This is the first of a new series of interviews profiling my fellow writers from Taos Toolbox. First up, fellow teacher Lis Bass.
Tamago: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Lis: In 6th grade, my teacher allowed us to choose our own topic for an essay. This was a first and I took it seriously. I was a fugue reader—disappearing into books, preferring long ones so that I could live in them. I was amazed by the power of writers to create reality—their worlds seemed truer that daily life to me because they allowed me intimate access to people’s lives and minds. After being given this writing task, I woke having had a complex dream-story. I rendered it to the best of my ability, and then wrote the last line, “And it was all a dream.”
I received an A for the essay, but the teacher had crossed out the last line, telling me that it diminished the essay. But I told her it really had been a dream. She said, “no matter.”
I walked home that day and slowly tore the essay to tiny bits, littering as I walked, saving the big red A for the final destruction. I was not a litterer and so knew that I was doing something quite wrong, but it was my response to what I felt was wrong—I wanted writing to be true. I stopped writing, but I knew at some level that this was something I always would want to do more than anything else. I focused on studying literature and politics, and kept my writing private until I turned 50.
Tamago: Which writers influence your work? Who are your favorite writers?
Lis: I read voraciously, all genres. My Master’s degree focus was on African-American women writers. Their heroic trope of surviving the daily assaults of life and keeping on moving resonated with me. I breathed in Virginia Woolf in college; she remains important to me. I love multicultural literature and genre literature (murder mystery, sf, fantasy, YA).
If I started listing my favorite authors, this essay would run forever but here are a few: Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Junot Diaz, Marge Piercy, Sherman Alexie, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpi Lahiri, Lesley Marmon Silko, Zadie Smith. Genre: Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mercedes Lackey, Terry Pratchett, Anne McCaffrey, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ann Rice, Raymond Feist, David Eddings, Tamara Pierce, Mickey Zucker Reichert, J. D. Robb, Laurie King, Faye Kellerman, Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosely, Robin Hobb, Kim Harrison, Cory Doctorow… too many!
Tamago: How would you describe the kind of writing you do?
Lis: I am trying to revise a novel that takes place in the future. I am distraught by the onslaught of dystopian visions (though I understand how the imagination moves in that direction). I’d like my work to be utopian (with a vision of human environmental survival), but am having trouble with the emotional plotting. I’m also fascinated with the creative process and feel that it is integral to humanity’s survival.
Tamago: Tell us about the project(s) you’re working on right now.
Lis: I just co-authored a book of poetry and photos that I wrote with a friend during the last year of her life (she was dying of ALS). I also have two poems accepted in the coming STAND YOUR GROUND anthology (writings concerned with the Trayvon Martin case and more generally with racism and violence). I am working on a sf short story that deals with sexual harassment and just finished one that examined masculine values gone amuck.
Tamago: In ten years, where do you imagine yourself with your writing?
Lis: I want to be better in my craft and be more productive (more butt in the chair time). I’ll probably be working on this novel for the rest of my life.
Tamago: I know that you are a teacher. Can you tell me if your interactions with students influence your writing in any way?
Lis: Absolutely. My students live lives that are unimaginable for most of us. One poem directly addressed having a student on my registration who missed the first class. I read in next morning’s paper that he had been shot and killed a few days before the semester had begun. Poetry was the only way I could process the tragedy and return to my classroom. I’ve also learned from them that I can’t tell their story and that every human being can benefit from the reflective qualities gained through learning to write well.
Tamago: How did you come to apply for Taos Toolbox?
Lis: I workshopped my novel draft at PhilCon and one of the women who critiqued my work (Oz Drummond) suggested I apply to Taos.
Tamago: What would you tell a new writer about the workshop experience?
Lis: It’s tough. The goal is to shortcut the learning process by giving the writer an intense experience of careful readers. This is both useful and difficult. The process provides advice that is sometimes glibly given—do this, don’t do that. I found it formulaic (which is both useful since formulas derive from success and problematic since good writing often engages readers in novel ways.)
Tamago: If you could write your dream project, what would it be?
Lis: If only I had the talent, I’d love to write a novel that would do for the environmental movement what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the abolitionist movement—to move people emotionally. I believe larger numbers of people need to be motivated to change our society so that we become true stewards of the earth. Given how many people are currently citing the selfish capitalist vision of Ayn Rand’s romantic novels as inspiring, perhaps this coming generation needs a vision that inspires human survival.
Tamago: What advice would you give to a new writer who is just starting out?
Lis: Read, write, think, discuss: as much as possible. Reading has made me a better writer, and writing has made me a better reader. Both acts, and discussing ideas deeply with a diverse group of people, have helped me clarify and expand my worldview.