Tuesday, February 13, 2007

An interview with Tara Ison

Isabel is an achiever, a hardworking med student expected by all to become a first-rate heart surgeon--if she stays on task. Her live-in boyfriend is Al, a 30-year-old video store clerk, who directed one cult classic before all his ambition quit the scene.

Naturally, they are not right for one another. Naturally, their friends are annoyed when they keep getting back together after yet another break-up.

Tara Ison's second novel, The List, describes the efforts Isabel and Al go through to keep their relationship viable for just awhile longer--by creating a list of perfect dates--and the damage they bring upon themselves, both physically and psychologically, by refusing to just let go.

Ison's first novel, A CHILD OUT OF ALCATRAZ, was a finalist for the 1997 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Ison wrote the screenplay for Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead and has been nominated for a Pushcart. She is an associate professor in the MFA program at Antioch University.

I sent Ison a list of questions last week and these are her responses:

How much of your life, your experience, is in THE LIST? Did you know a couple like Al and Isabel?

Well. . .a long time ago I was in a relationship that wasn’t going anywhere, and we knew it wasn’t going anywhere. . .and yet it was pretty damn hot and we just couldn’t let go. So we started joking about making “a list” of things to do before breaking up – just a stalling maneuver, of course, and we never did it, but I always thought the idea would make a good story. So yes, that’s a case of “stealing from myself,” right? There are bits and pieces of me and my life woven throughout THE LIST, but it’s definitely a work of fiction – there’s no single character or single incident that’s purely autobiographical. But what is autobiographical, probably in everything I write, are the emotions behind the characters’ actions – I think it’s sort of like Method Acting, perhaps, where you tap into a similar feeling from your own past you then use to fuel the story/character, even if your own experience/story is wholly different.

But: funny story – last summer I fell and broke my hand, exactly like Isabel does in THE LIST. And I would up going to “the top hand guy at Cedars,” just like her. And looking at X-rays, etc., life imitating art in a “painful” way, I suppose. I wish I’d broken my hand first, though, I think that sequence would have been better.

When I started THE LIST we'd just received the Feb. National Geographic with its cover photo of a human heart. This made Isabel's nightmares about hearts even more horrifying. I'm assuming you did lots of medical research for THE LIST but perhaps you have a heart surgeon in your family or circle of friends?

I’m flattered! No, no surgeon family member or friend – but yes, I love doing research. It’s a great excuse for not writing, while still feeling you’re doing your job. So, lots of books and articles on the structure and function of the heart, also of the eye and the hand and the history of film, and so on. Sometimes I feel I should include a list of reference materials at the end of my fiction. (Actually, I did that with my first book, A CHILD OUT OF ALCATRAZ – I researched that one for 4 years before I started writing. . .) But for me the “facts and figures” of research also provide jewels – great metaphors and images, a means to explore a character’s psychology. And verisimilitude, definitely.

It took awhile for me to catch on to the fact that THE LIST is set in the late 1980s. Once I did, I couldn't stop wondering if the book would end with a jump ahead to the present day--I realized that Al would actually be older than I am. What led you to set the story at that time, and did you ever imagine their futures beyond the story's end?

Damn. That would have been an interesting idea. . .(Jumping ahead to present day, Isabel and Al in their late 40s. . .) The novel is set in the late 80’s primarily, I confess, because that’s when I started working on it, and the references were woven throughout in a way that felt organic to the story. And in recent years I made the decision to stay there – I think the values of the late 80’s are important to some of the conflicts the characters are experiencing, plus the technology issue, as it relates to Al’s filmmaking (present-day would have changed his engagement with his work, I think.) I do think about Isabel and Al’s “present day” a lot – but I won’t say what I think happens to them. What do you think happens to them?

When you started THE LIST, did you know how it would end? Did you enjoy writing from one character's perspective more than the other?

I always always knew it would end with the hole in the lake – I used to hike up at Lake Hollywood, and it’s an amazing place/image. In earlier drafts of the novel, the story ends there – i.e, the implication that Isabel and Al don’t survive the plunge into the hole they’ve found themselves in. But I ultimately wanted to end with a glimmer of hope, that they actually grew from the experience and maybe down the road. . . As for the alternating perspectives – Isabel and Al both have qualities I relate to so strongly, I probably most enjoyed (or “cringed”!) writing from the pov of whichever I was with at the moment.

In the final pages of THE LIST, you switch from a close third person perspective to second person for one of the characters. Why the shift? I know I'm in a minority, but I love second person and wondered if you'd ever considered writing all Al's chapters that way. (He's such an observer, I can see him distancing himself from himself that way.)

You know, I have no idea why I did that! That final sequence for Al just always wrote itself that way. But looking back, he actually does speak in 2nd person from time to time throughout the novel, in a way Isabel never does. So perhaps that final voice just felt like a natural evolution? Hmm...

What are you working on now? Are you still writing movie scripts? Do you prefer one form of writing to another or do you like them all equally?

Two new in-progress novels, and a few short pieces. Bottom line is I prefer working with language over image – and a screenplay is all about telling a story through what one is seeing. (Well, and hearing, too.) So never say never, but I’m sticking to prose for now.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? If a student were in a position to do either, which would you recommend, low res or a traditional MFA program?

You learn most about something by teaching it, right? So I continue to learn a lot about writing by working with students - plus working with dedicated and impassioned “young” writers, watching their craft develop, is really an inspiration.

I highly recommend the low-res model! It more accurately mirrors the writing life, and is much better preparation for the experience of living as a professional writer. It also allows for more personal attention from a mentor, plus greater focus on your own work. I know that might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books?

Let’s see…all-time favorites plus recent joys (I’ll stick to fiction), in no particular order:

Jesus' Son
Jude the Obscure
Cat's Eye
Alias Grace
100 Years of Solitude
The Hours
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
Sister Carrie
Mrs. Dalloway
Mendel's Dwarf
Birds in Fall
The Bluest Eye
The End of Alice
Flannery O’Connor
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

...I’ll stop there.


  1. This is great, thank you!

  2. You're welcome, LK. It was lots of fun.

  3. Very interesting interview -- thanks for posting.

  4. Wow, a lot of your favorites are mine also.
    Like the Hardy, the Atwood, and the Moore!
    All the best.
    -- Cip

  5. Cip, I noticed your review of Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne when I was making the links to amazon. . .

  6. Thanks for this. This part:

    I highly recommend the low-res model! It more accurately mirrors the writing life, and is much better preparation for the experience of living as a professional writer. It also allows for more personal attention from a mentor, plus greater focus on your own work. I know that might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

    certainly mirrors my own experience, and also (perhaps she didn't want to toot her own horn) I also find low-res MFA programs tend to attract high-powered faculty who would only otherwise be able to commit to a single full-time program - and you get more personal attention from said faculty to boot. What a deal!


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