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Tara Ison Interview

Posted by Michelle on February 14, 2008

When I was offered the chance to review Tara Ison’s latest novel, The List, I was ecstatic to also be offered the opportunity of interviewing her – needless to say, I jumped at the chance to chat to this writer who has written two well-received novels as well as a plethora of short stories and several screenplays (Don’t Tell mom the Babysitter’s Dead being one).

Q. What inspired you to start writing in the first place?

A. Might sound odd, but it was really the idea of being a writer that initially attracted me! I’ve always loved the images of writers in movies – the Parisian garret, the beach house, the glamorous love affairs, and the sound of typing on one of those old manual Remingtons! All of that is a cliché, of course, and has nothing at all to do with writing, but it certainly looked cool. I was always a huge reader, though, as well, I got into trouble in school because I wouldn’t participate, and I just wanted to be left alone in a corner to read. At some point I put those two things together – that I could be the one actually writing those books I loved so much, that I could earn being a writer. And once I began writing fiction, it was about falling madly passionately insanely in love with words and sentences and what was going on in characters’ heads and how to tell a story through language.

Q. Where do you get your ideas from? Are they sparked by real life events or do they come purely from your imagination?

A. I definitely draw quite often from real life, but it only begins there, as a spark, an image or idea, an inspiration, and then takes off onto a life of its own. That’s the beauty of fiction, right? The ability to change, shape, rework reality into patterns, themes, story? So my work almost never stays true to real life events, but I try to stay true, or capture, the emotional integrity of an experience.

Q. How about your characters, are they modelled on people that you know?

A. I read once that every character in a dream is actually an expression of your own self, your own psyche, and I think that’s true for all of my characters. A real-life detail or two of someone I know might trigger the idea for a character, but I would say my characters are far more “me” than any other real person – especially the dysfunctional and messed-up characters! You have to love, or at least understand/relate to your characters’ most unappealing qualities, for them to be real. So basing characters on aspects of myself, tapping into my own inner-conflicts, makes that easy.

Q. How would pitch your books to someone who hasn’t yet read them?

A. Well, the two books are quite different A Child out of Alcatraz is what people might call historical fiction, although for me the history is primarily a way to express / explore certain themes and ideas. But there’s a lot of research in there, and it’s a topic people don’t hear about too often – women and children on The Rock! A mother / daughter story on Alcatraz! Who knew?

The List is, of course, a contemporary love story, and probably more similar to my short fiction, more interior, personal, darker, maybe a little twisted. In that one, I wanted to explore the destructive potential of romantic love, but also what people might learn from that.

Q. From starting writing to having the finished, published product, roughly how long does it take you to write a book?

A. Hard to say – I researched A Child out of Alcatraz for four years before I began writing it. But once I started to write, I completed a draft in about 6 months. The List is something I’ve been working on since 1993! I’d get very absorbed for several months, and then put it down, to get some distance. I’d say the final concentrated writing phase was also about 6 months.

Q. Are your family supportive of your writing career? Do they enjoy your work or do they prefer something different?

A. I’m really blessed on this one – my mom and dad read everything I write at a very early stage, and give me good feedback. I think they’re sometimes a little disturbed by my topics, or the direction I go, but they’re pretty unshockable and incredibly supportive. It helps enormously to have family and friends who respect and understand your work!

Q. You write both novels and short fiction as well as non-fiction – which do you prefer and why?

A. One thing I love about both – research! I’m fascinated by facts and figures, and what can be made out of that; the metaphors and figurative language, the oblique angles into a character’s perspective, the verisimilitude. So even my fiction often has a lot of nonfiction in it. But I do like the freedom of fiction, the opportunity to escape from reality and venture into a different reality.

Q. You’ve taught both Fiction and Screenwriting and Creative writing; from your own experience, what would you say were the most useful tips you could give to an aspiring writer?

A. I’d say don’t listen to other people telling you what you should write, or what your story is, and at the same time, you do have to be open to other people’s feedback and perspective, which can be quite useful. Sort of a paradox there, right? The single most useful tip, though – just keep writing. And try writing different things, different voices, different language – push yourself to write something you don’t think you can possibly write.

Q. Do you enjoy the promotional side of things, such as public readings and signings? If so, which has been your most enjoyable experience?

A. I actually do, because I look at it as a chance to let my characters out into the world to meet people. And let’s face it; as writers, we want to be read. We want to be heard. So the promotion side of things is simply in service to that, it isn’t about the writer, it’s about the writing. I’ve probably most enjoyed unexpected reactions to the work – it’s rare to be in the same room with someone reading your story, and getting their immediate reaction. So it’s odd, but interesting, to hear someone laugh at something you didn’t think was humorous, or to realised people are moved / affected in ways you didn’t expect. It makes you appreciate how subjective the reading experience is.

Q. Can you give us a sneak preview of what’s to come next?

A. Trying to finish the next novel – I actually have two in progress right now, and I need decided which one I’m going to commit to finishing!

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