Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Author Interview: Laura Harrington

Laura Harrington is an award-winning playwright, lyricist and librettist. She teaches playwriting at MIT and lives in Gloucester, MA. ALICE BLISS, her first novel, grew out of Harrington’s one-woman musical Alice Unwrapped, which ran off-Broadway in New York and in the Minneapolis Fringe Festival in 2009.
*Bio taken from Laura's website
What were your first thoughts when you saw the cover for Alice Bliss?
The first two covers were very different. They were modeled on some of the other gorgeous covers we’ve recently seen in bookstores and, while they were incredibly pretty, they had nothing to do with my book. So I was a bit dismayed, but not alarmed, because I assumed that this was draft one and we’d keep working on it until we were all happy with the cover. (Can you hear just what a new author I was/ am?) Luckily for me my editor was receptive to my feedback and, in a stroke of true good fortune, the book designer went back to the drawing board and created something completely different. While we were going through this process, I did a little reading about covers and learned how rare it is for an author to be happy with his or her cover and it occurred to me that, wow, the cover could get worse. Lucky for me, I ended up really liking our cover. I find it unusual and graphically strong. It’s easy to pick out in a crowd.

Something else I’ve realized as I’m now putting the cover on a new website, is that publishers need to start thinking more about how their covers will look online as well.
I'm a fan of this cover too, so I'm happy your input was taken into consideration. I've seen book covers that are totally unrelated to books before, but that are eye-catchers and while I like an aesthetically pleasing cover as much as the next person, I want it to relate to the story between the pages as well. I agree about a cover's appearance online too. It's one thing for a book to be all shiny and pretty in person, but it also has to have an effect in its most basic, flat form.
How did you go about taking something that was originally meant for the stage and turning it into a full-blown novel?
The thirty-minute, one-woman musical could really only capture one moment in Alice’s life. So, really, the musical inspired the novel, rather than the musical became the novel. I had to create the world of the novel, the physical place, the town, and all the other characters. I had to move both backwards and forwards in time so that I could tell a complete story. It was a wonderful challenge and journey of discovery. And it was such a pleasure to get to live in that world with that family for almost a year.

Have you always wanted to be a writer of some sort? What propelled you to write a novel and do you have plans for any future novels?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since I was a little kid. I avoided writing all through college and beyond because I was afraid to fail at my lifelong dream. But finally, after working and traveling for a few years, I decided that I needed to find out one way or the other. I borrowed some money (not much) and went to grad school. I thought – this will buy me two years to write and by the end of that time I’ll know two things – do I have any potential? And is this what I actually love to do?

I wrote a novel in order to be a beginner again. I wanted to re-connect to the creative process by attempting to do something – write a book – that I’d never done before and certainly did not know how to do.
I am so happy you didn't allow that fear to control you anymore. I hope to see much more from you in the future, Laura!
Alice Bliss centers on the aftermath of someone going to war, but is not a war story. Was it always your plan to have the novel only reflect the intimate, war-at-home, or did the story just evolve that way?
It was always my plan to keep the story at home. There were times when I was tempted to open up to the war, to write scenes set in Iraq, but I ultimately felt that the family’s dilemma and longing and pain would be heightened by simply focusing on their daily lives. The strength of their longing is a large part of what drives the book. And our dread about what might happen to Matt is what keeps us turning the pages.
Keeping the war-at-home really made me feel for those that were left behind. Everyone knows that going to war isn't going to be a breeze, but I never really thought about the families that are left behind. Alice Bliss gave me some insight into that and just how difficult it is to be the ones who don't go to war.

Some of my favorite moments in the book involve the secondary characters. Did you have a favorite character – aside from Alice, Angie, and Ellie – to write?
Both Henry and Uncle Eddie just showed up one day while I was writing – each on a different day, of course. Which means that these characters felt like incredible, delightful gifts to me. That’s probably why I love them so much. Not to mention their awkwardness, their huge hearts, their fears, and their longing to do the right thing even when they don’t know what that is.
I adored both Uncle Eddie and Henry. I wasn't sure how often they would pop up in the novel, but their expanding roles were such a treat.
Ellie becomes quite the keeper of long and relatively unknown (at least to me) words throughout the novel. Do you have a favorite Ellie-word? (My favorite is bibliobibuli - one who reads too much - for obvious reasons)
My favorite is “jillick” – to skip a stone across water.
You give each of your characters very distinguishing and sometimes quirky characteristics that make them feel whole and real, like Henry’s music, Ellie’s words, Alice’s running and gardening, and even Mrs. Piantowski’s bread. How did you come up with these quirks? Are they drawn from your own life and the people surrounding you, or somewhere else?
I love it that you’ve asked this question and that the characters felt whole and real to you.

I always endow my characters with passions, loves, hates, fears, anxieties, past stories, future hopes and dreams, and secrets. Perhaps this is part of my theatre training – a character who appears on stage has a minute or two to earn your attention for the rest of the night. It means that I’ve learned to quickly draw a very vivid character whose life will continue to unfold and be interesting through the course of a play or a story.

Plus, and I think this is also from playwriting, I rely on the physical lives of my characters to give me insights into who they are. The physical world that your characters inhabit is full of interesting clues into their lives, even their inner lives.
The characters felt so real to me and if it is in part because of your theatre training and playwriting, I think more authors should explore that avenue, as I believe it helped a great deal. No character felt flat to me.
And on a lighter note and because I always ask this question: What is your favorite kind of cookie?
Favorite question ever! I love cookies. All kinds of cookies. I have a friend who also loves cookies and is a wonderful baker and she occasionally bakes cookies for me. Favorite: Chocolate chip with walnuts. No! Peanut butter chocolate chip. No! French chocolate “sable.” No! Chewy ginger with chocolate chunks. Uh oh, I could go on and on and on …
As usual, I am now very hungry. Maybe more so this time because Laura listed more than one kind of cookie. I want them all!
For my thoughts on the book, you can read my review of Alice Bliss

Find Laura Harrington online:

Buy it online:


SJune said...

Alice Bliss sounds like a great book. It will be interesting to see how the war affects those at home since that is not mentioned very often. Great Interview!

Bere said...

Wonderful interview, Nikki! Ever since I read your review on Alice Bliss I've wanted to read this one. I have to say that I really like this cover too. I feel like it ties in nicely to the story. I cannot wait to pick it up. Thank you, Nikki! =)

Mary Ellen said...

Thank you for the great interview, the book sounds wonderful. And thank you for the chance to win!

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