23 February 2007

LTR Interview with author Tara Ison

How often have you read a book and had a list of questions that piled up that you wish you could ask the author? One of the exciting parts of my gig here on LTR is having the opportunity to talk to authors about their work. Following my review of Tara Ison's forthcoming novel The List, she graciously agreed to an interview. Here are the results of the burning questions I had for Tara:

Dawn M. Papuga: Many writers can recall the moment they realized that they were hopelessly drawn to story telling and sharing the worlds they create. When did you know that you would make writing a career? Was there a specific moment or event, or have you always known?

Tara Ison: Well….truth is, I wanted to be a writer long before I ever wanted to write. I fell in love with the images of writers when I was a kid – the beach house, the Parisian garret, the love affairs, the late night cigarette and Scotch and half-eaten sandwich, the sound of a manual typewriter…. None of that has anything to do with writing, of course, but being a writer just seemed like the coolest thing in the world to be. Then I realized at some point that I’d have to actually write something. (Ugh.) So I took creative writing workshops in college, but I felt like a complete fraud. And then I worked as a screenwriter - which was a “writing career,” and yet….just not quite a love affair. That “moment” happened when I sat down and began writing my first novel – and suddenly it had nothing to do with being a writer, and everything to do with writing, with creating that world and telling the story of those people. Suddenly the violins played and the angels sang and everything was beautiful and I felt I was finally fulfilling my purpose in this life, earning my right to be on the planet, and and and…. OK, that sounds ridiculous, but it really was that stunning to me. Definitely a love affair. (Although it’s often a love/hate kind of love affair…hey, just like Isabel and Al….)

DMP: What were the reactions of your family and friends to your decision to pursue writing?

TI: I have been so lucky on this one, to have friends (some writers, some not) and family who are incredibly supportive – they ask questions about my work, they read drafts and give notes, listen to me whine and flip out over adjectives, really “get” the whole thing. A big THANK YOU to those folks!

DMP: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors or screenwriters? Anything you wish someone would have told you when you were getting started?

TI: My favorite “advice” story is when an Aspiring Author asked a Famous Author something like “Do you think I could be a writer?” And the Famous Author said “That depends – do you like sentences?” I think the hardest thing is balancing the line between being receptive to feedback on your work and yet staying true to your gut. But that might be a lifelong process for most writers…. New screenwriters really need to understand the film industry, and educate themselves on how filmmaking works – a screenplay is only one piece of the process, after all.

DMP: Your characters are so vibrant and alive, how did you find their voices? Do you mold the voices after figuring out the character's history, or is it all part and parcel?

TI: Definitely part and parcel – the voices and the history are symbiotic, each informs the other as the work evolves. I initially wrote both Al and Isabel in 1st person – I wanted to hear each of them speak in their own voices, rather than have a narrator (well, me) “tell” or translate their stories/thoughts to the reader. That helped quite a bit, to establish the rhythm of their thoughts, their unique vocabulary, syntax, frame of reference, and so on. Then I put it back in alternating 3rd-person, for a little bit of breathing room.

DMP: Isabel and Al have such different professions, why a heart surgeon and director?

TI: I think Isabel was originally a neurologist, but then I was drawn to the idea of the heart, the richness of that image, and it made sense to use that to illustrate her character – how she can deal with the technical/clinical/analytical/scientific part of being human but resists feeling anything, how she wants to see the heart as simply an “organ” and not some pounding, blood-rich, primal thing. As for Al – he’s a film director because my background as a screenwriter gave me an understanding of that, but also (as for Isabel), it worked for his character – his passivity, his desire to “watch” the world play out around him rather than actively participate, and why that triggered his career panic/fears.

DMP: You include some very technical terms in both cinematography and physiology, and I image you spent a lot of time researching. Was that the hardest part about writing The List?

TI: I love doing research! Makes you feel you’re working hard, but it’s an excuse not to write, too. I love “information” – I’m one of those people who loves trivia books of facts and figures, etc., I can study that stuff for hours. But facts and figures can also really inform fiction in a wonderfully creative way – as an expression of character, great verisimilitude, good for texture and figurative language. The hardest part of writing The List was actually the love story itself – it’s so damn tricky to depict the most universal of human emotions, love, fear, grief, desire, without resorting to cliché. You have to find the oblique, idiosyncratic angle to come at and express those things – and the technical lingo, the “film” and “medical” terminology and mindsets were my conduit to that.

DMP: What made you decide on the format of alternating perspectives?

TI: Well…I think I’m half Isabel, half Al, so I couldn’t play favorites! They’re both such flawed human beings, yet they’re trying so hard… I wanted to give each of them a strong “forum,” equal time to express themselves, make their case to the reader, if that makes sense. They’re both equally right and equally wrong in how they’re dealing with the relationship, with life. So I wanted to let both of them speak.

DMP: Some writers sit down with an idea and let it develop into a specific story, form, and genre. Do you typically know the ending of your novel before you begin writing?

TI: Yes, definitely – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t change! I’m a believer in outlines for a novel (probably the screenwriting training), and I like having that rough map before I begin – for me there’s a real comfort and security in knowing I’ve embraced the scope of the story ahead of time, that I’ve structured a beginning, middle, and end, and that I understand where I’m trying to go. But – an important but! – if the writing takes a turn and I wander off the map, that’s fine, I absolutely go wherever it’s taking me. I can just stuff the map in the glove compartment, or throw it away and start over.

DMP: The description in your writing is very strong with clear imagery—like you're putting a scene already playing out visually into words. Do you approach writing novels differently than you do screenplays? Is there, aside from format, a different thought process you go through?

TI: First, thank you! And yes, it’s a very different process. A screenplay is all about image, and how to convey the story visually. (Yes, there’s dialogue, but it isn’t a radio play – it’s a story meant to be seen, not heard.) For me, a novel is primarily about language – and how to capture and convey a character’s psychology through words. But I don’t think we think in words – haven’t studies shown we “think” in images? So there’s a real challenge in the limitations of what language can convey. But again, I think my experience as a screenwriter has been very helpful for my fiction – I do think in terms of “scene,” and what the reader is “seeing,” how to actualize the inner-lives of the characters.

DMP: The List would lend itself beautifully to film. If it's optioned, who would you, in a perfect world, like to play Al and Isabel?

TI: Hmmm…. You know, I often do keep the idea of an actor or real person in my head as the “picture” of the character as I write – but I didn’t do that this time, in this book. More than anything else I’ve written, I only “see” Isabel and Al as themselves, I can’t quite put a familiar actor face onto either of them. But that said – I do think it would work wonderfully as a film, too, and there’s a slew of folks who would be a great Isabel and Al. I’d love that to happen – fingers crossed!

DMP: What's next for you?

TI: A new novel! Well, 2 new novels, both in-progress….at this point I have to decide which one I’m going to commit to in the coming year, and move forward.

Please Join Tara Ison for a Reading of her new novel THE LIST:

March 6 - Borders Books,
Century City 10250 Santa Monica Blvd.
Tuesday, 7 pm

March 17 - Dutton's Brentwood
11975 San Vicente Blvd.
Saturday, 2 pm

March 8 - Edinburgh Castle Pub
950 Geary St.
Thursday, 8 pm

March 29 - Books & Co.,
Dayton Town & Country Shopping Center
350 E. Stroop Road
Thursday, 7 pm

March 30 - The Chopin Theatre
1543 W. Division St.
Friday, 7 pm