The traffic was tremendous, worse than Albany and beyond anything Hannah could have imagined. Coaches and carriages of every shape and size, delivery carts, men on horseback. A pearly pink hog was nosing around in the gutter and moved only when a carter used his whip on the broad back. There were no ladies out at this hour of the morning but there were too many gentlemen in fine coats and tall hats to count, all of them in a hurry to be somewhere.
–excerpted from Sara Donati’s Lake in the Clouds.
Angie thought a lot about Caroline Rose, for reasons she didn’t want to examine too closely. Caroline was tall, elegant, silver blond, immaculately groomed and dressed. She had turned out to be not only John’s fiancee and colleague but Miss Zula’ s unofficial assistant in all things. There was no avoiding her, and, worse luck, no way to dislike her, either.
–Rosina Lippi’s Tied to the Tracks.
Rosina Lippi is a bit of a wonder. Her debut novel, HOMESTEAD, garnered critical acclaim. A linguist by training, she’s written a highly-regarded monograph in her discipline: ENGLISH WITH AN ACCENT. Under her pen name, Sara Donati, she writes detailed historical novels spanning great historical moments, and as Rosina Lippi she writes smart contemporary novels examining the absurdities of modern life. And she’s hugely successful in both genres. Her next contemporary novel, THE PAJAMA GIRLS OF LAMBERT SQUARE, releases in Feb. 2007, and she’s hard at work on her sixth historical novel in her wildly successful Wilderness series. Her webblog is essential reading for novelists. I’ve interviewed a lot of authors, and yes, all of them, including me, work really hard. But I’ve yet to interview one as indefatigable as Lippi.
(Missed last week’s interview? Click HERE.)
We are pleased to present part two of our interview with Rosina Lippi.
Q: You set TIED TO THE TRACKS, your last contemporary novel, at a liberal arts college in the south. Did you find that it cut too close to the bone for you, or was it great fun?
RL: It was fun. It was huge fun. But I didn’t want to let the academic aspect take over, so I set it in the summer. There’s a certain atmosphere in a college town in the summer that worked well for me, and I didn’t have to deal with the faculty or the student body in any depth. I could concentrate on a subset of academic characters. My favorite novel about the perverse nature of English Departments is Russo’s Straight Man — and I don’t think I could top it.
Q: Your first novel, HOMESTEAD, made a big splash in literary circles, winning the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1999 and being shortlisted for the UK’s Orange Prize in 2001. Then you went “commercial”. Was that a difficult decision or were you following your heart?
RL: Sometimes it’s annoying to have a person come up to me and ask when I’m going to write a real book again. I try not to snap, but I usually will say something like, oh, I’m too busy with the fake books to bother.
It’s my firm believe that literary fiction is just another genre, with a target audience and conventions. One of those conventions is what I call the ‘no pain no gain’ rule. Happy endings or even just content endings are not in fashion for the literati at this point in time. But ‘fashion’ is the operative word. There’s no great underlying truth to so-called literary fiction. Academics have claimed the authority to declare what’s worthwhile (and we let them!) and they do a great job at gate keeping. Keep out other kinds of storytellers at all costs. Once in a while somebody sneaks in. Eventually Stephen King started getting reviewed in the NYT, after all. But they still have to qualify everything, and explain why they are bothering with commercial fiction.
My bottom line: Plot is not, as some of the literati seem to believe, a four letter word. Good writing and a good story are not mutually exclusive. You can have both — you SHOULD have both — but the average person out there wants the story, first and foremost. They will put up with many infelicities if there’s a good story to pull them along. Which explains the DaVinci Code. The research, the writing, the premise, none of that worked, but the story grabbed people and they responded.
Q: What is it like working with two different publishers producing two decidedly different types of books?
RL: There’s not really any big difference. My agent handles all the negotiations, I have a brief talk with my editor, and then I disappear until I hand over the manuscript. Or wait, one difference: Bantam has never restricted me in terms of word count, whereas that does happen with the contemporaries. I had to lose about 10,000 words from Pajama Girls (coming out in February).
Q: You’ve got a devoted fanbase for your Wilderness series, and they debate endlessly if the books are romances, or historicals with romantic elements. How do you feel about the kerfuffle? Do these marketing distinctions bother you?
RL: I don’t take offense at ‘romance’ if that’s what you’re getting at. My goal is a good story, well told. My hope (and it is, to some extent, naive) is that people will look beyond labels. But if somebody looks at something of mine and decides it’s not worth their time because somebody has called it a romance, then that’s that person’s loss. Eleanor Roosevelt (one of my heroes) said ‘Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.’
Q: Your next release is a contemporary called THE PAJAMA GIRLS OF LAMBERT SQUARE (releases Feb. 14, 2008). Can you tell us about it and the inspiration behind it?
RL: It’s a bit of an odd story. I saw the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof in… 1973? I was in high school. The piece of dialogue that stayed with me for years was Tevye telling the daughter who wants to marry a Russian soldier: a bird and a fish may love each other, but where will they make a home together? So all these years I’ve thought about that, about the hurdles that are put in the way when two people are trying to make a connection. Things beyond personality and character and common interests. There have been a million stories about the girl from the wrong side of the tracks and the rich boy, and every other kind of economic, racial, and religious difference you can name. But I was interested in approaching it from a different direction.
Pajama Girls is about a man who is claustrophobic and a woman who is agoraphobic who fall in love. He’s been ‘in recovery’ as he puts it, for a good long time, but she’s in denial. And they both own shops in an old printing factory that has been renovated into an upscale shopping complex. There’s a secondary story line about a more traditional ‘this will never work’ couple, as well. And it’s set in South Carolina in a small town where the locals have to learn to get along with an influx of Swedes. Yes, Swedes.
Q: For fans of your Wilderness series, can you give us hints what will be coming up?
RL: Some people are settled and content with their lives; others are finding their way. At this point it looks like there will be at least one death, and probably more. Not all by natural causes. And Daniel’s story will be the primary focus.
Q: What craft books do you consider essential for writers?
RL: The book I like the best, that is of the most help to me and that I use when I’m teaching creative writing is Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway. Don’t groan. There’s a reason it’s so widely used, and that is that it’s incredibly well done, and it’s regularly updated. More recently I’ve just read Erica Jong’s Seducing the Demon, which I’m still thinking about.
Q: What are you reading now?
RL: Crickey, that’s a tough one. I always have so many books going for different reasons, a list would give you the wrong idea. So here, a few novels I’ve read over the last year that I would recommend very highly:
Ariana Franklin’s (aka Diana Norman) City of Shadows;
Ariana Franklin’s The Mistress of the Art of Death;
Dennis Lehane’s short story collection called Coronado;
Loretta Chase’s Lord Perfect;
Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows.
KB: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us.
RL: Thank you for letting me speak to your readers.
QUEEN OF SWORDS, the 5th novel in Sara Donati’s Wilderness series, is currently available in all bricks ‘n mortars and online booksellers. THE PAJAMA GIRLS OF LAMBERT SQUARE releases Feb. 2008.