Tara Ison’s second novel The List is just out. The novel’s description: For anyone who has ever broken up with someone…a smart, sophisticated, and darkly comic novel about a dysfunctional couple who make a list of 10 things to do before they break up. I asked Tara some serious and some, um, less serious questions about her process, MFA programs and high fashion and she was kind enough to answer.
GB: My readers like the process talk (or "write porn," as I call it), so can you tell me a little about how you developed the idea for this book and your day-to-day writing process.
Tara Ison: "Write-porn"!!!! I LOVE that. Well, way back in my screenwriter days, I wanted to write a light, frothy, bubbly, gimmicky romantic comedy spec script my agent could sell for a million dollars. And I was in a relationship that wasn’t going any where, but we couldn’t quite let go…so we started joking about "making a list" of stuff to do before we broke up…which, of course, turned into the idea for the romantic comedy script. So, I wrote it, and it was dreadful — I was trying so hard to write something happy & frothy & commercial, but all I was really interested in was the darker psychology of the characters, and the destructive power of love, etc. Doesn’t exactly make for a "fun" romantic comedy! So, I put it down, but never got the idea out of my head. And decided a few years ago to completely reconceptualize it as a novel — where I could spend a lot of time inside my character’s heads, play with language and theme and metaphor, and completely forget about "commercial." The "gimmick" of the list is really just the MacGuffin, the device/excuse to keep the story going (Al and his friend even comment on that in the book….) but I think the real heart of the story is elsewhere…. (Also — even though the idea grew out of a "real" moment in my life, the characters and storyline are entirely fictional.)
My day-to-day writing process is awful. I have the worst work habits — I’d rather clean my bathroom than write. So it isn’t even "day-to-day" — because I don’t really write everyday (although I’d probably be far more productive if I did….). I’m more of a binge writer, where I’ll go a few days in a row entirely consumed by the work, then stop for a few days. I also find it hard to write at home — I like to take my laptop out to a café or bookstore and work out in the world. There’s something about having to shut out the white noise and distractions that actually helps me focus. Funny, how everyone has these little tricks…. But whatever works, right?
GB: What advice would you give someone in a relationship like the one in The List?
Tara Ison: First, I’d say: don’t make a list! It doesn’t really work out for Isabel and Al, does it? On the other hand — I think they do grow/learn quite a lot about themselves and each other, so maybe it was a good idea for them…. I’m really the very last person to give relationship advice, but since you’re asking….if you’re in one of those intense love/hate/mismatched/rollercoaster dynamics, I’d say ask yourself if you’re someone who’s really looking for drama or peace in your life, and at least be honest about that. All relationships take work, of course, but if it ceases to be productive, if all that’s left is the rollercoaster — well, then that wild ride itself is probably the attraction, right? So if that’s what you want, keep going. If you want a more stable path, make the life choices that will lead you to that.
GB: MFA programs seem to come in for a lot of criticism, especially online. I notice you not only have an MFA from Bennington, but now teach in the MFA program at Antioch. What was your experience as a student and how do you feel about the usual criticisms against "workshop writing"?
Tara Ison: The whole point to getting an MFA, I think, is the opportunity to explore issues of craft and the exposure to other writers and kinds of writing — the ultimate goal is to hone and develop your own idiosyncratic voice, and grad school can be invaluable for that. But there are indeed some programs/writing instructors who are more interested in forcing an aesthetic on people — and yes, you don’t want the homogenizing effect of a workshop. (No one should write by committee!) So the trick is being open to the often-helpful feedback and exploration you get in grad school, and being willing to make a lot of messes in your work, without trying to please everyone or being unduly influenced. It’s really about learning to trust your own instincts — once those instincts have been tested, challenged, exercised. I’m a huge fan of low-residency MFA programs, such as Antioch’s and Bennington’s (as opposed to strictly "online" programs — that’s like a correspondence course degree!) The residency period gives you the social interaction and more-traditional academic rigor of seminars and workshops, while the project period — where you’re off on your own, in your cave, writing writing writing — is much better preparation for the writing life than conventional programs.
GB: Finally, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, which you co-wrote, is one of those movies I end up stopping for every time I’m flipping through and see it on (and it seems to endlessly re-run). I particularly love the tongue-in-cheek fantasy fashion design in the movie. My question is: Would you wear one of Rose Lindsey’s fabulous ensembles, say a business suit with a giant insect on the lapel, and under what circumstances?
Tara Ison: OK, this is the BEST question ever. I’m actually cranky about the fashion stuff in the movie — the fashion show at the end was supposed to be about Swell taking the uniforms and "modifying" them for teens, but it didn’t really look like that — and it could have been much funnier. Oh, well. As for Rose’s ensembles — I’ve never worn a business suit in my life! But I did like that big insect she wore on her shoulder. I think there’s some designer right now who really does use insects in her fashions, like giant beetles stuck together to make a vest…? Hmmm…. I’m not a designer but I am a compulsive knitter, and I have to say, I’ve made myself some pretty questionable getups….lucky I have such kind and diplomatic friends…. Sidenote: there’s talk of a Don’t Tell Mom… remake! Wouldn’t that be a hoot?
For Tara’s upcoming reading schedule, click below. You can catch her tonight at the Borders in Century City, where she may or may not be wearing an ensemble with a giant insect on it.
March 6: Reading at Borders Century City
Tuesday, 7 pm
10250 Santa Monica Blvd.
Century City, CA
March 8: Reading at Edinburgh Castle Pub
Thursday, 8 pm
950 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA
March 17: Reading/Party at Dutton’s Brentwood
Saturday, 2 pm
11975 San Vicente Blvd.
March 21: Tara Ison interviews John Banville
Wednesday, 7 pm
Los Angeles Public Library, Central Branch
March 29: Reading at Books & Co.
Thursday, 7 pm
Town & Country Shopping Center
350 E. Stroop Rd.
March 30: Reading at The Chopin Theatre
Friday, 7 PM
1543 W. Division St.
April 22: Reading at Rhapsodomancy
The Good Luck Bar
1514 Hillhurst Avenue
Los Angeles, CA
April 28-29: Panelist/Reading
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
June 16-23: Guest Faculty
Kenyon Review Writers Workshop
June 27: Reading, The Thurber House Literary Picnic