ON A COFFEE BREAK WITH CAROL LaHINES
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR OF A NOVEL
SOMEDAY EVERYTHING WILL ALL MAKE SENSE
Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
I am a lawyer by training and thus accustomed to evaluating competing narratives and arriving at the truth by assembling various and contradictory accounts. This type of mental exercise has helped me immensely as a writer; there’s a useful cross-pollination. A few of my stories were based on actual court cases.
Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
My first published story, “Cosmos,” appeared in The Nebraska Review over fifteen years ago. It was a farcical story about a sixty-five-year-old lawyer who finds himself living in his ninety-nine-year-old mother’s basement after he is disbarred.
What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
Someday Everything Will All Make Sense, my first novel, was published in February 2019 by Adelaide Books. In the novel, we follow Luther van der Loon, a harpsichord player and professor of early music (needless to say, an eccentric!), as he navigates the stages of grief after his mother’s untimely death. The title comes from a fortune tucked inside a fortune cookie. I wanted a fortune that reflected the narrator’s conundrum. Is it possible to go on after the death of a loved one? How to go on then. What is the meaning of life? As I like to say, the title is both ironic and aspirational.
How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
I write 1-2 pages daily, rereading the previous day’s work before I continue and mulling over the WIP throughout the day. It took me a year to write the first draft of Someday Everything Will All Make Sense; now, it takes me about 6 months to write a 60,000 word draft.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I write in a very ritualistic fashion. I complete my prewriting phase (rereading the previous day’s work, mapping out a path in general terms) in silence, but listen to music while I’m actually writing. I listen to string quartets (late Beethoven and Shostakovich are my favorites; also Janacek, Borodin, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden). I try to write continuously so I do not have a chance to overanalyze and overornament.
Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
I am a musician as well. I play classical piano and various styles of guitar. Right now, I’m learning flamenco.
Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
My earliest and greatest influences were Woolf and Nabakov. I was also very enamored with David Foster Wallace in my twenties. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy are also favorites. The Russians, particularly Tolstoy and Chekhov and Gogol, and their wisdom regarding the human condition. Melville’s Moby Dick and Bartleby were also influential for me. Recently, I have been enamored of W.S. Sebald, impressed with his elegant and rhythmically balanced lines and the themes he evokes. His method is that of an archivist and his digressive flights are wonderful. Also Calvino, whose imagination astounds me.
What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
I’m always working on something. There’s a queue! I have 2-3 other manuscripts completed and I am finishing another. There are a couple more pinging around in my head. Things live in my head for a while as I mull over the right narrator(s) and structure(s) for the work.
Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
I write literary fiction, so I think the work appeals to that kind of reader. I am in love with language and wordsmithery. Voice is a principal consideration of mine. I tend toward a dark and absurdist kind of humor that I think would appeal to fans of, for example, Confederacy of Dunces or Stanley Elkin or even Kafka’s The Trial.
Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
Read, read, read, read some more. Study how a writer chooses to tell the story. Who is the narrator? What is the narrative voice like? How is the story structured? I just completed Ties, by Domenico Starnone, a writer whom I very much admire. Ties is the story of a man’s affair and of its ripple effects on the family. The novel is divided into three sections. The first section is an epistolary rant from the wife about the husband’s infidelity. The second and longest section is narrated by the husband at a time thirty-five years in the future. So, first off, we know they are still together. We are curious as to why they have stayed together, what type of arrangement they’ve worked out, what has become of the mistress. The couple returns from a vacation to find their apartment ransacked, which provides the opportunity for further puzzling out of the past. There are leitmotifs throughout, like a cube of the husband’s and various containers. Containers give shape but they also imprison, underscoring the themes of the book. In the third section, narrated by the daughter, we learn of the effects of the affair on the children. The son is a kind of lothario; the daughter never married. This interlocking structure provides much more depth than a simple, straight-through narration.
What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?
I tend to shun writing bromides like “show don’t tell,” etc. Every rule can be broken under the right circumstances.
Writing should be analyzed according to its own rules; that is, it should be evaluated as to how well it succeeds in accomplishing the objectives it sets forth within the four corners of the page.
You should be willing to depart from any outline. The writer has to balance a fine line between knowing, in general terms, the arc or theme of the story, but not knowing too much, else the work feels overdetermined and unsurprising.
Recently, I saw a quote from Lydia Davis that “you do not want a steady diet of contemporary literature. You already belong to your time,” a sentiment with which I agree.
How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
I read about 20-30 books a year. My favorite genre is perhaps unsurprisingly literary fiction. Most recently, I’ve read The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald; Embers, by Sandor Marai; Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante; The Leopard, by Lampedusa, The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad; and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino.
What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
Calvino, especially, speaks of how sadness and profundity and humor are entwined; how seriousness is best expressed in a lighter register. I think humor and an ironic stance only serve to underscore the tragic.
I think in musical terms, still, and tend to rely on musical structures or concepts in my writing – for instance, recursion, leitmotif, theme and variations, or riffing off words or sentences as in jazz.
What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
The publishing industry is diffuse; it is opaque and can be difficult to navigate, particularly for a first-time writer. Everything seems geared toward pub date, with increasing freneticism, which seems to diminish in a few weeks as we’re on to the new writer. I intensely dislike the idea of “trends,” which are inherently fickle. Work that stands the test of time often defies trends and is unappreciated in its time.
Thank you for the coffee and good luck with your future endeavors.