Reeling Through Life by Tara Ison

Tara Ison Explores How to Be a Writer
An exclusive Authorlink interview with the author of Reeling Through Life

By Ellen Birkett Morris

Reeling Through Life
by Tara Ison

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February 2015

Movies have created entire aspects of myself. They’ve given me definition. They’ve taught me how to light Sabbath candles, how to seduce someone with strawberries. Bulldoze my way past writer’s block. Go a little crazy. Characters are my role models, my teachers; the movie theater has been a classroom. The blur has happened, and I often catch myself thinking: Did I actually do that? Say that? Or did I just see it in a movie?

Tara Ison’s Reeling Through Life: How I learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies walks the line between memoir and film criticism to offer up an incisive, personal look at how Ison’s life has been shaped by films she has seen.

The book is a sometimes tongue-in-cheek primer on life with essays including how to go crazy, how to be Lolita, how to be a Jew, how to be a drunk, how to die with style and how to be a writer.

“I see essay as a form of pastiche.”

The essays are constructed from research, personal recollections and the recounting of specific movie moments.

“I see essay as a form of pastiche. I explicitly incorporate research that I’ve done. This book is not straight memoir. I was looking at the impact of film on my life and my sense of myself in the world, all while asking ‘what does this have to do with the movies?’,” said Ison.

The result is book that reveals an evolution in Ison’s thinking and development as she blooms as a writer and grapples with how to live her life. The book takes on larger issues like the sexualization of girls and alcoholism through the lens of Ison’s personal experience. In the essay How to Be Lolita, she takes us through her own girlhood fascination with the depiction of “erotic girl-child power” in movies while recounting the alarming instance of being appraised by an older male relative while she was going to the bathroom.

“I had been watching these films and feeling sexual power in relation to adult men, and then this incident happened with my cousin and I was rendered absolutely powerless,” said Ison. It was then, she realized, “. . . I am in no way responsible. I am only a little girl.”

In essay after essay, Ison poses important questions about movie depictions of sex, drinking, what it means to be a writer, how to die Her own personal explorations offer a window for the reader to engage in similar reflection.

“What defines a good essay is that it asks interesting questions.”

“What defines a good essay is that it asks interesting questions. The best essays are a series of questions being explored versus a series of point being made,” said Ison. She counts Joanne Beard, Mary Roach, Augusten Burroughs and David Foster Wallace among her favorite essayists.

“The real challenge of creative nonfiction is selecting those moments that will be most illuminating, while still telling a story that has moments of challenge, conflict and drama,” said Ison.

She began her writing career as a screenwriter. Working with her writing partner Neil Landau, she co-wrote the cult movie Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead. Since then she had written three novels. Her short fiction, essays, poetry and book reviews have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and numerous anthologies, among other venues. She credits Landau with teaching her craft and helping her develop a strong work ethic by meeting everyday and keeping set work hours.

Ison’s foray into fiction came when she came upon an idea for a story that she couldn’t resist. The story dealt with a mother and daughter who live on the grounds of Alcatraz in a family complex for workers.

“The more I researched the lives of women and children at Alcatraz the more the characters took shape. Deciding to write fiction was like falling in love for the first time. I knew I was dealing with something bigger than myself.” It became, Ison said, about honoring the experience of the characters and giving voice to the “depth and complexity of their lives.”

It is also about giving herself permission to work in new genres and on new projects even though starting a new project is “terrifying.”

Since she works across the genres, how does Ison know what form a project might take? “If I have an idea for something that I can entirely get my arms around in a single embrace I feel like that is a short story. Anything larger becomes, as Henry James would say, ‘the big hairy monster.’”

Ison had written the essay “How to Be a Writer”, when her editor asked if she might be interested in taking on a nonfiction book. As a movie lover it was natural for her to think of films as instructional. “For better or worse, film has been a powerful teacher.”

The “how to” categories proved to be a device that gave her focus for developing multiples essays. She brainstormed themes and wrote the essays out of sequence.

Ison first sketched out her visceral reactions to the films at the time she first watched them. Then she rewatched the films to “layer in a more sophisticated analysis.”

Then she shaped the book with an eye towards a chronology that spans Lolita (girlhood) to Mrs. Robinson (middle age).

“I can’t afford to wait for the muse or inspiration. “

The greatest challenges of writing the book were selecting both film and life experiences that illuminated each other and writing frankly about intimate details of her life.

Ison admits that she hates to write and would rather do anything than sit it the chair. “I can’t afford to wait for the muse or inspiration. I have to be the host and show up first.”

It is something she has done successfully over and over.

Her best advice to writers comes near the end of the book when she writes: ”And the writers job isn’t to save the world; it’s just to keep the faith and to write.” A few sentences later she notes, “In the moment of the writing, in the warp and weft and forging ahead of it, I’m earning the right to exist on the planet”

About the Author

Tara Ison is the author of the novels The List (Scribner), A Child out of Alcatraz (Faber & Faber, Inc.), a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Rockaway (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), featured as one of the “Best Books of Summer” in O, The Oprah Magazine, July 2013. Ball, a short story collection, is forthcoming from Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press.

She is the recipient of a 2008 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship and a 2008 COLA Individual Artist Grant, as well as multiple Yaddo fellowships, a Rotary Foundation Scholarship for International Study, a Brandeis National Women’s Committee Award, a Thurber House Fiction Writer-in-Residence Fellowship, the Simon Blattner Fellowship from Northwestern University, and a California Arts Council Artists’ Fellowship Award.

Ison received her MFA in Fiction & Literature from Bennington College. She has taught creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Goddard College, Antioch University Los Angeles, and UC Riverside Palm Desert’s MFA in Creative Writing program. She is currently Associate Professor of Fiction at Arizona State University.

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 in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.