Lian Dolan is a writer, best-selling novelist , speaker, producer and award-winning talk show host. She is known for her humorous take on the day-to-day issues that modern women face. She is a Satellite Sister, a Chaos Chronicler, a relationship columnist at oprah.com and the author of Helen of Pasadena. Lian lives in Pasadena, California with her husband, two boys and one big dog.
Now that we know some basics about her... let's dig a little deeper and the full story...
Where are you from?
I grew up in Connecticut but now Live in Pasadena, California.
Tell us your latest news?
Helen of Pasadena is still on the Los Angles Times Paperback Fiction Bestseller, right there in between The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Great Gatsby! I’ll take that spot any day!
When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I always loved writing, but never officially studied any form of creative writing until I was in my late 20’s and took a screenwriting class. Because that’s the law if you live in LA. But writing has always been a function of my job post-college, first as a producer then as a radio host. Because of Satellite Sisters, my sisters and I had an opportunity to release a collection of essays called Satellite Sisters UnCommon Senses in 2001. After that, I finally felt like a “writer.” When I got a call from my publisher that O, the Oprah Magazine was going to excerpt one of my essays from the book, I started to cry. That was a huge stamp of approval for me, personally and professionally. It gave me a real confidence boost. That book lead to two regular magazine columns in O and Working Mother, then a zillion blogs post, and a sold TV pilot that I just turned into Nickelodeon. Writing fiction came after all that.
What inspired you to write your first book?
Unemployment! I had been doing a six- day- a -week radio show for a decade, and I suddenly found myself out of work with a lot of time on my hands and no new job prospects. So I finally sat down to write my first novel Helen of Pasadena, after 20 years of writing in almost every other form from essays to ad copywriting to cocktail party invitations. I knew I wanted to write a book like the kind of books I like to read. To me, that meant a novel with a touch of history, a touch of romance and a big wallop of funny. I was inspired by Helen of Troy and by a real housewife of Pasadena who told me her story of a marriage gone horribly wrong about ten years ago.
Do you have a specific writing routine?
I am a serious outliner. I don’t know how a writer could sit down and start typing page one without knowing what was going to happen on page 300! Not me. I plot, use index cards, have details descriptions of scenes and conflicts before I write anything! Always have, since term papers in high school. Did some key plots points come to me mid- book? Of course. But I had about 70% of the book plotted before I typed a word.
Also, I am very disciplined about putting in the time and making sure that I write most days of the week at the same time. The schedule helps me to plow through any kind of writer’s block or issues I might have with a scene. Just get it on paper first, then you can make it sing.
How did you come up with the title?
There is a Helen of Troy leitmotif in the book. Helen of Pasadena was the only title I considered.
A lot of women find themselves at mid-life not quite leading the lives they had imagined they would be leading, due to divorce or illness or a zillion other reasons. But that doesn’t mean you can make the second half of your life exciting and interesting, even if it doesn’t quite follow a traditional path.
How much of the book is realistic? Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
For the history, I turned to a subject matter that I had stashed in my back pocket for a long time: Helen of Troy. I was a Classics major in college, having concentrated on Bronze Age history like the Trojans, the Minoans and the Greeks. Helen of Troy always seemed like the most misunderstood woman in ancient history. Did she leave her husband cuckolded or was she kidnapped? There’s much debate over that in Classics circles. And sure, she was the face that launched a thousand ships, but then what happened to her? Nobody really knows for sure where Helen ended up after the Trojan War. Did she go home to her husband? Did she stay in Troy? Maybe move on to another fabulous Greek Isle with a young warrior. For me as a contemporary fiction writer, I thought using Helen of Troy’s misunderstood existence was a great jumping off place for a modern woman trying to reclaim her own identity after 15 years of a marriage that involved a lot of compromises.
For the romance, I turned to the classic structure of movie romantic comedies. In addition to reading lots of novels in my genre, I used the movies as an inspiration for the meet/cute, the arc of the second act, the inevitable separation of the lovers and then the reunion. I tried to create two main character, Helen and her archaeologist boss Patrick who were engaging and flawed, but definitely a couple you were wanted to see get together. Having studied screenwriting and having the experience of completing several romantic comedy screenplays really helped me keep the pace up in my prose writing. In screenplays, the stakes have to build every scene with out any wasted words. I really tried to keep the action in Helen of Pasadena tight and the obstacles for Helen and Patrick coming at a brisk pace. But, I also wanted there to be those “movie moments” that seem to slow down and gave the readers butterflies, just like when you are watching a really great rom/com. And to make sure that happened, I gave Patrick a really great head of hair and Helen some really good clothes!
For the funny, I relied on the observations I’d made over the last 17 years living in a town like Pasadena. It’s a place with a rich cultural history and a modern energy, but right in the middle, there is a subset of very traditional, hierarchical society. It seemed like a ripe setting for a novel that satirizes with love. My goal was to avoid the snarky and concentrate on the similarities of the characters, not the differences. Some of the sharpest lines in the book are actual quotes that I’ve heard and remembered for years. It’s hard to be “how to write funny” into words, but I’d say: be open, observe without judgment, then refine.
What book influenced your life most?
I’ll have to go way back for this one, but I think most writers have a book from childhood that cemented their love of the written word. For me, that book was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet was a tween girl who loved tomato sandwiches and writing down sharp, funny, honest observations about her friends and neighbors. It got her into all kinds of trouble, but it also taught those same family and friends some lessons. Harriet was my kind of girl. That book really made me want to be a writer.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Can I choose three? I am a big fan of Nick Hornby. He writes funny, funny books about relationships that have just the right amount of heart. Also, Nora Ephron who can write anything—a screenplay, an Op Ed piece, or an essay. Her unique voice comes through, no matter what the format. And, finally, I love Anna Quindlen, because she started as a journalist and essayist and has transitioned to fiction writing. She’s a role model for me in terms of her career path.
What book are you reading now?
I just started a historical novel called Elizabeth I by Margaret George. I love historical fiction. It’s the opposite of what I write, in a sense. I like writing about contemporary women who have historical women as role models. True historical fiction opens up the past. I learn from it as much as I am entertained by it.
What are your current projects? Can you share a little of your current work with us?
I just turned in a TV pilot for Nickelodeon, a half -hour comedy based on my life as a working mom called The Chaos Chronicles. Now, I am onto my next book. I don’t really like to talk about a work in progress. I’m a little superstitious. But I will say that it is set in Pasadena, has a different set of characters and using the same construct of a historical woman inspiring a contemporary woman.
Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
I could not have written Helen of Pasadena without the help of my writer’s group, the Hell-Raising Heroines! Helen of Pasadena would still be in outline form instead of on shelves in bookstores everywhere. For a year, the HRH stuck with me, offering their competent guidance. They helped me shape every page of Helen of Pasadena and keep me on track. Too many writers try to go it alone or bristle at an honest critique out of some kind of hubris. Opening myself and my book up to other writer for commentary made me a better writer. I welcomed their suggestions, enthusiasm and good humor. Thank you, Hell-raising Heroines.
What was the most rewarding part of writing? The least rewarding?
Let’s start with the most rewarding. And that is easily the idea that something you have written has actually changed another person’s life. Outside of fiction, I do a lot of personal essays and advice-driven pieces. And when reader contacts me to say that my words have made then change their mind or rethink their life in some way, that is immensely rewarding.
Now, I m starting to hear from women who have already finished Helen of Pasadena that the main character Helen is inspiring to them. She is a woman who loses everything and has to rebuild her life from the ground up. And, even though it’s a comedic novel, readers are finding Helen’s story and spirit contagious. The best for me.
The least rewarding? Definitely watching the fees and respect for professional writers dwindle. It’s very difficult to hang on as a writer when all people want to pay is “exposure.” I don’t get it.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I wish I had had the guts to write fiction sooner! I’m sorry I waited until I was 45 to give it a whirl.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Do the work. And by that I mean, put the time into writing the best book possible, not worrying about getting an agent before you have the first chapter! I talk to a lot of writers who seem to forget that they have to finish, to rewrite and then to polish the manuscript before they can start moaning about how hard it is to get an agent. Writing a book can take years. Put in the time. Focus on the writing. Do the work.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Thanks for the tremendous support. I have loved talking to so many readers and book clubs over the last 6 months. Now, I have to put on my sweats and my Ugg boots and get back to the solo business of writing! See you in a year!
Thank you to Lian Dolan for doing an interview with us and for donating a book to GIVEAWAY...
Deadline to enter is June 27, 2011 @ NOON California time...
Winner will be announced on the GIVEAWAY PAGE
There will be ONE LUCKY WINNERS!
Please be sure to leave your email address if you do not have a link to your site!
Bonne Chance - Good Luck!