Interview with Ericka Lutz

Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:

An interview with Ericka Lutz

By Nancy Au

Ericka Lutz is the author of the recently published novel The Edge of Maybe. Her seven non-fiction books include On the Go with Baby and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stepparenting, and her short fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in numerous books, anthologies, and journals, including Literary Mama, Because I Love Her, Paris: A Love Story, and Green Mountains Review. She won the Boston Fiction Festival in 2006 with her story “Deer Story,” and was a two-time fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her full-length solo show “A Widow’s To-Do List” is in development. She teaches writing at U.C. Berkeley. She is currently writing a second novel based in Oakland about family ties… but this one has ghosts.

1.) Your new novel, The Edge of Maybe, has a hilarious bite to it. Oakland, the city, feels like a character itself, not just a setting for the story. As an Oakland resident myself, I have learned to laugh at the lectures I receive from strangers about tossing my recycling into the trash, leashing my dog on walks, driving instead of cycling. But your book reveals that there is much more below the surface. Was there any point in your writing when you considered changing the setting? How important was it to you that the story take place in Oakland?

Ericka Lutz (EL): The Oakland and Berkeley settings are intrinsic to the book, which is, as much as anything else, my reflection on the time, place, and community I live in. In fact, my original title for the book was “The Oaklanders,” and my working internal subtitle was “How we live now.” I’m so fascinated by this little bubble of mostly-white, middle-class progressive living in the midst of a diverse urban environment. Here, we live among people of all cultures and ethnicities, we pride ourselves on diversity and inclusivity, yet we mostly hang out with other people just like us. So, we can be shocked when people with other perspectives and values land on our doorsteps, which is what happens in The Edge of Maybe.

Oakland has similarities to other enclaves of West Coast progressivity: Santa Cruz, Portland, even San Francisco, but there’s a lot that’s specific to here, to now. And not many people are writing about it. Perhaps we’re afraid that pointing out our own faults and ridiculousness challenges the sincere and worthy premises behind our actions and beliefs.

In The Edge of Maybe, I do take a satirical approach to this community, but it’s satire with love. You can be progressive, and somewhat PC, and be a foodie concerned with sustainability and eating locally etcetera, and still laugh at yourself, I think. At some point, one of the characters in the book muses on the line between observer and participant. Writing this novel about these Oakland-based characters, I got to be both.

2.)  You also performed a one-woman show, A Widow’s To Do List. Do you translate fiction writing onto the stage, or do you begin with an entirely different creative process? What elements of story are involved or modified to suit the performance art form?

EL: Developing work for solo performance, at least the way I was taught to do it by my teacher W. Kamau Bell and the Solo Performance Workshop, is less about “page to stage” and more about “stage to page.” In other words, while I eventually end up with a strict script that I internalize and perform word-for-word, my pieces are developed orally through improvisation and through reading scraps of notes and getting feedback from collaborators.  It’s ironic that the best solo work is often developed in a group.

When I’m doing solo performance sometimes my writing background is a liability, because I keep wanting to write it out first. But generally if I bring in written material to a rehearsal it sounds stilted, rather than spoken/lived/breathed. So, often I’ll write something out because I think best on paper, but then I’ll get up in rehearsal without what I’ve written and paraphrase it from memory. It’s scary for me to work without paper, but it seems to work best. I record the rehearsal, go home and write down the pieces that worked, then come in with more ideas to improv next rehearsal, and go back and forth like that.

It also always surprises me how far a small amount of material goes on stage. So, it’s really a matter of paring down to the essentials.

3.) You are the author of seven non-fiction books. What techniques, beyond the obvious, are necessary to non-fiction writing but not in fiction writing?  What advice do you have for nonfiction writers who want to write fiction?

EL: It’s hard to answer your question about non-fiction techniques because non-fiction is such a broad area. Are we talking advice books? Newspaper articles? Academic papers? Memoir or personal essay?

I believe that non-fiction and fiction are both best when they tell truths, use specific details, and have a great narrative arc. So, they really aren’t so very different.

Technically, I find fiction harder because I have to taunt and bribe and seduce my characters into telling me what they want to do. But emotionally, memoir and personal essay might be harder to write than fiction, and I’ve needed to figure out special strategies to defeat my Evil Editor. Because when the story is personal, I worry about what other people will think, and about questions of privacy and exposure.

In fiction, I get to hide behind the line, “Oh, I made it up!”  (On the other hand, sometimes fiction exposes more than non-fiction. In non-fiction I can control what revelations I share. Fiction reveals so much about the author.) Actually, people are often frightened by the concept of writing fiction, though the technical tools are the same.  My advice is to start with real life material, whether something that’s happened to you, or a news story that piqued your interest, or something that happened to a friend or family member.  Then, change one small but intrinsic thing.

For instance, if you want to base a story on your first heartbreak – but make it fiction – then keep a lot of the details the same, but change something key about the main character. Like the gender. Or even the hair color. If the main character (based originally on you) weighs 200 pounds more than you and is a man rather than a woman, than that will likely have ramifications on how that character experiences life, and that heartbreak, and how people respond to that character.

Now, add in something else real but altered. Yes, the breakup happens on a dark and stormy night. But what if that storm happens in rural Arkansas rather than in New York City. And what if you throw in your best friend’s suicide attempt in college? Seemingly random pairings of unlike things often combine in wonderful ways.

(Years ago, I performed a monologue from Chekhov’s The Seagull while showing the audience a large photo of mating slugs. It brought a whole new perspective to Nina. I like to bring a similar [kind] of surprise to my writing as well, and combining seemingly unlike things can do that.)

Now you’re off adventuring in a parallel universe.  Add and change more things. It’s chemistry. What happens when you add This + That? What happens next? And after that? Trust your weird intuition. And don’t be afraid to wander down a lot of dark alleys before you find the right road through the material.

4.)  In The Edge of Maybe you use evocative, dense descriptive action to convey emotion, to reveal something about your characters. When Kira went to retrieve her abandoned groceries, she “stooped and gathered together the broken fragments of succulent and slid them in her blazer pocket.” All at once, I was hit by the immensity of what Kira had just lost after meeting Amber – a life that Kira had built together with Adam was broken to pieces, just as the young boy, Joey “stripped years of growth from the succulent – snap!” How do you balance moving a story forward without being weighted down by too much description?

EL: I have no idea how the hell to balance anything (even a checkbook) when I’m in the middle of a first draft. That all happens in the editing and rewriting of the many, many later drafts I do of a book. My first draft is all about letting intuition guide me, and “laying track,” that is, getting many many words down. Once I’ve created my first completely shaggy, bowl-of-Jello-like first draft – in which I’ve mostly concentrated on emotional blurting and character and plot development and scenic description – I can focus on the “stretch and squish” part of writing. I think about the whole arc and read the manuscript really fast many times for flow. I take out words/phrases/passages to speed up the action. I add in description when I need another rhythmic beat. I cut whole huge chunks and weep. I re-envision, rewrite, ad nauseum. I tell myself, “You have to grow a tree before you can prune it,” and mostly I believe myself.

And then I realize things within the mess that I’ve written. “Oh, the bit with the succulent is so cool, because succulents take so long to grow but are really so fragile, but, if treated right, every little broken off fragment will eventually re-root!” And then I’m pleased with myself for being so intuitively smart, and it’s all worth it.

5.) After having lived in the East Bay for over ten years, I’ve found that Berkeley Bowl offers some of the best grocery shopping in Berkeley. Which location would you recommend for first time “Bowlers?” The original “Bowl” on Oregon Street? Or its “sister store” on Heinz Street?  And why?

EL: I live in Oakland, so I rarely shop in Berkeley, though of course I had to put Berkeley Bowl in The Edge of Maybe. It’s an institution!

When I do shop there, I go to the original Bowl. Actually, it isn’t the original original Bowl – that Bowl was across the street on the site of an old bowling alley, hence the name, and the aisles were so narrow that there were regular shopping cart bumper car battles fought daily. I’ve only been to the Heinz Street store twice. It’s an easier experience because you can actually park …  but it doesn’t have the charm of the Oregon Street location, and maybe not as many delicious choices of berries.