I first met Lisa Alber about ten years ago when we were placed in the same group of aspiring authors at the Maui Writer’s Retreat. Under the tutelage of published authors like Gail Tsukiyama and others, we studied and worked on the craft of writing, in general, and our own stories, in particular. It’s a real pleasure to introduce her to all of you now, especially since her debut novel KILMOON has received such glowing praise.
LISA: I spent a lot of time rambling the Marin Headlands, which were essentially my backyard. Without realizing it, I steeped myself in a moody, fog-enshrouded atmosphere that was almost like a giant incubation chamber for my imagination. It’s no wonder I love setting my books in Ireland—the atmosphere is very similar.
(And here’s a picture of the Marin Headlands to prove it. Below it is a picture of Lisa as a kid.)
LISA: As I think about this, I realize that there aren’t any books that led me to believe I could be a successful novelist. The closest thing I can think of is Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE, and that’s only because of her chapter about allowing yourself to write “shitty” (her word) first drafts.
That permission was all I needed to feel comfortable with writing first drafts—which is key. No one gets published who can’t get over themselves enough to complete a first draft. I read Lamott’s book when I was around 30 years old.
(I have to admit I’m relieved to interview an author who didn’t really take herself seriously until she was middle-aged. :D)
ME: Why on earth did you major in economics at Berkeley? And why a minor in Spanish literature, given your ancestry in Ireland?
LISA: Ah, economics … I was raised by very practical parents. Get good grades, go to a good college, major in something practical so you can support yourself. Writing fiction was a slow-dawning realization through my 20s, not a forgone conclusion. I majored in economics because it was the least practical of the practical alternatives.
Being a book lover, I minored in literature to keep my sanity, and Spanish literature in particular because in high school I’d done volunteer work in Central America. I wanted to keep up my Spanish. My infatuation with Ireland didn’t come until later.
I thought about majoring in psychology – which would have been a good fit – but I could never have been a psychologist. Or any service profession that centers around working with people all day: doctor, lawyer, nurse, teacher. I’m too introverted. (That, I understand. Most of us are introverts.) ME: In the early 1990s, before we met, you worked in the editorial departments at Warner Books and Doubleday. What did you do there, and why did you decide to leave? LISA: So, economics with Spanish literature took me to South America after college. I worked in Ecuador and then Brazil as a financial assistant (learned Portuguese too). That was all very nice, and it sounds good, but I hated it! Come to find out that in the real world I SUCK at numbers. I’ve always been a words-oriented person. So much for being practical, right? I returned to the U.S. eventually and changed careers – to book publishing, which was a far better fit. I had a blast living in New York City, but eventually I left because I’m a true west coaster. I never felt entirely at home in NYC. (Aha! The Atlantic didn’t compare to the Pacific, eh?) At Warner and Doubleday, I worked for senior editors as an editorial assistant. Book heaven, plus a great education in the publishing process. (I’ll bet!) ME: How pivotal have writer’s conferences and retreats been in your quest to become a published novelist? How many different ones have you been to and which have been your favorites? LISA: Writer’s conferences and retreats have been instrumental. People I’ve met have opened all kinds of doors, leading to short story publications, a writing grant, long-term wonderful friendships – to eventually being a panelist and speaker at writers conferences. (The latter is new; I’m not very comfortable with that yet.) (Ever the introvert, eh? :D) The defunct Maui Writers Conference (which we both love, right?) is dear to my heart because it was the first and it paved the way. These days, my favorites are specialized conferences such as Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime, which cater to the crime fiction community. ME: You seem to have had two great influences in your life that have been reflected in your writing—NYT bestselling novelist Elizabeth George and the country of Ireland. Could you talk about the impact each has had on you? (And please provide a couple of pictures for each.) LISA: Elizabeth George was my first-ever workshop teacher. I consider her a mentor because over the course of three workshops, she gave me specialized feedback.
I was lucky – maybe she liked something about my writing, or she saw my growth – because after the third workshop she invited me to apply to her foundation for a writing grant (which I got) and she also invited me to write a short story for an anthology she was editing called Two of the Deadliest: New Tales of Lust, Greed, and Murder from Outstanding Women of Mystery. This was my first paid fiction publication.
Most of all, she was the first to tell me I had talent and should keep working at it. I’ll always be grateful to her.
And Ireland! Wow, what can I say about that? Something about the country inspires me. It might be my genetic connection to the ancestral homeland … But I think it’s also a comfort thing because of what I mentioned above about rambling the Marin Headlands. Also, Ireland is steeped in a kind of mysticism that will never be totally eradicated by modern life. There are countries/cultures we just fit with, you know what I mean? (I think I do . . . that’s how I am about the Middle East.) ME: Tell us a bit about your debut mystery, KILMOON, and what gave you the idea for the story.
LISA: KILMOON is a mystery set in Ireland. In it, Californian Merrit Chase travels to County Clare to meet her long-lost father, the famous Matchmaker of Lisfenora. Her simple, if fraught, quest turns complicated when she’s pulled into a murder investigation and she discovers that her father’s dark past is at the heart of the chaos. Murder, vengeance, betrayal, and family secrets—not the family reunion she was hoping for!
The first inkling for a story idea came as a result of wandering into a pub called, of all things, “Matchmaker Bar,” Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare. (And I remember you talking about this experience in Maui!) Come to find out that every September Lisdoonvarna hosts an annual matchmaking festival with a bonafide matchmaker. The man’s a local celebrity. Since I tend to think in sinister terms rather than fluffy terms (no romances for me!), I got to wondering what could lurk beneath the façade of a charming matchmaker. I liked the juxtaposition of darkness hiding beneath happily-ever-afters.
ME: What are you working on now, and are you going to stick with Ireland for now or set a story closer to home in Oregon?
LISA: Sticking with Ireland! I’m currently revising the second in the County Clare Mystery series. This story centers around the detective, Danny, who along with Merrit, are the series protagonists. (KILMOON is Merrit’s story.)
I’m calling the second novel Grey Man, and in it things get personal, oh so personal, for Danny when a teenage boy dies and disaster hits Danny’s family as a result. (Sounds great! Can’t wait.) ME: Finally, what five things about your writing space make it specifically yours and why? Please tell us about them in the voice of your protagonist’s father, Liam the Matchmaker. (And I must have a picture of your office or writing space.) LISA: (As Liam) We Irish, we love our symbols and our spaces. We like nothing better than to ritualize the simplest tasks, from making tea to stoking a peat fire. I suppose it should surprise no one that Lisa Alber parked her writing desk in front of the picture windows in her living area. Not to be hemmed in, that lass, even while pursuing her solitary writing tasks. You can see her rituals right there, in the latest journal that always sits at her side (with an owl on it; she loves owls). You will also see a framed German proverb that says, “Begin to weave and God will give the thread,” not to mention her mascot, Liam the Lion—which is my nickname, if you must know. She also can’t be without her full-spectrum desk lamp because it does get a mite murky in Oregon, just like it does in Ireland. (Love it! And you have to read it with an Irish accent, whether you can do a good one or not!)
Lisa Alber’s County Clare mysteries feature Merrit Chase, a recent transplant from California, and Detective Sergeant Danny Ahern. Her debut, KILMOON, has been called “moody,” “utterly poetic,” and a “stirring debut.” She received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant based on KILMOON. Ever distractible, you may find Lisa staring out windows, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions.
Please come back next Wednesday when I’ll be talking with Linda Weaver Clarke, author of cozy mysteries, sweet romance, adventure stories and more!
Originally posted 2014-05-14 06:00:12.