Let’s start by acknowledging how strange our collective lives have become. How is the pandemic interacting with your writing?
Surprisingly, not badly. Not to say I am writing more. But our collective situation has given me permission. You can suck, Leonora, it says. It’s okay—we all suck right now.
This is all I need to hear. Usually, I imagine a roomful of writers. They’re all amazing. Joyce Carol Oates is leading them, helmed by Stephen King. Faster, faster, Joyce says, like an aerobics instructor. Stephen walks around. He cracks the whip. But now he’s sidelined. His back hurts. He can’t seem to focus. He tries coming up with plot but all he sees are a bunch of viral particles.
Joyce tugs at her legwarmers. Calm on, King, she says. Don’t be a pussy.
It’s comforting, knowing that I’m not struggling alone. Suddenly, I’m free. I think of what one of my profs said—no one is writing now!—and I feel galvanized. I try blocking out what I also know to be true: all the writers who still are writing now.
Don’t think of them, I say. Think of King. I think of him at the chiropractor, but for writers. I think of him writing a mean story about Joyce Carol Oates and crumpling it in the trash, since it isn’t any good.
I write the words: “Stephen King.” Then I cross them out. But I feel proud. Two words, that’s two more than I had yesterday.
Soon I’ll have a novel.
On inspiration—Joyce Carol Oates has said the only reason to write a story is character. Plot is of no consequence except as a way to characterize. How do you see characterization in your story as opposed to plot?
Thanks! I’m going to pretend that my characterization (versus plot) was entirely intentional.
To be honest, I envy plot. Plotters. I think it takes a gift. I was pretty anti-plot after seeing Lord of the Rings. I said (rather pretentiously): It’s like all these Hobbits are just pawns, being pushed around a board.
Well, I got my karma. Pages and pages (or would that be gigahertz?) of characters standing around, emoting, but not really doing all that much.
I’m reading the writer Amy Sohn right now. Her plot springs naturally from her characters, plus, there’s movement. I have a feeling Sohn organized her files so that they didn’t all look like this:
Leonora Desar filing system:
Absolut final (*spelled wrong) HONEST
Plotting takes structure. Urgency. Maintaining that urgency and making the reader stay up until four a.m., even though they know that construction might wake them up at any minute, or the dog will need to walk, or that the world might end. In fact, that only makes it more. More urgent.
The narrator using *69 feels like a transgression—but there have already been transgressions she merely witnessed, and those felt inevitable, as if the father’s charisma made him irresistible. Yet, even in a story about broken emotional/social compacts, you’ve avoided creating a moral hierarchy. Is that transgressive of you?
I love being described as transgressive—it makes me sound cooler than I am—but I’m not sure I can own it.
The narrator is actually quite “moral.” She feels rage. She’s not down with Cheating Dad, or swingers, or counterculture. She is not down with nineties laissez-faire. If it were up to her, folks would return to a simpler time—the unswinging fifties. Dads would don aprons and beam proudly at their daughters, Aw, shucks. Moms would play along. The Brady Bunch casting director would approach: Hello, but your family just looks so perfect; I’m just kicking myself that I didn’t cast you guys. Of course, you guys weren’t you guys back then. Still, I still wish that I did. Maybe I can find a time machine.
How fleshed-out are your characters? Do you envision backstories, lives, fates, connections/disconnections to people living or dead?
I do, but only because I’ve been writing about myself. The unnamed girl is Leonora. Sometimes, Eleanor.
I know my life. I want to write it, but then something strange happens: I lie. The lying feels more real. This annoys me. I think: My life isn’t that bad. There’s drama, arc, and even Plot. There’s also a lot of crap, but maybe it’s not all bad. Maybe it’s not crap. It’s tension.
And what do I do? I ruin it. I can’t take a perfectly good cheating dad and leave him the hell alone. I give him wings. Because he’s, you know, an escape artist. Or I say he’s made of fire. Or of smoke. And sometimes a woman shows up, naked.
This ends up feeling realer. But then I’m screwed, because there goes my memoir. I admire the hell out of creative nonfiction writers.
As a kid, I once *69ed a call and discovered my mother was selling our house. What are the drawbacks to probing our parents’ secrets?
It’s never a good idea, but it’s great for journal entries. Which is to say, good for writing.
The contemporary equivalent of *69 is WordPress stats. It doesn’t give you names—privacy and all—but you can sometimes sense a pattern. I think: Wow! A lit agent is checking me out—right now. Or a journal. Or maybe Ricky Schroder; he found that letter I sent him when I was eight.
When I was a kid, I *69ed, hoping for someone Big. A boy. Publisher’s Clearing House. Ed McMahon. Often, it was a wrong number. My website is like that. After an active day I get excited. Then my mom calls. Or I go over to her house and see the worst thing I ever wrote (redacted!) printed on her counter.
What are you doing? I say.
I’ve been Googling you, she says.
This is a reason NOT to *69—or to be a narcissist, like myself. Inevitably it’s not Ricky Schroder or Ed McMahon. It’s Mom.