FIRST TIME’S A CHARM Lauren Porosoff Mitchell’s first novel mixes magic and reality into a tasty bit of fiction.
Lauren Porosoff Mitchell’s first book LOOK AT ME chronicles the life of Dana, a slut with a good job and a hankering for more. What that more is, she does not know. With an English degree, a law degree, a new marriage and a spectacular first novel under her belt, Mitchell, unlike her protagonist, seems to know exactly what she wants.
We spoke via the web between our busy days and she about talked her book, her love of writing and her next novel.
CA: The lead character of your book, Dana, is extremely well fleshed out. How long did you think about her before you began writing about her?
LPM: Before I started LOOK AT ME, I had written a sort of preter-first novel that consists entirely of the Dana-Jonas plot but without Dana’s character. I kept trying to fix it but I knew something big was missing. Dana’s voice just started speaking to me one day while I was in this process — that first line of LOOK AT ME was Dana’s first line to me — and I knew I had something I wanted to work with. So, in one of the most painful acts in my life, I deleted about 80 or 90% of that book and started fresh with a few passages and with Dana. LOOK AT ME is the result.
CA: Most first novels tend to be autobiographical. How much of Dana came from your life?
LPM: All of my characters contain pieces of me and of my experiences, but those kernels of reality are just centers around which I can invent characters. The best analogy I have thought of so far — and I admit it’s a little goofy — is that the true elements are like sand in an oyster. It’s right there in the center, it’s important, but by the time it emerges it’s unrecognizable (except maybe to my mother).
CA: Even so, I write poetry and no matter how many metaphors I use I still feel exposed when people read my work. Do you ever feel that you’ve put a little bit of yourself out in the world for people to examine whenever you think of people reading your book?
LPM: Oh, yeah! I get nauseous whenever I find out that a member of my family (or worse, my husband’s family) is reading the book. I mean, even if it didn’t come from my life, it came from my brain, and in that respect I guess all fiction is autobiography. So yes, I do feel exposed, but it doesn’t bother me and long as people understand the character and why the overt sexual images are there. My grandmother, bless her, gets it. And as for the people who don’t or won’t, I could either worry about them and not publish or publish and not care. Then again, I haven’t done a public reading yet!
CA: Why did you choose to follow this particular line of story telling?
LPM: (I assume you mean the Dana-Jonas plot.) I wanted to write a story about the emotional danger of mistaking an invention for love. Loneliness can make it so easy to talk yourself into believing something exists when it doesn’t – I guess it’s like those cartoons when Daffy Duck looks at Porky Pig and sees a big roast ham. The only real difference with Dana is that her hunger isn’t for food, it’s for love.
CA: With an English degree from Wesleyan and a law degree from George Washington, no one could call you a slacker, why add writing to your plate? What drives you to write?
LPM: I find it so funny when people ask me about writing and law school. My canned response has become, “The question isn’t how I found time to write while in law school, but how I found time to go to law school while writing.” But that’s not really your question. You want to know why I write. I write because I love words, because writing is the only thing I’m marginally good at, because storytelling can be cathartic, etc., but there’s more to it. One time, on a plane back to DC from Hawaii, I was exhausted but I had a few phrases in my head that I wanted to write down before I fell asleep. The next thing I knew the phrases were turning into paragraphs, and what I remember about that flight was being painfully tired and throwing down my notebook every few minutes but not being able to stop the words in my head and so picking the notebook up again. It sounds a whole lot like textbook mania, but those are the moments I live for. The paragraphs from the plane, by the way, became some of my favorite stuff in LOOK AT ME.
CA: Does it mean more to you to tell the story you want to, or that people understand what you are trying to say? (Granting of course that both would be ideal.)
LPM: That’s a great question. Hard to answer. I guess it depends on what you mean by “people.” I recognize that some people will dismiss LOOK AT ME as simply erotic or as the latest incarnation of Bridget Jones. That bothers me on a very deep level, but it doesn’t stop me from telling the story I want to. As I write I hope that if I tell my story as best I can, there will be at least some people who understand it. Their understanding – whoever “they” are – is probably what is most important to me.
CA: You dedication is to your husband, “for whom I wrote this book without knowing it.” After reading the book I would really like to know what your dedication means to you.
LPM: LOOK AT ME is the story of a woman who never thought she would be able to love, didn’t think she had anything real to offer, and was sure she would never find someone who “got it.” That part of the character is autobiographical. Dana ultimately discovers that she is wrong — as I did when I met Larry — but that whatever “pulls” people together, it takes work and responsibility to keep them that way. It was not until Larry that I wanted to experience that for myself.
CA: : Your treatment of Dana and her relation to her sexuality as both servant and master was one of the best representations of women and promiscuity that I’ve read. How did you come to fine hone this aspect of her personality.
LPM: Unfortunately, I’ve known plenty of Danas, women who try to deal with their loneliness in oneself-destructive way or another. When I created Dana’s promiscuity I channelled all of my anger into her character.
CA: Dana is a geneticist and often launches into internal conversations about the nature of her job. Towards the end of the book she remarks that while some grateful parents callher a “saint” she has “…only translated their own extraordinary language.” What made you chose this profession for Dana? How did you research her profession?
LPM: I think the connections between Dana’s job and her personality are in the book itself. My own interest in genetics began in high school and developed in college. I thought for a while that I wanted to be a molecular biology major and I even worked in a cancer research lab at Sinai for three whole days before I decided that despite the good cause the work wasn’t for me. But I’ve kept my interest in science and often think about what it can and cannot describe. Dana’s job and “mixed heritage” is one manifestation of that interest.
CA: Another character whose profession is extremely well fleshed out was Jonas, Dana’s astronomer lover. Where did you find him and how did you research his job?
LPM: I’ve always loved the stars myself, though I don’t have the background in physics that I do in biology. Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory is open every week for public viewing, so being there helped in the storytelling, and the NASA web site and others like it rounded out my research.
CA: The character of Dana appealed to me partially because I recognized a bit of myself in her. Since reading it, I’ve lent it to several friends and have put it on my husband’s list of books to read. Did you think about the effect your book would have on women who had lived lives similar to Dana’s? Were you reaching out at all?
LPM: Thanks! One of my friends, upon finishing the book, said “I know Jonas!” That’s been one of my favorite responses so far. I have other friends whose lives are like Dana’s or who seem to be moving down that kind of path, and while of course any opinions of the book are important to me, theirs hold special significance. And there are plenty of women (and men) I don’t know who might read the book and see some of themselves. I wonder about them all the time.
CA: Iain initially seems like a weak character with a lack of direction, while Dana seems to be in total control. Tell me about the Iain. Where did he come from?
LPM: Iain is a composite of many people I know, but at the same time he’s entirely made up. Once again, small true details with lots of my own developments.
CA: He seems to be a character with a life of his own. First he seems transitory and weak and them he becomes an anchor of sorts. Did his character develop according to your plans or his?
LPM: Both. Mostly his. They’re all like that.
CA: What made you decide to tinge Dana’s heritage with magic?
LPM: Dana’s mother is based on a combination of my mother and grandmother — I’ve never seen either of them make things fly through the air but I wouldn’t been surprised if my mom can or if my grandmother did when she was alive. I loved writing a character based on them, and when I began thinking about the forces that bring people together, it all seemed to fit.
CA: What do you think happens to Iain and Dana?
LPM: Oh, well, if I wanted to answer THAT I would have put it in the book!
FOLLOW UP: Do you have a new project in the works that we look forward to? What kind of issues will your next characters be working with?
LPM: My next novel, THE MIRACLE OF PINK, is in draft and very much in flux, so it’s hard to talk about. PINK has two narrators, though one tells the bulk of the story and the other sort of chimes in with his thoughts. The two narrators have opposing problems: one is so controlling of the people around her that in the effort to make them all happy she destroys their happiness, and the other trusts randomness so well that he can’t commit himself to making someone happy even when he wants to. So PINK is mostly about knowing when to make decisions that affect other people and when those decisions can only be made by other forces.
CA: What are your three top books, any genre, that you like to recommend to people?
LPM: Well, number one is STACKED DECK, by the great legal scholar Lawrence E. Mitchell. He writes about fairness and compassion in a world that tries exceedingly hard to suppress the caring impulse, and his ideas are nothing short of brilliant. Of course, he’s my husband and he paid me to say that. The other two would have to be SILK by Alessandro Baricco and ART AND LIES by Jeanette Winterson. Those two books do what I only dream about doing.