Lila Shaara e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (July, 2006)
Lila Shaara took her Bachelor's in religious studies at Duke University, and a master's degree in archaeology and Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. She's married and lives in western Pennsylvania with her husband, two children, two cats, and six fish. Every Secret Thing is her first novel. Her brother and father, Jeff and Michael Shaara are both well known for their historical bestsellers, and other works of fiction.
The protagonist of Lila Shaara's thriller is ex-supermodel/college lecturer Gina Paletta, who juggles her work with mothering seven-year-old twin boys. Her life suddenly gets very complicated when 2 NYPD detectives inform her that they suspect two of her male students of murdering a third, and that these young men maintain a porn website in which she stars.
Q: How did you ever manage to write a book, juggling marriage, career and children?
A: I teach anthropology as an adjunct (read: hired gun when needed) at a small university (that bears little resemblance to Tenway U. in the book, by the way.) I got laid off for a term, and I thought, it’s now or never. My kids are in school, so during the school year, I have some time during the day, and I have one of the world's most supportive husbands. Rob (Rayshich) is a writer, musician and artist, so he understands the needs of the creative process better than anyone. Fortunately, he also likes to cook, which has been a godsend. I also learned to write when my kids were around by putting on headphones & listening to music as I write. It works sometimes better than others. I also learned not to care so much about grooming and housecleaning. That was a hard one.
Q: What was it like growing up in a writing family? Did you ever read your father's or brother's books in the early stages, and did their success encourage or discourage you from trying your own hand at writing fiction?
A: Well, that's a lot of questions in one! I'll try to keep the answer from taking up pages and pages. First of all, the only writer in the house while I was growing up was my father, since Jeff didn't take it up until after my father's death. My father was also a teacher of both writing and literature, and he brought his work home. He basically taught me about writing by talking many times about "narrative technique", and by discussing every phase of whatever book or short story he was working on. I read everything he wrote, including works in progress, as soon as I was old enough to read. (I learned to type in the tenth grade, and was then conscripted to type drafts of things, for example, The Herald, reissued as The Noah Conspiracy). You may not know that my father had a lot of heartache from writing – most of his work is now out of print, and this happened in his lifetime, much to his frustration. The Killer Angels won the Pulitzer Prize, but there was little fanfare about this in the press, so it didn't have the effect on sales or on the demand for my father's public appearances that you'd expect. This is particularly a shame because he was a great public speaker, a born teacher. The book didn't become a best seller until after his death, after the release of Gettysburg, the film that his friend Ron Maxwell made of the book. He and Ron had been working toward that end for many years up to my father's death, but the final funding didn't come through until after, and it is a great tragedy that he never got to see it. Many people have said that his first novel, The Broken Place was an even better book, but as I said, it remains out of print, as do most of his short stories, many of which are quite wonderful. (By the way, I always feel compelled to point out that my father didn't write historical novels. He wrote one historical novel. The Broken Place was about a prize fighter, For Love of the Game was a baseball/love story, The Noah Conspiracy was a sci-fi thriller; a lot of his short fiction was science fiction.)
So I guess it's not surprising that I've been a writer as well my whole life. I wrote a lot of stories and poems as a kid, wrote a gazillion songs in various bands (most notably Bone of Contention and the Mutettes), and have written a dissertation as well as lots of academic papers. I avoided fiction for a long time because of the inevitable comparisons, until I had no choice. I learned from my father that writing fiction is only worth doing if you feel that way.
Q: Your heroine, Dr. Gina Paletta, is somewhat of a superwoman; is that how you see all single and/or working mothers nowadays?
A: Hmmm. A lot of them. And it's certainly expected of a lot of women. But I purposefully tried to depict Gina as sacrificing a lot of her ambition for her kids. This is not a political statement; I don't think that women should necessarily do this. Or, at least, mothers shouldn't have to do it any more than fathers.
Q: How much did you draw from your own experiences in writing of Gina's life - her modeling, her professorial work, her children, her dysfunctional extended family, and her relationship with an elderly neighbor?
A: A lot. But I am not, and never have been, a model. I am not, and never have been, thin enough to be a model. Or tall enough. Or anything else enough. Few things in the book are literally from my life, although most of it was inspired by either my life, or events in the lives of people I'm close to. I did have an elderly neighbor that gave me the idea of the character of Jessie, but actually Jessie is, um, a bit nicer. A few of the incidents involving the boys actually happened, e.g. the fart play is more or less a direct quote. But I made a lot of them up as well. My family is reasonably dysfunctional, which enabled me to understand what that feels like pretty well, I think, but it's not dysfunctional in the way that the Paletta/Hannigan tribe is. In other words, my experiences and relationships certainly shaped the story, but it's still make-believe. (One important note: Gina's mother is not my mother. I think she's a little freaked out that people might think that she's that horrible. She's a perfectly nice person, and has not, to my knowledge, ever blackmailed anyone.)
Q: Have you ever had personal problems with an obsessed student? Where did the idea come from?
A: Oh yeah. I've had a number of psychotic students over the years, and one in particular who told me I was chosen to join him on his "Journey", which was especially flattering since he said he was Jesus Christ. It was a pretty surreal experience, but I've never, to my knowledge, been in any real jeopardy in that way. I'm one of those women who has always attracted insane people. Sigh. This is, by the way, no reflection on my husband Rob.
Q: The book flap mentions that you have two cats - how could you bear to write of Sidney's demise?
A: You'll notice that I provide no details. That's the only way I could deal with it. But it was either that or one of her kids, and there was no way I was going there.
Q: Alan Watts' quotes open every chapter of your novel. When did you first encounter this writer, and can you tell us more about him?
A: I'm no expert on either Watts or Zen, but I can tell you that he used to be referred to as the premiere translator of Zen Buddhism to the west through his writings and lectures. I don't know that anyone says that now, although I haven't seen anyone improve on his stuff. My father had a copy of The Way of Zen and so I first read this when I was a teenager. I've always been attracted to Buddhism anyway; as an undergraduate, I majored in religious studies, specializing in the religions of China and Japan. As I get older, I think that Watts' writings are really undervalued. I think he got attached to a lot of the lighter faux spiritual stuff that came out in the sixties, and so gets dismissed by modern scholars. But he was very anti-drug, very erudite, (and very British, which always makes people sound smart) and I find his writings very deep, very useful. He died in the seventies, but most of his books are still in print, and there are lots of tapes of his lectures available as well. I highly recommend these, because he was a great speaker, very funny, very fascinating.
Q: You touch on parental responsibility for kids who go badly wrong in life - do you hold parents directly responsible when their kids or teens commit violence?
A: Oh God. What the heck do I know about this, really? I heard an expert on violence on NPR once, whose name I cannot possibly remember, say that most people in prison for violent crimes today in the US came from homes where they were subjected to great and unrelenting brutality. Not all people who are brutalized become violent criminals, nor are all violent criminals the product of violence. But most of them are. So, sure, parents are greatly responsible for their children’s criminality if they themselves subject their children to it.
On the other hand, it's probably never that simple. Nothing is. For me, I guess the more important issue is how we deal with this in children. I don't think we should do anything like incarcerate parents if their kids steal a car or something goofy like that, but I don't like the current trend of treating child criminals as adults. We live in a culture where we are increasingly afraid of our children, and so we are more and more cruel to them in the interests of protecting ourselves and our property, and our free time and our money and our ambitions, etc.. Unfortunately, there aren't any good, easy answers to problems like these, no matter what anyone says. I wish that our culture was more tolerant of complexity, more willing to entertain complex solutions to complex problems.
However, in Every Secret Thing, the kids in question are actually legal adults, but incredibly privileged ones, so I see the issue as being more about privilege than age. Again, in terms of responsibility, a thorny and complex problem.
Q: Do you really see death as equivalent to string theory?
A: I have no idea. I don't claim to really understand string theory, and I claim no knowledge whatsoever about what happens to anyone after they die.
Q: Is another novel in the works, and if so, can you tell us anything about it?
A: I've finished a second, and am starting on a third. The third one is all hush-hush for now, since it's in the baby stages, and if it turns out to be terrible, I want the freedom to throw it away without anyone knowing about it. The second one is called Harmless, and is about ten years in the eighties in the life of a woman who is in an all-girl punk band, among other things. It's not a book about a band, though, but about being a woman trying to do something women aren't supposed to do, and some of the possible consequences of that. There are more sex and drugs and violence in the second one; only you can decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I think of Every Secret Thing as being largely about loneliness. Harmless I think of as being about being invisible. Rob and my friends like Harmless even more than Every Secret Thing, so I'm hopeful that it will find an even wider audience than the first book. We'll see.
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