Friday, December 4, 2009

Interview with Lisa Mannetti, author of "The Gentling Box"

This is hinted at in your biography for The Gentling Box, but how did you come to full time writing, exactly?

I was taking care of my mother because she was ill and pretty much needed round-the-clock assistance, so I decided to go ahead and devote myself to writing full time. It was a pretty simple decision because it’s what I really wanted to do. It’s what I always wanted to do—despite the fact that my father kept reminding me from the time that I was about eight years old that people in the arts were frequently exiled, stuffed into asylums, and had tawdry affairs which resulted in lost ears and, that living in a garret--even in Paris--wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.

But I was determined and further encouraged to make the leap to full time writing by the fact that a few years previously, while I was working on my doctorate at Fordham, one of my professors, James L. Tyne, asked me what I was planning in terms of my career and when I told him I wanted to teach college and write on the side, he told me that I should quit the program and just work on my writing because otherwise I’d probably get very little writing done. You could say that it might have been his way of suggesting the academic world would be a lot better off without my presence, but because I’m basically an optimist, I took it to mean he had faith in my abilities.

The Gentling Box explores a very specific time period. How much research was involved?

I did tons of research and ferreted out every book I could find that seemed remotely related to the subject matter. I really enjoy researching, so it was actually a lot of fun.... Except when I’d forget to return library books on time and would receive all those overdue notices; I think for a while there I was probably on the 10 Most Wanted List and my picture was glued on a panel under the front desk in libraries in eleven counties in New York and Connecticut.

Tons of truly successful authors research after the essential writing is done and I really admire them. Regarding my own work, I find that research will often spark a new plot element or some interesting idea I might not have considered previously.

I also use the Internet sparingly—and in the case of The Gentling Box, I eschewed it altogether because at the time, there was very little available that was reliable.

I still maintain that unless you are using a professional site (which often requires a fee) you’re not going to get the best research from the Internet. But what you can get is a window to other avenues to explore and in that sense, the Internet is a tremendous resource and, except for carpal tunnel syndrome, certainly easier in many respects than blinding yourself by reading through bibliographies or exposing yourself to nasty paper cuts while rifling card catalogs.

It says in your biography you worked as an adjunct English Instructor before turning to writing. Where did you teach? Did teaching English and Literature aid in your pursuit of a writing career, or hinder it?

I taught at S.U.N.Y. New Paltz and Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY. I loved teaching, I loved the students. However, teaching, prepping for lectures, and grading 300 essays per term, left very little time for writing. Though I loved introducing students to writers that spanned the gamut from Peter Straub to Tennessee Williams to Matthew Arnold, my very favorite course that I taught was called Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education (you’ll understand this is when my father had me pretty well convinced I should be pursuing a career in teaching).

It sounds dry as hell, but I had a blast because basically I got to expose a bunch of future teachers to lots of liberal ideas and I had a lot of leeway teaching the course and as a class we sort of traveled back to the halcyon days of education for the sake of education and covered everything from the Holocaust to reading/viewing books and movies like Sophie’s Choice and Reversal of Fortune.

And, for anyone out there who agrees with the current mayor of NYC that tenure for teachers should be awarded on the basis of students’ test scores e mail me and I will tell you why in 5,000 words or more why that is a terrible idea. If you don’t want to hear from me, I can give you a list of students I taught who probably have the same point of view.

On your website you have a section full of Gothic cemetery photographs, and your biography mentions you take photos for greeting cards. Is this something of a hobby, or a pursuit as important to you as writing?

It’s definitely an avocation—though I love it and often times I need to work with graphics or visuals or sculpture in order to feed my creative jones. I came to the digital side of art because when I was taking care of my mother, I didn’t have a lot of space to work with watercolor or clay anymore. There were so many people in and out of the house (physical therapists and visiting nurses, for example) that I couldn’t just cover the dining room table with canvases and tubes of paint. Well, I could have, but there would have been no room for plates and food—the latter, you’ll understand is critical to the well-being of one’s convalescent and beloved mother. So, first I began scanning in photos (before I got a digital camera) and then, later, enhancing them. It took up a lot less room than art supplies and I discovered it was a lot of fun.

You have a link on your website leading to a site titled The Chancery House. Tell us a little about this site.

The Chancery House (which has received more than 3 million hits and oh, sorry for the cliché but if I just had a nickel for every visitor) began because I had these two rambunctious and delightful twin cats named Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn who actually inspired me to write a YA novel. Okay, I loved Mark Twain, I loved the cats (fluffy white fur and brilliant blue eyes) but they were maniacs. They actually proved any and all theories that names effect personality and destiny. When one was on top of the refrigerator (ready to pounce on my third cat, a sweet tabby named Charlotte Bronte) the other was down on the floor distracting her from the aerial blitz. They had more secret plans and more ability to coordinate attacks than the Luftwaffe.

I once heard a high pitched yelp from the basement only to discover they had a mouse cornered and the poor thing was shrieking loud enough to be heard on the second floor. Up until that moment, I had no idea mice could scream--or jump six inches straight up in the air beneath two sets of pillowcases lying on the floor. …

They were geniuses, they were adorable and, as a result, I never had to worry about entertaining guests with witty conversation because Tom and Huck took over every dinner party I ever gave and could win hearts and make friends faster than and Rachel Ray, Caroline Kennedy and Woody Allen combined. Anyhow, the premise of the book is that Tom and Huck are reincarnated as the familiars to a witch—though they long to be real human boys–and not magical cats—so they can get down to the real business of living large. By and by (as Twain would say), the beautiful witch loses her powers and they help out by opening a haunted bed and bed and breakfast called The Chancery House which is run by a couple of werewolves. It’s humorous, it’s supernatural. A kind of Harry Potter meets Bewitched experience as a novel.

In order to create a tie-in, the website was born. So. The Chancery House is a virtual haunted house with lots of fun, creepy rooms to explore and lots of things to do from carousing in cemeteries, to reading fiction, to sending free gothic e cards, to experiencing Lizzie Borden’s house with several horror writers and, should one be so inclined, purchasing art and t-shirts. And, answering this question is reminding me: I should probably send out the Tom and Huck book to some agents and publishers....

Can you share a little about your next novel, The Everest Hauntings? Any plans yet about where it will be published?

I’ve been fascinated with Everest for years and it’s become an obsession of mine—so much so that I’ve read at least 60 books on Everest and ancillary works, like Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna; Minus 148:The First Winter Ascent of Mt. McKinley; Between a Rock and a Hard Place; High Exposure by David Breashears; and Left for Dead. Each of these is more terrifying than the next. The first thing non-devotees need to know is that there are 200 or so bodies of those who perished which are still on the mountain. For the most part, it’s way too expensive to bring down a victim who dies there. And where there are tragedies—and bodies--there are often ghosts.

So. My main character, Maxie Breedlove, is a struggling hypnotherapist who also happens to be the economic black sheep among her highly successful siblings and comes up with the idea that she’ll climb the mountain and be the first to do so using self-hypnosis because there’s quite a bit of money to be made on the lecture circuit after you’ve climbed the highest mountain in the world. What she doesn’t realize during this epic climb is that by using self-hypnosis, she renders herself more open to frightening and threatening encounters with the spirits of those who have already died. In effect, Everest becomes not only a cold alien place that presents physical danger to those who strive to summit, but on a magnified level, an enormous haunted house.

I haven’t targeted a publishing house at all yet, though a few agents have expressed interest in seeing the completed manuscript.

At Necon 29, you screened a short video based on a story of yours, “Everybody Wins,” and mentioned the potential for a full length film based on the short story. Any developments there?

I always loved “Everybody Wins” as a story and I’m so pleased with the way the short film, Bye Bye Sally, directed by Paul Leyden (Jackknife Productions) and starring Malin Ackerman turned out. He was just outstanding—no phenomenal—to work with, and the film has gotten some excellent play at a number of prestigious film festivals. But, though it’s had excellent reviews and people really like it, as of this moment, I haven’t heard anything about a feature film, though clearly that would be wonderful.

Your biography also states you're a Tarot card reader, also. Hobby or life pursuit? When did you first dabble in Tarot?

I first encountered the Tarot when I was 16 and my best high school friend, Gayle Kimball, gave me a gorgeous set of Rider-Waite cards and an accompanying illustrated hard cover book. I took to Tarot like a duck to water, unfortunately, I found it so accurate it scared the holy hell out of me. I truly could not handle what was appearing in the readings.

Flash forward to about 15 years later when (before The Gentling Box was conceived) I knew I wanted to write a book about gypsies. So, I duly researched and taught myself (all over again) to read Tarot Cards. I never ended up using a single scene involving Tarot in the novel, but I was left with something that really is a life pursuit. I became more comfortable with the fact that I really did have e.s.p. and was psychic and studied pursuits like psychometry (really helpful when visiting the Lizzie Borden house) under Dr. Adrian Calabrese and actually worked with her as an editor when she was writing her first book.

I was also lucky enough to become friends with Carla Baron, a renowned, psychic: and I now do Tarot readings professionally.

I really enjoy reading for others (I never read for myself anymore). I find that in some ways it’s similar to writing in that you lose yourself and are just gone and are open to what’s out there around you. I’m always surprised when people tell me what I said during a reading—because I don’t remember, I’m tuning into my psychic energy—and really pleased to find out they think the reading was dead on. For a couple of years I’ve been working on a Tarot deck based on the tales of the Brothers Grimm with co-author Robert Dunbar and illustrated by Glenn Chadbourne, so I hope that one of these days, that project comes to fruition.

What other projects are on the burner at the moment?

In February 2010, my macabre gag book, 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave Your Lover, illustrated by Glenn Chadbourne will be released as a limited edition by Bad Moon Books. And in spring or summer of 2010, I have a novella called Deathwatch, which will be issued by Cargo Cult Press, and I’m really excited about both projects.

Still in the hopper are the following: a zombie short story for Joe McGuiness, a story for Michael Knost’s next West Virginia anthology, a story for H.L. Howe’s anthology, It Never Sleeps: Tales Inspired by NYC (PS Publishing) and a chapter on the Occult for Kim Richards’ Complete Guide to Writing Horror (Dragon Moon Press) and a few other short works I’m trying to cobble into stand-up-and-walk striding status for other venues and places.

I’m also on tap for a Ravenous Romance book or two (one about Lizzie Borden and the other a sort of Ghost and Mrs. Muir) and, thank god, I’m having the surgery on my kidney stones next week (Dec 10th), because I have more work than I can shake a stick at and being constantly ill for the last six months is not helping with these deadlines or the work I want to--and need to--get done...!

Why horror/dark fantasy? Does the genre itself attract you specifically, or is every story you write more dependent on the characters and their conflicts, with genre as a secondary consideration?

Well, there’s no question I’m drawn to the dark side when it comes to writing and literature—but that’s because it’s a way of understanding the human condition. I really have lost all patience with books, stories and movies that are nothing more than slash fests—which is actually a kind term for these non-works that might as well be the print or screen version of something like the telephone directory: blood, guts, gore, grue, stabbing (consult the ad on page 291 b), terror....

As a kid, I could watch bad movies or read bad novels and sort of enjoy them strictly because they were campy; nowadays most of these also-ran type works don’t even have that saving grace.

Whether I’m reading or writing, I’m generally striving to go after the deepest levels of human emotion, the places where it hurts right down to the soul.

However, all of that said, I’m a huge fan of humor and though comedy comes at those deep places from a vastly different approach, both humor and horror are skewed ways of viewing life and hitting home. The best comedy addresses what’s inside our darkest thoughts and makes light of those fears and assures us that it’s okay to laugh about these matters.

True tragedy is not adventitious: it has to proceed because the heroine or hero has made choices that lead to that particular outcome. To get into high literary criticism for a moment, in that sense, a train accident is not ‘tragedy’—however awful and terrible it is for the victims and their families--because the people dead or injured made no choices: life simply happened. Of course we have empathy and sorrow for all concerned when we read about terrible things that happen in the news, but when it comes to literature, to books or stories or to cinema, what we want to read about or view is what led the engineer take the drugs or the drink that resulted in the crash, what led the passengers to choose that particular train that day and why?

As a writer, when you delve into those questions and really pay attention to all the nuances and leave your own judgment (of the characters) out, you’re approaching something that needs to be said—and it doesn’t matter what genre you choose.

In a strange way, as much as journalists imitate the style of fiction writers, as fiction writers, we also sort of need to approach our fiction as digging down, getting all the “facts,” and standing back and letting the big picture speak for itself.

Finally, any advice for those pursuing a writing career, themselves?

I’m going to use school as an example here, not just because I taught, but because in my experience, jobs can be fuzzy, and a little harder to make analogous.

When you’re in school, every day you have classes: you may be called on for an answer, you have to take quizzes, tests and exams. There’s a hierarchy and you know where you stand all through the semester. The typical school day is the equivalent of your story or your book: that’s the stuff you have to get right.

When you don’t get it right, you live to fight another day and you study harder, or switch majors, or do whatever you have to do to make grades—you put more effort into a term paper than a quiz, because the grade on that paper will influence your final grade more.

But the other side of school is homework. No matter what you’re writing now, you have “homework” and “studying” you must do. Sure, some people can sit in class and never open a book and get an A for the course. Others, might put in 20 extra hours a week and get a B minus, but at some level, everyone is absorbing information to get the grade that satisfies him or her.

As a writer, be aware there’s a lot going on behind the scenes (just like homework or studying) that may not be directly reflected in your story or book--and here at least I’m not talking about research for that piece. “Homework” and “studying” for writers may include: getting a mentor, reading books about your genre, subscribing to magazines, looking for agents and publishers, going to conventions and conferences, finding a buddy or critique group that can evaluate what you’ve written and tell you what’s working and what’s not, checking in with professional organizations and message boards, and seeking other venues like writing retreats or writing boot camps that offer professional expertise.

Read widely both in and out of your genre. Reading is critical—read everything you can get your hands on. If you don’t love reading, how will you bring that story to life for your readers?

Also, try to have fun when you write...of course it’s frustrating sometimes; but without a little laughter, a little risk, a little willingness to get on the highest roller coaster, it would be just like any other dull job. And chances are you didn’t take up writing so you could practice crawling, but because you wanted to soar.

However, if you’re writing and having a flat out, demon-driven day from hell (and we all have them), when the sun goes down over the yard-arm, pour yourself a small scotch and call your best friend. Bitch for 30 minutes. Then, read a book that made you fall in love with stories, and when you get up the next day, get back to work.

Thanks for spending some time with us today.

1 comment:

Teresa said...

I always enjoy Lisa's interviews, because she shares something different in all of them. I especially liked your advice to writers working on their novels.

Thanks, Shroud Magazine, and thanks, Lisa!