On Writing | The Big Shuffle interview | Interview Archive

On Writing: An Interview with Laura Pedersen
by: Laura Pedersen

What made you decide to interview yourself?
I find that many people are interested in the writing process and therefore have similar questions, and thus I've attempted to batch together the most common ones. Also, since I'm constantly with myself, scheduling wasn't a problem.

Did you always want to be a writer?
I was a slow-starter, basically a turnip in a sleeper the first few years, and didn't come on strong academically until much later in life. Just learning to read was a big accomplishment. I would say the prospect of telling stories first arose in 7th grade. I was an only child and pathologically shy and realized I had to do SOMETHING to facilitate interaction. So I started telling a few jokes and funny stories and found a positive response that led to friendships. Creating this material to make people laugh led to writing it down.

When did you first receive recognition for your writing?
In middle school I won an essay contest writing about Teddy Roosevelt. And also a prize in the declamation contest for a speech about Carrie Nation. But it wasn't until high school that I really hit it big - getting barred from graduation for a poem I'd written that contained a hidden message.

How do you set about writing a novel like "Beginner's Luck"?
I hear a lot of writers say they start with the seed for an idea, such as a character or one particular event, and don't know where it's going to lead them. That could never work for me. I don't start a book unless I have the beginning and the end. Only the middle is something that I can work out as I go.

Do you start with an outline and character sketches?
I have a small outline in my head, along with the main characters. But I go directly to the text by starting to type right from the start, and put whatever information is already in my mind at that stage onto the page. At this point I abbreviate quite a lot so as not to interrupt the flow. For instance, if a character is going to be a hypochondriac I'll just note that with "hypo" so later I can go back and build scenes with full dialogue to demonstrate this with action. Same with an argument or a love scene. Then the book grows organically, with chapter breaks being inserted, and different scenes, until it's about 300 pages.

Do you have a particular style?
I don't think so. I definitely admire writers like Mark Twain, Carson McCullers, Florence King, and Tom Wolfe, but I would never try to emulate them, though mostly because I'm just not talented enough to do so. I'm never going to be a great writer. But I don't believe you have to be a great writer to put down a story with the aim of entertaining readers. As for my own "style," people who know me well are always saying that I write exactly the way I speak. In fact, one of the challenges for me in writing a novel is to prevent all the characters from sounding like me and basically the same.

Do you write every day?
I definitely write checks everyday. But I probably work on what will eventually become a book or short story about four days a week, usually between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM, with an hour break for lunch and a few other breaks for running errands or playing with the dogs. I have a very short attention span and work best in spurts, then I need to do something else for a bit, like go rollerblading or play basketball with the kids.

How long does it take to write a book
That's a real time-motion study, like how long between when a traffic light in Manhattan turns green and the cab driver behind you leans on his horn. But I'd say a book takes a year, though I do lots of other things at the same time. My attention span is much too short to just sit down and write a book in eight weeks, though that's how long the first draft would probably take if I went at it full time.

Was it difficult to get an agent?
It was hard to get an agent who would represent me for fiction. I'd been a journalist for many years and had written two nonfiction books and no one was interested in hearing about the transition to fiction that I wanted to make. Business books were getting big advances and selling well in the 90s, and that was my area of expertise, so every time I mentioned fiction the agent or publisher would ask for THE 10 BEST WAYS TO INVEST YOUR MONEY. Lists were really popular at the time. Finally I happened upon Judith Ehrlich, and I think she just plain felt sorry for me, like you buy warm lemonade from a kid with sticky hands running the corner stand.

How would you suggest that someone get an agent?
Typical route. Get the list from the book of agents that's updated yearly. Where there appears to be a good fit proceed with an inquiry. More important is working up what you have to offer. Agents aren't interested so much in ideas and grand plans as they are in what you have committed to paper in a sensible, organized fashion. If you have a story to tell then get it down and polish it up to some degree. If it's nonfiction get a copy of an actual proposal that sold well or look at the ones in books and write a terrific proposal. Also, continuously work to publish your writing, whether it's in the local paper or small literary journals. Being able to show published work, even if only articles, demonstrates that you already have an audience. I had lots of essays and short stories published before landing a two-book deal with Ballantine. And I'd been writing for The New York Times for ten years.

Where do your ideas come from?
From daily life. I live hard in the sense that I enjoy being on the go and having lots of experiences. For instance, I went to the floor of the stock exchange shortly after I turned 18. That environment created the foundation for my first book, Play Money. If you want to write but you don't have an idea it's best to go out and do something and then write about it. There are a lot of things I'd love to do but haven't had time yet and so I'll often imagine a character doing them and use that in a story. But at the end of the day my stories are always about living, loving, and dying.

Are your characters based on people you've known in real life?
I steal bits and pieces from different places and then create new people, sort of like a chop shop where they remake cars. For instance, my friend's 88-year-old mother is the patron saint of worriers and pessimists. We actually look forward to her negative pronouncements and even attempt to provoke them. I know if I say, "That's a lovely orchid, Mrs. Heffley," that she'll retort, "It's just about dead." So writing the character of Diana in Last Call, who is unlike Mrs. Heffley in every other possible way, I borrowed the worrying along with some of her best lines. Most characters are built on a small slice of me that I then exaggerate. Examples from my novels:

Going Away Party - Denny hides from the grieving relatives. Calculus is the bane of Jess's existence. Gene loves to go bulk food shopping.

Beginner's Luck - Hallie plays poker, goes to the racetrack, and trades in the stock market. Then there's Gil's job in management training, Craig being an only child, Olivia is a Unitarian and also absentminded, Bernard is optimistic and enjoys humor.

All these characteristics are based on my own experiences or personality.

In Last Call I hit up my family for inspiration. Diana worries about family members contracting rare diseases, being poisoned by the local water, and that sort of thing. There's also a certain amount of medical information in the book. My mother is a nurse who specialized in gerontology and I used to visit her at nursing homes when I was growing up. Hayden is a lovable rogue and I borrowed a few things for him from my colorful journalist grandfather on my mom's side for him, who was what you might call a drinker with a writing problem.

How would you suggest someone get started as a writer?
Read as much as you can. Write often, even if it's only a journal or letters to friends. If you have an idea for a story take a walk with a friend and try it out on him or her. Write it up as a short story to see if it has legs to become a novel. Writing gets easier the more you do it. The key is not to stop because what you just put down isn't perfect. Going back and fixing everything is the fun part. Especially since once the end is more or less in place that relieves a lot of the stress and gives you a fixed point to work toward. If you don't get the end exactly right then it will probably come together on the second pass. But if it doesn't then put the story away and be glad that you didn't waste too much time polishing every line. Later you'll probably be able to steal from it so the time wasn't wasted.

What makes a story work for you?
A novel obviously needs a conflict and different tensions. This is the most difficult thing for me since I'm a person who hates conflict and confrontation. I like interesting characters who may be eccentric to a large degree but are still on this side of being believable, in that we all know some crazy person like that. A story needs a beginning, middle and an end that takes you from point A to point B. As for the end, you have to tie up all the bits and pieces in a satisfying way, though not necessarily in a neat bow.

What do you do about writer's block?
I've never experienced writer's block. A journalist cannot have writer's block when he or she has to finish 800 words in an hour. Some days I don't feel like writing. That's different. It either means it's time for a day off or else whatever I'm writing isn't working. If it's not working I either force myself to fix it right then and there or else put it away. If you want to be a writer and you write one page a day, in 365 days you'll have a book, with plenty of stuff to edit out.

What are you working on now?
I've just finished the fourth book in the Hallie Palmer series, which is called Best Bet. Hallie is finishing college and deciding what to do with her life. I'm also working on a stand-alone novel called Fool's Mate which is a romantic comedy that uses a newsroom for its main setting. The name is taken from an aggressive move in chess where the Queen comes out early and is instrumental in the checkmate.

© Copyright 2006, Laura Pedersen. All rights reserved.