Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #11: Laura Harrington

Laura Harrington is an award-winning writer of plays, musicals, operas, radio plays, and her first novel, the heartbreaking and lovely Alice Bliss, has been met with critical acclaim.  She's also the mother of a daughter who recently graduated from college.  I've been a big admirer of Laura's work for the stage, and now I'm a big fan of her novel, too.  She's off in London for the paperback release of Alice Bliss right now, but took some time to answer some questions for me.

You’ve had so much success writing for the stage, both plays, musicals, and operas. What made you decide to write a novel?

A few things conspired to open up this world to me. I was given this incredible award for my music theatre work that gave me two years of writing time. Which was an awe-inspiring moment – so much validation for my theatre career coupled with so much possibility. But I didn’t immediately think: Great! I can’t wait to write my next musical. Instead I thought: This is my chance to be a beginner again, to re-connect to the creative process by trying to do something I’ve never done before. I also wanted to pick up my pen without thinking about anything other than story. No worries about the size of the cast, the cost of production, etc.

Did you find yourself able to do things in prose that you hadn’t been able to do in script form?

Yes and yes and yes. It was so liberating to be able to spend time with a character’s interior voice. I also loved being able to tell a story that unfolded slowly. And it was just plain fun to be able to play with language in new ways.

from the TN Rep production of THE PERFECT 36: "A Woman's Voice"

Your writing for stage often deals with historical topics, and isn’t necessarily grounded in strict realism or traditional styles. For Alice Bliss, for which the writing is heartbreaking and lovely, you chose to write a contemporary story, grounded in realism. How do your approaches to tackling prose and drama differ?

As for all that history: I write about what obsesses me, the things I can’t stop thinking about. In some ways, my stories choose me. I’m also drawn to the voiceless and the displaced. And I’m deeply disturbed about war and wish that I could do something to make a difference.

Is my approach to writing prose and drama really different? I’m not sure. For me it’s all about voice. Once I have the voice and the rhythm of the book, the play, the character, then I just follow it through the first draft. I’m sure that sounds overly simplistic, but it’s as though the world of the play or the book has a voice, a style, a look, a feel and so does each character’s individual voice. I’m fascinated by layering voice/ image/ sound/ smell, etc. For me writing comes from a very, very physical place, from specific physical observations, from all the senses, no matter what genre I’m in.

Your daughter is a recent college graduate. In this interview series, I’ve talked a lot to writers who are in the thick of raising kids. You’ve succeeded!

Thank you! She’s a great kid.

And you’ve written so many plays and operas. How did you do it?
I am blessed with a lot of energy and focus. People are always commenting on how self disciplined I am, but it’s more that I love my work. And, to be honest, I’m pretty driven and ambitious.

What advice can you give those parents of small children (and teenagers) who are also trying to write?

Don’t think about the big picture. Keep it simple and small and write a page a day. I love the story of Andre Dubus III writing his first book. He had 4 kids, was working construction full time and spent 20 minutes a day writing while parked at the cemetery before going home.

In some ways playwriting is ideal for short bursts of time because you really can write a play one scene at a time. I could not have written a novel while my daughter was young. It’s no accident that my writing world expanded as my daughter headed off to college.

I find that when I’m working on a novel, I need a long stretch of predictable time to write, whereas a play is so much shorter, so I can get more done in bursts. What’s your writing schedule like? Does it vary a lot, depending on whether you’re working a play, opera, or novel?

The actual writing process, the day-to-day activity of writing is the same no matter what the form. You have to show up and give yourself to it. But the book took more time, lots more time. I found I had to make my life very, very quiet in order to create the mental space for a book.

One of the best things about writing a book is that the fun part – what I think of as the honeymoon phase when you’re living inside the work – lasts longer.

It seems like Alice Bliss has really struck a chord with many readers, of various ages. You’ve attended many productions of your work for stage. How does the response from readers of Alice Bliss compare to the response you’ve had from your plays and operas?

A reader lives in the world of the book for much longer than an audience member lives in the world of a play. I would say that the response of readers has been more intense, perhaps because of that longer, more personal and more private relationship with a book.

from Pilgrim Theatre production of N (Bonaparte) directed by Kim Mancuso

Marketing a book is very different from marketing a play. These days, the author of a book bears a lot more responsibility for getting the word out, even when you’re with a large publisher. Talk about some of the lessons you’ve learned about marketing a book. Do you think they’ll have any use for you in your work for stage?

Book marketing feels very different from marketing for the theatre because - if you’re lucky - it lasts such a long time. I was working intensely on the hardcover release of Alice Bliss for a solid 6 months. And now it’s time to work on the paperback release, which will be more extensive.

Lessons learned? Getting up to speed with social media, learning how to reach out to and engage with readers and fellow writers. Learning how open and friendly and supportive novelists can be. Meeting dozens of book bloggers – a world I did not even know existed. There is a very generous spirit at the moment and the world of books feels very open. I don’t know if this openness will last, or whether it is just the first flush of all of this social media potential.

The contact and connections with other writers has been amazing and really fun. I’ve found people who are friendly, open, and supportive; I’ve met and corresponded with writers in South Africa, England, Sweden, Canada, and all over the US.

What are you working on now?

I’m about to begin work on a commission from Playwrights Horizons, to write Alice Bliss, the musical, with the composer Jenny Giering and lyricist Adam Gwon.

And I’m deep into my second book. My next novel begins with water, as Alice Bliss does. There’s a large Irish Catholic family with six kids. It’s 1966 and the Viet Nam war changes everything.

Thanks for taking the time for this, Laura!
Thank you, Pat. Always fun to talk with you. 

You can read more about Laura and her work at  www.lauraharringtonbooks.com and www.laura-harrington.com.
The next installment of the Juggler Interviews will feature a talk with Diana Renn.

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