And now, the interview!

Lisa McKay, author and guest poster extraordinaire
Photo courtesy of Lisa McKay

Hopefully you all stopped by yesterday to check out the awesome guest post by the fabulous Lisa McKay.  If you didn’t, well, why not?  Go on then, go check it out.  I’ll wait.  Have you read it then?  Okay, good.  Because now comes the fabulous interview!  (Is it okay that I’ve used the word fabulous twice in one paragraph now? Yes?  Okay, good. :))

Your first book was a novel.  What were some of the challenges you faced in switching from fiction to creative nonfiction?

When I was writing my first novel (My Hands Came Away Red), I found myself getting surprised by what was happening.  As I figured out the “what” of plot, however, an understanding of my characters’ actions and reactions followed fairly naturally.

Writing a memoir reversed this process.  I already knew what happened – I’d lived it – but I had to work much harder to figure out what it all meant to me, then and now.

The plotting process was different, too.  With the novel, I wrote my way into the story blind, without an outline.  As I wrote, the story gained momentum as events unfolded.

In contrast, I had a clear vision for the start and end of the memoir, bu little idea of how I was going to get from one place to the other.  Despite repeated outlines, I continued to flounder in the middle until the very final drafts of the manuscript.

Tell us about your new book.  What inspired you to write memoir?

Love at the Speed of Email is the story of an old-fashioned courtship made possible by modern technology.

Lisa looks as if she has it made.  She has turned her nomadic childhood and forensic psychology training into a successful career as a stress management trainer for humanitarian aid workers.  She lives in Los Angeles, travels the world, and her first novel has just been published to some acclaim.  But as she turns 31, Lisa realizes that she is still single, constantly on airplanes, and increasingly wondering where home is and what it really means to commit to a person, place, place, or career.  When an intriguing stranger living on the other side of the world emails her out of the blue, she must decide whether she will risk trying to answer those questions.  Her decision will change her life.

I didn’t intend for this second book to be a memoir.  In fact, I was working on a novel on human trafficking when my husband, Mike, and I became engaged.  But as we began to plan our wedding I found it increasingly difficult to flip in and out of such vastly different worlds – the happiness of the one I was living in and the harshness of the one I was trying to write about.

I’d spent my childhood living in countries as diverse as Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.  I carried Australian and Canadian passports.  I was living in Los Angeles working for a nonprofit organization that provided psychological support to humanitarian workers worldwide.  I was hopelessly confused as to where home was.  Perhaps, I thought, I could write my way towards clarity.  That’s when I started working on the memoir.

Do you enjoy writing in any other genres?  What genres do you enjoy reading?

Fiction, memoir, and personal essays are the genres I enjoy writing in, and (perhaps not surprisingly) the genres I most enjoy reading.

Tell me about the process of moving your life from the real world onto the printed page.  What did you enjoy?  What did you hate?

Some of the things I love most about writing the memoir were inextricably bound up with some of the things that I hated.

I loved that writing the book helped me relive so many good moments and funny conversations.  Writing about these things helped me pin down and cement a lot of happy memories.  Conversely, however, I didn’t enjoy reliving and dissecting some parts of my own story that I’m not proud of.

I loved the fact that writing the memoir really made me think.  During the process of writing this book, I learned things about myself – about my actions and reactions, about my approach to commitment, and about how I conceptualize home.

But sometimes I also hated the fact that writing this memoir made me think so deeply.  It took me more than three years and three very different drafts to write this book.  There were many times when I looked at something I’d written and knew that I wasn’t quite there, but had no real idea yet of how to take it to the next level.  I would try to reframe that feeling for myself as “a season of growth and possibility” but what it usually felt like was “a season of being stuck and frustrated.”

What’s the hardest part of taking your relationship, analyzing it, and putting it into a book for all to read?

The hardest part of writing about my relationship with the man who is now my husband was figuring out what to leave out.  We had written each other 90,000 words worth of letters before we ever met, and that was just the start of the raw material I had to work with.

Photo courtesy of Lisa McKay

Writing about my previous relationships was harder.  One chapter, in particular, I must have rewritten a dozen times.  I went over that story over and over again, trying to pin down what had happened during that time and, in particular, my own contribution to the unhealthy dynamics of that relationship.

You spent three months writing letters to your husband before you ever talked or met.  How do you think that influenced the way that your relationship developed?  Were you able to look back to those letters for research purposes while you were writing?

Yes, I was.  We have all those letters compiled into a book – every word we ever exchanged before we met.  All 90,000 of them.

Writing all those letters to each other gave us time and space to ask and answer questions.  We wrote about anything and everything.  About childhood and work and what we’re passionate about and the little details of how our days had been and what we were reading…

This helped pace us – it allowed us to get to know one another in a measured, thoughtful way before anything else entered the picture.  It meant that when we did meet in Australia for the first time, we had a really solid foundation of respect and liking to build upon.  I think it’s possible that months of writing letters enabled us to learn more about each other than we would have learned if we’d been dating more traditionally and living in the same city.

You’ve recently become a mother.  How has that impacted your writing?

In one word: Enormously.  I prefer to write in big chunks – long, quiet, uninterrupted stretches of time (and all you mothers know that that’s exactly what you don’t have the second you give birth).  So I’m doing the hard and painful work of learning to approach writing in a completely new way – in fits and starts, in small bits and pieces.

Photo courtesy of Lisa McKay

I’ve felt way too tired and life-all-turned-upside-down busy since Dominic’s birth to think about starting another book quite yet.  So I’ve been focusing on shorter pieces of writing – blogging and essays.

How did your friends and family feel about appearing in your book?

So far everyone seems to have taken it well.  I only changed two characters’ names – everyone else appeared under their own name – so before I finalized the manuscript, I did send it to almost everyone who has a significant “speaking” role with a list of page numbers where they appeared and a request to let me know if they had any questions or concerns.  I didn’t give them veto power, per se, but I did want them to see what I’d written and to hear their thoughts.

You’ve chosen to self-publish your book – what sort of hopes do you have for it with the reading public?

I had a great experience publishing my first book with a traditional publisher and I’m excited to explore this new frontier of self-publishing.  Technology is changing publishing so rapidly – I find it amazing that I can publish this book and undertake a (virtual) book tour without leaving Northern Laos!

As for my hopes…I have several.  Starting grand: I hope that everyone who reads it loves it and that it sells a million copies.

More modestly (and much more sensibly), I hope that it entertains and I hope that it makes people think.  I would love to see this find its way to people who will enjoy a good love story or who are grappling with questions about home, commitment, or long-distance relationships.

More modestly still, I hope to sell enough copies to break even on this project.  I’d like to earn a living from writing someday and this particular publishing adventure is all part of the process.

There has been much debate recently concerning whether or not authors should self-publish, whether or not traditional publishing is on Death’s doorstep, etc., etc.  How did you arrive at the decision to self-publish?  Did you know right away that self-publishing was the way to go with this project, or did you have it out on submission for a period of time first?

I have an agent who is very enthusiastic about this book, and initially we did pursue traditional publication.  It received a lot of praise from editors, but in the end, it just wasn’t right for any of the publishing houses we approached.

My agent suggested that we either wait a year and approach publishers again when the market shifted a bit, or self-publish.

I decided to self-publish partly as an exploration of this new frontier of publishing that’s only recently opened up, and partly because I wanted to see this book all dressed up and out on the town so that I could move on and turn my attention to other projects.

What is your ultimate goal as an author?

This is one of those questions I feel I should have a good answer for, but don’t.  Right now I guess my ultimate goal is in several parts: (1) To write; (2) To write well; (3) To write books or essays that I’m passionately interested in.

 Finally, what advice would you give other budding memoirists?

Screeds have been written on this topic, but here are a couple of points I tried to keep in mind:

Tell a story.  When I started writing this memoir, I thought I might be able to “glue together” a whole bunch of essays and blog posts I’d previously written and call it a book.  A friend and editor bluntly told me that I was neither famous nor good enough to get away with that yet and that I had to tell a coherent story if I wanted to write a memoir.  He was right.  If you want to write a memoir and you don’t know anything about story arc, Google it (for starters).

Write into the unknown.  I don’t know who it was that said that if the author hadn’t discovered anything during the course of the book the reader likely wouldn’t, either, but it’s stuck with me.  If you want to write a memoir, be prepared to do some soul-searching and struggling to put into words some of your shadows and your fears.  Work to learn about yourself while you’re writing.

Take your time.  I know some people can write a book in a couple of months.  I’m not one of them.  My work is always stronger when I’m prepared to edit, edit, edit, and let it sit and breathe between drafts.

Once again, thank you, Lisa, for being such a wonderful guest and such a great interviewee.  I hope you’ll have loads of success with all your endeavors!

(c) 2012.  All rights reserved.

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