Thursday 24 May 2012

Author Interview - Laura Harrington

Jaffa and I are delighted to introduce Laura Harrington, 

author of 

Alice Bliss

Photo by kind permission of Laura Harrington

Laura - welcome to Jaffareadstoo and thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer some of our questions.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

I'm a playwright turned novelist. I've written plays, operas, musicals, radio plays and the occasional screenplay. My theater work has been produced across the US, in Canada, and in Europe. I turned to writing novels 3 years ago after winning a wonderful award (The Kleban Award for «most promising librettist in American musical theatre») that bought me 2 years of writing time. Oddly enough I found I didn't want to write another musical. Instead, I wanted to do something I 'd never done before. Perhaps just as importantly, I wanted to reconnect to the creative process and be a beginner again.

What inspired you to become an author?

I’d say that there were three primary things that inspired me to become an author.

1) My family. Many things have inspired me, no doubt, but you would have to include my mother’s influence. She was an avid reader who revered books and authors. Plus, I loved reading more than anything (except horses) growing up.

2) Desire. To be honest, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since I was a little kid. But I avoided writing all through college and beyond because I was afraid to fail at my lifelong dream. Finally, after working and travelling 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.

3) The need to tell stories.

Are you a disciplined author?

I am a disciplined author, but I’m saying that on a morning where I’ve answered emails, made a new board on Pinterest so that I can talk about images for a book trailer with a young woman who is creating one for me, ordered books, and posted some news on Facebook. I will be printing out my current work in progress today and reading it as I prepare to look at plot and begin to outline and structure the book more tightly.

I've been writing for 25 years and I have created at least one full-length play or musical or opera every year. My output is slowing down a bit now that I’m writing novels as well, but that’s to be expected. I think that one of the things most writers struggle with is the amount of dream time that’s necessary to writing. And dream time does not usually appear “productive.” Of course, there would be no writing without it.

Where do you write?

In the winter I follow the sun around my house with my laptop. Lately I’ve begun to feel that I spend too much time at the computer, so I am returning to writing longhand. (I used to write all first drafts longhand.) What I love about longhand is that I can take my notebook anywhere. In the thick of a project, you will find me pulling over when I’m driving to get something down, or stopping during a walk to find something to write on.

 What gave you the inspiration for your debut novel -Alice Bliss?

My anger and grief over years of war inspired me to write this book. I was compelled to ask this question: How can I write about the hidden costs of war? How can I write about this issue that I care so intensely about, and make it palatable to readers? Whose experience is most hidden from us? Whose story have we not heard, who is most invisible? And the answer was the families and the children who are left behind.

If we open our minds and our hearts to the human costs of war (independent of the political and financial costs) and allow ourselves to experience that emotional trauma, maybe we will begin to connect the dots and see the relationship between our actions and suffering, both at home and abroad.

I have the optimism that our tolerance for war can be changed one person at a time, one reader at a time, one 15-year-old girl like Alice Bliss at a time.

If I can put the war in your lap, in the pages of a book, in the voice of a girl who is desperately misses her father who is serving in Iraq; perhaps a seed can be planted. A seed of hope, a seed of change. 

What comes first, the people or the plot, and do you like the people you have created?

Characters almost always come first for me. I discover a story through their voices. Once I find their voices, their stories begin to reveal themselves. I also have a story in mind as I begin to write. I have a general “feel” for the story and I know where I’m headed, even if I don’t know exactly how I’m going to get there. A bit later on in the process, when I’m nearing the end of the first draft, I stop and take a really tough look at story/ plot/ events and really begin to structure everything.
I love my characters. I especially love their flaws.

The subject of military loss is very sensitive – how did you research such a sensitive subject? 

I read soldiers’ blogs from Iraq. And I read every book about the Iraq war that I could get my hands on.

In addition, my own family was blown apart by war and it’s something we rarely, if ever, talk about. My father returned from WWII and suffered from what was then called battle fatigue. My mother said, “The fellow I married didn’t come home.” In 1966, both of my brothers enlisted in the Air Force, one out of high school, one out of college. One went to Viet Nam, the other worked with NORAD. My parents were both grieving during those 4 years, as was much of the nation. Those were dark times. And nothing was ever the same again. Our family, as I knew it, was gone; my brothers were both changed by their experiences, and in a chain reaction, all of our relationships were interrupted, and some damaged beyond repair.

The UK cover is very poignant - how much influence do you have on cover design?
I love the luminosity of the UK cover. Picador was kind enough to ask for my approval of the cover, but we did not have lengthy design discussions.

Do you write books for yourself, or other people? 

What an interesting question! In the theatre your audience is always present in your mind; but at the same time, I find that I can only write about what I am truly obsessed with. One of the things that I loved about writing my first book is that I was not worried about my audience. I felt deliciously free of all practical constraints. At the same time, I knew that I wanted to write something that was very universal, and that would appeal to a wide readership. So, I guess my answer is both.

Can you tell us about any future writing projects?

My next novel starts with water, as Alice Bliss does. There's a large Irish Catholic family with 6 kids. It's 1966 and the Viet Nam war changes everything.

Jaffa and I are delighted to hear that Alice Bliss has been chosen as one of the Richard and Judy Summer 2012 reads. 

Published by Picador 

We wish you continued success in your writing career.

**My review of Alice Bliss**

Matt Bliss is a reservist in the American army, and when he is called to fight in Iraq, he tries to prepare his family for the possibility of life without him. Alice Bliss is fifteen; she idolises her father, loves dancing with him, and plans their garden with him, and with great awareness she tries to keep from imagining a life without him. With wisdom beyond her years, Alice tries to keep her family together without the presence of the father she adores.

The story begins rather slowly, we get to know Alice and her family, we laugh with them, and ultimately we cry with them. There are some lovely characters interspersed within the story, Gram, Henry and Uncle Eddie, all add richness to the text, and help lighten the gloom. When the family get the news that Matt is missing in action, the story really begins to evolve into a perceptive analysis of love and loss.

Overall, I thought that the story was quite nicely written, as with quiet dignity Laura Harrington has managed to explore the sensitive topic of military loss in a tender and realistic way. There are some beautiful one-liners within the narrative which will stay with me for a long time.

I enjoyed reading it and will recommend it to my friends.


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