Elaine Beale Interview

“I think one of the requisites for anyone who teaches creative writing should be that she actually writes herself. Otherwise, it’s not really possible to understand the challenges that face a writer. After all, it entails a lot more than mastering the various aspects of craft.”

Garnering a number of well-received reviews for her first novel Another Life Altogether from Lambda Literary and the Boston Globe, not to mention being selected as one of only ten books to watch in March 2010 by none other than Oprah Magazine, you would have to say author, Elaine Beale, has definitely started her writing career with a winner.

You’ve gone from teaching creative writing to actually writing, what prompted you to finally take the plunge and write?

I was actually doing my own writing well before I started teaching. In fact, I think one of the requisites for anyone who teaches creative writing should be that she actually writes herself. Otherwise, it’s not really possible to understand the challenges that face a writer. After all, it entails a lot more than mastering the various aspects of craft. On the other hand, not every writer is suited to teaching. Teaching definitely has its own set of requisite skills. I trained as an educator in Britain and have been teaching and training in various fields for a long time. I love teaching and get tremendously inspired and energized by my students. It really helps to feed my own work. And it’s also nice to get away from the computer and the necessary solitude that is the writer’s life. Being out in the world with other people every once in a while is probably good for my mental health.


How did writing Another Life Altogether differ, for you, compared to writing your first novel, the mystery, Murder in the Castro?

Well, first of all, it took a heck of a lot longer! I knocked out that first book relatively quickly. It took me a longgggg time to write Another Life Altogether. However, I wasn’t working at it all the time; there were several periods when I put it away in a drawer. And there’s a real difference in writing a genre novel than in writing non-genre fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I think genre writing can be immensely good, and in some ways the barriers between non-genre and genre fiction are being increasingly broken down. But there is a certain set of expectations that comes with writing a mystery—it’s clear that the main challenge of the protagonist will be to solve the mystery. And that provides a natural spine for the story. With non-genre fiction, I think you have to spend so much more time discovering the story. And with Another Life Altogether, that took me quite a while.

Was winning the 2007 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange contest for your partial, like winning the lottery?

It was a wonderful boost, that’s for sure. I’d begun to lose confidence that I’d ever finish the book. And I wondered whether I should just give up on in. But winning the contest made me realize that it really was worth finishing. Plus, going to New York and meeting all the writers, editors and agents was such fun.

You’ve already been quoted as saying Another Life Altogether is a work of pure fiction, but did it help to have a family populated by any number of eccentrics from which to draw on?

I can confidently say that not a single event that happens in the book actually happened in real life. But the book is definitely informed by my own experience growing up in the same place and time as Jesse, the novel’s protagonist. But unlike, Jesse, I have a huge family—my mother was one of ten children, my dad was one of four, and I have what seem like hundreds of cousins (several of whom I know only through Facebook). There are some very quirky characters among them. It really helps when you have a lot of family members to inspire your fiction—you can take all the fascinating, outrageous traits of several people and combine them into a few characters on the page.

“…I think it’s important to try not to let outside responses interfere too much with the creative process. When I wrote the novel, it was a story I felt compelled to write.”

Just how much research went into this, your second novel, Another Life Altogether?

Very little. I did refresh my memory about events of the seventies in Britain by reading about the era and watching movies that were set then. But most of what’s in the book comes from either my own experience or my imagination.

What was it like to find out Another Life Altogether had landed with Spiegel & Grau at Random House, you must have been thrilled?

I was very pleased, that’s for sure. Actually getting something that you’ve spent so much time working on out into the world is wonderful. And getting it taken on by a major publisher with such a great track record great.

Do you consider yourself a lesbian who writes literary novels, or a lesbian writer who writes lesbian literature? Is there a distinction for you?

I guess, if pushed, I’d say that I’m a lesbian who writes. One of the things that makes writing so much fun is that I can do absolutely anything I want. I can wander where my imagination takes me. Because of my own experiences as a lesbian, then that’s obviously something that’s going to inform my writing. But I’m not sure I want to live solely within the confines of what might be defined as “lesbian literature.” And I’m not so sure about the “literature” thing either. It does seem like a very grand word. I just aspire to write good, absorbing, and entertaining books.

Does the current success of Another Life Altogether put an added burden on your writing in order to produce a follow up with the same impact, or better?

I’m very happy to have gotten a major publisher and I’m pleased to have garnered some positive reviews. Of course, it’s natural to want to do “better” next time in terms of external recognition. But I think it’s important to try not to let outside responses interfere too much with the creative process. When I wrote the novel, it was a story I felt compelled to write. To get it out in the world is immensely satisfying. But now, I have to knuckle down to the next thing. And that means just sitting down at the desk and writing and not letting myself get too distracted by the outside world and its expectations.

What do you like most about the writing process, and what is (for you) the worst part?

I’ve always loved the world of the imagination and I love the way that writing can completely transport me. Being able to create characters and places and worlds that feel so real to me is a tremendous gift. When I get lost in the writing—so absorbed that I lose track of time—that’s the best feeling there is. On the other hand, writing can also be an incredibly frustrating and very scary experience. The blank page is one of the most frightening things you can ever confront.

What will we be seeing from you in the near future?

Currently I’m working on something very silly. It’s a middle grade/young adult fantasy involving a megalomaniacal former Druid, terrorists who are blowing up famous British landmarks, and a group of rather inept magicians trying to save the world. After that, I’m mulling working on a nonfiction project about my relationship with the girls who started off as neighbors and became part of my family here in Oakland. But that’s in its very early planning stages and who knows what will come of that.


Author Bio:

Originally from England, Elaine Beale immigrated to the USA in 1989. She was the winner of the Poets & Writers 2007 Writers Exchange Award. She studied creative writing at the University of British Columbia and currently lives in Oakland, CA with her partner and their goddaughter. Her first novel, Murder in the Castro, was published by New Victoria Publishers (1997), with Another Life Altogetherreleased April, 2010, from Random House.

Elaine can be found at: www.elainebeale.com/

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