An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Kate Lehrer
Author of Confessions of a Bigamist (Shaye Areheart Books/Crown/Random House, May 2004)
By Doris Booth
Can a woman have it all, including two wonderful husbands who each bring out a different side of her personality and character? Novelist Kate Lehrer explores this provocative question in her imaginative tale, Confessions of a Bigamist (Shaye Areheart Books/Crown (May 2004).
In the book, Michelle Banyon is a successful efficiency consultant who writes a magazine column under the name Daisy Strait. She lives in Manhattan in a Fifth Avenue apartment with her kind, but overworked husband, an international lawyer. While visiting Texas for a lecture, Michelle meets Wilson Collins, a ruggedly handsome man who lives in a Victorian farmhouse miles from the nearest city. Their emerging relationship surprises Michelle–and there are plenty of surprises for the reader, too. Here, Kate, who is married to PBS anchor Jim Lehrer of the McNeil-Lehrer New Hour, talks about the female fantasies in her book, her mid-life journey into publishing, and whether being married to a famous journalist helped her career.
I have always been interested in the many selves each of us have inside. Lehrer
AUTHORLINK: How did you get such an imaginative idea for a novel?
LEHRER: I have always been interested in the many selves each of us have inside. I love the idea of willful women who go to the extremes and push envelope to get what they want or need. I had seen a story about a male bigamist in the newspaper and it occurred to me that we rarely hear of a female bigamist. I wrote the entire first draft thinking I was being original.
Only then did I remember that five years earlier I had read a biography of the writer Anais Nin, who became a bigamist. When she was in her seventies and dying her doctor told her she would have to choose between the two men before she could no longer travel from New York to California. I also realized that as a child of about 11 I had read Leo Tolstoy's Anna Kareninalong before she was Oprah's bookclub choiceand didn't like the ending.
AUTHORLINK: Anna Karenina is the story of a doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Anna rejects her passionless marriage and endures the hypocrisies of society. Right?
LEHRER: Yes. I had always thought it unfair that Anna threw herself in front of that train! I think I have spent my whole life going back to rewrite poor Anna's dilemma.
Writing about a bigamist is a catchy way of talking to people about the pulls in our lives, the different faces inside of us, and how we show different sides to our family, our friends, and our colleagues. Each face represents a pull in our life as well, and we are constantly making choices among them. Bigamy seemed a good way to explore all this. It's a metaphor for the ambiguity in our lives. I'm uncomfortable with ambiguity. I have always yearned for something absolute. But every situation in the world has its own ambiguity. The celebrated philosopher Isaiah Berlin called the choices between two goods our human tragedy.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, but isn't the acceptance of ambiguity a sign of maturity in our lives?
LEHRER: Family and friends vs career, security vs freedom, kindness vs truthfulnessthese are all good values, but they are always at odds with each other in one way or another. Writing about a bigamist is a fun way to explore these polar faces. "Becoming an author was a way to reach immortality my way of living on. I couldn't play the piano or sing. But I was a good storyteller
Lehrer AUTHORLINK: Confessions is a very serious exploration of every woman's psyche, is it not?
LEHRER: We women really do think about going back to the roads we failed to take, the things we could have done, but didn't know we could do or choose.
AUTHORLINK: This is not your first book?
LEHRER: I have published three other novels. My first novel, Best Intentions, was published by Little Brown. It is the only one of my works that was not published by Shaye Areheart
AUTHORLINK: How did you become a writer?
LEHRER: I had always wanted to be a writer. When I was 7 years old I wrote stories for children's magazines. I would read them to my mother and I think she probably threw them away. By the time I was 11, I had become an avid reader. Having grown up in Texas I wanted to do something big. Becoming an author was a way to reach immortality my way of living on. I couldn't play the piano or sing. But I was a good storyteller, though even then I doubted that writing paid well. In college I decided to teach school, to support myself and to give back to the world, and to write for the love of it.
I hadn't planned to marry as young as I did, or to have three children as soon as I did.
So, I am a late bloomer. I didn't start seriously writing until mid-life, and it feels wonderful. I would often wonder in those earlier years what would have happened if I had had all that time for myself.
Postponing my career didn't always feel so great while I was doing it, but it feels great now! I can feel the same excitement of someone in their 20s. "I didn't really know what I was doing. John Gardner encouraged me to wait until I wrote the best book I could write, commercially."
Lehrer AUTHORLINK: Describe your earliest writing efforts.
LEHRER: After our daughters got a little older, I began playing around with a children's book. I wanted to see if writing was really what I wanted to do, or just a young dream. I ended up with a lot of wonderful rejection letters. I also realized that, indeed, writing still remained my passion. Then I started writing in earnest an adult novel.
I was living in Dallas at the time and didn't know many people in the book world. I was very discouraged. When we moved to Washington D.C., John Champlin Gardner, the novelist, poet and teacher [who died in a motorcycle accident in 1982], agreed to read my work. He was the author of On Moral Fiction the classic book of literary criticism, and other books. He told me, "You're a much better writer than this book. Put this work aside, and write something worthy of you. If you continue to revise this project, the seams will always show." I did put it aside, and began writing about a mother who killed her daughter. It was to become my first published work, Best Intentions.
AUTHORLINK: Why did you wait so long to begin writing?
LEHRER: I sleep-walked through my 20's. I couldn't walk and chew gum at same time. I might have published the very first book I wrote. An agent was interested in representing it. But I'm glad I didn't. Back then, I didn't really know what I was doing. John Gardner encouraged me to wait until I wrote the best book I could write. And I believe he was right.
AUTHORLINK: Who is your agent and how did you meet?
LEHRER: My agent is Loretta Barrett. I actually met her through my publisher and editor Shaye Areheart. I met Shaye with the submission of my second book, When They Took Away the Man in the Moon. It was much better than my earlier efforts because it captures the spirit of a Texas matriarchy, the kind of women I grew up around. Their spirit runs through all of my work to some extent.
AUTHORLINK: How did you land your very first agent and publisher?
LEHRER: I had already secured an editor, Roger Donald at Little Brown, and then I got an agent. I met Roger through Jim's partner on the McNeil-Leherer News Hour, Robin McNeil. Roger was Robin's editor, and the editor for a number of well-known authors including Norman Mailer. When I was shopping my second book around, I landed a new agent, and we ended up showing it to Shaye, who loved the book. She helped me shape the work. When I was ready to change agents again, Shaye suggested Loretta.
AUTHORLINK: Did having a famous husband help you get published and sell books?
LEHRER: In some ways, it might have hurt more than helped, but certainly it has helped me to be on the current book tour with Jim. He is also a novelist, you know. His name may have gotten us exposed to national media that I might not have had access to alone. Still, I have had to hand sell my books. It helped that I happened to know Robin McNeil, who happened to tell his editor about a book I was writing. But I believe writers can also get a lot of help by attending workshops.
AUTHORLINK: So, having a famous husband didn't help much in selling serious novels?
LEHRER: Jim's role as a newscaster didn't even help him in selling his novels. I think the attitude of some people was, "You're a newscaster. How dare you write serious novels! You must not be really doing this on your own." Yet, that is exactly what both Jim and I have done. We're not riding anybody's coat tails as novelists. We're having to build our own fan groups. I know a lot of big-name people who still can't get their work published. So just being famous doesn't always help for the necessary exposure such as reviews. You have to be a good writer.
AUTHORLINK: What are your writing habits?
LEHRER: I begin writing at around 9 or 10 a.m. and continue through midday to the point of diminishing return, then I take a break. I usually try to have lunch with someone at least once a week so that the business of writing doesn't get so lonely. Then I return to writing in late afternoon. It's one of my better times, when I just go into myself. On many afternoons I simply reflect, get a good sentence here or there, or deepen what I have already done.
AUTHORLINK: What is the revision process like for you?
LEHRER: I rewrite and rewrite! I'll write the first chapter until I find the voice I want, then I might rewrite it ten times or more. I first wrote Confessions of a Bigamist in third person, and it wasn't working, so I rewrote the whole thing in first person to make it more coherent. That was an enormous task.
AUTHORLINK: We hear you don't always use a computer to write?
LEHRER: It's true. I wrote the entire first version of Confessions in longhand. Anytime I want to go deeper into the story I have to do it in longhand. It's the way I think; it goes with the rhythm of my thought.
AUTHORLINK: Why write in longhand?
LEHRER: In college I minored in English Literature and Philosophy. I had to use the analytical side of my brain. It took me a number of years to break the habit. I had to learn to let anything come up that could, to let the brain regurgitate whatever junk it wanted to. After all, I wasn't going to show it to anybody until it was revised. For some reason, I use the computer when I am in a more analytical mode, with everything thought through. But I use longhand when I want to be more creative, let the deeper thoughts flow.
AUTHORLINK: Did Shaye make many revisions?
LEHRER: Shaye has been wonderful to work with! She tells me things like: "You're putting too many characters here," or "You're losing the thrust of the book in this chapter." Sometimes I try to put too many ideas into one sentence. She reminds me to stick with the dominant idea. The most important thing
is for me to first tell a good story.
Lehrer AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now?
LEHRER: I have several ideas that I've discussed with Shaye and she seems committed to them. But I am so bad. I keep waking up in the middle of the night thinking of new ones.
AUTHORLINK: How are you promoting yourself?
LEHRER: First I had to decide whether I should do the book tour for Confessions in tandem with Jim's new novel, Flying Crows. I was glad I did. Otherwise, I never would have gotten the publicity I have received. That doesn't necessarily guarantee sales, but these days you have to get the word out there everywhere you can. I have also hired a publicist, Goldberg McDuffie. The paperback version of Confessions will be out soon, and I frankly think paperbacks are important to growing the audience. But all of that said, I can't worry about growing the audience. I have to let the marketing people do that. My job is to be true to myself, go wherever I need to go with the story. The most important thing is for me to first tell a good story.
AUTHORLINK: You are a happily-married woman writing about bigamy! What does Jim think of your work and of your writing?
LEHRER: Jim is very supportive of my work; he loves my writing style and voice. We are both writers, and we act as each other's critic. It's in our blood. Even all of our grown daughters are trying to write. My work is very different from the novels Jim writes. As for writing about bigamy, I just liked the idea of a woman going against the normto the extreme. What if she happened to have two husbands at the same time? Could she really pull it off? Jim understands. He says I am writing about every man's fantasy.
AUTHORLINK: What's your best advice for a writer who is struggling to break into the publishing business?
LEHRER: Whether you feel you need a writer's workshop or not, go! Go where the editors and agents are. Take a course. Somebody along the way will give you a helping hand. I didn't have as much help as I needed. If I had, it might have saved me years of waiting to polish my work to the point that it would be publishable. Writing requires enormous discipline. Try to sit down every day to write something, even if it's only a sentence. Do it whether or not you feel like it. And remember, getting published is hard work, too. It's hard to break in. But don't give up "I want my readers
to know that I am a woman
who is willing to go
with her instincts. . . "
Lehrer AUTHORLINK: What is the main impression you want your readers to retain of you and your work?
LEHRER: I want my readers to know that I am a woman who is willing to go with her instincts, wherever they're going to take her. I may not personally be like one of my characters, but I have to have the toughness and willingness to go where they lead me. I want to continue to explore how far a woman will go to get what she wants, and still maintain her core integrity.
Anytime you write a novel, especially if you're trying to make it more than a formula book, you are gambling. The same is true in many life situationsmaking a new friend, taking a new job. Emotional investment is always a gamble. You have to trust your instincts and go with them. Confessions was a risky book about a woman who does what she needs to do and yet stays with her commitments. Those who read the book will know that the ending is especially risky. I examined the story over and over in my mind, wondering if I was nuts. Still, I went with my instincts. If it resonates with the reader the way I believe it will, then it was well worth the risk. It's a gamble on another kind of fantasy, isn't it? ***