herself to try something new, to “be a beginner in the creative process” of novel writing, rather than use the award to continue directly in musical theater. So well-rounded/multi-talented!