When Verne Maree gave a rave review in our March 2015 issue to ALISON JEAN LESTER’s debut novel, Lillian on Life, she was in good company. Eminent authors such as Erica Jong (Fear of Flying), Karen Joy Fowler (The Jane Austen Book Club) and Kate Atkinson (Life After Life) have all greeted Lillian with acclaim. Fortunately for us, Alison happens to live right here in Singapore.
Lillian is such a distinctive character. How did you come up with her?
Women who were born in the 1930s and started coming of age in the 1950s have a sort of iconic status in the US. That’s underlined by the popularity of the television series Mad Men – though it’s not easy to watch, and many women who lived through that era find it particularly painful.
Lillian is very different from my mother, but there are similarities. She too was attractive and vivacious, and I saw her development into a more independent woman. What’s more, she had some rather strong-minded friends, the type who would talk to young girls and try to teach them things. A lot of Lillian’s lines came from these “aunties”. Though I ate up their words at the time, I realised over time that their lessons weren’t always right for women of my generation.
Is there anything of you in Lillian?
I didn’t always agree with Lillian; but I always found her interesting. On the one hand, she’s inspiring and independent; but she’s frequently frustrating, and some find her deeply sad. There were things I wished I could have told her.
My husband and I separated in 2001 and got divorced, I had a relationship that ended after three years, and I only remarried in 2010. During the period I wrote Lillian, from 2007 to 2008, I was on my own with two children; I had just turned 40, and in retrospect I must have been taking stock of my own life. Like Lillian looking at her lover Michael in the novel, I was looking at my life and asking, is this it?
Lillian is a startlingly sexual being, even when she’s well into middle age. Do your readers find the raunchiness provocative?
Some do. One of my favourite Amazon review titles was “A bit too sexy for me”. But I think that writing about sex can tell you things about how people communicate that their conversation does not. Because sex is a normal part of life – and for some, essential – to me it seems as important to write about as having dinner or going to work.
Sex being so important for Lillian is seen by some people as liberating, while others see it as sad, depending on their moral standpoint or their perception of where fulfilment should come from. I see both sides. Often, when people try to communicate with each other in bed the messages aren’t received very well; and then they don’t continue the conversation verbally. That’s an interesting area for a writer to investigate.
In short, I can’t imagine not writing sex into my novels. There’s some in my short stories as well. I was asked to contribute a story to The Best of Singapore Erotica. It was called “Naked Screw”. They asked me to write that story when they were planning the book, because they had read other short stories of mine, and knew what I was comfortable with.
How did you write Lillian on Life, and how did you get it published?
I only really got going with the book when I went away to France for a week during the summer of 2007 to work on it – to Cassis, a small town in the south of the country. Getting away on my own wasn’t easy: I ran my own corporate training business and I had two young children, but my ex-husband was very supportive.
When I got back, I had to work out a writing schedule. In the summer of 2008, I went back for another week, to Avignon this time; the writing continued a bit better after that and I completed the novel at home several months later.
Having neither an agent nor a publisher, I asked half a dozen friends for feedback. When one of them, a writer I admire enormously, told me she felt it started and ended in the wrong place, I decided to shelve the manuscript for the moment.
In 2010 I started a whole new novel, and this time sent it to a few agents. One of them was unsure – mainly about which genre it would fit into – but when he read Lillian he thought he could sell it. Actually, he ended up selling both novels.
How is the second novel coming along?
Compared with Lillian on Life, which is a short and intimately told book, this one is twice as long and much more complicated. It’s a coming-of-age novel, based partly on my own experiences; the first half is set in Massachusetts where I grew up, and the second half in Tokyo, where I lived for eight years in the 1990s. I’m on the umpteenth rewrite, and it doesn’t have a title yet.
Writing with the support of a professional team is so different from writing alone. My agent is Barney Karpfinger in New York City, I have an American publisher and a UK publisher, and they don’t always agree – but they give me important things to think about.
I take criticism better now than I did 20 years ago. A writer needs to navigate through the criticism, deciding what to hold on to and what to let go of. Over time, you appreciate the different types of criticism you might get from different people: about plot, dialogue, chronology, emotion or whatever. You need them all.
How do you write?
Each morning, I walk the dog, have breakfast, go to my writing room and stay there until I have to come out – that gives me at least two hours. In the afternoon, I do more thinking than writing. I like to stay at home, though, so that even if a solution occurs to me while I’m folding the laundry or feeding the dog, I can go and fix it. I wake up to the book, and I fall asleep to it.
Though I used to think of myself as a morning writer, I realised in France that I could write at any time. When we have growing children, something in our head says we aren’t free after 3pm – even once they are mature and would prefer not to have our attention! But the mornings are non-negotiable.
My mother is a writer of biographies. She says there’s a point where you feel you’re precariously holding the whole book in your head, and you’re afraid of doing anything else in case you lose bits of it. I know what she means, and I’m so happy now that everything – except for family – has been put to one side until I finish the book.