A Conversation with Lise Haines
by Sherry Ellis
Lise Haines’s novel, In My Sister’s Country (Putnam, 2002), is the story of a rivalry between two sisters and of their family betrayals and losses. Ms. Haines’s short stories “Stolen Photo” and “A Glue-Related Problem” appeared in the Spring 2003 issues of AGNI (57) and Ploughshares. A Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College, she has taught fiction writing courses in diverse settings since 1972. She has twice been a finalist in the PEN Nelson Algren Awards and is also the author of Thin Scars/Purple Leaves, a collection of poetry. Currently she is at work on a novel entitled Milk. She recently spoke with me by phone from her home in Greater Boston.
Sherry Ellis: A quote on the back of In My Sister’s Country asserts that Molly is “Holden Caulfield rechanneled as a desperado on a wobbly pair of heels.” Was Catcher in the Rye or any other book with an adolescent protagonist particularly important to you in your development as a writer?
Lise Haines: Catcher in the Rye was a significant book for me when I was fifteen. I was excessively slow at learning to read. It was a book that overpowered me, and took away the self-consciousness I felt in plodding along. But I was always engaged in writing—making up poems and songs before I knew how to write the alphabet.
SE: How has your writing been influenced by your childhood experience of growing up in a home with a mother who was a newspaper columnist and a father who was a political editor at one of the major Chicago papers?
LH: From my mother I got a love of Yeats and from my father I got a sense of humor. They were constantly engaged, always on deadlines. I saw their stress and exhilaration, the parties. Lots of parties and dinners with other journalists. It was pretty heady stuff. My mother interviewed Marlon Brando, Rosa Parks, Johnny Winters, Timothy Leary, and Eleanor Roosevelt, I believe.
SE: How does the experience and process of writing a novel compare to that of writing a short story?
LH: To state the obvious, you can’t stretch
out in a short story. But a story can go quickly and well or take
three years to write—just like a novel. Sometimes you have
to put it away for a while.
Maybe it was Joyce Carol Oates who compared writing a novel to creating a nest—the way a bird keeps adding materials and building the structure as it goes. In this novel I’ve added razor blades, blindfolds, tea pots, and ice cubes. I was very lucky when I wrote In My Sister’s Country. It came out in almost six months. Later it had revisions, of course.
SE: In the Chicago Tribune you are quoted as having said, “For me, writing is a process of vivid daydreaming.” Can you give an example of what you mean?
LH: John Fowles said, “There are many reasons why novelists write, but they all have one thing in common: a need to create an alternative world.”
If I take myself too seriously, maybe I break it down this way: there’s the perception I have of this insane world, the one I know in the dream state, the take I have (or don’t have) when I meditate, and the reality I live in when I’m writing. I see the characters talking, moving, driving, breathing, having sex, eating meals. My head is a busy place.
SE: In your story “Stolen Photo” you write, “I returned in the wedding dress, wig, clown white. I stood up on the coffee table, kicking magazines to the floor. I ignored Tom and tried to fall into a trance. There are times when I’m up on my wooden box and a light breeze picks up the veil of my outfit. I have arranged my gloved hands into a pose; and after a while, they seem like something separate from my body.” How do the images you use express particular ideas or themes, for example in the section above?
LH: I had just moved to the Boston area, and as you know there are a lot of street performers here. This living statue was in Boston Common and she had drawn quite a crowd. If a little girl put money in her urn the performer would blow a small motion kiss to her, and every now and then she would move a body part; so, she was pretty still for the most part. I was thinking about why people were more attracted to her than a lot of performers who do this quiet activity. I think the fact that she was a bride had something to do with it.
SE: In “A Glue-Related Problem” the FBI visits the home of Karen and Arlene, roommates, while investigating a bank robbery, and by night’s end Arlene is dancing with one of the agents. Karen watches them making love. She states, “I kept my door cracked open like I needed light or air, wind velocity. Cyril did things to Karen that I personally found amazing but I couldn’t tell if she realized what his prying meant. After a while, they became abstract like wax apples mistaken for food.” As a writer, how do you decide to cast your piece in a realistic genre and when do you find it more helpful to move into a less realistic world?
LH: I’ve probably gotten too metaphysical as it is. And I’m not sure I’m the right person to clarify the real from the unreal. So I’m not sure I write straight-up reality. But I have worked as a bank teller and I had a roommate who glued wet suits, and at one point when I was working at the bank someone stole two thousand dollars and the FBI came out to my house. Out of that stew came “A Glue-Related Problem.”
In In My Sister’s Country the mother goes to a city park to have a last meeting with her daughters. She’s in a hospice and gets out of bed and takes a taxi to the park to spare them seeing her in this debilitated state. This incident is based on an experience I had with one of my best friends who died of cancer. The rest of the book is made up except for Wharton Manor. My mother tried to save some of the great old homes in Chicago by writing about them in her column in the Daily News. She took me to small mansions with ball rooms and buzzers to upstairs’ maids. If she knew one of these homes was about to go under the wrecking ball, she would steal architectural salvage, put it in my dad’s Peugeot, and we’d drive off.
SE: Have you ever wished you could have deleted part of what you’ve written after it was published?
LH: I’m really happy with this book, but like many writers, when I do a reading I edit a word here and there.
SE: How do you decide what to keep in, take out and/or change when revising your work?
LH: I know that some writers have to put the story out first and then add the language. The way I work is to attempt to finish a chapter in a polished form before going on to the next. I continue to revise as I’m going through—but then, revision is writing for me. I just don’t see much difference. It’s all process and it’s about getting that writers’ high. Though . . . I’m a nervous writer—up and down. Now it’s email that drives me crazy, going back and forth to check it. Before email I would get up and do the laundry—thinking about the book as I folded. I can work for many hours if I’m granted that luxury but I get a lot of stuff done at the same time. I could open a laundromat.
SE: How do you know when a novel is done?
LH: With any luck you have an internalized sense that the book works. Then you need trusted readers to point out what you’re not seeing.
SE: When you finished writing In My Sister’s Country did it require extensive revision?
LH: The process for me was going for that very tight, fine writing, from chapter to chapter, then getting to the end and going back and seeing what was superfluous, what needed to go deeper or make more sense. When it didn’t sell initially, a couple of marvelous readers went through it and I revised again.
SE: W. Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Do you agree?
LH: Sure. . . . Of course, I’m supposed to have something to say about fiction writing since I’m at Emerson. But I also acknowledge the mystery and the necessity of breaking rules. I think you can nail down craft a little and have some great conversations, but ultimately it’s what you can get on the page. You can do just about anything if you can pull it off.
SE: Prior to writing In My Sister’s Country you focused on poetry. How does your experience as a poet inform your craft as a novelist and a short story writer?
LH: Forms are pretty blended now. Creative non-fiction overlaps with the novel, and the novel overlaps with poetry. I think of Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever? the way she set up her prose poems, but it’s a novel, it’s both. I think of Lauren Slater’s Lying, it’s creative non-fiction and it’s fiction. It’s become a great challenge to talk about form. A love of language motivates me. Psychology, imagery, character and story motivate me.
SE: On a day-to-day basis, when you sit down to write, is there a particular way you start?
LH: I probably check the stupid email first, but most days I’m able to jump in rapidly (knock on wood). I think I learned that skill from my child. When she was a baby she would take long naps and I would turn on the computer to work, and turn off the computer when the nap was done. I didn’t have the luxury of avoidance behavior. I had to get to work; and fortunately that has stayed with me. Of course the more time I have to write the more I get written—but you learn to make time. You wring it out of the day. Your hands get strong. I get up early, I go to bed late.
SE: How do you begin writing when you are starting a new project?
LH: Maybe seeing a character’s face, a line, an image. Maybe I’ve read something on mythology or a fairy tale or heard a story on the subway—something in the newspaper.
SE: What has been the hardest thing for you to learn as a writer?
LH: I’m fortunate because I love the process and the process is loaded with problems that have to be worked out. I think of a filmmaker going to a movie. She doesn’t simply see a film. She’s thinking about lighting, staging, what time of day a scene was shot, the kind of filters that were used. That’s part of the pleasure of reading: looking at all the parts—dialogue, character, phrasing. . . .
I can’t think of one thing that has been more challenging than another, except, perhaps, making the shift from poetry to fiction. I had to stop reading poetry for a while, entirely.
SE: Is there any advice you have for beginning writers?
LH: It’s a good idea to avoid spilling emotions on the page, because that can become a self-involved thing, and then you aren’t standing back enough to create a world of fiction; you’re simply getting your stress out. Once you get through that phase, it’s about the work.
You may go through times when you don’t get a lot of support for what you’re doing, and you’re constantly making the choice to write, which affects all the other areas of your life. Obviously it’s a difficult financial effort. So . . . you’d better love what you do and be able to get absorbed in it.
Sherry Ellis is at work on The Goode Books, a novel, and she coaches and teaches creative writing. Her recent
interview with Paul Lisicky is included in the 2003 edition of “Provincetown
Arts.” In recent months she has also interviewed Ron Carlson,
Jill McCorkle, and Elizabeth Searle. (7/2003)