Sunday, February 22, 2009

One Writer's Process: Lauren Tarshis

"If you had known me in fourth grade," writes Lauren Tarshis, author of the highly acclaimed Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, "you would have said 'she is the least likely person in our class to grow up to write a book.'"

For years Tarshis struggled to read due to a "learning disability that made it hard for me to keep all the words straight in my brain."

But by the time she reached high school, Tarshis had managed to unlock the mystery of reading.

The secret?

She learned to re-read every page two or three times until she understood what was happening.

That early struggle with words led Tarshis to decide on a career as a writer and editor. She wrote for a number of newspapers and magazines before landing her job as an editor at Storyworks, a children's language arts magazine, where she has spent the past ten years helping other writers put words on paper and, in the process, learning how to become a better writer herself.

Before she can "swim" into her own work, though, Tarshis says she "must find waters that are clear and uncrowded."

That's because her work as Storyworks' editor "often sweeps me down the river far away from the novel I'm working on. Sometimes it's weeks before I can find my way back. I've never had the opportunity to simply write every single day, all day. I have to fit it in."

Tarshis' first novel, Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, received starred reviews from Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly, and was named a "Top Ten Newcomer of the Year" by The Hornbook. A sequel, Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell in Love, is due out in May, 2009.

She lives in Connecticut, where she's currently at work on a series of six high-interest historical fiction novels, and recently took a few minutes to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: How do you get into the water each day

Tarshis: I try to adhere to a very strict routine on the days when I am free to write. I wake up at 4:45, creep downstairs (tip-toeing with extra care past my daughter's bedroom door--we have four children, but she is the youngest and the lightest sleeper) and make coffee. I check headlines while the coffee is brewing, try not to get too sad about the state of the world, and then get to work. Those early hours are when I go over what I've done the day before. I hold my breath and see if what I wrote is any good at all, or whether I need to highlight it all and press delete. Usually I'm not too horrified, but I make lots of revisions. At 6:42, my 15-year-old son rushes by me, blowing a kiss on his way to the bus. By 7:15, my daughter and 11-year-old son are up. So I put the writing aside to get everyone ready for school. (My oldest is now in college).

I drop my daughter off at school at 8:45 and resist temptation to chat with the nice mothers and teachers. I drive to the coffee shop to get another coffee, and resist temptation to chat with neighbors and friends lingering over their lattes. If I am successful at resisting (I usually am), I arrive at the public library by 9:10. I sit in a beautiful sun-lit room in the back with an array of regulars. We don't really know each other's names, but we generally know what each other is up to. Our leader is an elderly gentleman from Argentina who is working on a book about translating. He ruthlessly chastises people who have the audacity to talk in "our" room, or, heaven help them, talk on their cell phones. We watch each other's laptops and offer encouraging nods and hand gestures. The library has wireless internet, and I use all of my discipline to resist the temptation to check e-mail. I sit and write until 1:05, and then pick up my daughter. If I'm on deadline or on a roll, I'll go back to the library. But usually I stay home and maybe do one more hour's work at 4:00 or so. But the most productive part of my day is usually over by around 1:00.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat?

Tarshis: The excitement of moving my story along keeps me going. With both Emma-Jean books (the sequel is coming out in May, 2009), I got very involved with the lives of my characters. I know this might sound odd or cloying or precious, but I feel an emotional connection to all of the characters, and I love "being" with them.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you swimming through dry spells?

Tarshis: Of course there are days--many, many, many days--when the writing goes poorly. I feel that I will never write another word, that I am in fact fooling myself and wasting endless hours on a frivolous endeavor. I should stop writing. Within the metaphor of swimming, I feel that I am wading aimlessly in tepid waters.

But I'm old enough to realize that writing is a pure pleasure and privilege, and to wallow in a sense of disappointment and failure is ridiculous and truly frivolous and self indulgent.

I have always felt that my writing is unimportant. It's deeply important to me, but nothing terrible will happen to me or my family or the world if I never write another word. And if ever writing makes me miserable in any meaningful or truly distracting way, then I will have to stop because life is very short. To cheer myself up, I will read a great story by Alice Munro, or Jumpa Lahiri, or try to memorize a Mary Oliver poem, or listen to a beautiful song by Dar Williams or James Taylor or Lauden Wainwright. And then I feel much more hopeful. I go back to the library the next day and start up again with a clean slate.

Wordswimmer: What is the hardest part of swimming?

Tarshis: I find it all very, very difficult. I think that every word in both Emma-Jean books was written and rewritten 100 times. It's hard to make the characters believable. Moving the plot along is like breaking rocks. Finding fresh language, expressing emotion, writing dialogue--it's all so hard for me!

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Tarshis: I believe that there is no such thing as a wasted writing day. Each day is a learning experience. I have learned by doing. I hope to keep improving, and I won't improve if I don't sit down and write as often as I can. The only way to overcome obstacles is to write through them. Sometimes days feel wasted, but when I look back, I realize that those "wasted" days were necessary. Without them, I would not have gotten from point a to point b (via points d, f, x, and z). Sometimes I turn to my favorite writers for inspiration. In her book How to Read Like a Writer, Francine Prose tells how she collects wonderful paragraphs and studies them over and over to try to understand how the writer achieved a certain feeling or pacing or emotional pitch. I have a few stories and books that I turn to over and over again, mainly by Alice Munro.

Wordswimmer: What is your favorite part of swimming?

Tarshis: Just as every part of writing is hard, every part is a thrill. But the part that I find most pleasurable is tweaking, the work I do in those dark morning hours when my house is asleep. Sometimes I'll spend all morning looking for one word or phrase. If I'm lucky, I find it. And if I don't find it, I try not to let disappointment ruin all of the fun.

For more information about Lauren Tarshis, visit her website:

For a gimpse at what reviewers wrote about Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, visit:

And for another interview with Tarshis, visit:


gaelwriter said...

Reading Tarshis was a morning treat; nice to see that we have similar tastes for Munroe and Lahiri. The Francine Prose book was inspiring for me, too. I like the image of her clutch of library regulars.

laurasalas said...

Great interview--I just put Emma-Jean on reserve. I've heard of it but haven't ever read it. Time to rectify that!