A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to occasionally edit essays and short stories for Brain, Child magazine—a most enjoyable freelance editing gig. That's how I met Lisa Lenzo, whose short story collection, Strange Love (Wayne State University Press) was published in 2014. I so enjoyed working with her on "Aliens," a story that first appeared in Brain, Child, that I knew I'd want to follow-up one day with an author interview. When I read the book, I was captivated not only by Lisa's prose, storycraft, and characters, but by the setting along Lake Michigan, and the role the lake and weather plays in her book.
Strange Love is a current finalist for Foreward Review's IndieFab Book of the Year, and was also chosen as a Michigan Notable Book for 2015. Bonnie Jo Campbell, in her endorsement on the back cover writes, "These stories will surprise you with their intensity and intimacy, and Lenzo's language will mesmerize you."
Please welcome Lisa Lenzo
Q. The stories move in a chronological way, with the same central characters – Annie and her daughter Marly – over 10-plus years, but also leave out chunks of time. Did you write them in that order? Did you write additional stories to make the collection fuller? Were there other Annie/Marley stories that you left out?
LL. I wrote the first story, “Still Life,” many years ago—it was finished in time to include in my first book, Within the Lighted City, but it wasn’t a good fit for that collection. I didn’t write my next relationship story until a decade later, when, after coming home from another date with an odd and interesting yet frustrating man, I thought: This is ridiculous! This is hilarious! I need to write this down. And I proceeded to write down scene after scene from that relationship, which I then transformed into a story. At some point I had three long stories about my relationships with various men, and I realized I could write several more and have a collection.
I ended up with five or six long stories, which I showed to my writing group. They really liked Marly, Annie’s daughter, who appeared in many of her mother’s stories, and they wanted to see more of her. They also thought the stories about the mom’s boyfriends should be cut way back. So I cut the five stories I had about Annie by about half and wrote four Marly stories, which I then interspersed between the Annie stories. That makes it sound easier than it was.
The most difficult thing was to write each story so that it stood alone, yet didn’t repeat what was included in the earlier stories. For instance, when I mentioned Marly’s flame-red hair or her abusive boyfriend in one story, I couldn’t mention them again in a subsequent story as if introducing them for the first time.
Q. I understand you tried to make the collection into a novel but it didn't feel right. Can you talk about that attempt, the process of understanding whether you are writing a novel or a collection, and what drove your final decision?
LL. I knew I was writing a collection early on, and by the time I was done, that it was a novel-in-stories. But my agent said that the term “novel-in-stories” was not being used anymore, that the term in favor was “linked collection,” and collections “don’t sell.” It was my agent’s idea to turn it into a novel so that she could sell it—she thought I would be able to transform it into a novel, because it was almost one already.
So I tried to do what she asked by filling in the chronological gaps and also filling out Annie’s and Marly’s lives, so that the focus wasn’t so much on boys and men. But I ended up with my string of neat, self-contained stories—each its own little cabin--looking as if I’d tacked them together with scrap lumber. And I found the overall story was stronger when there were time gaps and the focus was mainly on men. Of course you can’t help but get some sense of the rest of Annie’s and Marly’s lives, too, especially the mother-daughter relationship, which is the strongest and maybe the most interesting relationship in the book. Ironically, I think Strange Love as it is could have “passed” for a novel—readers and reviewers keep telling me it reads like one.
Q. Lake Michigan (often ice covered) is central in the stories, and you've said that as a Michigan native the lake is in your "bones". Do you think of the lake as a character in the book?
LL. I grew up in Detroit, which is also in my bones, but when I first came to live on the lake at the age of 18, I fell under its spell, and it has held me ever since. “Character” seems too small a thing to describe The Lake, which, from the vantage point of anyone on the beach, looks as big and wide as an ocean. It’s actually an inland sea, and for Annie, it’s as large as God—or actually, maybe larger, since she’s not sure God exists. And the Lake is Godlike—vast, mysterious, powerful, both soothing and harsh. It’s larger than life, larger than any character I can conceive of, whether man, woman, or child. It is an overreaching and underlying presence in Annie’s life and mine.
Q. Annie and Marly are variously in relationships with men and always with each other; so there's some romantic love, and some is familial--representative of the pursuit of love itself, which often does feel strange or work out strangely. I wonder what you had in mind by the title?
LL. Yes, it’s the pursuit of love that feels strange and works out strangely. And all love is somewhat strange, when you consider it closely enough--both weird and wondrous. At the same time, I think most people will agree that Annie and Marly’s men, with maybe one exception, are odd or strange or eccentric to varying degrees, and that Annie and Marly are somewhat unusual, too. As Marly says at one point, “You’re not exactly casebook normal, Mom, and I’m on medication.”
Q. We first came into contact when I was a freelance editor for Brain, Child, working with you on minor revisions for the story, "Aliens," in which a teenage Marly tries to distance herself from her mother. I was so happy to see Annie and Marly again in the pages of your book, as if they were old friends. I wonder, is that a small glimpse of what it's like for a fiction writer when you go back and revive characters?
LL. I tend to come back to the same characters, based on my family and myself. Then I need a break from them, so I write something totally different. Then I come back to my family again and, yes, it is nice to be in familiar territory, where I know the people so well that the main challenge is not in creating characters but in conveying them to the reader as richly as I can.
Q. Some writers find it easier to write about a geographic place when they are away from it, while others like to be in the environment they are writing about. Where do you fit in? Do you write best about Michigan and the lake region while there? Did you get away at any time while writing, and did that help or hinder your ability to conjure the place on the page?
LL. I think I work better when I’m in the place I’m writing about. Then,for instance, if I want to describe the ice on the lake, I can just walk down to the lake in winter and check it out. I’ve recently finished Taking the Blue Star, a novel set in and around Saugatuck, Michigan, and after one of the earlier drafts was done, I had a friend drive me to all the places where the characters traveled, at the same time of year (November) that the novel takes place, so I could look around me as my friend drove and flesh out the details related to setting.
Looking out at the fields of corn, still standing but dead, the stalks pale and dry, I thought ghost corn, unsure of whether I’d made up that phrase or heard it somewhere, and I gave that thought and phrase to one of my characters. One of the scenes happens at a nearby monastery, and another at the local gun and pizza shop, places I don’t normally frequent, and I wandered through both several times, getting a feel for them and seeing what was on display and for sale, casing both joints for whatever details I needed to use for my novel.
Q. Your introduction mentions you couldn't have completed the collection "without my writing pals". Can you talk about your writing community? Is it a matter of getting actual feedback on drafts? Or is it (instead or also) more about support and encouragement, having someone around who knows what an editorial rejection feels like?
LL. I rely on both things—feedback is essential and emotional support is, too—but since I am dedicated to writing and am not going to be deterred by rejection, it’s the feedback that I need the most. I sometimes worry that I’m missing out on greater connection to writers and writing communities, because unlike most writers, I have a nonacademic job, and I work too late in the evenings to attend most readings. I’m looking for an agent to sell my finished novel, and I wonder if it would be easier if I were in an academic setting and had access to more writers. But I’m grateful for all the writers I do know. And I truly rely on my closest writing friends to help me make my rough manuscripts into finished ones.
Q. In the online MFA program I teach in, we talk about designing a writing life, given that most students will always have a full- or part-time "day job" that isn't writing (and not every writer will want to teach). I believe that, like your character Annie, you work for a bus company. Can you describe how you organize time around your job, and how you sustain a writing life? In terms of productivity and craft, what does a writer, in it for the long haul, need to do to continue to write and not be frustrated by lack of time?
LL. I’m lucky in that, rather than working 9 to 5, I work in the afternoons, so I have the whole morning to write—more time than a lot of my teacher friends who are writers. The drawback is I usually work at my job six days a week and also into the evening, I don’t have summers off, and I’ve never had a sabbatical. Like any serious writer, I still have to draw lines around my writing time and create a balance between time for writing, family, friends, errands, etc. I worry that sometimes my friends and family are disappointed in some of my choices. But they mainly understand, I think, and it helps tremendously that I have a super supportive husband.
Q. What are you working on now? In addition to fiction, do you write in any other genre or form?
LL. Right now I’m doing research and taking notes for a book whose working title is None of Us Are Free. It’s an autobiographical and historical novel that takes place in Detroit, focusing on 1972 and 1973, when I was 15 and active in a city-wide radical movement whose main concerns were the criminal (in)justice system, the heroin epidemic, and a lethal and racist police unit known as STRESS. In addition to fiction, I also write creative nonfiction. My work often falls between the two, and I’m constantly struggling with trying to decide and define which of the two I’m creating. Some pieces are definitely one or the other, but many occupy a middle ground.
Note from Lisa Romeo: You might enjoy this Michigan Radio interview with Lisa Lenzo. And be sure to visit her website.
Swag ! Lisa Lenzo would like to send one blog reader a complimentary signed copy of her book. Just leave a comment here by Sunday, April 5. (Must have a U.S. postal address.)
Images of Lake Michigan ice, courtesy of Charlie Schreiner; others courtesy Lisa Lenzo