Lara Elena Donnelly is the author of the trilogy named Nebula, Lambda and Locus, The Amberlough Dossier, as well as short fiction and poetry films appearing in places such as Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare and Uncanny. She has taught in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, as well as the Catapult courses in New York and the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers.
In summer, she wears The Cobra & the Canary. In winter, Nudiflorum. And a few more in between, to keep things interesting. As of this writing, she lives on the grounds of Hamilton’s former estate, with a screenwriter and a little mask-and-coat tabby cat pretentiously named after a bitter Italian aperitif.
We chat with Lara about the release of her latest book, Background notesplus writing, book recommendations, and more!
Hi Lara! When did you discover your love for writing?
In Mrs. Pettiford’s class in 5and grade – she read us passages from Chris Van Allsburg The Harris Burdick Mysteries and show us the illustrations, then ask us to write stories inspired by these passages and images. I wrote an absolutely epic story about a girl shrunk to the size of her Polly Pockets, living in a sandcastle decorated with lots of color from the paint chips Mrs. Pettiford encouraged us to reference in our descriptive language.
Quick Lightning Ride! Tell us about the first book you remember reading, the one that made you want to become an author and the one you can’t stop thinking about!
First book: I’m not sure I remember reading but the first book I remember trying to read, holding it in my hands and really fight to Understand Words, was one of those hardback picture books for early readers. It was Hansel and GretelI think, with very dark illustrations of the forest.
Book that made me want to become an author: There were none. In fact, there was a distinction lack books that made me want to become an author. I was in the teen section of my local library one summer in high school and there was no books I wanted to read. I had read all the books that seemed interesting. So I thought, well: I’ll just go home and write one.
Book that lives without rent in my head: by Paul Fussel To classify is a book I keep thinking about. Once you read it, it becomes impossible not to think about it in just about every situation. It is so insightful, witty, and brutal in its summation of class and its various manifestations and attributes that reading the book actually changed the way I view the world and think about my own writing.
your new novel, Background notes, is out now! If you could only describe it in five words, what would they be?
Dirty, funny, visceral, pretentious and tragic.
What can readers expect?
Bad words and bad attitudes, frankly. The narrator here is dismissive and not at all about the grip. If you like unlikable characters with intrusive vocabularies – if you were a fan of Good hearts and crowns or John Lanchester debt to pleasure– I hope it reaches a sweet spot.
Readers can also expect it to get pretty gruesome. It has a slow start – I always take a while to set up my dominoes – but once it starts the last half spins around a bit Sweeney Todd. People are dying very violently and the pile of bodies is getting quite big. And that’s not even the hardest part; things only get particularly nasty after the victims died.
Perhaps we can say that readers should expect a kind of top-down experience: words from a thesaurus, deeds from a bestiary.
Where does the inspiration come from? Background notes comes from?
I needed to write a short story for an anthology on the theme of the color orange, and I had just read “My quest to find the great American perfume”, by Jude Doyle, which touches on the American fondness for the perfume of flowers d’oranger, which is often read as very to clean. The premise of the article is that American perfumes have not reached the heights of classic European perfumes because Americans do not want to smell physicaland all of the best base notes are pretty much that – moist, earthy, faecal, musky.
The short story that came out of it, “The Dirty American”, turned into a novel Background notes.
Can you tell us a bit about the challenges you faced while writing and how you managed to overcome them?
Honestly, the challenges with this book really revolved around the publishing industry, more than the book itself. It had its tough times and its stops and starts, in writing, but the biggest ups and downs were mostly business-related.
It was an option for a previous publisher, and seemed likely to sell, but didn’t. Then I ended up changing literary agents in the middle of writing the book. I also got a new day job while switching agents and writing! There was a lot of professional turnover during Background notes was being born. Overcoming these challenges was mostly about overcoming them and moving forward, which isn’t really my strong suit. I am an anxious resident.
Are there any favorite moments or characters that you really enjoyed writing or exploring?
Towards the end of the book, there’s a really emotionally and physically brutal, jaw-dropping, dragging fight scene that was so painful but so satisfying to write and review. In revision, each time I succeeded, I began to feel dread. Every time I finished reading it, I said out loud, “God, this scene is so brutal. But so good. The blocking is tight and the hits hurt to read. The action is the kind of desperate, dirty fights people actually do: it’s unsightly and awkward and playing for real. No one looks like a badass: one character wears a barber’s cape! I think that’s my favorite scene in the whole book, honestly. For certain bookmark values.
There’s also a long brunch scene that I didn’t really enjoy writing but was an interesting experience; I knew that was kind of essential to the story, and that the relationships between the characters and maybe the plot was going to depend on it. As a result, I kept trying to cram too many crucial moments into this poor, beleaguered brunch. A good lesson, however, because in the end, there wasn’t much to do; it was just enough start something, put some wheels in motion.
The brunch scene was also key because What is a novel about millennial urban experience broke without brunch? Incredibly unrepresentative, what is it.
What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
Perhaps the best advice I’ve ever received would have been teaching Holly Black about the time-limiting device versus the emotional arc – how many stories are structured to balance the plot-driven action that describes the scope of the story with the emotional arc of the characters. When there is a lull in one, the other picks up, and vice versa. Or sometimes the two sons share a pivotal moment. She drew line graphs! I think about these two facets of storytelling a lot when I’m describing or trying to figure out why a story I like works so well.
Also iconic was a witty phrase from certified genius Jeffrey Ford, who said the secret to becoming a great writer was “applying the ass to the chair.” Truer words ever spoken. No matter how much thinking, dreaming, and researching you do, eventually you have to write it down.
The worst writing advice I’ve ever received didn’t exactly come from one source, but seems endemic to sci-fi and fantasy writing advice. I’m talking about the idea of building the world like an iceberg. The idea that you need to know a lot more about your world than ever before appears on the page, based on the idea that your depth of knowledge will lend an air of authority to the details you provide. I used to espouse this for my own students and mentees, but no more! This is obviously wrong, it entails a lot of extra work and does not improve your story.
Now, I tend to say that world-building is much more about understanding how people consciously and unconsciously interact with the systems that make up their environment. You don’t need to understand the history and sociology that led to the creation of these systems – no one even knows all of this on their own. own environment, even less fictitious. You just need to understand the shapes of the systems well enough to use them as the framework for the details of your fictional world.
I used to criticize world-building by asking writers “why?” every time I came across a world-building piece that didn’t make sense, or took me out of the story: why are they doing it this way? Why is it like this? But really, I didn’t want answers; I wanted to don’t ask questions. I don’t sit there wondering why I’m having dinner with my left hand on my lap; hold the door for an elderly person; buy certified cruelty-free organic eggs in biodegradable cardboard containers, even if they are more expensive. I do these things because of societal norms, etiquette expectations, and personal ethics developed in response to systemic issues. Even if you don’t know me or the fictional character in a story, witnessing these interactions with the world teaches you how the world works.
What’s next for you?
It’s not a hundred percent certain, because nothing in publishing is, but I’m working on a contemporary fabulist retelling of the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, about queer millennials working for a multinational consultancy based At New York. It’s a pushback against the idea that slutty bisexuals are a bad rap, a love letter to the mutability and endurance of queer love and friendship, and a good old-fashioned rant on the wealth inequality. Plus, someone is sacrificed at a swanky underground spa in Tribeca. You know, normal millennial stuff.
Finally, do you have any 2022 book recommendations for our readers?
I haven’t read it yet, but I can’t wait Loted by Shola von Reinhold. The bright youngsters of London’s interbellum hold a special place in my heart, and this book feels lush, impeccably researched, clever, and delightfully critical.
I am also intrigued by Nghi Vo’s description mermaid queenbecause if you haven’t already, I’m a sucker for vintage glamour.
Finally, I was raised on Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales, so I’m pretty excited for her first work of adult fiction, night book. I grew up with Holly’s books and now we meet as adults; like a setting for a romance novel!