My first encounter with Lisa Mannetti’s work was when Nightscape Press gave me a review copy of DEATHWATCH. I loved everything about that book and I felt the same way about her most recent book, THE BOX JUMPER. Her obvious love of language and the depth of knowledge and intellect that she brings to her works makes them always feel honest and it makes her characters seem that much more three dimensional. I’ve become a die-hard fan of Lisa Mannetti and I will read every short story or book she publishes in the future. You should check her out if you haven’t already. You should also check out this awesome interview in which I bumble along clumsily and Lisa saves my ass with her eloquence. Enjoy.
Thank you for doing this interview today, Lisa. For those of us who don’t know you, please tell us a little about yourself.
Well, I live in the 100 year old over-sized white house I grew up in, although I lived in other places before I landed home again: Dallas, Texas; upstate New York; Venice, Italy. I have a penchant for twin cats and my third and current batch of kitties (about 9 years old now) are named Harry and Theo Houdini.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I loved reading from a very young age, loved books. I wrote my first short story when I was about eight and my first novel at age ten (even I knew it was dreadful), but I remember telling my aunt in our backyard during a fourth of July picnic my parents were hosting (and I believe my mother read that first story aloud when just the family was around) that I wanted to be a writer and maybe someday I could write a book. I also remember thinking, God, I’d never be able to do that. I also had a couple of teachers who would read my work aloud to the class (though it was supposed to be anonymous, I clearly knew it was my writing) and that happened a lot in third and fourth grade.
What do you feel are the most important traits for an author to have?
Love—genuine passion—for reading, for stories in general, for language.
Who are your major influences?
I’m just going to list as many as I can think of off the top in my head and not in any particular order. The Bronte sisters, Peter Straub, Stephen King, John Irving, John Updike, Joseph Heller, Phillip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Theodore Dreiser, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Lillian Hellman, Shirley Jackson, Arthur Miller, Anthony Trollope, Gustav Flaubert, William Styron, Francois Mauriac, Mark Twain, Coleridge, Wordworth, Alexander Pope, Woody Allen, Frank L. Baum, J.M. Barrie, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, J.P. Donleavy, Evelyn Waugh, and Dickens.
If you had to name one book that has had a strong impact on you, which book would it be?
I can’t really choose one; but I did read JANE EYRE when I was eight and I couldn’t put it down. I was crazy for that book and read it at least once a year till I was in my mid-thirties. Certain books ignited particular works of mine—for example, Dissolution, was influenced quite a bit by the sense of terrible isolation, and winter and cold as imprisoning in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story and in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.
If you had to choose any occupation other than writing, what would it be?
I’m going to choose a few that have appealed to my sense of imagination (there goes the writer in me). A painter or sculptor (had to have lived in Paris or Florence); an adventurer (I would have liked to see more of the world before it became so homogenized). I did love teaching—but I never got any of my own writing done.
If you could have coffee with any other author, living or dead, who would it be? Why?
Mark Twain—he was so smart, lively and cynical, he would talk a lot and I could listen without having to think up questions. It would be embarrassing, for example, to ask him about the intense sorrow and loss he felt when his wife and daughters died.
I hate asking people questions. When I finished my undergraduate degree I worked at New York Magazine and the part of the job I was most uncomfortable with was fact checking for “The Intelligencer.” Once, I was supposed to verify information about Paul Newman and I was terrified at the prospect of making the call, speaking with him and asking him about the facts the writer had supplied; luckily I ended up not having to phone him.
How important of a part does research play in your writing?
It’s huge…and my graduate degree (a kazillion years ago) played a big part in it because we had to write every paper as though it were going to be published in a scholarly journal—that meant unique work and lots of research to discover what had already been written. At any rate, I learned how to research and discovered I really liked it and it was a lot more fun looking things up when writing fiction as opposed to academic works.
Is the length of your work predetermined, or does the work determine its own length as you write it?
Mostly the work determines its own length, although I sometimes set out thinking now I want to write a novel or a novella. The stories I’ve written the last few years have all been based on invitations to submit to anthologies, so clearly there’s an implicit mandate for word count.
The books and stories I’ve read by you to date have all had their roots in history. What is it that inspires you to write about the past?
I’m not afflicted with the golden age fallacy (c.f. Midnight in Paris)—at least I don’t think I am—but I was always drawn to antiques even at a young age. I was given a china hair receiver by a neighbor when I was a kid, and I bought a Victorian pitcher and bowl (essentially a portable wash basin) at a tag sale when I was in my teens. I liked these items as curiosities. Don’t get me wrong, I’d never want to live before they had antibiotics—for one thing, I’d have been dead about twenty times over, but old things, old places really resonate with me and they always have. I went crazy when I first saw Dunotar in Scotland; I just couldn’t get over that parts of it were built in the 12th century. When I lived in Venice I kept thinking how little the city had changed in hundreds of years. Even the apartment I rented (which had modern conveniences) had been there since the 18th century. Anyhow, I write often about the past because I find it fascinating. It’s (for me) a mystery—what was it really like to live without central heating? To use candles as a primary source of light? To care for a horse that provided transportation? To travel by coach along dirt roads? It’s the unsolvable mystery, the near inaccessibility of time not so long gone that fascinates me, I think, and essentially sparks my imagination. It’s a kind of ghost for me—almost seen, but not quite—and it’s that sense of something that haunts one that draws me in.
When I think of your work, my mind automatically categorizes it as historical fiction with very dark aspects. How would you categorize it?
A lot of it is history, but I also have a very dark humorous side and I like to think that horror and satire are both skewed versions of reality. I’m nearly always drawn to the darkest emotions, the painful places—it’s just the treatment that differs. I guess I would say I write dark, literate works.
In both of the books I’ve read by you–and the short story I beta read–I’ve noticed you have a penchant for including medical and mental health aspects. Do you have direct experience of some sort in those areas? Or are they just subjects that fascinate you?
Let’s call it a lifelong fascination. When I was very young, my mother was an operating room nurse (later she became a public health nurse, supervisor, and eventually, a director) and since she loved her work she spoke about it a lot. Not in a gossipy way, but because of her genuine interest. We spent many a dinner hour talking about unusual cases she’d seen. My older brother and I also played a game with her nursing text books: one person opened a page at random until a picture was found; then the other did the same. If you couldn’t look at your photo, you lost. It never mattered who began, I always won. My brother had huge trouble with a nose-less woman with tertiary syphilis (somehow, with the eyes blocked out with black rectangles the photos were a lot scarier.) All of this translated into my near-constant quest to understand more about these diseases (another “mystery” yes, but also now that I think about it, sibling rivalry and one-upmanship was probably involved, too). So I came away with a great many shallow (but terrifying facts and like my mom, I had an excellent memory regarding symptoms, prognosis, etiology and differential diagnosis for these brutish ailments. I’m not only probably one of the very few people who guessed that Grace Everdeen in Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home had acromegaly, I once freaked out a doctor who asked me (on diagnosing a micro-adenoma on my pituitary) if my bra size or ring size changed, and instead responded: “Are you thinking I could have acromegaly?” Boy and, I knew all about it….and how worst of all if you were already an adult (I was in my twenties) you literally became facially disfigured. Luckily, of course, I didn’t have it because just looking at the pictures had scared the shit out of me my entire life already.
In THE BOX JUMPER you have a character who contracts polio and you describe the symptoms and treatment of the disease in some detail. Where does your knowledge come from?
Back to Mom’s tenure at St. Agnes as an operating room nurse for this one….she worked a lot of Saturdays then and sometimes she’d bring me with her to work. She taught me to wrap instruments for the autoclave (to sterilize them) and how to powder the surgeons’ gloves. I thought it was fun—a game—like when we went to visit her friend Yolanda who
worked in the hospital lab and Yoli would show me how the centrifuge worked and let me look at blood and pathogens under a microscope. At any rate, sometime when I was about five, my mother either showed me or we cut through what used to be a polio ward. It was empty of patients but there were rows and rows of huge hospital-tan iron lungs. Don’t ask me how, but in some way I immediately understood that those slanted mirrors mounted over the space for the patients’ heads were there because it was the only way the sufferers could have any meaningful human contact and see people face to face. And I remember crying about it and the image and feeling never left me.
Also in THE BOX JUMPER you’ve created a historical horror story of madness and possession that is also an engaging and intriguing murder mystery. What inspired you to choose that subject? Why did you want to center the tale around Harry Houdini?
Harry Houdini came first—and that was thanks to Paul Leyden because I’d had this idea about combining magic with spiritualism and I wasn’t sure if I should just make up a magician and he suggested that people are more interested in “true life” centered events and that I should use Houdini. The plot built itself as I worked and researched.
Any other projects forthcoming that you’d like to talk about?
I’m working on a novel called RADIUM GIRL and it’s set in the post WWI era and it centers on the dial painters’ tragedy and one particular victim who is the narrator, Julia Gifford. Lots of research (surprise surprise) involving the technology of the time, circuses and freaks. Our Julia has descended from working class girl to a sideshow exhibit, not just because she glows in the dark, but also because of the grotesque transformations the radium exposure has wrought on her body. It’s a book about betrayal—on every level.
I also have a short story called “Arbeit Macht Frei” that will be out in 2016 in GUTTED: BEAUTIFUL HORROR STORIES; it’s set just after the liberation of one of the Nazi concentration camps and I’m especially proud of it because the subject matter is so emotionally wrenching, it was very difficult to write and research. I spent about six weeks doing nothing but reading everything I could get my hands on and watching every video I could find and I wept quite often.
If there was one question you wished interviewers would ask you but never do, what would it be? And what would the answer be?
Yes: What’s your process like? The answer for me would be that although it shifts slightly from work to work, for the last several years I’ve written very carefully so that I don’t move ahead until I’m satisfied with what I’ve written. For me this allows time to get down nuance and word selection, tone, mood, etc. I know writers are often urged to push ahead regardless of whether it’s good or not, and I’m not saying I’ve never done it, but I think going slowly when necessary can be a good thing….it’s not the word count in the end that matters (most stories, novellas and novels have a standard range) it’s the way the words are put together, the way the reader (and the writer) are ultimately engaged.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about before we finish?
Nothing I can think of except to say thanks to you, Shane, for giving me a chance to discuss my work.
Okay. I’m going to wrap this up now, Lisa. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
About Lisa Mannetti:
Lisa Mannetti’s debut novel, The Gentling Box, garnered a Bram Stoker Award and she has since been nominated three times for the prestigious award in both the short and long fiction categories: Her story, “Everybody Wins,” was made into a short film and her novella, “Dissolution,” will soon be a feature-length film directed by Paul Leyden. Recent short stories include, “Resurgam” in Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran, and “Almost Everybody Wins,” in Insidious Assassins. Her work, including The Gentling Box, and “1925: A Fall River Halloween” has been translated into Italian.
In addition to The Box Jumper, she has also authored The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, a macabre gag book, 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave your Lover, as well as non-fiction books, and numerous articles and short stories in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Recent and forthcoming works include additional short stories, and a novel about the dial-painter tragedy in the post-WWI era, Radium Girl.
Lisa lives in New York in the 100 year old house she originally grew up in with two wily (mostly) black twin cats named Harry and Theo Houdini.
You can learn more about Lisa Mannetti and her work at http://lisamannetti.blogspot.com/ and on her Amazon Author Page. You can also find her on social media at http://twitter.com/LisaMannetti, http://www.facebook.com/LisaMannetti.Writer, and https://www.pinterest.com/lisamannettiaut/