Palm Tree, Path, and Pacific Ocean at Laguna Beach

This is our view. This is probably not your view. © Michael Raymond

Rresearch and preparation are everything, and by the time Lisa Manterfield rolls up onto the terrace in Laguna Beach, there is an iced gin and tonic already waiting for her. When I ask Lisa if she had any trouble finding the terrace bar, she tells me it was pretty straightforward: just follow the smell of the sea and the magnetic pull of cocktails. It’s hard to argue with logic like that.

A short while after Lisa settles into the over-sized white wicker chair opposite me, a bubbly young woman appears and introduces herself as Mandy-and-I’ll-be-taking-care-of-you-tonight-have-you-dined-with-us-before. I get in a request for the Laphroaig Quarter Cask before the appetizer upsell starts. Seeing Lisa is already halfway into her G&T, Mandy offers to produce a sequel. Lisa assents and Mandy bounds away to make liquor magic happen.

“Mandy’s an actress,” I say. “She’s waiting on three callbacks. I learned this within three minutes of sitting down.”

Lisa laughs. “Welcome to LA.”

Tasty Gin and Tonic with Lemon Wedge

© MuseumNext (Gin and tonic) via Wikimedia Commons

Once the drinks are safely delivered, I produce a red-covered Moleskine, Lisa kicks off her Mephistos, and we clink glasses. The breeze is coming off the ocean; emerald palm fronds ripple against a lapis lazuli sky. We’re too high up to hear the breakers over the clinking of plates and silverware, but that’s just as well. Less temptation to chuck it all and surf.

Michael Raymond: So first off, congratulations on The Smallest Thing. It’s a wonderful book. I finished somewhere over Flagstaff and realized I’d been reading non-stop since leaving Washington. That’s commendable.

So let’s jump right in. Death plays a central role in both your first novel, A Strange Companion, and The Smallest Thing. Death is common in novels, of course, but it seems to take center stage in both of your books. Can you talk about that?

Lisa Manterfield: Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking” and I think that’s been true for me. Like many of us, I have a lot of questions about death, and I end up exploring those questions in my writing. In both books, I set out to write stories about love, but death—or loss—is inextricably tied up with love. One of the bravest things we can do as humans is to love someone or something without reservation and risk the grief of loss. Ugh, that sounds so morbid, doesn’t it? I think—I hope—my stories are hopeful, rather than morbid.

MR: Neither of your novels are morbid, although one could say that Kat (A Strange Companion) certainly has a fascination with death. And death seems to literally stalk Em in The Smallest Thing. In both books you weave death into the very fabric of the stories. Death is never just a thing that happens, or a plot device that forces a character into action or reveals a character’s mettle or lack thereof. It’s like a fog that permeates the novels and seeps into nooks and crannies, sometimes silently and sometimes with force.

LM: Death is that way, though, isn’t it? It’s always around, but most of the time, thankfully, it doesn’t touch us directly. When it does, though, it forces so much change, which of course makes for great drama in fiction. But I don’t enjoy killing off characters. During the process of writing The Smallest Thing, one of my trusted beta readers noted that I was being too easy on Em and that I needed to up the stakes and really make the reader fear for her. He referenced a particular supporting character, one of my favorites, actually. I don’t want to drop any spoilers, so let’s call that character Fred, shall we? He said. “You know what you have to do, don’t you?” I said, “Fred. Must. Die.” I really didn’t enjoy killing off Fred, but it added depth to the story and brought everything closer to home for Em. And Fred’s death helped Em to really understand the lesson she needed to learn in this story. From a story standpoint, Fred did not die in vain.

Celtic cross, Eyam churchyard

Celtic cross, Eyam churchyard.
© Dave Dunford via Wikimedia Commons

MR: I liked Fred. I was sad when Fred died. Fred still owed me money.

Having said that, I’m fortunate to have my loved ones still above ground and kicking, so death has not been a pervasive presence in my life. When reading The Smallest Thing, I can imagine that readers who have had loved ones or close friends pass might feel like they’re in the presence of a familiar ghost. With your target audience being younger adults, do you think your stories may help readers navigate some of those difficult events? Because even with death continually lurking about, there is also this sense of community in your novel that offers strength and support.

LM: A Strange Companion was really a story about a young woman navigating grief and trying to figure it all out. There isn’t a good user manual for grief and it’s different for everyone. I, unfortunately, have brushed up against this several times. I lost my dad when I was 15 and I was massively unprepared to deal with that. I don’t think anyone can ever be equipped to deal with that sort of loss or predict how they’ll react. Kat behaves pretty badly in that book, and while I don’t want to condone or excuse her behavior, I do think that grief makes you do and think strange things. And the thing I only learned later is that none of those things are actually weird. You talk to others who’ve experience loss and you quickly learn that they had similar feelings. So, yes, I hope that will be somewhat reassuring to people who find themselves dealing with loss.

As for Em, her loss, at least at first, is different. It’s a loss of freedom and the loss of the life she had planned for herself. She feels very trapped in her claustrophobic little village, and then suddenly she’s truly trapped. Even though her prison is physical, there are a million ways to feel trapped in your life, whether as a teen striving for independence or an older adult regretting missed opportunities. So even though the premise of the book might not be relatable to most of us—thankfully—the themes are.

MR: How are you doing on gin? Care for a refill? My scotch could use topping up.

LM: I think I’ll nurse this one for a while. Don’t want to get carried away and say something I’ll regret. But please, go ahead.

Mandy the Actress has mad server-ESP skills. No sooner do I touch my empty glass to the tabletop than she’s sidling up as if someone uncorked her bottle and summoned her forth. We chat briefly, Mandy disappears, and a few moments later she reappears bearing the sacred scotch. Everything is saved. The interview can continue.

MR: Em might feel trapped, but she has this tightly-knit community around her. To a lesser extent, so does Kat. To what extent does community help with the grieving process? Or does mourning put us each alone on our little islands, part of, but still separate from the whole?

LM: Great question, and I think the answer is: Both. Based on my own experience of loss, it’s very isolating. I remember feeling as if I was the only person this had ever happened to. I remember going back to school after my dad passed away and just feeling as if I didn’t fit in there anymore, as if I was suddenly different. I didn’t want to talk to my family about it, as they were dealing with their own grief, and I couldn’t talk to my friends, because they didn’t know how to deal with me any more than I knew how to deal with myself. So in that respect, I really dealt with my grief alone for a long time. On the other hand, my mum had this incredible community of friends, most of whom—being older—did have experience with loss. They really rallied around her and she will say now that she got through her loss because of them. Through other experiences of loss, I’ve come to understand the importance of community. It’s comforting to know that others out there have had similar experiences and it makes such a difference in dealing with grief when you can find someone who can say, “Me too.”

MR: But you were missing that “me too” when you were fifteen? How do you think your experience would have been different had you found someone your age or in your circle who could have said to you, “I get it. It’s terrible. I’m here.” It might be a sad commentary, but it’s true that we sometimes need that shared experience with our peers much more than we need it with our family.

LM: I’m not sure I was emotionally mature enough to have that conversation with someone else. I really didn’t want to talk about it at all for a long time. In fact, I couldn’t talk about it for many years. I had the added factor of the British stiff upper lip. People just didn’t talk about their feelings and I learned to “grin and bear it.” This was 30 years ago and thankfully much has changed. There are a lot more resources for young people dealing with grief now. There are counsellors in schools, and groups especially for children. A friend was telling me recently about a camp for kids grieving the loss of a close relative. It’s a little terrifying to think of my 15-year-old self going to grief camp, but had I had access to that kind of safe environment, I don’t think I’d still have been working through my grief two or three decades later.

MR: Wow, grief camp. So the stiff British upper lip is a real thing? Not an cultural anachronism? I thought that went away after WWII when everyone got to eat jam again?

LM: Ha. Old habits die hard. The culture is definitely changing, but I think Western society as a whole isn’t good at the whole mourning thing. A bit of clothes ripping and wailing would do us all a world of good. Let it all out.

MR: I don’t know if there is a way to say this delicately or without the misperception of unintended bigotry, but “non-Western” countries seem to handle the process of grief far better than we do. It’s terrible and tragic, of course, but when I see images of women throwing themselves over the bodies of the dead and not holding back their grief I have to wonder if that’s not a healthier, more fully-realized catharsis of mourning and emotion than what we typically experience in “the West.”

LM: I think Western-style funerals are hugely unhealthy. You sit dabbing your nose quietly and then smile and thank everyone for coming. You really have to hold it all in for the benefit of others. And we put a timeline on grief. We allow a few days of family leave and we deliver casseroles and are helpful for a while, but then we expect people to pull it together and get on with it. In reality, just around the time everyone expects you to move on with your life is about the time the wave of really deep grief hits.

MR: Since we’re talking about internalization, let’s talk a bit about the internal lives of Kat and Em. One of the strengths of your novels is how you escort the reader through the thoughts and perceptions of each young woman with unflinching honesty as she tries to make sense of the chaos around her. It’s very much like having Kat or Em offering her hand and saying to the reader “Come walk with me for a while. I’ll show you some things.” Can you talk a little bit about how you achieve that?

LM: Thank you. That’s quite a compliment. I wrote both books in first person, which plops the reader right in the character’s head. I enjoy writing that way. I keep trying to write more in third person, but I like the intimacy of telling a story through one character’s eyes. I also think intimacy comes from really understanding what the story is about for the character. Kat’s story isn’t really about reincarnation; it’s about having to face your grief and let go of something beloved. Em’s story isn’t about a virus; it’s about blooming where you’re planted and harnessing the power of community in times of need. Of course, in the beginning of a book, the character has no clue what her story is about. She’s just going along on her track, often somewhat selfishly. Part of the fun of writing in first person is being able to interpret the world through the character’s eyes when the wily audience can see what’s really going on and how misguided her view is.

MR: Where you as the author let the reader in on the joke, so to speak, and we can all watch the characters go through their agonies. We writers are actually sadists, aren’t we?

LM: More like sado-masochists. I often wonder who in their right minds would write a book. The answer is no-one—no-one in their right minds, at least. Don’t get me wrong, I love that I get to make up stories every day, but, as you know, there are also periods of intense frustration, when a story just won’t work, or you put words on a page and they’re utter nonsense, or you get notes back from a beta reader and you realize your “finished” book has to be completely rewritten from page one—and yes, that has happened to me. But then there are those days when it all comes together, your fingers fly over the keyboard, and you come up with a gem of genius. Then it’s utter bliss.

MR: I recently had the whiplash experience of writing twenty pages I liked, loading them onto the Kindle, reading them in bed, then wanting to vomit, cry, and throw myself off the roof. I finally gave up and fell asleep contemplating a life as an illiterate hobo. The next morning, I read it again and thought it wasn’t so bad after all. Ask not for whom the bell tolls…

LM: We writers can be our own worst critics. Still, I think that’s far less dangerous than believing you’re a literary genius and that anyone who says otherwise is an idiot. A happy medium of confidence and willingness to take critique is the sweet spot, but it’s not an easy balance to achieve.

MR: Let’s talk about voice for a moment. Do you find that Em and Kat are your voice breathing and expressing itself through them as characters and vehicles? Or do you find that they have their own voices distinct from yours? I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but I’m curious to know how someone such as you, who so effectively captures and relates the inner rooms of her characters, approaches or resolves this matter of voice.

LM: There is a little of me in both Em and Kat. I’ve been a 17-year-old girl feeling trapped and a young woman trying to dig herself out from under grief, and I grew up where my stories are set, so I know those young women intimately. But at the same time I had to be careful not to slip into my own voice and my own middle-aged point-of-view. It’s something I want to keep working at, maybe challenge myself to write a character who isn’t at all like me.

I recently took a workshop that taught acting skills to writers. It was very physical, quite literally acting out the roles we were writing. It was incredibly valuable to learn how characters move, how they speak, to feel them physically and how they navigate their world, and then to write them. It was quite a revelation.

MR: Can you elaborate on how the workshop taught that? What did you take away from it? How will you able to infuse it into your new work?

LM: We did a lot of exercises with movement, expressing emotion without speaking, infusing characters with animal tendencies to discover new ways for them to move. We also played around with language and the vocabulary a character uses. Out of these exercises came a character, Dora, who stepped off the page with distinct characteristics and a strong voice that definitely wasn’t my voice. She started with a bit part in a story idea I was working through, but she is such a force that I think I’m going to have to rework the story to make it hers.

MR: Writers are a bit like cultural anthropologists. I think of those musicologists who hunt down rare recordings of early jazz and blues musicians on wax cylinders, working feverishly to preserve those voices and stories before they vanish forever. I think writers do the same thing, except we create our own jazz and blues in our heads, which doesn’t in itself makes anything less valid. It’s still part of the weave of humanity—universal, and worthy of being recorded.

LM: Absolutely. And my friend Dora has a story to tell. It perhaps wasn’t the story I set out to tell, but I think she’s going to be quite forceful about making sure her voice is recorded and listened to!

MR: I’ll look forward to meeting her. Ok, last question and then we can relax and enjoy this gorgeous sea breeze. Mother-daughter relationships. Both Kat and Em struggle with them. Is that something you write about because you’re writing to younger adults? Or is Joan Didion exerting herself again?

LM: Ha! Here’s the funny thing: My mum and I have a wonderful relationship, some friends have even called it enviable. But I do tend to write these hostile mother-daughter relationships. My poor mother has read my books and asked me if the mother characters are based on her. They’re not. I tend to explore “what might have been” in my stories, and I think this is true with my mother-daughter relationships. My mum and I had the usual blow-outs during the hormone-fueled teen years. There were many tears and much door-slamming on my part. But losing my dad changed our relationship. My older brothers were both married and out of the house by that time, so it was just Mum and me trying to figure it out. I think that brought us closer and made us allies, rather than adversaries. Maybe I feel I missed out on some mother-daughter friction and so I explore that in my writing instead. I think people often assume fiction is masked memoir, so I’m sure people assume I have a terrible mother, when in fact I couldn’t have custom-ordered a better one. I should send her flowers.

MR: I worried I was walking on fragile ice with that question. I’m glad the ice turned out to be three feet thick. And yes, send mom flowers. I should do that too.

Before we wrap up, anything else you’d like to chat about? Something you wish we’d discussed? Any topic you could never imagine writing? Beatles vs. Stones? DC vs. Marvel? Brooding vampires vs. Glittery vampires?

LM: Yeah, I’m lucky to have the mum I have. She’s a keeper. So, Beatles vs. Stones? Hmm. Beatles. I once returned a faulty Duran Duran album (vinyl, so this was a while ago) and exchanged it for The Beatles Greatest Hits. That was a big turning point in my musical evolution. If I had to choose, then Marvel, but honestly, I’m a bit superheroed out at the moment. And aren’t all vampires brooding? I’ve never fallen for one, but they seem so high-maintenance. But if I did, I’d go for the added bonus of the glitter. I mean, why not?

MR: Lisa, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you so very much for taking the time to talk. I wish you nothing but glittering success and outrageous sales and good fortune in your writing career. Let’s do this again soon.

LM: We really must. Thank you for being such a gracious host. I’ll buy next time.


Book cover for the novel "The Smallest Thing" Book cover for the novel "A Strange Companion"

Lisa Manterfield’s second novel, The Smallest Thing, can be ordered in paperback and digital format here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07144H7PJ.

Lisa’s debut novel, A Strange Companion is also now available in both paperback and digital formats: http://bit.ly/2nXgDxz.

Lisa Manterfield More information about Lisa Manterfield and her work can be found at her website: http://lisamanterfield.com. You can also join Lisa’s blog tour at the dates and locales listed below.
July 18: Interview with Rebecca Lacko
July 19: Guest Post at A New Look on Books
July 20: Interview with Heather Sunseri
July 21: Interview at Booked for Review
July 22: Interview with Michael Raymond (Pro Tip: You’re already here.)
July 23: Interview with Farah Oomerbhoy
July 24: Review by Mixed Bag Mama
July 25: Guest Post at History in the Margins with Pamela Toler
July 26: Review at YA Book Divas
July 27: Review at The Reading Wolf
July 28: Review at For the Novel Lovers


Do you have a story to tell? Drop me a line and let’s tell it together.