Interview: Liza Gyllenhaal

Jen: Today we are excited to welcome Liza Gyllenhaal to Romancing the Book. Liza, will you share a short bio with us?
Liza: I’m the author of the novels Local Knowledge and So Near, both also published by NAL and set in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts where my husband and I have a weekend cottage.  I worked in advertising and publishing for many years before starting my own advertising agency which specialized in book publishers.  I sold the agency several years ago in order to start writing full-time.  I’m an avid gardener, voracious reader, and occasional blogger.  For more information, please visit my web-site http://www.lizagyllenhaal.com.

Jen: Please tell us about your newest release.
Liza: A Place for Us explores the consequences of a night of underage drinking and sexual assault in a small, close-knit community in Massachusetts.  The wealthy parents in whose home the drinking took place are sued under the “Social Host Liability” law and the story plays out through a prism of differing points of view — two of the teenagers involved in the incident and the parents of the accused.

The novel was sparked by a news story I heard a few years ago on our local public radio station in Massachusetts about a married couple who were being arraigned under the Social Host Liability law. Two teenagers had been seriously injured in a car crash after drinking with the couple’s son at a party in the family’s basement.  Though the parents had been asleep upstairs and unaware of the underage drinking, one of the injured teenager’s family was bringing a law suit against the couple. Understandably, the rural community where the accident occurred was upset  about the incident — but also divided about where the responsibility rested.  As someone who loves writing about families and small towns, the story couldn’t help but capture my imagination.

It also brought back to me a tragedy from my girlhood — two teenagers from my town who were killed in a car accident on their prom night; a bottle of whiskey was found in the front seat. As I began writing the novel, a very similar incident took place in a town not far from us in the Berkshires.  In this case, tragically, one of the teenagers involved in it was killed. This senseless death brought home to me how serious and pertinent  — and ongoing — the problem of underage drinking remains.

Jen: What kind of research did you do for this book?
Liza: I spent a lot of time on the internet reading up on the Social Host Liability law and the many cases in Massachusetts that have resulted from the law’s passage.  The more time I spent researching different stories and exploring various sites, the more the name of Richard P. Campbell kept cropping up.  Digging a little deeper, I discovered that Mr. Campbell is the founder of a prestigious law firm in Boston, President of the Massachusetts Bar Association, and a driving force behind Social Host Liability legislation. He created a multi-media program, Be A Parent, Not A Pal, to educate students, parents, teachers, and members of the community about the Social Host Liability law. It’s a first-rate tutorial on the subject.  For more information, please see: http://www.socialhostliability.org/programs/beaparent.php.

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to interview Mr. Campbell by phone one afternoon.  He had agreed to a one-hour session, but we ended up talking for much longer than that.  He was outspoken and full of great anecdotes. And he was tremendously helpful, clarifying many complicated legal issues for me. He was also a passionate spokesperson for a cause he obviously believes in very deeply.

Jen: Do you have a writing routine?
Liza: My husband and I divide our time between New York City and the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. When we’re in the city, I read and write in my husband’s Eames chair (which I’ve completely commandeered). When I sold my advertising agency several years ago, I was able to buy my dream — a place in the country which included a small farmhouse and an old horse stable which became my “writing studio.” It still has the old iron stall feeders and leather harnesses on the walls. It remains permeated by a wonderful smell of animal and old hay.

I wake up early and reread and rewrite on my laptop in the house, but in the afternoon I go out to the studio, bolt the door, and start the hard work of writing the next new word, sentence, paragraph, chapter. In the winter I have a fire going in the Jotul stove, in the summer I have all the windows open and can hear the seasonal brook and birdsong. In the summer I can watch our family of wild turkeys parading up and down in the old paddock. Other sightings: woodchuck, coyote, fox, and early last spring, when the trees were just greening out, a big black bear. It was a breathtaking moment when this wall of darkness lumbered right past me — so close that, if the window had been open, I could have reached out and run my hand through the bear’s ink-black fur.

Jen: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading now?
Liza: I read a lot — poetry, fiction, history, memoir.  I loved spending time in 18th century Russia with Robert Massie’s fascinating biography of Catherine the Great. Recently, I relived the Kennedy assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s remarkable early achievements as President via Robert Caro’s latest installment of Johnson’s life.  I loved Anne Patchett’s most recent novel State of Wonder and Edith Pearlman’s collection of short stories Binocular Vision. I’m currently writing a new novel that revolves around a mystery, so I recently reread all my favorite P.D. James novels and I’m currently working my way through Agatha Christie.  After Nora Ephron’s death, I read everything she wrote in book form — and laughed out loud for a couple of days.

Jen: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Liza: I’m definitely a plotter.  I’ve found that working from a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline actually frees me to concentrate on the characters and writing.  I can put the plot — which should be hidden anyway — in the back of my mind when I work.  It also keeps me from going off the tracks too often.

Jen: How do you come up with characters names?
Liza: I take many of my characters’ last names from my hometown: Bostock, Alden, Horigan from my recent books are all the names of real families.  Pendleton which I use in A Place for Us is actually my father’s mother’s family name.  I chose first names that just feel right to me for whatever reason.  And the “find/change” option in Word makes it easy to swap out and try new names whenever the urge arises.

Jen: Describe your writing in 3 words
Liza: Family, small town.

Jen: What’s next for you?
Liza: I’m starting to write a new novel with a mystery at its heart which, I’m delighted to report, NAL will be publishing.  It won’t be a traditional police procedural, though someone will be murdered and the story will explore the reasons why — and probably end with the discovery of who did it.  But I’m hoping the novel will be more about the characters and the small New England community where they live.  I’m an avid amateur gardener and I loved writing about gardening in So Near and talking about my garden on my blog, so I’m pretty sure I want my main character to be a landscape architect/professional gardener.  I also know who gets killed — and when.  But I still have a lot of things I need to figure out.  A lot of the joy of writing — just as it is in reading — is discovering what’s going to happen next.