Q and A with Lisa Lenzo, STRANGE LOVE
Lisa shared this synopsis of her new book: Strange Love is a novel-in-stories about a mother and daughter and their relationships with an odd and challenging cast of boys and men. It begins when the daughter, Marly, is eight years old, and the mother, Annie, is 31, and it follows these two for a decade and a half. All of the stories are told by Annie, but they alternate between mother and daughter, beginning with Annie in the first story, then switching to Marly in the second, then back to Annie in the third, and so forth. Each story stands alone, but together they make up a larger whole.
Besides the romantic relationships, the book focuses on the relationship between mother and daughter as Annie tries to protect her child and find a lasting relationship with a man and Marly learns how to navigate and survive the romantic and sexual arena and find her place in the larger world. I've found that most women relate to the romantic relationships or the mother-daughter relationship or both, and that a lot of men like the book, too.
1. I've read that many of the stories in this book are based on events that have happened to you, and I was so struck by your main character Annie Zito's extraordinary patience with the different men she dated in the years after her divorce. I kept wanting her to tell some of these men where to stick it! I'm assuming that if you lived through much of what Annie did, you too were very patient too. Of course I'm curious - did you go off script as you wrote, i.e. change events quite a lot for the sake of the narrative arc? (...did you let some of these men have a big piece of your mind once or twice?)
LL: Some stories are more true to life than others, but all are mainly autobiographical. It's funny that you ask if if in my actual life I was angrier than I show here. Actually, it was more the opposite, in my life and in my writing, and writer friends told me I needed to make Annie angrier. So, for instance, in one scene, I have her hurl the vase one of her boyfriends gave her into her neighbor's pond, when really I still have that vase and use it from time to time, even though I'm now happily remarried. (My husband, a designer and photographer, read and critiqued my book several times, photographed and designed the cover, created my website, and helps me out in so many other ways.) But back to these relationships: I tend to get sad rather than angry when relationships aren't working out. And I tend to empathize with everyone, and in doing so, make excuses for them. My dad used to call my mom, whose name is Susie, "Second-chance Susie" because she was always giving us kids a second chance when we misbehaved rather than punishing us, and I guess I've inherited some of that trait. And I don't find these guys as infuriating as many readers find them. They are certainly flawed, but aren't we all? None of Annie's men were intentionally hurtful, although one of Marly's was, and Annie does consider murdering him--as I did in real life.
2. Besides the writers you have worked with who were either faculty or students in the writing program at Western Michigan University (e.g. Stuart Dybek, Jaimy Gordon, and Bonnie Jo Campbell), who are some of your other main literary influences?
LL: An early influence was Doris Lessing, whom I read as a teenager. I identified with her communist politics (I was a socialist as a teenager) and her feminism, and we both grew up in largely black communities and were wealthier than our black neighbors. There are so many writers I turn to now. I'm currently reading Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, which is a treasure trove of influence, and I've begun several story collections that I'm going to take on vacation with me next week: Making Callaloo in Detroit by Lolita Hernandez, Something that Feels Like Truth by Donald Lystra, Bright Shards of Someplace Else by Monica McFawn, and The Last Animal by Abby Geni. I always light up when I see a new story by William Trevor or Alice Munro or George Saunders. One of the best stories I've ever read is by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. Many others, too, have influenced me and continue to influence me, who aren't coming to mind right now.
3. I love the relationship between Annie and her daughter Marly, who, like her mother, is so witty and strong, but also vulnerable. How has your own daughter felt about your writing career and the fact she was, I'm guessing, an inspiration for Marly?
LL: My daughter Cloey had been bugging me to write more stories about her for years. She would say, "You wrote one story about me when I was a baby, and then a couple more when I was a little kid, and then you stopped. When are you going to write another story about me, Mom?" I kept putting her off. She said, "When are you going to write about my teenage years?" And I told her, "When I've recovered from them." I didn't finally give in to pressure from her but wrote the Marly stories because my writing group read the rough draft of this collection, which consisted of only stories about Annie, and they said, We love Marly--We want more of Marly. My daughter is pleased with the collection, although she does give me a hard time because in the book I have her character stay with an abusive boyfriend for two years, when in real life she left him after only one. "Give me a little credit, Mom," she has said. But she has publicized the book on Facebook, and one of her friends has written a review of it, which you can find at buenogato.wordpress.com and on my website, lisalenzo.com.
4. I thought it so compelling that from the first story it's clear Annie is both a feminist and a romantic; do you ever find it difficult to balance these two sometimes contrary impulses when you're writing a story? (I.e. how do you balance them?)
LL: I think that romantic love and feminism can and do coexist, and it's interesting to read about when they do and when they don't and the many places in between.
The book that has had the greatest initial and continuing influence on my life is Sisterhood is Powerful, an Anthology of Feminist Writing, which I read when I was fourteen. I agreed with most of it, and because of it, I influenced my family life significantly--I told my mother, who taught high school full-time, that we were oppressing her and it had to stop, that we all needed to cook dinner and help clean, and my mom spoke with my brothers, and I nagged and debated with my father, and we all began cooking dinner one night a week and doing more house cleaning, too. But in one of the more radical essays in Sisterhood is Powerful, the writer says that women and their daughters need to live apart from men. I remember reading that and thinking, No way would I want to live without my four brothers and my father. In my life and in my writing, I lean toward feminism, but I wouldn't want a world without men.
5. If you don't mind talking about it, what are you working on now?
LL: I'm just about done with a novel that draws from my experience as a bus driver but is not at all autobiographical. It's been fun and refreshing to focus on other characters and to get away from my own self-based character for a while. But I've also been writing more stories about my life after the events of Strange Love, so I'm thinking of gathering those together, writing some more of them, and perhaps producing a sequel to Strange Love. And after taking many notes and doing a lot of research for a novel that takes place in Detroit in the early 1970s, I'm puzzling over how I want to approach that book.