Lisa Borders is an amazing author and a beloved writing instructor. She co-founder the Novel Incubator program at Grub Street, where I finished revising my novel, as well as created and runs the Novel Generator workshop. In her most recent novel, THE FIFTY-FIRST STATE, Hallie and Josh Corson share a father but little else – until a grisly highway accident leaves them both without parents. Forced to leave her New York City life as an aspiring photographer and return to the rural southern New Jersey town where she and Josh grew up, Hallie soon finds herself managing not only her family’s insolvent tomato farm, but also, Josh’s transition to adulthood. Struggling to become both a parent and a sister, Hallie must help Josh navigate his final years of high school amid the opposing forces of grief, while coping with the escalating threat posed by a violent former employee of her father’s. In a lush-looking but poisoned landscape where even the smallest creatures are affected, Josh navigates his coming-of-age, drawing on a newfound inner strength. He and Hallie grow in ways they never expected, and ultimately, they discover that in the aftermath of loss, sometimes lives can change for the better.
We are so excited to have Lisa as a guest on The Debutante Ball! Here is her interview.
Which talent do you wish you had?
That’s an easy question: a talent for music. I’m as music-obsessed as I am book-obsessed, and I probably dreamed of being in a band even more than I dreamed of being a writer when I was young. So why didn’t I pursue it? I could tell a mildly sad anecdote about how I wanted piano lessons but my mother insisted I learn the clarinet instead, and how my ineptitude at the clarinet caused me to believe I had no musical talent, but that would be somewhat unfair and not entirely true. I knew my poor clarinet playing was largely a function of that fact that a. I was an asthmatic child who probably should have been steered away from woodwind instruments in general, and b. I felt singularly uninspired by the clarinet. Later, in my teens, I tried to teach myself how to play the guitar, but didn’t get very far. And my voice was … well, just okay. I’m not a terrible singer, but the world has enough mediocre singers. In my heart, I sound like Neko Case; unfortunately, I don’t sound like that to others.
Instead of making music, I’ve ended up writing, in all of my novels, about at least one character who makes music: Miri and Jamie’s folk-punk in CLOUD CUCKOO LAND, Damien’s goth rock in THE FIFTY-FIRST STATE, Johnny’s glam rock in the novel I’m currently writing, TWENTIETH CENTURY GIRL.
Tell us a secret about the main character in your novel — something that’s not even in your book.
The first draft of THE FIFTY-FIRST STATE was over 800 pages long, and the published version was 322 pages, so there are many characters’ secrets living in my head and not in the book! Here’s one: When my character Hallie met her best friend Lawrence in the late 1980s, they were both broke students at NYU. Years later, Lawrence came into a great deal of money; as a result, when the book opens 20 years post-college, Hallie has been the beneficiary of great financial generosity on Lawrence’s part, and she both appreciates it and resents it. She thinks Lawrence pities her, and her embarrassment creates a bit of a wedge in their relationship.
What Hallie doesn’t know – what Lawrence has never told her – is that when they met, towards the end of their freshman year at NYU, he was terribly depressed. He’d gone away to college from Indiana as a young gay man hoping to find his place in the world in New York; instead, he spent his freshman year feeling friendless and alone. While he wasn’t overtly suicidal, the thought had crossed his mind. If I don’t fit in here, he thought, I’ll never fit in anywhere. And then he and Hallie met and quickly became close friends. She gave him courage, and he secretly credits her with helping him to become the person he is, 20 years later. That’s why he helps her financially – he loves her, he feels he owes her. There’s no pity involved.
I wrote the scene I just described from Lawrence’s point of view – that scene where he and Hallie first meet. But nothing from Lawrence’s POV made it into the final draft of the book.
Have you ever tried writing in a different genre? How did that turn out?
I’ve written in several genres. As a child, I wrote poetry – I still have notebooks full of it, going back to second grade – and only dabbled in fiction. In high school, I tried to write a novel about a woman who fronted a rock band. I got 50 pages in when I realized that I had no idea what needed to happen next, so I gave up and went back to poetry.
After college, I was working as a journalist and still taking poetry workshops when a writing instructor suggested that some of my poems might work better as short stories; the fact that they had characters and dialogue may have been a clue! I moved to short stories from there and got an MFA in fiction, but it wasn’t until I started trying a write a novel – about a woman who fronted a rock band, a book that has nothing in common with my high school novel except the premise – that I felt I’d found my form.
I’ve also written and published a few essays over the years, and really enjoy that form. It’s one I’ve been circling back to recently. I’d urge all writers to try out different genres, especially if you’re feeling stuck in your primary genre. It’s liberating!
What’s your next big thing? (new book, new project, etc.)
I’m currently working on a novel called TWENTIETH CENTURY GIRL. It’s set in the late 1970s, and is a departure for me in a couple of ways: it’s a dark comedy, and the narrator, eighth grade English teacher Lynda Boyle, is narcissistic and fairly unreliable. But other aspects of the book link it to my earlier work. It’s set in my home state of New Jersey, and music figures prominently – the fading glam rock, burgeoning punk, and disco scenes of the time. In fact, I’m planning a climactic scene at Studio 54, and my anticipation of writing that scene is part of what’s getting me through the draft!
One unexpected delight in researching this book has been rediscovering disco. I was in high school during the disco era and fell on the rock ‘n roll side of the rock vs. disco debates that were prevalent then. It was clear to me from early on in this novel that my main character would love disco, so I started steeping myself in that music – and was surprised by the extent to which I’d misjudged the form all those years ago.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
At the end of my MFA program, my favorite professor told us all to look around the room. “The people from this program who will be published,” he said, “are not necessarily the best writers in the class, the sharpest intellectually, the most creative and inventive. The writers who publish are the ones who have that fire in the belly, who won’t give up.” I’ve thought of those words often, both in terms of my own writing and my teaching.
The more years I’ve taught, the less I’ve come to believe in talent. There are plenty of people out there who can write a gorgeous first 20 (or even 50) pages of a novel – but there are far fewer who are willing to put the time in to plot that book out from beginning to end, to re-envision characters that are not working, to realize, sometimes, that those lovely first pages are not the best starting point and courageously cut them, starting the book anew. The writers who can subsume their egos in favor of the work itself, who recognize that what’s good for the novel or memoir or poem might not be what feels good to the writer in that moment – those are the writers who succeed.
How does a writer know if she’s putting her ego ahead of the work itself? Telltale signs include defensiveness of the current draft; resistance to considering revision suggestions; thinking of one’s characters as immutable and not allowing oneself the flexibility to re-imagine them for purposes of the story; enchantment with one’s own sentences. All of us writers have these feelings at times, but if we do not keep them in check, our own egos will hold us back from advancing in our form.
GIVEAWAY: Comment on this post by noon (EST) on Friday, February 26th, to win a copy of THE FIFTY-FIRST STATE (U.S. only). Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
Lisa Borders is the author of two novels, The Fifty-First State (2013) and Cloud Cuckoo Land (2002), the winner of River City Publishing’s Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Cloud Cuckoo Land also received fiction honors in the 2003 Massachusetts Book Awards. Lisa teaches at Grub Street, where she co-founded the Novel Incubator program, and founded and leads the Novel Generator program.