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Interview With Laura Harrington, Author of Alice Bliss

Earlier this month I not only reviewed Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington, but I also participated in her experiment Where’s Alice Bliss?  While my copy of her book has been picked up from where I left it, it has not resurfaced on Book Crossing yet.  I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

In the meantime, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Laura via email, and I can’t wait to share with you just how small the world is.  You may or may not know I’m a graduate of Suffolk University, but Laura has a special connection to my alma mater that I didn’t know about.

Without further ado, please welcome Laura.

I see that you are a writer of plays and musicals. How different is it to write a novel?

Each form has its limitations as well as things about it which are expansive. Writing novels has been a time of expanding my imagination and learning all kinds of new things about writing and myself as a writer. I find that I love pushing the boundaries, whether that’s from a play to a radio play or from music theatre to opera or from theatre to books.

What changes in discipline are necessary? How are writing them the same?

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. I found I had to make my life very, very quiet in order to create the mental space for a book.

Alice Bliss is adapted from a musical you worked on, Alice Unwrapped, but did the war experiences of your father (WWII) and your brothers (Were they in Vietnam?) and your time at home inspire part of the story as well? How so?

My own family was blown apart by war and it’s something we rarely, if ever, talk about. My father returned from WWII and suffered from what was then called battle fatigue. My mother said, “The fellow I married didn’t come home.” In 1966, both of my brothers enlisted in the Air Force, one out of high school, one out of college. One went to Viet Nam, the other worked with NORAD. My parents were both grieving during those 4 years, as was much of the nation. Those were dark times. And nothing was ever the same again. Our family, as I knew it, was gone; my brothers were both changed by their experiences, and in a chain reaction, all of our relationships were interrupted, and some damaged beyond repair.

Those experiences and the silences that surround them in my family have inspired much of my writing throughout my career.

I write about what obsesses me, the things I can’t stop thinking about. 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.

You and I have talked about your time at Suffolk University, working on plays for the theater department, how did that relationship begin and how would you characterize that experience in comparison to your other play writing projects?

Marilyn Plotkins and the theatre department at Suffolk have played a key role in my development as an artist. When I was given a fellowship year at the Bunting Institute (now the Radcliffe Institute) to write the musical JOAN OF ARC, Marilyn Plotkins committed to giving us a workshop production at Suffolk before I had even put pen to paper. That kind of support and belief is a remarkable gift. The result was an extraordinary night in the theatre with a great cast and crew. The composer for that show is Mel Marvin.

In a very nice twist of fate, we are now working on JOAN OF ARC again as a one-woman show with Nautilus Music Theatre in St Paul, MN. It opens on October 28th, starring Jennifer Baldwin Peden, one of the most gifted performers I have ever worked with. Hearing her sing my words is a peak lifetime experience.

Ten years later I returned to Suffolk University at Marilyn Plotkins’ invitation to create a musical that we would workshop with her current students. The composer was Jenny Giering (with whom I wrote ALICE UNWRAPPED) and that musical, CROSSING BROOKLYN, went on to a wonderful Off-Broadway production in NY with the Transport Group. We had a great time working with the students at Suffolk, many of whom traveled to NY to see the show.

When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same?

I don’t listen to music while I write because I feel that language is music. I can’t hear that internal music if there’s other music playing in the room.

If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines, obsessions, or habits?

I start my day with a cup of tea, my journal, reading a verse of the Tao, and then swimming. In cold weather I swim at our local Y, in summer I swim in an incredibly beautiful quarry. Before writing, I sit quietly for ten minutes, doing nothing. Which is incredibly hard for me to do. And listening. I’m listening for my characters’ voices, or waiting to see an image, either of which can be the beginning of a scene. Something as simple as: «Matt Bliss is someone who knows how to be happy,» will set me on my way to creating a character or writing a chapter. Something as disturbing as seeing/imagining a helicopter crash can become a pivotal plot point.

When I’m beginning a project I walk everyday. Walking clears my head and lets me sort through some aspect of the story, or helps me focus on an important question to ask, or simply gives me a tiny detail to help me flesh out a character.

Books are critical during the writing process. I find I read even more voraciously than usual.

If you read poetry, do you have any favorite poets or contemporary poetry collections others should read?

I do read poetry. The compression and musicality of poetry is closer to playwriting and libretto writing than it is to the novel.

I love Stanley Kunitz and have recently re-read The Wild Braid. I am drawn to his astonishing simplicity. I love Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver, much of Sharon Olds. And I’m a huge W.B. Yeats fan. And Kenneth Patchen and and and …

What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I’m working on a new version of Joan of Arc, as I mentioned. I’m about to begin work on a commission from Playwrights Horizons in NY 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, Laura, for answering my questions.  It was great getting to know you, your family, and your work.  Keep us posted on your new projects and novels.

Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington is a coming of age story about a teen girl growing into adulthood at a time when her father, Matt, is sent to Iraq and her mother, Angie, is not dealing with his absence as well as Alice thinks she should.  The blissful life her family has had up until this point is turned around and twisted as Alice takes on more of her mother’s duties — making dinner, washing clothes, getting her sister’s (Ellie) lunch ready, and getting her sister to school.  She’s constantly worried about her father not returning home, about how she seems not to be anyone’s favorite, and the changes she sees in her friends, family, and Henry (her neighbor and friend).

Harrington creates a world and cast of characters that grab your heart and don’t let go.  The Bliss family story will have your tearing up right from the beginning when the father is first setting his affairs in order and explaining to Alice what she’s to do while he is at war.  Yes, he says, he is coming back, but readers know about the uncertainties of war and so does Alice, which makes his parting all the more heart-wrenching.  Alice only finds solace when running, like her mother finds solace when swimming, but they are too alike to find comfort in one another and often find themselves at odds.  Dynamic characters young and old tackle difficult questions of how to go on without a loved one, who often calmed the waters and even when that situation is expected to be temporary.

“This is the first time Alice has been allowed to walk back to their campsite from the Kelp Shed alone.  She is fourteen, barefoot, her sneakers tied together by the laces and slung across her shoulder so she can feel the soft, sandy dust of the single-track road between her toes.  Her sister fell asleep halfway through the square dance, dropping from hyperexcited to unconscious in a flash.  Her father carries Ellie draped over his shoulder, and casually, or so it seems, her mother says, ‘Come home when the dance is done.'” (page 1)

While Alice is a strong, young woman, she is also timid when it comes to her changing relationship with Henry and volatile when it comes to her relationship with her mother and sister and her schoolmates.  Alice’s life spirals out of control while she’s daydreaming and running away, but there are moments of hope when letters arrive and broken up phone calls pepper their days.  Alice is growing up before readers’ eyes.  She’s learning that her friendship with Henry is more complicated than she expects and at a time when she wants it to stay the same.  She’s flattered when a popular senior asks her to a baseball game, and she’s disenchanted with high school society when her childhood friend Steph remains distant even when it is obvious she needs someone to lean on.  Her sister Ellie tries to act more mature than her sister, and does on some occasions, but she’s still just eight and what’s important to her — a new haircut, new clothes, a nice lunch — skirts the realities of their lives without Matt.

Uncle Eddie and Gram are the rocks of the family that help hold up Angie, Alice, and Ellie — keeping them from imploding.  Harrington has created a wide cast of characters who evolve steadily throughout the novel.  Despite the third person omniscient point of view, Harrington’s narrative evokes an emotional connection between the characters and the reader.  The distance often felt with this point of view is not present here in the least.  Readers will feel the loss, the waiting, the anger, the sadness, and the confusion all at once — just as the characters do — while cheering them on to remain positive that Matt will return home.  This is a young adult novel adults will praise for its realistic portrayal of adult themes, while young adults will praise the relate-ability of its teen characters and their situations.

“Even though Mrs. Grover wears those awful sensible shoes and has gray hair that she wears in a bun, Alice thinks that maybe Mrs. Grover is still young in the ways that are important.  Like she’s not so serious all the time, and she sings and right now she’s teasing a cardinal.  Whistling in response to its call and damn if that cardinal doesn’t whistle right back.  Alice’s mother doesn’t even have a clothesline, let alone stand outside and lift her face to the sun and sing and whistle to the birds.” (page 101)

Harrington is talented at creating a world that is real — a small town where everyone knows one another and feels as though they are under a microscope at home and school — and generates an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty — in the silence of waiting.  What are those keepsakes that we hold dearest? What are those memories that we hold onto tightest? Alice and her family find these answers and more, making the novel even more suspenseful.  Alice Bliss not only tracks the evolution of Alice from child to adolescence and the bumps along the way, the novel teaches readers about heartache, compassion, and strength.

About the Author:

Laura Harrington’s award winning plays, musicals, operas, and radio plays have been widely produced in the U.S., Canada, and abroad. Harrington is a two time winner of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award in playwriting and a two time winner of the Clauder Competition for best new play in New England for Mercy and Hallowed Ground.

“Alice Bliss”, a novel, published by Pamela Dorman Books, Penguin/ Viking, will be on sale spring 2011. She is currently writing a new novel, “A Catalogue of Birds,” as well as a song cycle with composer Elena Ruehr, and a series of choral works with composer Roger Ames. Ms. Harrington teaches playwriting at M.I.T and is a frequent guest artist at Tufts, Harvard (where she was a visiting Briggs Copeland Lecturer), Wellesley, University of Iowa, and other campuses.

Please also check out this great Q&A, an excerpt from the novel, and her blog.

 

This is my 59th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

 

 

Alice blissI took part in the experiment to see where this book would end up once I read, reviewed, and released it into the world.  So, here’s a picture of me releasing it into the wilds of Maryland (Ok, its a Safeway/Starbucks Cafe).

I toyed with releasing it in a bookstore, at the library among the library sale stacks, and finally decided to release it in the Safeway near my house in their Starbucks Cafe.  It was done surreptitiously and I was incredibly self-conscious.  Nevermind that this is a book I really didn’t want to let go because I loved it so much.

I may just have to buy my own copy of this book to add to my shelves and read it again.  It was THAT GOOD!

 

Mailbox Monday #139

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch.  This month our host is Life in the Thumb.  Kristi of The Story Siren continues to sponsor her In My Mailboxmeme.  Both of these memes allow bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received this week:

1.  Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington from the author for review and her BookCrossing.com experiment.

2.  The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman from Penguin for review.

3. Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins, which I purchased for myself after I read it from the library.

4. Bloody Valentine by Melissa De La Cruz, which I purchased from Borders.

5. The Boat by Nam Le, which Anna bought for my birthday gift.

What did you receive this week?