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Lisa Lenard-Cook Gets Cookin'
By Diego X. Jesus and Mark London

March, 2005, 15:09

ot new author Lisa Lenard-Cook decided late that she would publish novels. And she has, in a rather spectacular fashion, with Dissonance in 2003 and Coyote Morning in 04 (see exclusive IN excerpt). IN was fortunate enough to catch up with her, shortly after attending her best friend's husband's funeral, and gently persuade her to field a few questions. In light of the tragedy, it's nevertheless clear from her grace and understated vigour that it was both an insignificant, as well an early healing exercise.

IN: One of our staffers, for his ninth grade term paper, had to interview a practitioner of his particular profession. With no novelists living in his area, he wrote to Philip Roth and asked what advice he would give young writers just starting out. Roth answered with, "No trade secrets. Just read and write!" Perhaps you'll be a little more specific?

LLC: It may sound facile, but I'm with Roth on this one, only more emphatically. My MFA thesis was entitled Reading As A Writer, so this is a subject I love to expound on. What I tell my students is that if they read a passage or scene and fall in love with it, they must then read it again and find out why. Was it the language? The dialogue? The trajectory of the scene itself? The way the characters reveal themselves?

But there's another aspect to this idea, too: When you're reading as a writer, you have to do the same thing when you read something you don't like. Why didn't you like it? Was it a visceral reaction, something a character said or did, or word or phrase that didn't ring true for you? When you're a writer, you approach everything you read this way. And I mean everything: cereal boxes and ads on the sides of buses and stories in the newspaper as well as novels and short stories.

IN: As an up-and-coming novelist, whose books are now receiving a large amount of attention, what publisher/agent/writer legalities would you share with new writers?

LLC: Every time I teach beginning fiction writing, one of the first questions I'm asked is, "How do I find an agent?" "What have you written?" I ask back. The answer is always some variation of, "Well, I haven't written it yet but I've got this great idea."

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Now, my husband is a construction project manager -- he builds big stuff: concrete pipelines, dams, hydroelectric projects. To me, asking "How do I get an agent?" before you've written (and revised) a book is the equivalent of asking "How do I pour the concrete?" before you've got the plans and specs.

In my own case, I've been writing most of my life but for a number of reasons I didn't pursue it as a serious profession until the early 1990s, when I was in my early 40s. The low residency MFA program I attended at Vermont College was a huge turning point in my writing -- I'd never participated in a workshop; I'd never imagined writers (solitary sorts like myself, I was certain) could sit around talking about writing.

Here are a few of the important things I learned in that program. Study your craft. Apprentice yourself to a master (who of course can be a writer you've never met -- Joan Didion, say, or Carol Shields). And then, share your work. You can't make that daydream you have about your name on the cover of a book (or your face on the cover of Time or on TV facing Oprah) without, first, someone else reading your work and providing useful feedback.

But here's a secret about writing workshops (that shouldn't be a secret): You'll learn far more reading and critiquing others' works-in-progress than you will from what others say about your own work. It's far easier to edit someone else's work than your own, but editing your own work -- revising, rewriting, pulling every thread as tightly as you can to create a seamless fabric -- that's what separates the masterworks from the mediocre.

IN: On a slightly more personal note, you have moved quite a number of times in the past. How do different living environments influence your writing and character creations?

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LLC: This concerns yet another aspect of writing that's important to me. I can write anywhere it's quiet (and occasionally, like now, when it's not). I love writing longhand and then typing what I've written into my laptop, but when I was writing the CIGs (Complete Idiots Guides), I had three-month turnarounds and was working with experts who verified what I wrote (I often say I was the complete idiot), so I didn't have the luxury of writing longhand first.

I started a novel sometime in that period the old-fashioned way, writing longhand and then typing the first chapter into the laptop, but what happened was that after I'd typed what I'd written, I kept on going. I was halfway through Chapter 2 when I realized (horrified, I should add) that I was writing fiction on the computer! Now I do most of my writing on the laptop. Not doing so was foolish: I type well over 100 wpm.

Which actually brings me back to your question. In the early 90s, when we were living in the Sandhills of Nebraska and I was in grad school (the low-res MFA), I was also my husband's job secretary. I soon learned I could crank out all the jobsite work -- AP, payroll, reports, etc -- the first hour I was there. So long as I sat in my chair by the door of that trailer and answered the phone and covered any other work that came up during the day, I could write my little heart out -- and I did.

Place, I think, is internal as well as external, and I carry every place I've lived with me. I loved (and love) them all - the blue-grey that is Buffalo; the insistent loneliness that is the Nebraska Sandhills; the keening wind sound that is the Mojave; the rhythmic pulse that is the Bay Area; the surprising mountains and canyons that are Southwest Colorado; and most of all the comforting embrace that is wide, wide open north central New Mexico, my soul place.

My characters arise full-bodied, like Aphrodite on her half-shell, and are always of their place. I've learned to trust whatever's going on in my right brain: When it's ready, it will let left brain know it's time to rock 'n roll.

IN: With everything going on in your life; teaching, tours, book launches, publicity shoots, what's next for you? What should readers and writers alike look forward to from Lisa Lenard-Cook?

LLC: I finished a novel called Long Division last fall, which my agent has recently begun shopping in New York. Until last week, I was working on a novel about a mercy killing but a dear friend was murdered last week and that book died with him. I'd been spending some time with short stories and I suspect after this week back in Southwest Colorado I'll have quite a few new stories that beg to be told.

IN: Favorite writer?
LLC: Katherine Anne Porter

IN: NBA fan?
LLC: Nope. Buffalo Bills.

IN: Beatles, Prince or Sinatra?
LLC: Depends on the weather.

IN: Do you sleep in the nude?
LLC: Depends on the weather.

IN: Where do you get your ideas (see March IN, Writer's Life Fiction section)?
LLC: Omigod. Everywhere!

IN: The meaning of life?
LLC: This is a hard question for me this week. Ask me next month?

Read Lisa Lenard-Cook's excerpt from Coyote Morning.
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Diego X. Jesus is a Dominican-born American freelance underground journalist and associate editor of IN who makes Toronto his home approximately half the time. Otherwise, we don't know where he might be. Email Jesus


Mark London is a Toronto based writer and associate editor of IN who has been with the FWO-Int'l since it's inception and volunteers much of his time in assisting young writers' careers. Email Mark:

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