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Sunday, September 14, 2014

2014 Debut Authors Bash : Lisa Doan Interview

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1)   Tell us about your book series “Jack The Castaway?

Jack the Castaway is the first book in The Berenson Schemes series. The series’ premise is that a cautious boy is continually lost in the wilderness of foreign countries by his irresponsible, globe-trotting parents. So, in Jack the Castaway, Jack has to learn how to survive on a deserted Caribbean island. In the second, Jack and the Wildlife, Jack is lost on the Masai Mara of Kenya and forced to homestead in a tree. In the third, Jack at the Helm, Jack is lost in the wilds of Nepal and forced to white water raft to try to catch up with his parents. Instead of helicopter parents, Jack is a helicopter kid with supremely anti-helicopter parents.

2)      What was your favorite children’s book growing up?

The Little Princess was the first real novel I owned. I read it through, then started over, and just kept re-reading it. Finally my mom asked me why I hadn’t finished it yet. I told her I’d read it about ten times. She said I didn’t have to keep re-reading the same book, we could get another one. I told her I didn’t want another one because I liked that one. The Little Princess has two key elements I really appreciated at that time – a deliciously wicked antagonist who gets her just desserts, and Ram Dass, who will sneak into your room while you are sleeping and turn it into a palace.  Does it get any better than that?

3)        What gives you the motivation to write a particular genre?

 I am naturally drawn to middle grade. I will never write a YA dystopian or problem novel because I could not stand to live in that world long enough to write it. For me, middle grade is where all the adventure is. But, like most writers, I was just writing what I wanted to write, and then somebody told me it was middle grade.

4)        Have your characters or writing been inspired by friends/ family? 

Ms. Seldie Moore in Jack the Castaway was inspired by my wonderful Caribbean landlady. I needed a character that would be temperamentally in the middle between Jack’s over-cautiousness and his parent’s dangerous lack of caution. She was the perfect model -  relaxed, cheerful and exuding commonsense with a capital C.

5)        Did you experience writer’s block? If so, what did you do to get rid of it?

I do not believe in writer’s block. And I say that having experienced months of not being able to write anything, with a deadline looming over my head. So there is definitely something going on, but I happen to believe it is not defined as what it really is. I think of it as ‘writer’s wrong tense.’ When I first began to think about why I wasn’t writing anything, it seemed impossible that if I had the will to write, that anything subconscious could block that will. It wasn’t a lack of discipline. It wasn’t that I wasn’t butt in chair. What in the world could prevent me from not doing something I want to do, know how to do and am prepared to do? But then I realized that during a complete stall, there is not actually the will to write, there is the will to have written. And that’s a big difference. When you are trying to write, but are living in the past tense ‘have written,’ you weigh yourself down with all the doubts and practicalities of writing. These doubts and practicalities are peculiar to your own psyche. Maybe you’re afraid of failure. Maybe you’re afraid of success. Or maybe, being the nice children’s book writer that you are, you’re afraid of letting other people down. If you put yourself back into the present tense of ‘to write’ you take yourself back to the fun of writing. That reason you started writing in the first place. That seems simple enough, but it takes fearlessness because you have to completely disregard what anybody else might think about what you’re writing and just do it for the fun of it. I suspect that ‘writer’s wrong tense’ becomes the most problematic during the time when you move from unpublished to published, or undergrad to grad, simply because there are more people intimately involved with what you are writing or more people developing expectations about your writing. But though they are involved, you have to move them out of your head. Let your editor edit your finished manuscript – don’t make your poor editor live in your head, trying to edit your first draft. When you are writing, you are not a group, you are a one man show. Wave goodbye to your agent, editor, family, writing group, friends – everybody! Remember when you first started writing and nobody knew about it? That’s the pressure-free zone that frees you. So, how to shift from past tense to present tense? Talk yourself around. That’s the only way you can do it. It’s very personal, only you know what kinds of thoughts can pivot you from ‘this is torture,’ to ‘this is fun.’ Make deals with yourself – fun deals, like today I will only write the scene that seems like it will be the most fun, or the easiest, or the shortest. Skip over scenes you don’t feel like writing. Throw your plot away for a few days – nothing kills the desire to write more than a careful plot that that you know ticks all the boxes but somehow feels vanilla. Have your characters say the things you really want them to say, even if you are pretty sure your editor will strongly advise to delete later. Don’t assign yourself word counts, because that has a ‘work’ vibe, a not fun vibe. Your life is comprised of your perceptions, so to get past a stall or a ‘block’ you have to change your perception of the writing process because you have somehow turned it into a negative. It doesn’t really matter how you talk yourself in, because a mass in motion stays in motion – just get going and the rest will sort itself out.

6)        What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up a first draft of The Wandering Therophosidae – An adventure/mystery set in England in the 1800’s with magical elements (which may or may not include a giant tarantula) and am also working on a novel called Max and the Barracuda about a kid who builds his own submarine and uncovers a plot by the Egyptian crocodile God Sobek to take over the seas. And I have a vague idea about a kid named Barry who is attempting to transition from home-school to public school with little success.

7)        What is your favorite scene in your book?

In all three books in The Berenson Schemes series, my favorite is the moment that Jack’s parents manage to lose him. Again. Because Richard and Claire Berenson try very hard NOT to lose Jack. Every time they do, they learn from that experience and put a plan in place to make sure that particular disaster does not happen again. And, that particular disaster does not happen again, but something else does. The Berenson’s plans are so full of holes that they can’t plug them up fast enough.

8)        Had you previously written anything?

Like most writers, I’ve written a lot of things! Also like most writers, I did not know I was writing practice novels. It is common knowledge that writers do have to write practice novels, except a very few lucky people. But like most beginning writers, I felt I was bound to be one of the very few lucky people. This is human nature, as evidenced by the number of lottery tickets sold on any given day.  

9)        Were there any scenes that were cut in the editing process you wish had made it into the book?

Yes and no. In the first book, I had included more detail about the coral reef system. I based it on a dive site I had dived hundreds of times and knew the terrain very well. But this is why you have an editor – to sort out what is interesting to you and what is interesting to your reader. So I did not want to cut it, but did because it was right for the book.

10)      Can you give us one fun fact we might not know about The Berenson Schemes? Something about the story itself or the writing process?

Getting published is often a matter of the stars aligning. The first book in the series, Jack the Castaway, had landed on Lerner’s radar years ago as a standalone novel. I even had a conversation with the senior editor about series potential. But, like so many close calls, it was not acquired. Then I attended an alumni weekend at Vermont College of Fine Arts and that editor was also there. I had intended to read from Jack the Castaway, but hesitated because I knew he was already familiar with it. At the last minute I decided to go ahead. After the reading, he said, “I remember that. It’s still funny.” And I said, “It’s still for sale.” And things went from there. That was a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment for me – one small decision to go this way or that way would have changed my life as a writer and, had I not read from Jack the Castaway, I would not even have known that an opportunity had just sailed out the door.

11)      I noticed that you have travelled a lot? What was the best, worst and weirdest experiences you have had?

One of the worst was sitting alone on a plane to Madrid. I had quit my job and planned out a year-long backpacking trip, going overland by myself from Morocco to Kenya. It was all fun and games while I was snugly ensconced in my New York apartment reading Lonely Planet travel guides. It was another thing to be on that plane. After landing, I handed a taxi driver the name of a hostel I had chosen from the guidebook, but that turned out to be an empty lot. I didn’t speak Spanish and had not actually brought the Spain guidebook with me – just that hostel name and a train schedule. Finally the driver took me to some lady’s apartment. I was never able to determine whether she usually rented rooms or not. I managed to make my way south and cross over into Tangier – where I became virtually paralyzed by fear. I was supposed to be heading over the Atlas Mountains and into Algeria. I stayed there a week before I could force myself to go. This was at the beginning of the first Gulf War and I was sure the Algerians would not let an American into their country. I was counting on it, actually. But instead they turned away two Irish guys and waved me through. So, I had to keep going with my plan to hitchhike across the Sahara. Yikes.

One of the weirdest was when I was in northern Kenya and my guidebook said you could rent a bike and pedal to a small game park and go through it on foot. So, I found myself wandering around this place, pushing the bike. I had thought I would see other people doing the same, but apparently this is not a popular activity. I got totally turned around on the trails and was there way longer than I wanted to be, but still not panicking. Then a pickup truck came barreling down a path, slowed down and asked me if I had seen the leopard. I said no, then they drove away before I could ask them for a ride. I spent the rest of the time making deals with God before I finally found the gatehouse and got out of there. I drank a lot of beer that night.

I think the best experience I had was traveling to Roatan for the first time. I was actually supposed to be on my way to the Copan ruins but changed my mind at the airport. I decided to try scuba diving, mainly because that’s what everybody else was doing. A year later I moved there as an instructor – so that was a trip that changed the course of my life!


12)      If you were stranded on a deserted island, what are three material things you couldn't be without?
Assuming we rule out a genie with three wishes and that my first wish would be infinity wishes, I would go with David Copperfield, a bag containing a flint to make fire, snorkel gear so I could catch lobster and a still to make mango wine. There are worse things than eating lobster, drinking bad wine and reading Dickens!  (FYI – I realize I totally cheated with the bag)

13)        What are you reading now?
I just finished Villette by Charlotte Bronte, which I did not love. Lucy Snowe seemed mentally ill , the plot hinged on coincidence and I despised the ending. I also just finished a re-read of The Cranford Novellas, by Elizabeth Gaskell, which I adore. Nobody rules their world like the Cranford ladies brigade.

14)        Which author has inspired you most and why?

As a group, I would say Victorian British writers – Dickens, Trollope, and Gaskell especially.  I appreciate the humor – it feels very light on its feet to me – and I also like the space of those novels. No tightening the prose there!  In children’s, I especially like Sue Townsend, who wrote a hilarious series called Adrian Mole.  How did Adrian Mole not take America by storm? I really don’t know. Because they are really hilarious.

15)      How did you get into writing? Did you always want to become a writer?

Yes, I always did, but in that vague way people do. Like, I’m sure I could write a book, if I just knew what to write about. I think committing to actually writing something requires a big push to overcome the inertia of not knowing where to start. One day, while I was sitting outside my very tiny restaurant in the Caribbean during the slow season, I decided to write a story for my niece and nephew. It was a big old mess, but I began to see how to tie together plot, dialogue, tone, pacing etc.

16)       As a Quotes Person I always like to ask  To finish off, do you have a quote or poem that has stuck with you over the years and what is the story behind it?

My Irish Grandmother, who was not PC in any conceivable way, used to comment on what she felt were odd couples (which would include nearly everybody) and say, “I suppose there’s a lid for every pot.”

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