I recently interviewed author Tara Ison, who just published her second novel, The List. We talked about the experience of writing The List in comparison to A Child Out of Alcatraz (her first novel), her relationship to Los Angeles, and partying on the roof of the Holiday Inn.
BookFox: The two main characters in “The List”, Isabel and Al, both see the world through particular frames – Isabel sees the world through medical spectacles, while Al views the world through a movie camera. How did you prepare yourself to channel such film-centric and medical-centric characters?
Tara Ison: I began with a rough idea of who Isabel and Al were, but they really developed as I researched their backgrounds, specifically the medical workings of the heart/eye/hand, and then a crash course in cinema history/technology. Studying facts and figures, for me, is like a treasure hunt – it provides the foundation for a character’s specific frame of reference and knowledge base, but also offers insight into how a character views the world, that “lens” the characters look through. I like the feeling of a core metaphor for each person, the defining characteristic you then develop and expand outward. Isabel is so frightened by the mess of simply “feeling” things and giving in to that, she really needs the assurance of what can be proven, tested, scientifically observed; Al relies on the more emotional/visceral/visual experience of life, but he’s still stuck in a kind of passivity, he wants to observe life rather than commit to participating. And writing the novel in alternating Isabel/Al chapters helped ground me in each character’s point of view.
BookFox: Do you – and if so, how – think Isabel’s and Al’s relationship represents the relational zeitgeist?
Ison: I hope not – maybe it just represents my own relational zeitgeist….! I suppose some people truly want the kind of relationship/love that’s about stability, comfort, companionship, being part of a team – and others crave the drama of a relationship that’s always up and down, extreme. Maybe it’s all about expectations? But I’m both highly cynical and highly romantic…. That “you complete me” concept of relationships is quite awful to me – how can you be a true partner in a healthy relationship if you aren’t already a whole person? On the other hand – I do buy into that fantasy of being completed/fulfilled, like two puzzle pieces fitting together. So – maybe Isabel and Al represent the complexity of all of that….
BookFox: There’s a strong attract/repulse relationship between the two main characters, but the book seems to have an unequivocal attraction to Los Angeles. What’s your relationship with the city?
Ison: Ambivalent. I grew up here, lived most of my life here – so there’s some of that love/hate, push/pull, attract/repulse people often have with their hometown. I’ve often left, but somehow keep coming back…. The best thing about LA is that it contains everything – snow, ocean, noir, sunshine, Trader Joe’s, silicone, film, eucalyptus, every possible kind of language and food… The rich texture of this place is great for fiction – I think LA is almost a partner in Isabel and Al’s relationship.
BookFox: The drain in Lake Hollywood is especially central to the novel. How did you create it as an important metaphor?
Ison: There’s a hiking path up around the lake – I saw it for the first time a long time ago, and knew I had to “use” it some day, it was such a stunning image. There’s something about watching a lake disappear into itself – it’s like a black hole. And emotionally/psychologically, that’s where Isabel and Al wind up, so empty and drained – I always knew they’d end up there. That image was always in the story, from the very beginning, something I was always working toward.
BookFox: I won’t ask for any autobiographical specifics about the Planetarium chapter in the novel, but I must ask about the Holiday Inn – Did you ever sleep on the roof like the protagonists?
Ison: Didn’t sleep on the roof – but I did sneak up there once to hang out and party, probably in my late teens. The view is incredible. Back in my screenwriter days, I used it in a movie, too – a bunch of slacker guys are hanging out up there and pee off the roof. That Holiday Inn doesn’t exist anymore, unfortunately. (Maybe because people were sneaking up there to party and pee….)
BookFox: How do you think you’ve evolved, either in the process or the product, from the experience of writing A Child Out of Alcatraz?
Ison: It’s sort of like your first love v. an older, more mature relationship….there was complete innocence and naivety when I wrote A Child out of Alcatraz – it was the first fiction I’d written, zero expectations, no external voices in my head. In a way the writing gets easier, because you can remind yourself you’ve gotten through it before… but with each new story, each new sentence, you’re recreating a world all over again, and that puts you right back to the first moment you ever picked up a pen! And you always want to recreate the world in a new way – which can be a lot of pressure, if you allow yourself to get sucked in to that. And the only way not to get sucked in/overwhelmed is to push yourself to go deeper, toward what feels ineffable, elusive. In a way I feel far more sure of myself as a writer – and at the same time, paradoxically, far more terrified.
BookFox: Who are you reading now and where did you find them?
Ison: I’ve actually been reading mostly nonfiction – I can’t read contemporary fiction when I’m in the middle of a writing binge, it messes up my head. So I have a stack of new fiction on my nightstand I’m itching to get into. It’s great when friends recommend writers I’m not familiar with – one of my favorite things to do is wander a bookstore with a serious reader and recommend books to each other. Here’s some stuff I’ve read recently or is awaiting me:
Our Ecstatic Days, Steve Erickson
The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
Little Children ,Tom Perotta
The Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad
Stories In The Worst Way, Gary Lutz
The Daydreaming Boy, Micheline Aharonian Marcom
In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, William Gass
Stiff, by Mary Roach
My Holocaust, Tova Reich
Christine Falls/The Sea/Shroud, John Banville
BookFox: What are you working on next?
Ison: Two novels-in-progress right now – one is more similar to A Child Out of Alcatraz, in that it’s historical – the other more similar to The List, contemporary dysfunction. But the time has come to choose one, and commit. (Lots of “relationship” metaphors in these answers, aren’t there…?)