An introduction to Laura Lee, author of the new novel Angel (Itineris, 2011), and 12 other nonfiction books. Lee’s nonfiction books include Broke is Beautiful, the Elvis Impersonation Kit, Blame It on the Rain, and 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life. Her debut novel raises issues related to faith and sexuality that have brought Lee some marketing challenges. In this interview, Lee lets readers in on her writing process and also discusses the publication process for Angel.
Quick Facts on Laura Lee
- Laura Lee’s website
- Home: Rochester, Michigan
- Top reads: The first author that really resonated with me was Milan Kundera. I liked how he used characters as a jumping off point to muse about human nature. What I have read of his recently I haven’t responded to the way I did when I was younger. It is either because I caught on to his style and it isn’t surprising to me now, or my tastes have changed as I have gotten older. I love British humor and am a fan of Douglas Adams. More recently I discovered Alain de Botton. I like books on sociology and theology, and I am a big Shakespeare fan.
- Current reads: William Blake
What are you working on at the moment?
I don’t really like to talk about what I am working on until it is finished, or ready to be read. I am always writing, and I don’t know what the final form is until late in the process. I don’t know if it will be my next novel, or an idea I play with for a while. If it is the latter I don’t want to feel as though I “failed” to produce a novel that I told everyone I was working on.
“Playing with ideas
that don’t amount to much
is part of the process.”
Playing with ideas that don’t amount to much is part of the process. Sometimes the abandoned ideas don’t make sense until years later. Angel was like that. I rely on my subconscious a great deal. Even with nonfiction, a big part of the process is not thinking about the work, then letting the next line hit me in the shower or as I’m drifting off to sleep. Some projects take more time to percolate in the subconscious than others.
What do you hope readers will take away from your most recent book, Angel?
What is interesting to me is how much people bring to a novel themselves. The author only writes half, the reader writes the other half. I would love to discover that people found things in it that I didn’t see in there myself.
Given the theme of the book, I imagine a lot of people will expect that I was trying to make a political point of some kind. I think if I had started with a point that I wanted to make, and then came up with characters to make it, I’d have ended up with something heavy handed. What happened, instead, was that I began with questions I wanted to explore, and I found the dramatic context to do that, which turned out to be the story of a minister who finds himself attracted to a beautiful young man. For myself, beginning with what I want to say has never yielded strong results. Beginning with a question for which I want to find the answer keeps me curious and interested enough to want to write more. I hope that people finish reading it and want to keep thinking about it. What they think is not as important to me; I just hope that they do.
Where did the idea for Angel come from?
Ten years ago I took a bus tour of Mount Rainier in Washington. I was impressed by the sublime scenery and entertained by the driver. Throughout the tour he kept talking about burning out on his old job. Finally, towards the end of the tour, someone asked him what his old job had been. He said, “A minister.” I was intrigued by that. I wondered what would attract an ex-minister to the mountain, and what had caused him to burn out on the ministry.
“Why did the minister go to the mountain?” became my regular writing prompt. I actually completed two other novels which sprang from that question, but they were nothing like Angel. (The first was terrible. The second not bad. In the final version it had no reference to minister or mountain. You would never know there was any relation.) I thought about parallels between nature and spirit, and also about how the mountain seems so stable but is actually a volcano that will one day burst at the seams. It seemed like a rich vein. Yet the actual structure of the story—what changed the minister’s life—didn’t come to me until I saw a man whose beauty inspired me. It was not a romantic calling. It just intrigued me to look at him, and I wanted to be able to paint.
I can’t paint, but I can write. So I wondered how I could write something that might be able to capture my response to that beauty. I began as always with the minister and the mountain. I thought, “What if that is it? What if the minister fell in love with a man’s beauty?” It was exactly what I had been trying to find. I wrote the novel very quickly from that point. It was not a labored process at all. There was no question of writer’s block, I didn’t want to stop writing it. It was only when I had finished and was happy with it that I started to wonder what kind of animal it was and what niche it was supposed to fit.
Once you finished the novel, what was the publication process like?
My agent told me she was “very impressed” with the novel, which is something you don’t hear from agents very often, even when you have a good relationship with them. They are more apt to tell you what they think you need to change for the book to be marketable. She essentially told me that the book was good, but also a bit unmarketable. She thought it was a book that should be a Christian novel but that Christian publishers would not touch a book with gay characters.
“It is the kind of book that
doesn’t fit into any neat niches.”
It is the kind of book that doesn’t fit into any neat niches. For the business of publishing, it helps to be able to say “This book is like the The Da Vinci Code” or some other big seller. My agent sent it to a number of midsize publishers who she thought might respond well to it, and some of them did, in fact. But they didn’t think it would be easy to market or a sure moneymaker. Once we’d exhausted her list, I began contacting publishers and other agents myself. Meanwhile, my agent was encouraging me to self-publish.
Around this time, my sister-in-law read Angel and she said she was surprised by how romantic it was. I wondered if there was such a thing as a gay male Harlequin. It turns out there is a whole world of male/male romance novels that I knew nothing about. I sent Angel off to one publisher in the genre and they made me an offer. I had already hired someone to layout the novel to self-publish. I’d given up on finding a publisher.
I was still reluctant to have what I saw as a literary novel packaged as a romance. It’s not that I don’t respect the genre. It’s just that I was afraid that it would be disappointing to romance readers because it would not be what they were expecting, and that the label might keep people who would be interested in it as more of a spiritual or literary novel from picking it up. The publisher told me that they were going to launch a new line, Itineris, that would deal with the spiritual lives of gay characters and this would be the first book in that line. It was one of those great coincidences, and after discussing my concerns I felt like we were really on the same page in terms of how to present the book, and I felt they would be good to work with. We both really wanted to bridge the gap between the different audiences that the book might reach.
Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?
My dream would be to have it read in book clubs and to have it be a jumping off point for discussion. Of course, I would love it if it found an LGBT audience, but I also hope that people who never thought they would pick up a book with gay characters (or Christian characters, or Christian gay characters) will read it.
In your experience, what are some of the challenges of marketing a novel? And Angel, specifically?
One of the challenges I have found in marketing a novel is that there are so many people out there plugging their own novels, and their quality varies a lot. There is a constant hum of “buy my book” on Twitter and the like. Sometimes it feels like even mentioning your book is simply spamming and being rude. You always feel as though you’re spamming your friends. Yet, it is also a big life event to finally publish the novel. It’s a bit like posting your wedding pictures and then feeling vaguely guilty and tacky about it. That’s because a book is a product and there’s money involved.
Angel really does need a lot of word of mouth to find an audience because it is not this or that. The book hasn’t been out long enough for me to quite know whether romance fans will end up loving the love story or whether they will find it is not the kind of love story they expected. The publisher, of course, has a regular audience that likes to read most of what they put out, so that audience is going to be the first to give it a shot. They’re going to post the first reviews and they’re going to create the buzz or do the opposite. I hope they like it. I am particularly interested in spreading the word about the book to Christian audiences, because contrary to popular belief, I think these are issues they are interested in, and issues that they are dealing with in their congregations. Time will tell whether I am right about that.
Where and when do you prefer to write?
I do my best writing when driving, in the tub, when reading a book, or when falling to sleep. I keep paper and pens around all the time, and I write down the impressions that come to me when reading, or the little fantasies that come to me in the bath. Some of the best bits of both this and my last book were written when I was delivering pizza in the few minutes I was sitting in the driveway after dropping the pizza off. Later I take those sparks and write whole essays or chapters or scenes. Or I just record them in my journal to make sense of them later. As I said, I trust my subconscious a lot and I only seem to have those light-bulb moments when I’m not trying.
” I trust my subconscious a lot.”
Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?
It is like the concept of faith in religion. Faith doesn’t mean believing a set of dubious intellectual propositions because an authority tells you to. Faith means trust. It means trusting in something that isn’t always apparent or provable. There is very little proof that what you write matters. There is a lot more discouragement than encouragement in general. Only a few blessed writers make a living wage, much less wealth. If you’re lucky you have a few special people who encourage you and tell you to keep going, and that it matters that you do. If you don’t, you have to have faith in yourself.
Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?
“Never, but never, underestimate publishing types ability to delay payment.” —Albert Lee (My father, who was also a writer.)
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
“Everything takes a lot longer
than you expect it to.”
Everything takes a lot longer than you expect it to. It takes longer to get established and taken seriously than it should. It takes a long time, and probably some fallow periods, to really arrive and find your voice. It takes forever for a book to come out once you sell it to a publisher. Every part of writing and publishing is maddeningly slow. Don’t buy things on credit as you wait for those big royalty checks to roll in.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
There was a book called On Writer’s Block by Victoria Nelson that was an eye-opener for me. She argued that when you experience writer’s block it is your subconscious telling you that you should not be writing this. There is a good reason you’re blocked; you’re rushing, you’re pressuring yourself too much, you’ve taken a wrong turn and are going the wrong direction, you’re too attached to the wrong thing. It was an eye-opener to me to think of writer’s block not as something to fight, but as an important message to heed. I always stop when I’m blocked and don’t try to force anything. When I do that, my subconscious generally tells me in due time what my stumbling block was and how to get around it.
What do you find most challenging about writing?
That’s easy. Earning a living.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
I produce ballet master class tours. So, I have two full-time self-employed businesses. I don’t take much down time because I’m always trying to balance time to be a writer (which is what I enjoy as well as my career) with bringing in money. As Robert Frost said, “My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight.”
About Laura Lee
Laura Lee is the author of the novel Angel and a dozen other books on topics ranging from Elvis Impersonation to the science behind annoying things. Her most recent nonfiction book was Broke is Beautiful.
The San Francisco Chronicle said, “Lee’s dry, humorous tone makes her a charming companion… She has a penchant for wordplay that is irresistible.”
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Laura Lee.” Words With Writers (October 3, 2011), https://wordswithwriters.com/2011/10/03/laura-lee/.%5D