Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Interview: Lesbian Novelist Lauren Sanders

(Link) Curve magazine chats up Lambda Literary Award winner, Lauren Sanders about her latest novel -- a scary romance called "With or Without You."

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By Julia Bloch
Curve magazine

Lauren Sanders’ scarily romantic (and romantically scary) new novel, With or Without You (Akashic Books), takes us back to the “me era” of the ’80s, when the Gipper was president, big hair reigned and adolescence could be particularly lonely. So lonely, in fact, that queer heroine Lillian Ginger Speck finds herself on trial for murder when her obsession with vapid, beautiful soap star Brooke Harrison gets terribly out of hand. Sanders, who won a Lambda Literary Award for her previous novel, Kamikaze Lust, and works as editorial director at Lambda Legal, has created a sorrowful, elegant book about what can happen when we look to celebrities to slake our thirst for connection. The result is one of the most endearing and dangerous love stories we’ve seen in recent years.

So, we’re really excited to talk with you. We’re huge fans of your new book.
Well, thank you. Happy to hear that.

And as we’re very concerned with celebrity over here, a lot of my questions have to do with that aspect of the book. In an interview with Small Spiral Notebook, you mentioned that you’re obsessed with celebrity, so is there any of yourself in Lily? Do you identify with her?
God, you get yourself in so much trouble when you say things like this, but sure. There’s definitely part of me in her. There’s part of me in all of my characters; that sort of goes without saying. I definitely have found myself at times obsessed with celebrities, much more so when I was younger. I think that is such a part of being a teenager in America, this identification with celebrity and with images and particularly. I don’t want to make sweeping statements about America or about one gender, but I think [the identification happens] particularly for young women. Gosh. I always start getting into trouble when I try to make bigger statements than I think the book is about. But keeping it to my own experience, [my obsession comes from growing up] in America, in this celebrity-saturated culture, and also in the ’80s … when there was so much cultural permissiveness everywhere. In the early ’80s — so this is pre-AIDS consciousness — very much anything goes, and [we had] the benign neglect of the Reagan administration, the “greed is good” kind of thing. There was such emptiness … and there’s just such an opportunity for celebrities to step in and fill that.

There were times in the book when the intimacy between Lily and Brooke, even if it was imagined, was really touching; at other times, what Lily was lacking in her family life and her other relationships left me feeling totally bleak and desolate. Those times felt especially interesting and scary because Lily’s obsession with celebrity is delusional. What made you decide to sidestep more common forms of fascination with celebrity and let Lily sort of go off her rocker?
She is an unstable person to begin with, I think — and not crazy. Somebody asked me in another interview, “Whoa, this is one crazy character you’ve created, scary,” and I was just like, God, I never really thought of her as crazy. I thought of her as extremely emotionally limited in a lot of ways, and off-kilter. There’s such an emotional void in her life, and a cultural void, for that matter — you know, Long Island is such a cultural vacuous wasteland — and into it steps this person, and in a way it’s important that she is a celebrity, but anybody could have stepped into that void. [Lily] exercises the same kind of all-encompassing love for this woman who is nothing more than an image and a figment in her life.

I wanted to make this leap where she sees this person on television and there is a part [of her] that’s a little bit, I’m trying to avoiding saying “sick,” but she is so sad and so empty that she sees this person and projects all of the emptiness, all of the sadness onto her that [she thinks] here is this one person who would understand me, here is this one person who would be my best friend, here is this one person who would love me. All of that gets sort of confused and I think also the reason that [Brooke is] a soap opera star is, I do believe there is a heightened level of intimacy created there sometimes, where these people are literally there every day, and you have this opportunity to think, I see this person. This person comes into my life. There were weeks that went by where basically Lily didn’t talk to anybody, any real person. But here was this person on television who she had this time with every day, and that [relationship] became really intimate for her.

You weave in the narrative of Brooke’s mother. Was there any point in which you considered weaving in a narrative from the point of view of Brooke herself?
You know, I never really considered that, because again, I thought every image of Brooke in the book I wanted to come across as sort of how we experience celebrity in our society. You’ll notice that everything about Brooke comes from someone else’s point of view. … There is always a screen surrounding [her], the way that most celebrities come to us.

When we finally reach the murder scene at the end of the book, Lily gets very angry and says, “I’m not a fan. Don’t call me a fan.” What is she feeling there? Why does she get so angry?
She really feels like they have this relationship, that they share this special bond, and that she is not a fan. She sees the ways fans act and really makes a distinction between herself and them. Lily is convinced that there’s a way [she and Brooke] communicate with each other that is different from the way Brooke would communicate to any of her other fans — and from the way that Lily communicates with anyone else in her life.

Going back for a second to the narrative of Mildred, Brooke’s mother, we also hear about this sort of disturbed relationship between Brooke and her sister. They seem to be overly close with unusual boundaries. Why did you decide it was important for the reader to see that side of Brooke?
That is a really good question. Nobody’s asked that before. I thought it was important to see Brooke in the context of her family [and as someone who] comes from somewhere, who’s got this family, and doesn’t necessarily have the perfect life. Although on the surface there’s nothing wrong with it, there are the same issues that many families deal with. I wanted to show that the one person she really does feel connected to, if you believe her mother’s story, is her sister. This gets back to the question you asked before — so much of this is filtered through Mildred’s perspective of how she sees her two daughters.

So, it’s another screen.

Given that your book is set in the ’80s, a really generative moment for ideas about celebrity, how would you characterize how things have changed? If this novel were set today, how do you think things might be different?
I shudder to think what it would be like to be growing up now, with the incessant focus on celebrity, when even people who aren’t necessarily bona fide celebrities are now celebrities — [just think about] reality TV and the way we elevate normal people to celebrity status because they’re on a television show. I think we’ve gotten so far out of control. One of the reasons I set the book in the ’80s and that the actual murder happens in 1987 is this was before there was any kind of stalking, any stalking laws at all, before celebrity obsession became [something] talked about it in any kind of real sense. The word “erotomania” was just coming into psychology texts at that point. Back then, there was still a sort of innocence — that might not be the right word, but the idea that somebody would stalk and kill a TV star was still something that was kind of foreign to people, [not] in the mass consciousness. Now, I think, you hear that everybody’s got a stalker; it’s sort of a classic Hollywood joke, that you’re not anybody until you’ve been stalked. The stakes are a lot higher for celebrities these days.

Celebrities seem to love talking about the obsession, too — there was even a 2004 thriller called Paparazzi. There is a fascination around the fascination; stalking calls a lot of attention to itself now.
Absolutely. And blogs I think also participate in that: You get people who are chronicling everything, and then all of a sudden somebody takes an interest in them, so they’re a celebrity. The culture is feeding on itself in so many ways.

What projects are you working on now?
I am working on another novel. I don’t want to say too much about it because I am really in the exploration/development phase.

How is it balancing your job at Lambda Legal with your writing life?
It’s tough. It’s really tough. We’re incredibly, incredibly busy at the moment because there’s so much going on in the LGBT legal community, as you know. We’re dealing with marriage cases and in the past couple of years the organization has just grown tremendously in both the scope of its work and how much work we take on. It’s super exciting, but it definitely takes away from some of that creative time. I try to isolate two hours every morning before work and just keep that as my private writing time.