I first met Leslie Lehr because I was obsessed with tracking down her now-husband John Truby, the story structure guru. I wrote John a letter, wanting him to come to my UCLA writing class, knowing how busy he was. When he wrote me to accept, he told me it was because of Leslie, who said, "Are you kidding? You have to do that." How can you not love someone like that? Leslie and I email each other constantly and even though we're on opposite coasts, Leslie makes it feel like she lives next door.
Leslie's a prize-winning author, screenwriting and essayist. Her new novel What a Mother Knows, about how far you might go to protect your child, is out now (Go buy it. Go buy several copies.) And she is currently incognito as Chemo Chick in Karen Rinehart's breast cancer blog, Sick of Pink. Thanks, Leslie. I'm honored to host you here.
Tell me about the back story of your novel?
Three things haunted me into writing this. First, my daughter started crying at night during middle school. She rebuffed my attempts to console her, yet it went on for weeks and it was unbearable. I felt helpless. I would lie awake at night and listen and imagine the worst. My mother said it was typical adolescent behavior, but my family has a history of depression, so I feared the worst. I took her to doctors, transferred her to a new school, but then I worried about her taking the bus near a liquor store - and all the things in LA that I tried to protect her from even while was working in the film industry. Sex, drugs, rock & roll.
I wanted to lock her up until she turned twenty-one. I wrote an essay called Parenting Paranoia that Arianna Huffington excerpted in her book, On Becoming Fearless. But I was still afraid.
Then I had jury duty on a manslaughter case where two mothers were suing the driver of a car that crashed into a sports bar and killed their sons. The boys were strangers sitting at adjacent tables, and complete opposites, yet we had to help put a dollar sign on the loss these women experienced. Of course, there was no right amount, but it couldn’t be zero, either. And so in the worst of what-ifs, I started worrying about my daughter and how far would I go to protect her.
You and I have talked about the odious term "women's fiction" and all the nonsense going on about whether a book is literary or commercial, and what that means. (You could say Fitzgerald, the darling of his age was commercial, now couldn't you?) Don't you feel a good book is a good book? Can you talk about that please?
Since I’m a woman and write about women, I tend to be categorized as women’s fiction. I wish I’d used my initials, like AM Holmes when I first began writing, just to start with a clean slate. Don’t you think it’s condescending to that there is no men’s fiction, but there is woman’s fiction, as if it has less value?
As for the commercial versus literary conflict, this drove me so crazy that when I got my MFA, I ran a seminar comparing a bestseller to a prize-winning novel – I had the other students write the opening of The DaVinci Code as a literary novel and vice versa with a Pulitzer Prize winner. Of course commercial fiction tends to have a stronger narrative drive, more suspense to turn the page. But I love literary fiction because of the lush language and poetic description.
The Great Gatsby has both, your work has both, and that’s my goal as well. I spend a lot of time revising, because I love to play with words - I don’t write a book every year, so every sentence counts. I can spend a day on a paragraph. Yet I want to write a good book with a compelling plot, so I try to combine the two by writing beautiful prose in a page-turning story.
What A Mother Knows began as a literary tour de force, with parallel tracks of the mother stalking her daughter alternating with how that came to be, how a woman who was working so hard to have it all…nearly lost it all. The story lines came together at the trial towards the end, which still happens. The very end remains the same as well. But it was so dark and angsty that I put it aside and wrote Wife Goes On. Then I came back to it with a fresh eye and restructured it to be the same story but with a single, more dynamic drive – the mother’s desperate search for her daughter.
When you said you read What A Mother Knows in two days it cracked me up – so wonderful, and yet so ironic! The best sign of success for this book that has taken me years to get right is that you liked it so much you read it in two days. Ha!
What's incredible about you (among many things) is that in the midst of writing and now promoting your book, you got sick. I have to say that the year I got critically ill changed the way I thought about everything. How has illness changed you? is your writing different, as well?
Fortunately, I’d just turned in the main draft when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I wondered if this would be my last book, I felt really grateful that this is the story I always wanted to write, that it says everything I believe to be important and true about mothers and daughters and unconditional love.
I was still in denial through the surgeries, but chemo definitely made it difficult to do much of anything. When it was time for final edits, my eyes were tearing so much it was hard to see, my nails were bleeding on the keyboard, and my brain was fuzzy. But the book release is a perfect distraction from feeling awful, and something to look forward to. And thank goodness for the Internet. I can’t tour as much as I’d like, but I can do book club visits all over the world via Skype.
Time will tell if my writing is different. I have six more months of active treatment to go. I’ve always appreciated a blue sky, but I hope I don’t worry so much about the gray ones. I still worry about my daughters, though - that’s when I know I’m feeling better.
How difficult was it to write this novel, especially with a suicide in it?
Thank you for putting it like that - since no one dies of suicide in this book, most people would dismiss it as a suicide “attempt.” My belief is that even when a suicidal person recovers, there can be a lingering sense of betrayal or abandonment in those who would have been left behind. That’s what I wanted to explore here, how this unresolved emotion can effect how people behave. I share this legacy with Michelle, the main character, so I always wanted to explore it. When someone near me is really sad and says they don’t want to be alive – even if they are kidding - I tend to take it seriously. In What A Mother Knows, Michelle is fearful for her daughter. There is a fine line between paranoia and possibility.
You also write films. Do you think you use a different mindset to do that, or can you easily switch from one to the other?
I always visualize scenes in my head before I write them, whether it’s a book or a script. I tend to think of simpler stories, like romantic comedies, as scripts right away, but with a powerhouse story like What A Mother Knows, it had to start as a book. There are so may levels of connections between the characters, that it gave me more time to explore them even while upping the suspense. Now that every scene has played in my imagination, it reads like a movie, so I can’t wait to adapt it into a script.
What's your writing life like these days?
You’re looking at it! Remember your earlier question about working during treatment for breast cancer? My critical facilities are recovering from chemo brain more quickly than my creative ones, so I’ve been working on shorter pieces, mostly essays. And I can finally read more than a magazine, so I’m back to my stack of novels, getting inspired for my next one. At the moment, I’m mostly consumed by major life questions, such as which wig I should wear to wear to my book launch party. Think I should go blonde?
What's obsessing you now and why?
Wedding shows, because I love the romance and the pretty dresses. Cooking shows, because I lost my taste buds during most of chemo. And of course, I am obsessed about my daughters. What a Mother Knows…is that she will do anything to protect her daughters.
What questions didn't I ask that I should have?
Why did you use the music of the Doors?
Before I moved from Ohio to go to college in Los Angeles, my friends warned me about the sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll scene – partly because of the Doors. Even now, decades after they broke up, the Doors are still considered the quintessential LA band. Lead singer/songwriter Jim Morrison exemplified the glamorous dark side.
The character of Noah had to be both charismatic and talented, so it was natural to make him a disciple of Morrison, who began as a film student at UCLA known for his poetry as well as his tight leather pants. Morrison died of a heroin overdose in Paris at the age of 27. With Light My Fire, LA Woman, and The End, the Doors are still on every ‘Best Of’ list in rock and roll. They were among the many bands who played at a bar called The Cellar in Topanga Canyon. Since hippies still live in the canyon today, it’s easy to envision Jim Morrison cruising past the tie-dyed peace signs, writing “keep your hands on the wheel” in his ode to that bar, Roadhouse Blues.
So Topanga Canyon, where the car accident in What A Mother Knows happens, is a real place that the main character of Michelle, an ‘LA Woman,’ drives through often. Jim Morrison’s lyrics are so compelling that it would be easy for a fan like Noah to use them as communication – and for an impressionable girl like Nikki to follow suit.
The music of the Doors helps make this a true LA tale.
What is it like to write love scenes knowing your daughters will read them?
Romance plays a key part in this story, so of course there has to be a love scene or two. The big seduction scene in this book is almost a fantasy, but if you skip it, the story won’t make sense. Writing it wasn’t the problem, but giving an early draft to my older daughter so she could make a book trailer for my website was a bit daunting. She hasn’t mentioned that scene. Thank goodness! I hope both of my girls get lucky in love – some day.