EDITOR’S NOTE: Lisa Alther, internationally-known writer, was born in Kingsport, Tennessee. Her father was a surgeon and her mother a homemaker, and she grew up with three brothers and a sister. She graduated from Wellesley College with a bachelor’s in English literature.
After attending the Publishing Procedures Course at Radcliffe College and working for Atheneum Publishers in New York City, she moved to Vermont, where she has lived on and off for over 50 years. She has taught Southern fiction at St. Michael’s College in Winooski, Vermont, and at East Tennessee State University, where she was awarded the Basler Chair. Having lived in London and Paris, she now divides her time among East Tennessee, Vermont and New York City.
Alther is the author of 12 published books. One of her stated aims is to explore the human reality behind cultural stereotypes, particularly those regarding women. She often deals with such material in a humorous fashion.
She recently took time out of her schedule to talk with us about her life and her new book, “Swan Song.”
A! Magazine: Many writers are haunted by their childhoods —maybe “influenced by” would be a more appropriate phrasing — you perhaps more than others. How has growing up in Kingsport shaped you as a writer?
Lisa Alther: As an aspiring writer, I felt very fortunate to have grown up in Kingsport. It was so hot in those days before air conditioning that we all just lay around and listened to the adults talk. And the way they talked was in anecdotes, never in abstractions. They made important points by relating something they had seen or done, using lots of concrete sensuous details — and often using humor. Since this is what fiction writers do, too, absorbing that mode of expression at an early age was a lucky break for me.
Also, I had the advantage of being immersed in that great southern literary tradition, which includes many superb women writers. I could see that writing was a field in which a woman could flourish.
But Kingsport wasn’t just southern. Because of its many factories, people arrived there from all over the U.S., and from many foreign countries as well. My father was from Southwest Virginia, but my mother came from upstate New York. The tension generated by all those clashing cultures propelled me to use fiction as a way to sort out my own identity.
A!: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? What can you look back on as the formative events or people that helped direct you to that career? Who or what inspires you?
Alther: I was an editor and reporter for the newspapers at my high school and college, and I was drawn to the idea of becoming a journalist. My sophomore year in college I travelled around Europe for three months, writing letters home. When I returned to Kingsport, I discovered that my mother had circulated my letters among our friends and family members. Several praised my writing style, and I first entertained the possibility that I might have some talent. After college I wrote a dozen short stories and two novels over a 14-year period. But when I sent them to magazines and publishing houses, I collected 250 rejection slips.
Discovering the fiction of the British writer Doris Lessing was a major revelation to me. In her early novels she wrote about episodes from the lives of ordinary women, such as pregnancy, marriage, housework and motherhood. As I devoured her books, I first understood that your characters didn’t have to go to war or explore the wilderness in order to be worthy subjects for fiction. I wrote her a fan letter, and we started corresponding, eventually becoming lifelong friends. She referred me to her editor at Knopf, Bob Gottlieb, who accepted and published my first three novels.
Through Doris Lessing I also met Idries Shah, the leading exponent of Sufism in the West. I studied with him in the UK for a couple of years, and I’ve been reading his many books for 50 years now. His insights infuse all my writing, as they did that of Doris Lessing after she first encountered his work.
A!: You have been given various labels by reviewers and critics: Southern, Appalachian, feminist, Yankee, New Englander, LGBTQ, Melungeon, and probably others. Do labels matter? Do you accept any of them? Some more than others?
Alther: I’m happy to be included in any group who will have me. I identify with all those labels, taken as a whole. Each is an aspect of me. But who I really am stands apart from any group or label. I write things for my own internal reasons and not as an attempt to belong to some particular school.
A!: In the last decade or so, several of your books have been about colonial and 19th-century history, especially that of Southwest Virginia, why the change from the “quest” novels that preceded them?
Alther: Actually, “Washed in the Blood,” although an historical novel, is also a “quest novel.” Once DNA testing became available to the public in the early 2000s, I learned that my family has some distant African, Native American and Iberian ancestry, in addition to the Celts and Anglo-Saxons we already knew about. I used WITB to speculate about who these people might have been, where they might have come from, and what their lives might have been like. In other words, as in my previous novels, I was still trying to figure out who I am by incorporating these previously unknown ancestors into my evolving sense of identity.
A!: After living in Vermont, New York City, London, Paris for a lot of your adult life, why have you settled primarily in the Tri-Cities in recent years?
Alther: I usually live in Piney Flats during the spring and early summer because it’s my favorite place to be at that time of the year, with the emerald meadows teeming with colts and calves, and the woods exploding with flowering trees. I stay at a condo on Lake Champlain in Vermont during the summer and early fall. My daughter and her husband and sons live up there, and it’s an incredibly beautiful place all year round, except during Mud Season. I also stay in an apartment in New York when I have professional obligations or a hunger for opera.
In 1999 I returned to East Tennessee full-time to serve as the Basler Chair at ETSU and to take care of my elderly parents. Being surrounded again by the accents and the easy-going charm of my homeland was as soothing for me as sinking into a warm bath. My parents died 10 years later, and I realized that I didn’t want to leave. For much of my life I thought I had to choose between the North and the South because the cultures were so antagonistic that it seemed impossible to embrace both at the same time. But I’ve come to accept that I’m bisectional. I love certain aspects of both regions and am not so crazy about other aspects. Some of my friends in both places don’t trust me because I won’t — or can’t — choose sides in the culture wars that are ripping our democracy apart.
A!: In your new book “Swan Song,” Kat, one of the characters, says that “The South had produced so many fiction writers because it was the only place in the nation where people could sit still long enough to write a novel.” Describe how you write. Do you have an elaborate outline before you begin or do you let your characters “go where they want to go, do what they want to do”? How have you developed the focus and determination to “sit still” to write a book?
Alther: Before I start a new novel, I do a lot of reading around my proposed subject. I don’t do an outline. Instead, I write up random scenes as they pop into my head. Eventually I start to see how they could link together into a narrative. Then I might do a very rough outline of where to head next. Some writers prefer to write for so many hours or so many words every day. But I prefer to skip vacations while working on a novel and to lock myself up for a week or two several times a year, doing nothing but eating, sleeping and writing. I find I can get a lot more done in a shorter amount of time if I don’t have to keep breaking my concentration in order to participate in daily life. This has sometimes been trying for my loved ones.
It’s never been a problem for me to sit still. Some days I feel as motionless as a cat watching a mouse hole. My challenge has always been to emerge from this state in order to do my fair share of housework.
A!: Turning now to “Swan Song,” what major themes and issues do you see the novel addressing?
Alther: The most obvious theme is the interplay of Freud’s Eros and Thanatos — the life force in conflict with the death wish. Comedy versus tragedy. How to balance the light and the dark. But, as in all my novels, I’m also concerned with trying to figure out who I am. Jessie, the main character, and her lover Kat are personifications of two facets of my own personality, Jessie from Vermont and Kat from North Carolina, Me and Alt-me. As usual, I was struggling to work out via my fictional characters how to establish a truce between the warring values of the North and the South, both of which co-exist within me. This time I reconciled them by bringing Jessie and Kat together as lovers.
A!: What are, for you, the most autobiographical experiences that helped shape “Swan Song”?
Alther: A few years ago I took a six-week voyage on the Queen Mary II westward through Southeast Asia and the Middle East, ultimately docking in Brooklyn. During the voyage I took a tour of that huge ship. There were so many nooks and crannies perfect for concealing bodies that I decided to write a murder mystery set on the ship. While I wrote, my traveling companion would leave our cabin every morning to collect observations about the behavior of the other passengers. She discovered a very rude woman who stole others’ deck chairs and removed their laundry from dryers before their cycles had finished. We agreed she needed killing. So, I wrote an opening chapter for my murder mystery that would feature her. But when I got home, I realized that there were so many great mystery writers already, and that I was too set in my ways to learn a new skill at this late date. I put the chapter away for a couple of years. When I brought it back out, I realized that maybe I couldn’t write a mystery, but that I could use that chapter as an opening for a new quest novel. It eventually morphed into a “Canterbury Tales” of the high seas, complete with its own Wife of Bath, loosely based on that passenger who had needed killing.
A!: Assuming that this novel is not your own literary swan song, what are you working on next?
Alther: After every novel I decide that I have nothing more to say and am retiring. That’s true this time as well. I put everything I had into “Swan Song” and now feel pleasantly depleted (apart from a relentless sadness for those who are suffering during this coronavirus plague). But in the past the well has always replenished itself, so I’m waiting to see if that will happen this time.
A!: How did you feel about winning the Idries Shah Foundation Award for Human Achievement? Why do you think they chose you for this honor?
Alther: I was extremely honored to receive the Idries Shah Foundation award. It was established to recognize people who had made good use of their own talents, as well as of the body of knowledge that Idries Shah left behind. As I said earlier, the insights he offered have infused all of my writing. So, I was very pleased to learn that his foundation felt I had employed his legacy well.
A!: Please tell us anything else you think our readers would be interested in about either you or your books.
Alther: I’d like to thank the many friends and readers in this area who’ve bought and read my books and attended my readings over all these years. They have made it possible for me to spend my life honing a craft I love, one that has given me much pleasure and sense of purpose.