I first met Alison Jean Lester at the Singapore Writer’s Festival in November 2014, when we immediately fell into a strong friendship around writing. I gave her a play to read, she gave me a book – the sublime Lillian on Life, which will be published in January 2015 (details, below). I was delighted when she agreed to participate in my ’20 Questions…’ series, when I ask writers of all descriptions, plus a plethora of other creatives (directors, composers, live artists, choreographers, novelists, burlesque dancers…) the same 20 questions, so we may read, compare and contrast responses, enjoy, and hopefully learn. 20 Questions: Alison Jean Lester….
What first drew you to your particular practice?
When I was 19 I moved to Beijing to study Mandarin for a year, and it was a huge shock to the system. I was so uncertain of my environment that I didn’t leave the dormitory for a week. Once I did leave, though, I became so full of accumulated impressions that I carried a notebook at all times and took notes. Then every two or three days I wrote those notes into a letter to my parents. Interpreting the world around me and trying to express it to others became I habit. I think that was the beginning. I’m pretty sure it was.
What was your big breakthrough?
Of course getting an introduction to my agent was life-changing, but I know that if I hadn’t been introduced to the writer Alicia Erian (The Brutal Language of Love, Towelhead) way back in 1999, he probably wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic. I was focusing on writing short stories, and my brother, who was then an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, knew of a short story writer he thought I would enjoy. Alicia and I communicated via email and phone (she was in Brooklyn, I in Singapore), and she read every story I worked on. I’d email them to her, and she, incredibly generously, would print them, comment on them in pencil, and FedEx them back to me. Her comments were both very challenging and very encouraging, and she told me things I remember to watch out for when I write now. We also had this seminal conversation:
Alicia: Are you okay?
Me: Yeah. Why?
Alicia: Well, look at what you’re writing.
So the breakthrough was both an opportunity to work closely with a mentor, and an opportunity to consider how much pain I wasn’t admitting to feeling.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?
Finding the right objective correlative. (T.S. Eliot: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”)
Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?
What comes to mind is actually a movie: Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously. I was at college in Indiana when I saw it, and I remember being deeply stunned when I walked back out of the movie theater into the campus of cool gray limestone. First off, I’d never seen nor imagined anything like the Indonesia it portrayed. Neither had I seen or imagined anything like the character Billy Kwan’s activism, bravery and energy. And there’s a bit in the film where Mel Gibson’s character, neophyte journalist Guy Hamilton, gets told by his editor to stop sending such hyped-up emotional pap back home and start telling hardnosed stories. It was about Asia, and it was about principles, and it was also about writing. It caused me some internal plate tectonics.
What’s more important: form or content?
This question is making my brain fizz.
How do you know when a project is finished?
I know that when my mind spends more time on something I’m newly imagining than something I’m actively working on, it’s probably best to put the latter down for a bit. It might be finished then, but not necessarily.
Ask any published author how it feels to read old works, and they’ll tell you they’d like to do some rewriting if they could. We evolve. When we publish, the work can’t evolve with us. I’m not sure if that makes it ‘done’.
Do you read your reviews?
My husband reads them first, and then we decide if I need to.
What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?
Two things. First, if you’re just at the ‘dipping a toe in’ moment, write what you feel like writing on the back of an old envelope or supermarket flyer. Don’t give it the power to make you judge it by the standards of a document right away. And second, don’t wait a long time before getting several opinions. One opinion is not enough. Show your work to a few people you respect. If they don’t agree on how your writing is going, you’ll be reminded that others can be very helpful, but they are only partial guides. Sift through their advice. But get advice.
What work of art would you most like to own?
There’s a work called “Zetsu #8”, by Japanese ceramicist Nishida Jun, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was described in an article by Sebastian Smee this way: “In a darkened and dramatically spotlighted room, three monolithic ceramic slabs are displayed chest high in separate vitrines. All three were fired as one massive piece. They subsequently fractured, and now coexist as silent but highly charged evidence of some untraceable past event. They are part freak geological accident, part gorgeous human ruin.” When I viewed it last summer, I burst into tears. It hurt my heart to look at. The feeling was no doubt heightened by having learned that Nishida had died at 28 in a massive kiln explosion in Bali.
A ‘gorgeous human ruin’ looks like an alien. An alien behind panes of glass that reveal it much too intimately.
I wouldn’t like to own it. I’d like to be able to visit, though. Or to know it’s nearby, even if I didn’t visit.
What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?
I think it might help me to know the answer to this question.
What are you working on now?
Promotion! I recently finished a draft of a second novel, and it is now in the hands of my editor. While waiting to see how much work she thinks still needs to be done, I’ll be doing what I can to raise the visibility of the first one. Part of my mind is on a third novel, though. I love thinking about it, and I’m making notes.
I’m also reading the novels-in-progress of two writer friends, to see if I can be of any help.
What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?
Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Lark Ascending’ are neck and neck.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
That I was too simple to understand what the people who sent me rejection letters were saying, and I needed to read them a bit more slowly and not put them away so quickly.
What’s your greatest ambition?
I’d like to see my book in people’s hands on public transportation. Wouldn’t that be great?! I’d like to see feeling on their faces as they read. But I think my greatest ambition, after living in an apartment for all my adult life, is to be in a position to buy a house that the whole family could reunite in. I’d like to be with my spread-out family more. I’d like a garden. I’d like a view of nature when I write.
How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?
I remind myself that whatever I write doesn’t have to be final. I take a trial and error approach, which embraces the existence of error and doesn’t make it a dirty word. I’ve done this often enough, successfully enough, to know that I can carry on and get to something that feels right if I keep trying. Also, I get opinions, and I see how I react to the opinions. I see what I’m willing to let go of, and what I fight to keep.
What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?
I sent a short story to a venerable editor who told me the voice wasn’t in the least organized. I didn’t know what he meant, because of course it all made sense to me. Eventually, though, I learned that all feedback is a gift. Negative comments are welcome. Sometimes especially welcome.
And the best thing?
That it upset them.
If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?
Your brain is the worldwide web, and every day that you live you are uploading more video, more sounds, more conversations, more everything. When you create, you are doing a search that comes up with pages and pages of hits for you to luxuriate in. You surf around. You expand your search; you refine your search.
Why are we so surprised at what we can find on the web, when computers mimic the associative way our own brains work?
What is your philosophy or life motto?
“Wait. There’s more.”
What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?
(Question: Does missing the end of your left middle finger make it difficult to type?)
Further information on Alison can be found at her website: http://www.alisonjeanlester.com
Lillian on Life will be published by Putnam in the United States on 13 January 2015 and by John Murray in the United Kingdom on 29 January.
Smart, poignant, funny, and wholly original, Lillian on Life is as fresh and surprising as fiction gets.
This is the story of Lillian, a single woman reflecting on her choices and imagining her future. Born in the Midwest in the 1930s, Lillian lives, loves, and works in Europe in the fifties and early sixties. Once she settles in New York, she pursues the great love of her life. Now it’s the early nineties, and she’s taking stock.
Throughout her life, walking the unpaved road between traditional and modern choices for women, Lillian grapples with parental disappointment and societal expectations, wins and loses in love, and develops her own brand of wisdom. Lillian on Life lifts the skin off the beautiful, stylish product of an era to reveal the confused yet vibrant woman underneath.
“Lillian on Life is a quirky book with a very deep heart and soul. I found it full of life and full of wisdom.” – Erica Jong, #1 New York Times best selling author of Fear of Flying
“I absolutely loved Lillian on Life. It was a delight. The style of it so fresh and clever and subversive and there’s something very brave about it.” – Kate Atkinson, #1 New York Times best selling author of Life After Life
“In this remarkably mature first novel, Alison Jean Lester has channeled the worldly yet wistful elegance of Colette to portray an unforgettable heroine. Lillian’s provocative reflections on love, vanity, sexual intimacy, and surviving as an independent woman over half a century are deeply moving.” – Julia Glass, National Book Award Winner and author of Three Junes and The Widower’s Tale
“I’ll never forget Lillian on Life. Looking backward, she’s brutally honest about her needs, her lovers, her parents. Salinger could have invented her…Roth would have loved her…and so will you. A rare book, a little raunchy, but very rich and very real.” – Ilene Beckerman, author of Love, Loss, and What I Wore
“What a splendid book! By turns acerbic and warm, urbane and homespun, Lillian On Life is – like its protagonist – charming, funny and unabashedly smart. But as slender and enjoyable as this book is, it’s much more than simply a lark. Each elegantly compressed chapter leaves us luxuriating in thought: about the snippets of experience so vividly depicted, and about those that have been, with perfect art, left out.” – Leah Hager Cohen, author of The Grief of Others and No Book but the World
“A beautifully written, deft debut; edgy, elegant Lillian will stay with you.” – Adele Parks best selling author of Spare Brides and Husbands
In a remarkably confident debut, a woman’s life is revealed through fragments and meditations hinting at a life of great daring and unrealized dreams. … A slim novel that feels just perfect—each thought measured, each syllable counted, a kind of haiku to an independent woman. – Kirkus
If the thought of reading about a post-menopausal woman’s one-night stands doesn’t sound all too appealing, you’re not alone. Yet first-time novelist Alison Jean Lester manages to make such an untraditional narrative seem endearing—even illuminating. The 24 vignettes found in Lillian on Life leap through the eras (‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s), touching on Lillian’s lifelong reflections and hopes for the future. The novel is a cleverly executed feminist bildungsroman that you could easily share with your mother, sister, friend, or, probably most appropriately, life coach. – Yasmeen Gharnit, NYLON
Lester’s novel about a tenacious, well-traveled heroine of a certain age is replete with the profound and comical observations of a vivacious spirit. – O, The Oprah Magazine