Kathryn Pope Interviews Lise Haines
By KATHRYN POPE
The newest novel by Lise Haines, Small Acts of Sex and Electricity, shows the complex relationships between two women who have been friends since childhood and the questions that are raised when one of these women disappears. Throughout the story, Haines illuminates the complex realities of family, friendship, and envy, showing the ultimate triumph when a woman chooses her own life, rather than the life of another. In this interview, we hear about how Small Acts of Sex and Electricity was written.
KP: I’m curious about how you began working on Small Acts of Sex and Electricity?
LH: I’m one of those writers who simply start with a picture, word, phrase, or voice. I don’t work with a plot or outline. The first image I saw was Mattie and Jane meeting when they were eight years old. I saw one girl, rather insecure, sitting on her steps, then Jane approaches with this magnetic energy that Mattie is both intimidated by and attracted to. Initially, I didn’t plan to write about their adult lives.
KP: How did that happen?
LH: That’s one of the playful aspects of fiction writing. I was curious about their relationship and I realized, eventually, that it extended out for years.
The entire book was a long haul, and I went through a couple of large revisions, which meant moving a lot of material around. So the beginning became the point at which their relationship comes unglued, rather than their first meeting.
KP: In many ways, your story is a look at both attachment and detachment, as Jane and Mattie try on different lives. Did you know the story would progress this way when you started?
LH: It definitely has to do with attachment and detachment, how they both attempt to detach painful things. Mattie has a difficult time forming lasting relationships with anyone, really, except Jane and her family. We also see a scene in which Jane is sitting in her living room folding socks and how part of her simply wants to walk away and detach from the family she’s created. Both women deal with childhood abandonment, and abandonment certainly produces a complex set of responses around attachment and detachment. That’s part of the reason they’re drawn to each other, because they have that common ground.
KP: As I read, I was particularly intrigued in the rhythm of your dialogue – especially in Mattie’s original and almost syncopated voice. How did you come to write Mattie’s voice this way?
LH: I wrote it in the same way that I address all dialogue, which is to hear the characters’ voices in my head, to see an interior film of Jane and Mattie sitting on the deck or walking down the beach, imagining what Mattie would say and how Mike would respond. Mattie’s had so many conversations with Mike in her head that she’s practiced what she’ll say to him.
But she holds a fair amount of hesitancy and guilt. She’s being cautious, trying not to say the wrong thing to Mike. And there’s a rhythm to her desire and how she’s trying to win him, seduce him, or be closer to him through words. Mattie’s a storyteller and storytelling takes on rhythms. And of course there’s the scene where she’s telling a story as they’re making love.
KP: She seems like a hesitant person.
LH: Yes, she’s pretty insecure. As an art appraiser, she’s afraid that someone’s going to find out that she’s not talented enough, not smart enough. You can see how this happens when you meet her parents and see how they operate. She was never praised or even really welcomed into the family. Mattie’s parents are sailors and drinkers and spend their time at yacht clubs or off sailing, so Mattie has this desire to go out on the boat, to understand this thing that’s crowded her out. Her mother quickly dismisses the idea, of course, and Mattie stays landlocked.
KP: I got the sense that Mattie became more self-confident in time.
LH: Mattie’s willing to let Jane and Mike go. When she returns to Chicago and starts working on a mansion there, she indulges in and manipulates that world as if she owns it. When she wants to drive one of the estate cars, she learns how to hotwire it. Then when Livvy comes to visit, Mattie sees herself in Livvy and she’s able to parent, in her own dopey way.
KP: I’m curious about how Mattie’s job as an appraiser came to be part of the story?
LH: I saw the grandmother’s house on Miramar Beach, filled with fine arts and antiques, and it made perfect sense to me that this would be something Mattie would be attracted to. She wanted to be part of Franny. She wanted to do something that would please Franny. And this career is well-suited to Mattie’s m.o. She’s detail-oriented and curious.
KP: What made you choose Miramar Beach as your setting?
LH: It’s my favorite place to walk. There’s coastal access, and the distance between the homes and the water is very narrow, so not only are you engaged in breathtaking nature but you’re also aware of the homes. Some are narrow or small, but they’re right on the edge of the water. A friend said recently that it’s as if Mattie has had to go to the edge of the continent to understand who she is.
There’s elation in being in that environment, and I envy the people who get to live there – or rent those homes for the summer. I was interested in understanding what it would be like for a character like Mattie to have her nose pressed against the glass. Her parents are so transient that they never bother to unpack, and you feel that they always find a way to have someone else pick up the tab at the yacht club, that they’re scammers who run out on the rent. Mattie isn’t poor, by any means, but she longs to have what these other people have.
KP: Including Jane?
LH: Exactly. It’s all manifest in Jane and her family. Even if much of this is illusion.
KP: How was the process of writing Small Acts of Sex and Electricity different than writing your first novel (In My Sister’s Country)?
LH: My first novel came out whole. The majority of the book was written in 6 months, and then I did some revision, but really it came out pretty whole. I wrote it when my daughter was young and took naps. The second she would drop off to sleep, I would write. How I got so much done, I don’t know.
Small Acts of Sex and Electricity came at a time of upheaval and transition. I didn’t have the nice rhythm to my day that I had when I wrote the first book. I was in graduate school as well so my ability to get it out whole didn’t happen, though that’s the way books work: some come quickly, some take a long time.
KP: You’ve also been a poet?
LH: I wrote poetry for many years. I had a chapbook of poems published at one point, but when I decided to shift to fiction, I abandoned poetry, because I wanted to understand how to write fiction.
KP: What made you make the switch?
LH: It was a combination of things. I liked the idea of a new challenge and I always loved reading novels. I think it also came out of a conversation with a poet, Kenneth Rexroth. This was many years ago. He talked about the fact that women on the poetry circuit made a great deal less money than men—something he disdained. Across the board, they just didn’t fare as well as male poets—in academia, in publication. Knowing this influenced my thinking in some way. What I should have asked him, of course, was how women novelists fared. I’m sure it would have been the same lousy answer. I was probably just looking for an excuse to explore fiction.
KP: How do you think your background in poetry affects your fiction?
LH: My love of language was nurtured through toiling in poetry, through listening to Auden and Bishop. Mulling over each phrase, each word, each sentence is crucial to how I work. Yes, I’m thinking about the story and the characters and the small actions and so forth, but I read each word aloud over and over again until, for me, it sings. I owe that to a love of poetry. I remember being read poetry to, as a child.
KP: What has been the hardest thing for you as a writer?
LH: The career. I feel very lucky (knock on wood) that I can sit down and write, day in and day out and always feel engaged and love the process. Some writers are tormented by their work. But establishing a reputation is a daunting task. It means building a readership, convincing editors that this book is the book that they need to publish instead of the ten thousand they’ve got waiting on their desks, and then going through the anxiety of promotion. We all know friends who have instant success, the ones who hit it early and well. But the average author would have a tough time supporting herself on her books alone. Everybody longs for a movie contract.
KP: I’m guessing there are a lot of writing students who feel this way.
LH: As a teacher, you want to give your students the best chance in every respect. I talk with them about the big picture of their work and I line edit. But I also educate them about the publishing process. I try to convey something about the reality of the career without discouraging them—and I give them shortcuts where I can—so they can get their work read and published.
KP: Can I ask if you’re working on another project?
LH: I am working on a new novel. And I’m in the superstitious mode — not wanting to talk about it yet. It’s a big departure from what I’ve done in the past. Each book is very different. I may follow the career of someone like John Fowles, who took on a different book every time he wrote. I’m having a good deal of fun with the new work.
This interview was originally published in ZinkZine, Issue Ten, December 2006, at www.zinkzine.com