Entering The Fifty-First State: The Nervous Breakdown Interview with Lisa BordersBy Steve Almond
September 23, 2013
I’ve known Lisa Borders for a decade. We teach together at Grub Street, Boston’s writing center, and see each other every few months at some reading event or another. I’ve always known that Lisa was a great teacher, because her students will happily give you an earful.
I was even more pleased to learn what a fine novelist she is. Her new novel, which follows her 2002 debut, Cloud Cuckoo Land, is called The Fifty-First State. It’s about a photographer in her late thirties who leaves New York City to help her half-brother through his last year of high school, after his parents are killed in a car crash.
So no: not a feel-good story.
Unless you’re the sort of sicko (like me) who is actually interested in grief and how we survive it, and how distant families function, and whether it’s possible to find redemption where you weren’t exactly looking for it.
I was curious enough about all this to seek a further interrogation of Ms. Borders, who agreed to answer a few questions…
The Nervous Breakdown: The Fifty-First State has at its heart such an unusual sibling relationship. Where’d the idea come from?
Lisa Borders: There is an age disparity like that in my family: I have a half-brother who is fifteen years older than I am. Neither of the characters in the novel is anything like me or my brother, and I had much more of a relationship with him, growing up, than my characters Hallie and Josh did with each other. Still, I’m familiar with that dynamic of having a sibling you don’t really know all that intimately because of a huge age difference, and because you never lived, or didn’t live for very long, in the same house together.
TNB: The novel does a remarkable job of exploring different forms of grieving. is this something you’ve experienced from within?
LB: Thanks for saying that; looking at grief from a variety of angles was definitely one of my goals with this novel. Unfortunately, many of the observations did come from firsthand experience. When I started writing The Fifty-First State, grief was an emotion that had always been part of my life, but with some distance: my father died when I was nine, and that event changed not only the trajectory of my life, but my emotional makeup itself. Despite the fact that I hadn’t experienced any other significant losses between my father’s death and the first scenes I sketched of this novel in 2001, I thought I was still connected enough to grief that I could write convincingly about it.
In 2002, shortly before my first novel was published, one of my closest friends, Barbara Durkin, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 40. Her children were 8 and 3 years old at the time. Not only did I have to deal with my own considerable grief, I was also witnessing the grief of her husband and her two young children. Since I had lost my father as a child, I knew only too well what her son and daughter were going through.
After Barbara’s death, someone close to me died every year for the next few years: my mentor from graduate school, my uncle, my aunt, a cousin who felt more like a sister. At first I was reeling and couldn’t write at all, but once I got back to work on the novel I realized I had new insights on grief, new textures I could incorporate into the book.
TNB: You seemed to be having a lot of fun with certain characters, such as aging Goth musician. Was this a counterweight to the heavy stuff?
LB: I’d love to say that I planned it that way, knowing it would make a better experience for the reader, but the truth is that, at least initially, it was what I needed to do to be able to write the book. There are many great, incredibly dark novels out there, and while some of them are among my favorite novels as a reader, I can’t write like that. For the amount of time it takes me to write and revise a novel – each of mine has taken me about seven years – and the level of immersion I require, I simply can’t write a book that’s relentlessly dark, no matter how serious the subject matter.
In longer, earlier drafts, there was actually a lot more about the “fun” characters like Damien (the aging Goth musician) and Joy, the photographer who takes nude self-portraits with birds. During the revision process, I was able to look at these sections more objectively and trim them back, while ensuring that they remained as a counterweight, as you say, to the darker sections. But I’d also add that I think the balance of light and dark moments in the book is a reasonable reflection of what it’s like to grieve. One of the longest, hardest laughs I’ve ever had was at three in the morning when my friend Cathy and I were up trying to write eulogies for our friend Barbara’s funeral the next day. It was the kind of laughter that can turn into crying with the most subtle shift of brain chemistry, but at that moment, it was laughter, and we were grateful for it.
TNB: How long did you work on the book?
LB: I mentioned above that it took me seven years, but in truth, that’s an approximation. I started writing in 2001, and had a draft that was ready to be shopped around in 2010. But I lost so much time during that decade. I couldn’t write for a year after my friend Barbara died, and then I lost nearly two years from 2004 – 2006, between other losses of loved ones and a series of catastrophes that befell my mother: first her house was destroyed in Florida’s Hurricane Charley, and then she became gravely ill and I had to move to Florida for a few months to care for her. It’s not a great way to write a novel, all that stopping and starting, but perhaps, because I was forced to live with it for so long, the book ended up more richly imagined than it might otherwise have been. Or maybe I just need to believe that so as not to lament all the lost time!
TNB: How did it evolve?
LB: The title of the novel refers to a South Jersey secession movement, which was real – voters in five of the eight southernmost counties in New Jersey voted in favor of a 1980 ballot question to become South Jersey, the fifty-first state. My earliest idea of the novel brought that movement into the present and made it a much more prominent part of the story than it is now. Once I created the Corson family, they pretty much took the novel over, and I realized the book needed to focus on them, so I left the secession movement back in the past, where it had once existed. But because the animosity many rural South Jerseyans feel towards what they see as a much wealthier North Jersey defines the region, and because I saw a thematic link between the desire to form a new state and Josh and Hallie’s desire to form a new family, I kept the title.
I tend to write very long first drafts, with some revising along the way. As a result, writing the first draft is the longest part of the process for me. The first draft of The Fifty-First State was a whopping 820 pages long, and while it went through many revisions to get it down to its current svelte 324 pages, pretty much everything that’s in the novel now was there in that bloated first draft. It was just a matter of hacking away the fat (more than half its body weight!).
TNB: Tell me about your relationship with engine books.
LB: My agent, Esmond Harmsworth, has another client whose book was published by Engine, so he’d already worked with them and felt they were a terrific press. I’ve been delighted in every way with Engine and its dynamic editor/publisher, Victoria Barrett. Victoria is the best editor I’ve ever worked with, and may well be the hardest-working person in the publishing industry. Her books are all great reads, and they are physically beautiful.
TNB: I know you, also, as an awesome teacher. how does teaching influence your work?
LB: You’re so kind! If there is any awesomeness (is that a word?) in my teaching, it comes from how awesome my students at Grub Street are. Just as a band needs a great audience to play its best, a teacher needs a room full of eager, dedicated students to do her best work.
There’s an open secret among writers who teach writing as to how much we learn about our own work in the process of teaching; I’m sure you’ve had this experience as well. I’ve certainly found solutions to my own narrative issues in the course of reading craft essays for class, and, in doing writing exercises with my students, I’ve created scenes that find their way into my work. I feel it’s a privilege to teach, and my writing is definitely the richer for it.
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