Closed Doors by Lisa O'Donnell

Closed Doors Explores Tough Subject Gracefully
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Lisa O’Donnell

By Ellen Birkett Morris

Closed Doors
by Lisa O’Donnell

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December 2014


“It’s incredible to me even now how the story revealed itself to me. It was always in me I suppose.”

AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of Closed Doors develop?

O’DONNELL: I had finished The Death of Bees and was writing a book called The Lost Boy. I’d written about 20,000 words, but I’d hit a wall. It was very frustrating. Then I was listening to Blondie, I love Blondie, and she was singing this track called “In the Flesh”. It has a kind of fifties feel about it. Anyway I started imagining a lone woman dancing in the middle of her living room and I saw this little boy spying at her through a window. Suddenly I was back in my hometown where I set the novel. I knew exactly where my character was and without realizing it I even knew the story. I hammered out five chapters and it was dream like to be honest. It was based loosely on events that happened in my hometown in the eighties focusing on a spate of sexual assaults. It’s incredible to me even now how the story revealed itself to me. It was always in me I suppose.

AUTHORLINK: What did telling the story from the perspective of eleven-year-old Michael Murphy do for the story? In what ways did this add to the suspense or up the ante? In what ways, if any, was it limiting?

O’DONNELL: I wrote Closed Doors in the first person. I was a little resistant at first. I had written The Death of Bees in first person and also used the device of children. I couldn’t help myself though. Telling a story about rape through the eyes of child was a powerful weapon. His understanding of sexual assault is not tainted in adult prejudice. His understanding is honest and his response genuine. It makes the reader protective of him in a way, and, as a result, more invested in the tale I’m telling. The reader knows what has happened to his mother, but Michael doesn’t. The reveal comes very early on for everyone except Michael and has a more emotional impact on the reader.

AUTHORLINK: You have a big event (the rape) at the center of the book. Talk about how the event sheds light on other areas, such family dynamics and interactions among neighbors.

O’DONNELL: Nothing has changed much about societies’ attitude towards rape or its victims. Read the statistics. Despite our abhorrence of the crime, victims are still blamed and rapists are still walking free. I took the story to an island where I could put it under the microscope. I write real families and create characters readers come to know and empathize with. The reader becomes involved in this community and of course the community mirrors the universal reality of rape. It’s got a soap feel to it as a result. My precinct is small, but this world and its story is one we can all relate to. .

“Using a child narrator also allowed me to employ humor. I do this a lot when dealing with controversial subject matter. . .”

AUTHORLINK: Despite the serious event at the center of the book, I found myself laughing at Michael’s unique perspective. What role does comedy have in fiction?

O’DONNELL: Using a child narrator also allowed me to employ humor. I do this a lot when dealing with controversial subject matter, not to trivialize the story you understand, there is nothing trivial about rape, but to better control the readers’ experience. I want them to pay attention and not lose them in an intense story line, and so I provide light relief across the book. But it never shadows the real reason we are reading Closed Doors or what we understand when we turn the last page.

AUTHORLINK: What was the greatest challenge when writing Closed Doors and how did you overcome it?

O’DONNELL: Maintaining a child’s voice throughout and remembering that everything we know in this world must originate from the point of view of the child. I heard Michael in my head from day one. I never lost him, but sometimes I’d take a break from the world I was writing, and returning to it could be challenging.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book.

O’DONNELL: It’s set in the eighties and I had to make sure my timeline was accurate. For authenticity I was careful to include certain news events specific to the UK at that time, like the Falklands War and details about Margaret Thatcher. I was actually amazed how easy it was for me to immerse myself in the eighties again.

With regards sexual assault, I’m a listener, and I’m a woman who has had too many friends who have been hurt in this way. It’s a sad truth, and not specific to me. I defy anyone to say they don’t know a woman who hasn’t been raped or sexually assaulted.

“I suppose I’m slower than I was. I literally labor over every word these days.”

AUTHORLINK: How has the process of writing changed for you as you have gained more experience?

O’DONNELL: I had a lot of edits with The Death of Bees. It took a year in editing to get right. When I wrote Closed Doors I edited as I went along and I was really strict with myself. I could easily spend a month on one chapter until it felt right. With The Death of Bees I literally wrote it page to page. It was an explosion of ideas for me, but Closed Doors was more considered. I couldn’t move forward to the next chapter until the last chapter felt right. I suppose I’m slower than I was. I literally labor over every word these days.

AUTHORLINK: Are there particular habits that you would encourage writers to cultivate – habits of the mind or attitude or work habits?

O’DONNELL: It’s easier to say you’re a writer than to actually be a writer. I recommend you cultivate a routine that works for you. Get up and get on with it. Is that too base? I also recommend having healthy reading habits. You can’t write a book if you can’t read one.

AUTHORLINK: Who is your agent? How did you connect with your agent? Any tips for selecting the right agent?

O’DONNELL: My agent is Alex Christofi at Conville and Walsh. A brilliant guy. I approached Conville and Walsh ten years before writing The Death of Bees. I wrote a novella called Isabel’s Window and Patrick Walsh called me at home to tell me he liked it but novellas don’t sell. He asked me to write something else basically and get back to him. I did, a decade later. They repped me straight away. I was living in LA at the time and in actual fact I didn’t meet my agent for almost two years. We emailed all the time though. Then we met in London and it was great. Alex is great on material. He doesn’t tell me what I want to hear only what I need to hear. I trust him implicitly. We’re a good team. He’s a writer himself.

Getting an agent is tough. I understand that. You should look at submission guidelines for each agency you’re interested in, and don’t limit yourself to your own country either. I recently helped a girl living in America get an agent in the UK. She had approached every agent in the US. We live in a cyber universe remember, you don’t have to meet your agent every day, and, like I said, I lived in LA when Alex agreed to represent me.

“Stay close to like-minded people. Find a writers group or a forum that motives and supports you . . .”

AUTHORLINK: Advice to new writers on staying encouraged and focused on the right things?

O’DONNELL: Stay close to like-minded people. Find a writers group or a forum that motives and supports you and be faithful to your craft. The stories don’t write themselves.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on next.

O’DONNELL: My new book is called The Charmer. It’s first person. It has three characters and the most challenging thing I’ve ever written. It’s adult voices and one of the characters is from Eastern Europe. Voice is therefore tricky. It’s a violent work and it sometimes makes me uncomfortable. I’m learning that writers are compelled to tell ugly stories. I want to tell them and I want to tell this one, but I can’t deny it’s scaring me. The process is therefore slower than the other two books put together. I’m getting there though. Nervous though. The thing is, every time you write a new book there’s a part of you that feels you’ve never done it before. Every book is a new baby.

About the Author

Lisa O’Donnell won the Orange Prize for New Screenwriters with her screenplay The Wedding Gift in 2000. Lisa was also nominated for the Dennis Potter New Writers Award in the same year. A native of Scotland, she lives in Los Angeles with her children. Closed Doors is her second novel.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.