Author interview by Barnes and Noble book bloggers
Magazine of International Thriller Writers (published September 1, 2017)
June 20, 2017
When you began writing:
I recall having the urge to write shortly after I learned to read. I felt an immediate connection with words and with books, and I think I started writing poetry when I was about seven. Natalie Goldberg's book Writing Down the Bones changed my life. After reading it, I wrote my first novel - longhand on legal pads at an old maple desk in the corner of my bedroom. And since I had a habit of not finishing creative projects, I wouldn't let myself buy another legal pad until I'd filled up every last page of the one I was working on. I was so happy when I finished it, and now that I've written six books, I can say there's no greater joy than finishing writing a novel. Books bring me tremendous joy and comfort. I like having them all around me, spilling out of slanted bookcases, stacked up and down, sideways and on top, with paperbacks lining the floor around it.
Why do you write?
I love to tell stories. Stories are what hold civilization together. They provide a written chronicle of the details of our lives and families, of what's important to us, and of where we've been and where we are going. With my mystery novels, I like to give people a puzzle to solve, but a multi-layered puzzle. A good mystery should have lots of secrets, and one primary "legend" buried at the root of everything. In my novel Knee Deep, a New Mexico mystery that will be published in paperback by Port Town Publishing and released in December of 2003, I have buried lots of secrets that the main character, Leo Drucker, is trying to uncover. And what he finds at the heart of their entire investigation is a secret buried in his own past.
Other writers who have influenced your work:
As a child I loved the Nancy Drew mysteries, and as a teenager I read Agatha Christie's novels one after the other. I felt an immediate connection with Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse. There was something so human about him — brilliant, brooding and flawed all at once. But regarding short stories, many of the Beat writers made a big impression on me, especially William Carlos Williams. He wrote about the beauty in simple things, like an old woman walking down the street carrying a spray of marigolds wrapped in crumpled newspaper, or a wildflower growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. His writings remind me that anything is possible.
Interesting facts about the piece and its influences:
Big Hands No Pockets means a great deal to me because it is based on the experiences of a real person, a friend of mine. Some details and memories from my own life are also infused in the story, like the vegetable garden. I guess it comes from the vegetable garden my grandparents had in their backyard when I was growing up. There is something very primal about planting a seed in soil and nurturing it while it grows into something. The earth or the ground, in general, is a symbol of beginnings and endings, and I think that's what this story is about more than anything else.
This story and interview was originally published in printed form in the Spring, 2002 issue of Thought Magazine.
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Where Lisa Polisar grew up:
Lisa Polisar grew up in Hingham, Massachusetts, "which is a small suburb of Boston on the south shore of MA a half mile from the ocean." She moved to Hartford, CT to go to college (Hartt School of Music at U. of Hartford) and stayed there for eight years. For the past ten years, she has lived with her husband and cat in New Mexico. She loves the mountains of New Mexico, "but I miss the smell of low tide, the sound of the ocean and squawking seagulls in the worst way."
What inspired Lisa to write BLACKWATER TANGO?
She told me, "It started with a character's name that popped in my head at 2 a.m. I had a feeling that it was important, so I wrote it down on a napkin on my coffee table. The name was Marcus Valenzuela, and he's the half British/half Latin police detective in BLACKWATER TANGO. I didn't have an outline and the story just sort of unfolded from there. I'm very character/people oriented. I have an immediate mental picture of the actor Benjamin Bratt as Marcus, so that made it easier for me to determine how he would act, what he would say, etc. I try to conjure up celebrity-tie ins like this for all my main characters. Then I find photographs of them on the internet, print them and cut them out and make a collage that I tape to my monitor so I can see them every day."
Where she gets her ideas for characters, plot, and places that she features in her books:
She said, "For me, none of these features really arise out of conscious decisions. Characters and setting are ideas that just sort of arrive fully formed in my head. Now plot, on the other hand, is something that comes gradually. I think I have to be willing to take those first few steps into total darkness without any preconceived notion of where I'm going with a story, and then I can usually find my way eventually. I think readers like the element of surprise in a good mystery, and as a writer I need that as well. This is why I don't generally plot my novels. I want to be surprised about where the story takes my characters, rather than me dictating every step of the way."
What is Lisa's background and her writing process?
Lisa Polisar is a professional jazz flutist and an abstract oil painter. She told me, "Both of these outlets feed my creativity, but also provide a good release for pent up energy when I'm mentally working out a writing detail. When I get stumped about how to write something, I sometimes take long walks in my neighborhood, or I lay on the 'thinking couch' in my living room." She has a part time day job where she works about 5 hours a day. She spends another 4-5 hours writing, in the morning and after dinner. She said, "I type at my computer, and sometimes I write longhand in little green notebooks late at night before I go to bed. My desk has a lamp, a pen holder, staplers, some sea shells, a bulletin board of photographs of the place I'm writing about (currently Liverpool, Nova Scotia), and then an opened white binder where I organize everything about the book I'm currently working on. Right now the binder is opened and has piles of handwritten notes, local maps, plotting ideas and research on top of it."
When did Lisa begin writing?
Like most writers I've interviewed, Lisa wrote stories when she was very young. "I was totally enchanted with books as a child. As a teenager, I felt naturally drawn to serial mystery characters, like Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot. I liked absorbing myself in characters and being able to solve a crime at the same time." She began writing in earnest at the University of Hartford. She said, "I took a lot of advanced writing and psychology courses, which has really proved useful in writing psychological suspense and thrillers. I've taken lots of seminars, workshops and attended writing conferences focusing on the technique of fiction writing, preparing manuscripts, creating compelling characters and plotting." Still an avid reader, she especially loves regional mysteries "because you can transport yourself to another time and place. In particular, Elisabeth Peters' Egyptian mysteries, Arthur Upfield's Australian mysteries, and English authors (Colin Dexter, PD James, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle)."
What does she enjoy most about writing?
"I like the aspect of being able to just 'make up stories.' To me, that's like being transported back to childhood and the ultimate escapism from the pressures and stress of adult life. What I dislike the most are the boring mechanics. Spell checking, page numbering, formatting a manuscript for submissions. So I try to minimize this task by doing it as I go along rather than leaving it all till the end."
Who is Lisa's mentor?
"In college and to this day, my mentor was my freshman year English professor, Dr. Melvin Goldstein. He was incredibly eccentric and wonderfully unconventional in his teaching style. I have always been drawn to people like this. There were no grades given in his classes--he just put a check mark on the bottom of assignments if they were satisfactory, and no check mark if they weren't. At the end of the term, he gave either A's or F's and nothing in between. He didn't demand writing perfection, in terms of technique or execution, but he demanded 110% commitment to ourselves, the concept of learning, and to the courage it takes to truly open your heart and mind. I carry his teachings with me to this day. I remember on the first day of class, and bear in mind we were a bunch of terrified freshman and he was this freaky, eccentric older man mumbling in Yiddish, he stood up and said "write me a paper about all the things you don't want me to know about you." Some people in the class just laughed and refused to write anything, other people wrote down all the things they would never tell their parents (sneaking out of the house, the candy bars they stole from the corner store…), and to me this seemed like a perfect opportunity and venue to just "make stuff up" which is, to me, the essence of creativity. In my paper, I told him I was a secret government operative, that I was a cocaine dealer, that I had twelve illegitimate children and that if I told him my real name I would have to kill him. From that point on, Dr. G and I were endeared to each other forever. What he taught me wasn't how to write, but how to think, and how to keep my mind open enough to absorb what life could teach me."
Her more recent mentors are Natalie Goldberg and David Morrell. "I've taken several workshops with Natalie and I've read all of her books, and each time I re-read them, they continue to teach me new things. And I was fortunate enough to meet bestselling author David Morrell (the creator of "Rambo" and author of about 30 books) at a writing conference this year. He was incredibly encouraging and supportive of my writing and I am blessed for the guidance he's given me on my path so far. It has been very helpful to learn from someone who has contributed so much to the genre and gone so far in his career. His recent book, "Lessons in Writing" taught me more than any other writing book in my library. He is truly an inspiration."
Who is the most memorable person Lisa has ever met?
"...that would be my husband, Steve. The first moment I met him, I knew I would never be the same again. He's the one person who constantly inspires me to stick to my path, hold onto my dreams and to not give up. He's incredibly creative (though he doesn't admit it), tenacious, and he works harder than anyone I know. I couldn't continue to write and create stories without his constant support and encouragement."
What about professional affiliations?
Lisa Polisar is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Southwest Writers, and International Thriller Writers. She said, "Making the decision to join these organizations was a big consideration for me. But I reached a point where I realized that I had to invest some money in my dream if I wanted it to really come true. And the camaraderie and networking opportunities I've had with each of these organizations has made an incredible difference in my writing life."
Advice for aspiring writers:
"Pick up a pen and start writing. Or turn on your computer, open a blank document and just start filling the pages with words. Don't worry so much, in the beginning, about form, technique, and all the 'rules.' You'll need to learn and assimilate the rules eventually, but for now, write what you want and stay true to your own voice. If you feel compelled to write about cats, then write about them as thoroughly and deeply as you can. Go out and look for cats if you don't have any. Study them. Watch their behavior, their mannerisms, try to identify what their motivations are and where their magic lies. As writers, we need to be secret psychologists. Analysis and research is an integral part of writing compelling stories and creating real characters."
Other published works:
BLACKWATER TANGO is Lisa's first published mystery. Her second book, a New Mexico mystery entitled KNEE DEEP, will be published by Port Town Publishing in December of 2003. She is currently working on two new novels. "One is a modern thriller, and the other is a mainstream mystery that takes place in Grady, Oklahoma in 1960. I'm also an art reviewer for a New Mexico magazine/newspaper called Crosswinds Weekly, and I write articles on writing and jazz for various magazines."
Book Preview Club Manager
This interview was originally conducted by the Wicked Company Book Preview Club, October 2002.
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