We asked Laura Bontrager (@lily_bart), author of the forthcoming novel, Fences, to tell us about herself. (To find out how we discovered Laura, read Writing undercover on the web.)
What’s your story?
I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, but my parents are from Ohio and California. They never expected to stay in Memphis when they came, and they spent a lot of time keeping me and my brother away from the Southern accent. So I’ve grown up with an interesting mixture of Southern, Californian, and Northern heritage.
I graduated with a degree in English, and then worked as a behavioural aide for a boy with autism, and my poetry was published in various magazines and journals. Currently, I work in the library of a boys’ private school in Memphis. And I write.
When did you start writing and why?
I started telling stories first with my Barbie dolls as I created scene after scene of soap-opera-worthy tragedy. And then I wrote down stories because I wanted to illustrate them, not because I particularly loved the words. I felt I could show the pictures in my head better by creating pictures (but I turned out to be only a mediocre artist). Then I really got down to writing somewhere around 12 years old; the stories needed out. It was Holocaust survival tales (I was fascinated with WW2), and ‘magical realism’ (wizards and secret quests). And then those morphed into what is now called fan fiction. I wanted my favorite characters in my favorite TV shows to get together, to realize their love for each other, or to face certain doom and triumph. I rewrote episodes or I gave the characters backstories. I still didn’t think of it as writing though.
When I was about 15 years old, an English teacher took me aside and showed me how to write. Not just essays or research papers, but poetry. I was still writing fanfiction, this time related to The X-Files, but she showed me how to make words string together in beautiful ways, sounds, images. Now my words were the illustrations, now poetry became my first way to get the stories out.
Which books do you like the most?
It’s so difficult to narrow this list down to just a few. There are genres and time periods that garner their own full-length lists, but I’ll try to give a sample of the books that shaped me as a writer and as a reader.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: I came late to L’Engle’s children’s books because I came by way of her adult fiction (A Severed Wasp, Certain Women). I’d read A Wrinkle in Time in fifth grade and it had been too much for me; but reading it again in high school was like reading my soul. Every book of hers I could get my hands on, I devoured. Over and over again. Her writing is poetic and sensual and beautiful and innocent. I want to write just one thing as good as hers.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: I love dystopia and this was the beginning of it for me. Atwood’s novel is written like a memoir and it reads like a warning – Remember this, how quickly it happened, how life was for us. But it’s fiction; none of it happened. I still think every person should read this book, should remember this book, hold it in their hearts closely. Not because it’s about how women were subjugated in a fictional dystopia, but because it’s about how easy it is for human beings to degrade those that are different from us, how easy it is to forget that we all share in humanity.
The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok: This book deals with an artist, his God, and his art, and the uneasy alliance between the two. It spoke to me at a time when I was determining, for myself, how serious I was about making writing my life’s calling, and how serious was God, as well, about calling me. I needed this book, all of his books really, like I needed air.
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart: All of her Gothic romance novels, really, were inspiring to me in the middle of heavy English canon reading for my literature classes. She found a formula and employed it over and over again but with such different results, such interesting details, and such timeless stories. She wrote back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, but she opened up an entirely new genre for me. From her novels, I got into Wuthering Heights, and Victoria Holt, and a host of pop fiction from that time.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and The American by Henry James: I’d read Ethan Frome in high school and fell in love with her dour realism (though you won’t find many who also love this). House of Mirth, along with James’s The American, became the first novels I read as a critical reader – thinking about how the story was structured and why, analyzing the characters and the motifs and the themes as I read. Not after I read, not while writing the paper, but during the actual process of reading. These two novels I had to read at the same time for two different classes (so I couldn’t tell you which one did it), but it was with these two that the switch was flipped in my brain for how a story works.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner: I can’t even. I flail like a fangirl when I get to Faulkner because I can’t even imagine writing like this. He just . . . he breaks open the world and sets it on fire. He slaps it all down on the page and makes you work for it, and when it’s all over, you realize you’ve been swimming in something amazing and strong and overwhelming, and there’s nothing to do but stop going against its current and ride it out.
Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard: For non-fiction, this is the most poetic and beautiful writing I’ve yet to read. Dillard takes up a lot of themes that are personal to me: religion, God, suffering, faith, nature’s brutality, God’s mysticism. She doesn’t have any answers, but she gives me, as a writer, a lot of beautiful images to understand my own drive to write.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: The supernatural element of this love story is what made me take it off the shelf, while the beautiful details, the poetry, is what kept me reading it. The logistics of the two lovers’ tangling timelines, their lives intertwining from the beginning of things, their fated and perhaps doomed love . . . it captured me like nothing else.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby: Any Hornby novel is fantastic and funny and wickedly clever, and he does it right in the middle of real stuff, actual life problems. This novel is all about music and what it does for us. Rob has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Laura, for the guy who lives in the upstairs apartment. He narrates his top ten list of breakups as he tries to answer an important question: Can he really love a woman with a terrible record collection?
My most recent reads, which I haven’t yet had enough time to know if they will be pivotal to my own life (but they feel like they are), include City of Thieves (David Benioff), A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan), A Mercy (Toni Morrison), and Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins). I mention Hunger Games because a huge chunk of my reading time is spent in young adult fiction. The amazing thing about the YA market is the wide-open mind its readers have. Anything goes: sparkling vampires, an orphan boy-wizard fighting evil, steampunk, alternate history, time travel, medical horror, kid secret agents . . . Anything goes. It keeps my imagination sharp and reminds me to never shut the door on what can and can’t be done. Anything can be done if I write it correctly.
Which movies or TV shows do you like the most?
Castle, obviously, right? But there are always rotating favorites that captured me at one time or another for their stories or characters. X-Files, Lois and Clark, Lost, Veronica Mars, Doctor Who, Downton Abbey (a new favorite), Blood on the Wire, Bones, MI:5, The OC, Battlestar Galactica, How I Met Your Mother, Arrested Development, The Office, West Wing, Friends, Remington Steele, 24. . .oh I could go on and on.
As for movies, I like an eclectic mix of horror and family and comedy. I can’t explain why a movie will strike me, but I do know when it works. Memento, The Sound of Music, It’s a Wonderful Life, Stranger than Fiction, Laws of Attraction, Two Weeks’ Notice, Fight Club, The Nines, Donnie Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joe vs the Volcano, Love Actually, Mr & Mrs Smith, Moulin Rouge, The Natural, Raising Arizona, Spanglish, Secret of My Success, oh and the Back to the Future series, Stigmata, Stir of Echoes (which no one ever knows, but it’s Kevin Bacon and so freaky), Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, and What About Bob?. . . just to, uh, name only a few.
What do you do in your spare time beside writing?
Not much? Haha, no actually, I’ve got an active spiritual life, and I spend a lot of time with the kids in my church’s youth group. I teach tenth grade girls on Sunday mornings, I mentor a few girls during the week, and I volunteer in our women’s ministry, doing an odd assortment of things. Because I work at a school, I have my summers off, which allows me to focus on novels and on youth group stuff. I have a group of good friends who get together during the week for dinner, and I jazzercise almost every day; I love a good aerobic workout, and the music and the moves keep my brain interested. I read like crazy too, but I’ll read good fanfics too if friends have recommended them to me. I’m in a book club at work, and I’ve been forced to read things I never would have picked up. I suggest everyone get in a low-pressure book club and just try it.
Finally, I love San Francisco Giants baseball. Pitchers and catchers report for spring training in ten days, and I’ve never been more ready for baseball! My twitter account will soon be flooded with comments including the #sfgiants tag, and hordes of friends will be unfollowing me due to my rampant, rabid love of Giants baseball. I have undying loyalty to the 2010 team – your 2010 World Series Champions – but the whole history of Giants baseball has been with me since I was a kid. Baseball has a way of cropping up in everything I write.
You quote Kierkegaard at the end of your emails, which I find interesting. Any story behind that?
I always like to end with a quote in my signature, and before Kierkegaard it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and before her, it was Annie Dillard.
Browning’s quote was “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God.” The idea being that God comes down and touches everything, but how many of us are looking? It’s a reminder to myself to look for him, his mystery and love and grace, wherever I’m at, because he’s not far from me.
Dillard’s line was from Holy the Firm, “What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burned out, any muck ready to hand?” Dillard’s words are a balm and a comfort for me when I realize that I’ve been cannibalizing my life, my family’s life, my friends’ lives for my writing. Because what else do I have? What else is this all for, but to be resuscitated in a story, a poem, to bring life to the reader?
“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.”
Kierkegaard’s quote is a reminder that it’s so easy to lose track of who you are, whose you are, in the middle of a busy and self-centered life, even in the middle of the writing life. And more importantly, I think, is that it reminds me there are people who go quietly out of the world, lost without love or hope, and if something I say or write, some small thing, can help those people remember who they are and whose they are as well – that they are Created and loved and not alone, never alone – then that is worth it, worth all of this.
Note: We initially provided two commenting systems but this was causing tech problems, so we’ve removed the Facebook comments plug-in. Unfortunately, that means all Facebook comments were automatically removed too. Sorry to those readers who commented! We miss your words. If you’d like to comment again, please do.