This is a Q & A with Laura Harrington, author of the debut novel, Alice Bliss. Laura is an award-winning playwright, lyricist, librettist and professor of playwriting at MIT. Please see giveaway details at the end of the post for your chance to win a copy of Alice Bliss.
Who is Alice Bliss?
Alice Bliss is a 15-year-old girl in 10th grade, living in upstate New York, deeply connected to her dad who is serving in Iraq with his Reserve unit.
ALICE BLISS the book grew out of Alice Unwrapped, a musical. What was the inspiration for the musical and how did it evolve into a book?
The musical was a commission, actually, and the creation of a new form in music theatre: the one-act, one-woman musical. Paulette Haupt, our commissioner and producer, was inspired by Alan Bennett’s play: Talking Heads. Bennett wrote a series of searing, touching, funny monologues for BBC television. They were subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio and then performed live in theatres.
It was an extreme challenge to tell a story in 30 minutes with one singer. I actually wrote 3 stories for this commission, but found I loved the character of Alice best.
And, oddly enough, the very first germ of the character of Alice came from another musical that I wrote with Jenny Giering, Crossing Brooklyn. In that show, Alice was a teenage runaway, living in Prospect Park, sleeping in the carrousel at night. That character was cut from the final version.
With Alice Unwrapped, at 30 minutes, almost entirely sung, we could really only dramatize one key moment in Alice’s life. And I realized that there was a much larger story to be told. Which is when decided I wanted to write a book.
ALICE BLISS is a profoundly moving uplifting novel about those who are left at home during wartime and a teenage girl bravely facing the future. It chronicles the impact of the war on those left at home: children, partners, family members, the community. With the US in a war the story is quite timely. Do you have a connection to the world in which you write?
My father was a navigator/ bombardier in WWII, flying missions into Germany from his air base just north of Paris. Both my brothers enlisted in the Air Force in 1966. So, while I don’t have a family member serving in this war, my family has been deeply impacted by war.
My father suffered from PTSD following the war, a time he would never talk about directly. Nor would he talk about the experiences during the war that had so devastated him. The silence surrounding my father’s war experiences has probably been the single greatest mystery and inspiration in my life. I believe that my fascination with war grows out of my need to understand these experiences and to bear witness to this silent suffering.
What do you hope families experiencing a similar scenario take away from reading your book?
I hope they will feel that I am telling their story and doing justice to it.
While writing the book I was simply immersed in the story, but now that I’m done I can step back and look at the larger picture. It strikes me that you can live in many parts of the US completely untouched and unaware of the wars we’ve been engaged in for the last 8 years. And there’s something about that fact that is terribly unsettling. I think there is an enormous amount of unexpressed grief surrounding these wars and that ALICE BLISS, like good theatre, creates an emotional catalyst that allows us to feel that grief.
And because the book is not “about” the war, but about a family and a town and growing up, the emotional impact sneaks up on you.
What is your writing regimen?
When I’m writing—whether it’s a book or a play or a musical or an opera—I write every day. When I’m between projects, or researching and imagining a new story, I can spend weeks and months reading and walking and taking notes and asking questions and developing characters and a storyline. I find the in-between times very, very uncomfortable. Living with uncertainty, wandering around in the middle of mental chaos is very challenging. I’m happiest when I’m writing.
When you write do you have a story in mind and then the characters evolve to tell that story or do you create characters and the story comes from them?
I begin with the characters, with a strong sense of “voice.” I really hear my characters and learn a great deal about them by getting them talking. However, the story is evolving at the same time the characters are beginning to jell. Because what’s a character without a story? To me, story is paramount.
ALICE BLISS is not a book about war. When you were writing did you find it challenging to focus on the personal story of the family rather than the politics?
I made a strong choice early on not to go to Iraq in the book. I knew that the emotional impact would come from keeping the story focused on Alice and her family at home. At the same time, Matt, Alice’s father, is such a key character and we have so little time with him before he ships out. How do we keep him and his story present? Finding that balance was challenging and an interesting puzzle to solve.
What inspired you to write this book now?
I think that making the war personal is important. Telling the stories of those left behind, illuminating the lives of spouses and partners and children who have a loved one deployed is important. Do we know their stories, their struggles? Do we hear their voices? I hope we can begin to see this war one child at a time, one soldier at a time, one missing father at a time.
You capture the main character Alice wonderfully; her strength, vulnerability and awkwardness of being a teenage girl. Were you anything like Alice growing up?
I think we are all like Alice. That combination of strength, vulnerability, awkwardness and intensity is universal to those years.
I was the youngest of four children, and my siblings were quite a bit older, so I had a much more solitary childhood than Alice did. But there’s something about those years that I can still see, hear, taste, and feel. For whatever reason, I have intense empathy for teens.
What type of books do you like to read?
All kinds. If I’m researching a project, like Napoleon or Joan of Arc, or the American Civil war, I can get lost in my reading lists.
I love novels. I’d rather read a book than eat. I love history, I love great non-fiction, I love good writing.
What are you reading now?
Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader, a beautiful series of essays about books and reading and words. It turns out that Anne Fadiman was also a collector of big words, like Ellie.
Jane Smiley’s new book: Private Life, and Graham Robb’s, Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris.”
My wish list is lengthy and always growing. I am a big fan of my local library.
Which aspect of your work do you most enjoy?
The freedom to think my own thoughts, pursue my own passions, indulge my own obsessions. The necessity of reading. Being able to think of reading as part of my job. How lucky is that? And the opportunity to learn a great deal, even to become a mini expert about all kinds of things, like Napoleon in exile on St Helena’s, Joan of Arc’s last 3 days in prison, Sherman’s march to the sea, the ratification of the nineteenth amendment, marathon dancing, etc, etc. It’s fun, and it’s never, ever boring.
Who are your heroes?
My parents. I’m inspired by them and guided by them every single day of my life.
The peacemakers. Whoever and wherever they are.
What would your colleagues be surprised to learn about you?
I’m constantly looking for ways to be a kid again, to play.
What is your most treasured possession?
My wedding ring.
What inspires you?
The world around me. Every day.
The publisher is sponsoring a giveaway for one copy of Alice Bliss to one reader from Debbie's Book Bag!
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~ The deadline to enter this giveaway is Midnight EST June 20th.
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