Last fall at the World Fantasy Convention, I took the opportunity to attend the banquet, where the World Fantasy Awards are presented. One of my charming dining companions was author Lisa Goldstein, who won the American Book Award for her novel The Red Magician in 1983. Since then, her books span multiple genres and milieus, from the historical to the purely imaginative.
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
LG: I started writing seriously in college, wrote a bunch of short stories that didn’t sell, and then a friend of mine suggested I turn one of the stories into a novel. I did, and it became The Red Magician, which ended up winning the American Book Award for Best Paperback in 1983. So this was a lot of attention for my first book, and nothing quite that amazing ever happened to me again, though there have been some very satisfying moments. My next book, The Dream Years, was completely different, and all my novels and short stories since then have wandered all over the map — historical fantasy (Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon), contemporary fantasy (Dark Cities Underground), magic realism (Tourists), even high fantasy, even a little bit of science fiction. People keep telling me I should build an audience by writing books that are similar to each other (this ties into the “branding” question below), but I like to play and experiment with fantasy. And, well, I get bored easily.
TH: What is The Story of Lisa? Is it a novel? A short story? Are there alchemists and magicians?
LG: I always think stories about writers are really boring — we just go into a room somewhere and stare at a page or computer screen. Now that you mention it, there is some alchemy about it, trying to turn the lead of everyday experience into the gold of the written word, and I do try to do that. But it still wouldn’t make a very interesting story.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
LG: I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I knew what a book was. I can’t even remember how it occurred to me that I could write — I just knew I wanted to do it.
TH: Every writer has things they would like to accomplish, e.g. first sale, next sale, first novel sale, first bestseller, etc. What accomplishment are you striving for right now?
LG: Not really much of anything, just to write something good. Though a bestseller would be cool, of course.
TH: Do you have any writing stuck away somewhere that will never see the light of day, but nevertheless helped you build your skill to publishable?
LG: Sure — a bunch of short stories. I was re-filing some things the other day and found them again, and reread a few of them. They weren’t terrible, but they missed a few things, like, well, plot.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
LG: Just about anything, really. Learning something totally weird, like the fact that the astronomer Tycho Brahe had his nose sliced off in a duel and made an artificial copper one to replace it. (I have someone mentioning that in the current novel, but it would be cool to do a story about it.) Reading truly great writing inspires me — every time I read a brilliant book I think, Man, I’d like to do that. Going for walks. Talking to people, especially about books and writing. Traveling somewhere new.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
LG: It’s fun when it’s going well, of course. When the novel or short story I’m writing starts to look like the novel or short story in my head, though it never quite gets there. When I write something that’s so good I can’t believe I wrote it. When I get a review by someone who’s truly understood the book.
TH: When you experience those moments when you recognize something so good you can’t believe you wrote it, do you ever wonder where that bit came from?
LG: Sure! I realized recently that I have a completely unfounded belief that the stories I write exist somewhere in a perfect form, and if I’m having trouble I have to try to figure out what that form wants to be. (Of course this doesn’t always work.) So I guess those good bits come from wherever those stories come from. My question is — how did I get there, and how can I do it again? I don’t think there really is an answer — sometimes you just get lucky.
TH: Have your reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
LG: I don’t think I’ve “made it,” but that’s not because of anything external. I just think I have to keep learning about writing, that I don’t know nearly enough about the process. Every time I finish a novel I think, Okay, I know how to write novels now, I’ll just start a new one — and every time I start a novel I realize that I hardly know anything, that every novel has its own internal form and I need to learn some more stuff I didn’t know. Maybe I’ll never think I’ve made it — though of course external rewards don’t hurt!
TH: Where do you go to learn about writing?
LG: I read a lot, and when I read something really good I try to figure out how the author pulled it off — though sometimes I just sit there in amazement. Also, it’s embarrassing to admit it, but I sometimes read writing how-to books. I never went to Clarion or took a creative writing class in college — creative writing professors back then looked down at anything that wasn’t realistic literary fiction, and as for Clarion I was just too chicken to go. So I’m always interested in what other people have to say about writing.
TH: Do you recall a moment when you realized/learned that stories have structure? Was this development intuitive or conscious?
LG: I don’t remember an exact moment, no. Plot is something that doesn’t come easily to me — sometimes the story wants to tell itself, which is great, but more often I have to make a conscious effort to work on the structure. I’m still learning about plot, and I try to read books by people who are good at it — Nancy Kress, or Tim Powers, or some mystery writers. Mysteries are great for structure.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
LG: No. I have a very old-fashioned view of writing, that writers should do the best work they can and put that work out there, and what happens after that is no longer up to them. Also, as I said, every book of mine tends to be different, so I have no idea what kind of “brand” I am. My agent sometimes talks about branding, and I think my attitude makes him tear his hair out.
I do realize that my approach is probably not the best one — for a while now publishers have only been doing publicity for their best-selling authors and everyone else is on their own. Some friends of mine and I realized we had to do at least some publicity and started a website called brazenhussies.net. We’re promoting ourselves, but we’re trying to have some fun doing it.
TH: Are there any forms of promotion you have found particularly effective for your career?
LG: I’m really bad at promoting myself. As I said, I had to get together with two friends — Michaela Roessner and Pat Murphy — to even think about doing promotion. We called ourselves the Brazen Hussies so we’d promote ourselves like the hussies we want to be. We encouraged each other to put ourselves out there more, and we found that with three people we could share the work of promotion, and we were able to come up with some wild and creative ways to promote ourselves. (We even had a model blimp for a while, until it had an unfortunate accident.) It helps a lot to go to a signing or a reading with other writers — that way we pool our fans so more people show up, and if no one shows we can talk among ourselves. People seem to enjoy our events, so my advice to other people would be to have fun with whatever you do.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
LG: I’m writing yet another unclassifiable book, this one about a college student in the early 1970s who gets involved with a woman from a strange family. So far it’s been a lot of fun — I get to write about my own experiences back then, and I even re-connected with some of my friends from that time (yay, Internet!) and tried to pick their brains.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
LG: Probably selling my first book. I hadn’t sold anything up to that point, and this was the thing that told me I really was a writer. I remember it very vividly, anyway — I was listening to something on the stereo (this was pre-CDs) and got a call from David Hartwell and Ellen Kushner (who worked for Pocket books then), who told me they were buying the book. While I was talking to them the record on the stereo kept starting over and over, but I didn’t want to put the phone down to fix it because I didn’t totally believe they’d still be there when I got back. Then I hung up and called everyone I’d ever known.