Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Interview with author Deborah Lee Luskin

Today we get to learn a bit about VT author Deborah Lee Luskin.

Welcome to Reviews and Interviews, Deborah.

Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I've been writing about Vermont life, past and present, since relocating from New York City in 1984. I hold a PhD in English Literature from Columbia University and have taught literature and writing to diverse learners, from Ivy League undergraduates to prison inmates. I'm a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council, a freelance journalist, a skilled technical writer, and a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio. Into The Wilderness is my first published novel.

Please tell us about your newest release, Into the Wilderness.
Into the Wilderness, set in Vermont in 1964, is a love story between 64-year olds: Rose Mayer is a Jewish widow from New York, and Percy Mendell is a Vermont bachelor.

It’s also a story about reevaluating one’s faith. Rose has never lived outside a Jewish community before, and her Vermont neighbors have never before met a Jew. Rose is challenged to figure out what it means for her to be Jewish; she can no longer simply rely on being surrounded by people who all think, live, and worship the same way – something she’s always just taken for granted. And her neighbors are curious! Answering their questions forces her to clarify her own thinking about faith.

For Percy, it’s his political faith that’s challenged. All his life, the Republicans have ruled Vermont and served as the conscience of the Republican Party at the national level. In 1964, the Vermont delegation to the GOP convention nominates Margaret Chase Smith for president – but Barry Goldwater wins the nomination, and Percy crosses party lines for the first time in his life. Vermont follows and for the first time in 150 years does not elect the GOP presidential nominee. But politics are just part of it. His widowed sister, with whom he lived, has just died, and Percy is lonely. Memory of his first love, dead for over forty years, surfaces, and he’s at odds with his feelings. Worse, he’s facing retirement in a year and doesn’t know what he’s going to do for the rest of his life.

In addition, the story is a love song to Vermont and to a sense of time and place. The Interstate Highways were being built, and Vermont’s insularity was penetrated by outsiders. So in many ways, it’s a story about how people accept (or don’t) strangers – what it takes for us all to get along.

What inspired you to write this book?
I wrote the first draft of this book after completing a dark love story set in Vermont in 1958. Elegy for a Girl tells the tragic story of Harlan Knight, a farmer, who is starved for love after his wife, Mary Grace, dies. His daughter has been raised in town by her loveless aunt and lecherous uncle. All she wants to do is return to the farm – the one place she’s been happy. But half the farm has been taken for the new interstate highway that’s being built, and her father refuses to make the technological changes required to stay in the dairy business but refuses to give up the farm. Father and daughter fall in love with each other – with tragic consequences.

Percy Mendell is a minor character in Elegy for a Girl, but one whom I liked a great deal. When the idea for Rose Mayer walked into my imagination, I knew I had mischief in the making – and it was a relief to write a happy story after writing a dark one. I’m still hopeful that Elegy will be published.

What exciting story are you working on next?
All I can say is that I’m working on a novel that involves Jane Austen – a passion of mine. It’s too soon – the work is too fragile – to say anything else.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve been writing since I was nine. I’d read Anne Frank’s Diary, so I started keeping my own, even starting the entries, “Dear Kitty”. What I understood from Frank’s diary was the way writing could help overcome loneliness and isolation, which were part of my life as an only daughter surrounded by sons. (I have three brothers.) Writing continues to be how I meditate, how I figure things out, process new information – and earn a living.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I lived alone and wrote before I met my husband. I thought I’d be able to continue writing even after I had kids. Well, I did keep writing, but not during long, luxurious days of quiet and order, that’s for sure! I learned to write when I could, and one of the skills I developed was to listen to my voice when I was doing other things – like driving the kids to ballet or washing dishes. I don’t think I was a very attentive mom.

I also managed the family business, which only took just a few hours a week when I started, but grew to be nearly full time. After sixteen years, I was able to give up the job and write full time. For a while, I was free-lancing for two major medical centers, writing technical and promotional copy, which paid well. I also wrote editorial columns, essays, and features in regional publications. In order to write fiction, I accept fewer freelance jobs – and make less money. The tradeoff in time and concentration is worth it to me.

All during those managerial and mommy years, I also taught for the Vermont Humanities Council, which I still do. Teaching literature-based humanities programs gave me a chance to get dressed and get out of the house, find an immediate audience, be professional, be heard. The work has taken me into Vermont libraries, hospitals and prisons. I’m now teaching literature and writing to teen moms. I love the work – and it’s parttime.

My ideal writing day starts in the dark. I stop to breakfast with my husband before he leaves for his office, then I go back to mine. I try to take two hours at lunchtime to walk – which is often when I hear my writer’s voice clearest. I return to my desk to capture what I’ve heard. Now that the kids are grown, my days are my own – or are they? It seems as if I still allow too many interruptions, even inviting them in order to avoid writing something hard.

But I also have a column in the local independent paper and I’m a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio – so I always have something due, even when I’m unclear about my fiction. That’s the most important thing, I think: showing up to work.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I wish I had one. I’m deadly serious about writing.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a psychiatrist until I took high school biology and dissected a pig. I switched to psychologist – until I took a college course in behavioral psych. I became an English major, because it allowed me to practice psychology on characters – and allowed me to spend most of my time reading novels. But as a child? I wanted to be a princess.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I completed three novels (and abandoned countless others) before Into the Wilderness was published – when I was fifty-four. Nevertheless, I’ve always considered myself a writer, even before I was published. And despite pulling my hair, gnashing my teeth and sometimes making life miserable for my family and myself, I still haven’t given up. If you have a writer’s voice inside you, listen to it; write it down; don’t give up.

Deborah, thank you so much for your time today.

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