Lian Dolan is hilarious. That's what you have to know first. But she's more than that, of course. She's a bestselling writer and award-winning broadcaster. She crated Satellite Sisters, a nationally syndicated radio show with her four real life sisters, which reached a million listeners a week and won 9 Gracie Allen Awards for Excellence in Women's Media. (Note: I am on it this week!) She produces the Chaos Chronicles, a humor blog and podcast about modern motherhood which was developed as a half-hour sitcom for Nickelodeon, with Lian writing the script. She contributes to Oprah.com as a parenting expert, to makinglifebetter.com as a family expert, and she's also written columns for O, the Oprah Magazine and Working Mother Magazine. Her debut, Helen of Pasadena was a Los Angeles Times Bestseller, nominated for Best Fiction by the Southern California Independent Booksellers. Following that is the whipsmart Elizabeth the First Wife, which tackles reinvention, love, and finding yourself--all with a delicious soupcon of Shakespeare. Thank you so much, Lian for everything!
What sparked the book?
I wanted to explore the idea of finding and asserting your true self as an adult within the context of your family. I know a lot of people, myself included, who are confident, respected professionals in their every day lives and then Thanksgiving rolls around and they revert to awkward 13 year-olds when confronted by their opinionated parents or finger-wagging aunt. What’s wrong with us? Why are we one person in the real world and a very different person in our own families? So I wanted to take a look at that dilemma through the eyes of a contemporary woman, someone who otherwise has her act together. But that sounds pretty heavy and I like to write with a sense of fun, so I threw in the Shakespeare, the romance and a stray dog.
The structure of the book is just inspired. You have the main story line, about Elizabeth, whose whole sort of staid life earthquakes when three very different men come into her life, then there is the story of the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but you also have these hilariously witty asides on relationships based on Shakespearean principals about why a modern woman would or wouldn't want a Shakespearean hero, and you outline the power couples, like the Macbeths, complete with their best and worst moments, turn-ons and turn-offs, and why they work as a couple, and you do it in a fresh and funny way, so that both our modern time--and Shakespeare’s Elizabethan time, seem new. How did you manage to keep all these wheels spinning?
I wanted to tackle a Shakespearean subplot because his work is so universal and still so relevant. Also, I think it’s possible to become completely swept up in Shakespeare in a romantic, highly impractical way, as if reading Shakespeare was enough of life, so that you didn’t really even have to go out and live your own life. And that seemed to fit my main character Elizabeth Lancaster, a professor at a community college who’s a little stuck in her quiet life.
Initially, I set out to have Elizabeth solve some age-old academic quandary around the writing of Midsummer. And I did months and months of research looking for the right mystery she could solve. What I didn’t realize when I started is that there are a zillion Shakespearean scholars and enthusiasts with blogs and articles and discussion groups online. There was literally no way I was going to create a “new” question they hadn’t already discussed with great authority. (Much greater than mine, I might add!) So I went the complete opposite way: Bridget Jones meets The Bard. Elizabeth’s “research” became a contemporary relationship book based on the work of William Shakespeare. The idea popped into my head in the shower one day, as the perfect solution to my writerly dilemma. I hopped out of the shower, soaking wet, and searched the Internet to see if any such book existed. I was shocked to find nothing. Nada. Now even a tweet in that category. That’s when I knew I was onto something, combining pop culture, contemporary relationships and the work of William Shakespeare.
I also want to ask you about the great lines from Shakespeare and your advice on how to use them. How’d you go about choosing them?
There is literally not a subject you can conceive of- lust, jealousy, love at first sight, broken hearts, bad boyfriends, dog ownership, unrequited passion- about which Shakespeare hasn’t written a dozen great lines. It’s an embarrassment of riches. And the Internet makes reviewing all that material fairly accessible. As I was writing, I’d have the thought, “This would be a good spot for a quote.” Or “Let’s see if I can do a whole riff on break-up lines” and I’d Google “Shakespearean Break-up lines” and I’d sift through the choices. I tried to use the lines sparingly, so that they really stood out when I did. I think it would be easy to go overboard because Shakespeare is literally human quote machine.
What I also find ingenious is that while you are entertaining us and making us laugh, you're also talking about Shakespearean drama and imparting a great deal of knowledge, too. So where does your love and knowledge of Shakespeare come from? Did you go back and do some rereading while writing the novel?
What I love about your books is your eye for the telling detail, both in Pasadena and in Oregon. Do you think about place as a character in itself?
Yes, absolutely yes. I’ve always been drawn to books, movies and TV shows that have a real sense of place. I’m not a big fan of the “generic midwestern city” as a setting. When I immerse myself in a book or movie, I like to feel that I get to know the place almost as well as the characters. Pasadena has been my home for twenty years and has a rich cultural and intellectual heritage to draw upon. The city is awash in tradition and civic pride, but also dynamic and evolving. Oregon has a special place in my heart, having lived in Portland for five years and spending a lot of time in Central Oregon for vacation. It’s quirky, charming and the complete opposite of Pasadena in many ways. I hope readers want to go to both Pasadena and Ashland after reading the book.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Digitizing my life. I feel like I slipping behind, technologically speaking. Like I’ve kept up for the first decade of this revolution, but now I’m kind of over it and just want to keep my current version on iTunes. I’m tired of upgrading my software, but I don’t want to be that dinosaur that can’t figure out how to get the pictures out of the camera. So, I’m re-committing to digitizing. After the book tour, of course.