A screenwriter and novelist whose work has been published around the world, Lori Lansens is the author of Rush Home Road, The Girls and The Wife's Tale. Her latest novel, The Mountain Story, was published this week by Knopf Canada. A native of Chatham, Ont., Lansens currently lives in California.
Why did you write your new book?
For me, a story begins with the characters. They first appear through a fog, born of whatever it is that concerns and preoccupies me at the moment. Maybe I'm hoping to create some cosmic balance by telling these characters' stories. I wanted to save an abandoned child in my first novel, show the humanity of conjoined sisters in the second and confront food issues with the obese main character in the third.
While I've long been interested in writing a survival story, the protagonist of the new one, Wilfred Truly, stepped out of the fog fully formed after a cluster of teenaged suicides in our small community in Southern California. Wolf obsessed me, and took me back in time to my own dark places. I wanted to change the outcome for one teenaged boy, if only in fiction, and that's what drove me to "slide my desk and chair out into the middle of the air" as Annie Dillard observes in The Writing Life.
Which books have you reread most in your life?
John Steinbeck's Working Days, the journal of The Grapes of Wrath, and Annie Dillard's The Writing Life. I read both books – primers for authors and their loved ones – before I started my first novel, and I keep them at my desk as companions. I turn to John when I'm feeling grumpy or having a crisis of confidence about my work. Steinbeck writes, "Maybe some people think clearly all the time and make nice decisions. I don't. I feel very lost and lonesome." Me too, John. I often look to Annie for inspiration and calm reassurance – "Select your materials, invent your task and pace yourself." Right. Thank you for that, Annie, and for "Write as if you were dying."
What's the best advice you've ever received?
After Annie Dillard's? The best advice I received was parenting advice. It came from different sources. Condensed, it looks like this: Let them fall down. Let them fail. Let them bleed a little. Dirt's okay. Let them suffer disappointment. It's good for them to cry now and then, too. Comfort, but don't coddle. Protect them from injury, but not pain. Pain teaches. Pain strengthens. Love them fiercely and tell them so every day.
What's a book every 10-year-old should read, and why?
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Children are as enthralled by the story of the author, a real-life pilot who survived a desert plane crash in the 1930s, as they are by the magical tale of the little towhead prince in the dreamscape Saint-Exupéry creates. Ten is the perfect age for this book – sophisticated enough to read and savour on their own, and what kid isn't impressed that the guy who wrote the book also illustrated it? The Little Prince is a story about an alien – the prince – learning about humanity, and celebrates the child's perspective on love, friendship and truth, while exposing the hypocritical world of adults. On Earth, the Little Prince learns about compassion, and that "anything essential is invisible to the eye." In the end, when the Little Prince is driven to return to his own planet and the beloved rose he left there, children are moved by his sense of duty and devotion. The poignant lessons make an indelible imprint.
If aliens landed on Earth, which book would you give them to teach them about humanity?
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.