Saturday, February 22, 2014

My Portland Writer Friend, Sally Lehman

Sally Lehman was one of the first writers I met when I moved to Portland. We shared a lunch table at the Willamette Writers Conference, held here each summer. I'm sure I had an air of desperation as I introduced myself to her, because I was new to Portland, new to serious fiction writing and needed to find an editor ASAP. My first book was in the hands of an agent, who wanted me to work with a professional editor. I wanted to sell it, and Sally was kind and showed me the ropes of how to do a face-to-face pitch at the conference with an agent. (The first time was terrifying; now, I could pitch a book in two minutes without breaking a sweat.) She was signed up for about nine pitches that weekend. I had signed up for one. Since then, we've become crit partners and literary discussers at Stumptown Coffee. She has self-published several books, and she's on the verge, I think, of finding the right house to publish her work, which is edgy, close-in, dark-themed and impeccably written. Here's a glimpse into her writing life:

Why did you start writing novels?

I started writing novels to see if I could do it. I’ve written poetry since I was 8-years-old, and, at about 38, had started sending poems out to literary magazines and getting acceptances, so I wondered if I could write a book.

I had the idea to write a novel following a soul through the process of reincarnation, going into several different lives and deaths, until I got to the twentieth century and my current life. When I finished writing that novel (which will likely never be published) I saw there was a class for short story writing at my local community college, so I took the class and started writing short stories as well. My first teacher was a lovely man named C. Marcus Parr, and I credit him with being the first person to give me the courage to start sending out stories.

Now, it’s about 10 years later and I’ve completed five novels (including that first one) and had several poems and short stories published. I’m currently trying to sell a novel called The Last Last Fight.

Are you a pantser or a plotter? My impression is that you let the story take you where it goes.

It’s funny, because that first novel was totally planned out and researched. The names given my poor little soul were looked up to indicate special meanings, the living conditions were studied, it was very outline intensive.

My second novel came from my second writing teacher, Tom Spanbauer, who read a short story I’d written and pointing out a two word sentence – “Mom’s depressed.” – and told me to write from that. The story sort of flooded my brain, unfolded all over the place throughout a ten week write-a-palooza which got me to the first draft. I’ve been a committed seat-of-your-pantser ever since. I mockingly balk at all outlining now, although I do use index cards taped to the walls around my desk at times to organize events.

You have some dark, violent streaks in your books. What's up with that? Because you are a very gentle person, from what I can tell!

LOL, I suppose I am an gentle person, although I could hold my own against my three older sisters when I was younger.

I have a violent imagination. Then I put myself into the bodies of my characters and I make myself go through what they go through – especially my narrators, since I tend to write in first person. When I go through the stuff my characters go through, it’s like living those moments myself, and it teaches me stuff I wouldn’t have a chance to experience otherwise. I mean, my narrator kills someone, and I can’t really go out there and do that (I suppose I could but it would make my life a lot less cheerful). Living vicariously through the people we invent is one of the perks of being a writer.

Do you set writing goals for yourself? How do you keep track of your output? Do you?

I have critique group goals that keep me sending out pages on a schedule. There are also the deadlines for submissions if I have a piece that I want to submit. For my novel length works, I tend to focus on getting the story out of my head and onto the page, because once that story is found it drives me crazy until it comes out.

For novels, I don’t tend to set goals until I’m near the end. Right now I have a Daruma doll for The Last Last Fight – Daruma is a Japanese god with no eyes, so you fill in one eye and make the god a promise that you will reach a goal, then fill in the other eye when the goal is reached. I’ve got Daruma watching me to make sure I get that novel published.

When you write, you also have a second screen open. Tell me about your method (or madness).

I tend to write in chunks, so I end up with multiple documents with different pieces of the story in each. Add to that the different revisions that are created when my critique groups have input, and I have to have as many as 10+ documents opened at one time. By using two screens – my laptop screen and an extra monitor – I can grab a paragraph from one screen and paste it into where I’m working on another screen. It really saves time.

The second screen also comes in handy when I’m blocked and want to play solitaire for a while.

Who are your first readers?

My first reader is my husband, Bob, unless I think it’s a novel he simply won’t enjoy reading (he would read it anyway because he’s a really good guy, but why torture him). My sister, Audrey, because she’s good at being honest, even if she hates it (the first time she read my novel she was relieved that it didn’t suck). And my writer friend and first editor, Debbie Wingate, who is the only person other than my husband to have read that first novel about reincarnation. I got to return the favor with Debbie since she’s recently published a children/YA novel called Truthfinder, which I got to be a first reader of.

You've had some specific influences on your style, so which has been the most important?

Originally, my influences were primarily based on the teachers I was working with. I was in Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writers Workshop for four years, and a lot of what I wrote then had a distinct Spanbauer vibe to it. Leaving his class, I started to look at other influences in my life for the voice I needed.

Now, I think the influences depend on the story. For my novel The Last Last Fight, I went back to my rural Oregon roots and the way we sort of drawled out words as kids; this worked for that book because it was set in rural Oregon in 1975. Currently, I’m writing from the perspective of a young teenager in the 21st century, so my daughters have influenced the language, which has led me to use phrases and words in everyday life which are totally not age appropriate. The next work of fiction I plan to work on will be from the perspective of a 10-year-old, so I have to find my inner child and become her voice.

What is your dream goal as a writer?

I’m almost afraid to say anything for fear of jinxing myself, but here it goes….

I want to be published by a big house and have my books in stores worldwide. I want Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Lawrence to play the lead characters in The Last Last Fight. And I want to be able to write books full time and make a living at it. (Yikes!)

Ok, so realistically speaking, I would like to find an agent and/or a publisher who likes my book and wants to publish it. I want to have people read my stories and feel something (even if all they feel is scared). I want to read at Powell’s Book City someday.

What keeps you motivated?

It’s like when I wrote poetry as a kid – I don’t try to do it, the words just have to come out. When I find that little spot in my brain where a story lives, the events have to be told or I feel like I will simply go crazy. I don’t even know where these stories will go until about halfway through the first draft, but I know where they start and I know that they need me to go through them in order to feel like I’ve done that person inside my brain justice.

What three most influential books have you read in the last three years?

Dora – A Headcase, by Lidia Yuknavitch because it gave me permission to be the obnoxious teenager I wanted to be.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion because it taught me so much about how to encounter and survive writing about the death of a loved one.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman because it taught me that the ending of a story can be the very best part of it, even if it’s not what you were expecting it to be.

What would you like to see change about the publishing business?

I’d like to see some regulation or grading system set up for self-publishing, because I honestly feel like some people are putting really bad books out and are therefore giving the rest of us a bad name. I mean, I’ve self published a short story and two novels, and I don’t want to feel as though they’re crap just because they don’t have a “real” name behind them. And I know others who have put their heart and soul on the page, and they deserve to be taken seriously too.

I’d also like to see the book industry (and the movie industry, for that matter) at least try to look for something new and original. They are remaking old movies, they are recycling “classic” literature with fancy new covers and art work (how many copies of Alice in Wonderland does a person really need?), while there are some seriously interesting and unique books out in the world that Penguin wouldn’t touch. Too many wonderful books are being consigned to Amazon print-as-you-order and Small Press sections of bookstores. I think the big name publishers underestimate the reading public.

Thank you, Jennifer, for this opportunity. You’re amazing and I can’t wait to read your novel when it comes out.

Thanks, Sally, Love ya. 


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