On Reading and Writing: A Q&A with Author Haley Tanner

March 9, 2012 at 11:04 am , by

Have you picked up this month’s book club pick, Vaclav & Lena? It’s a touching love story (Aren’t you a sucker for a good love story? We are!), by Haley Tanner. We have a penchant for reading literature here at LHJ, so I was eager to chat with this young debut novelist about her writing process and the books she’s curled up with recently. Read on for the inside scoop, and check out a preview to Vaclav & Lena and the rest of the LHJ Book Club bookshelf on our books page.

What have you read recently and loved?

I just read The Adults, by Alison Espach, which was amazing. It’s a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in Connecticut, and it’s full of dramatic tension. There’s some really heavy, serious subject matter, but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny.

Do you find it hard to read other stories while you are writing?

I do get to a point where I can’t read other writing, because I start to sound like JD Salinger or Muriel Spark. But sometimes I’ll intentionally read other writers while I’m writing. If, say, I feel like my setting is falling flat, I’ll read someone who’s really good with setting. Or if I feel like I’m forgetting to have fun, I’ll read Tom Robbins for a little while. It’s like a prescription.

Where did the germ of the idea for Vaclav & Lena originate? Did you always have the story in the back of your mind?

I was writing an assignment for a class, procrastinating at midnight. I had class the next day, and I’d written nothing. I finally just sat down and I started writing, and the first thing I wrote is still the first page of the book, Vaclav’s introduction to his magic act. Once I had the characters, I watched what they would do. It was incredibly fun, and I never had a larger plan for them. Even when I was on page 45, I didn’t know what page 46 would look like.

So you didn’t outline the plot ahead of time?

No, no. Not even a little. If there’s a way I could describe how I write, it’s like driving at night with your headlights on. You can see right in front of you, but not the next turn. You have an idea of where you’re going, but you can’t see it exactly.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

I hate to be a propagandist about this, but the love story in the book is my idea of the way love should be. We jump in with both feet first, and the only way love someone is to throw yourself into it.

I love to read a love story. I don’t need everything to be sugarcoated or Pollyanna, but I feel like every book I pick up is about infidelity or a big divorce, which I feel like we’re surrounded by all the time. Can we please have a break? People love each other!

It seems like we can’t get away from breaking news, celebrity Tweets and reality TV these days. Why do you it’s important to devote time to reading fiction?

First of all, I’m the biggest fan of reality television, As a writer, it’s so much fun. It’s like a lab where you can to watch how people act in different situations, and I just can’t get enough. But I think stories and storytelling are the way that we connect to other human beings and bridge the gaps between us. Otherwise we’d all live within our own heads. Storytelling is always going to be important and its always going to be satisfying.

Have you ever been in a book club?

I have been, but not for a long time. And I really miss it. When I completed grad school, I had something of an academic hangover; you just don’t want to talk about every book you read. But I’ve been visiting a lot of book clubs who are reading Vaclav & Lena, and it’s reminded me how great it is to read a book with others, especially in a club. It’s a wonderful way to create a bond and commonality with other people.

When you’re not writing, what else that you do for fun?

I ran the New York City marathon this year. It was so very hard and so awful, but I’m really proud of myself for having done it. And I have two dogs that I hang out with every morning. That’s sort of my wake-up routine, coffee and a book at the dog park.

I’ve also been traveling a bunch for the book and I’ve loved meeting people who’ve read it in languages I don’t speak. They have a different perspective on it. In Italian, the book’s title is Things to Save In Case of Fire, which is really poetic. You learn early on in the book that Vaclav makes a list of things to save in case of a fire, and the first thing is Lena, but when you first open the book you don’t understand the context. It really influences your reading; you’re expecting a metaphor about fire from the very beginning. You’re expecting the danger. And in Dutch it’s called The Disappearing Act. It sets you up to expect Lena’s disappearance, but the English title doesn’t do that. It’s fascinating; everyone’s reading is so different. I loved having these wonderful late night dinner table conversations about books, reading, and all of the things that are the same about people who fall in love all over the world.

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