Interview with Lisa Haselton

Interview with Lisa Haselton

Welcome, Ellie. Please tell us a little bit about yourself:
I grew up in a typical Jewish, suburban household in Baltimore, Maryland. As an active participant in the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s (read: hippie-chick,) I cultivated my long-standing dislike of the culture in which I’d been raised, and ran away to the hippie haven Canada was then perceived to be. I loved it then, and have loved it ever since.

Professionally, I spent the majority of my professional career as a management consultant in Ottawa, Ontario. Plain language writing, which I’d started to cultivate in university as a rejection of the academic language with which I’d been very successful but found pretentious, was one of my specialities. So finding a “human voice” in writing, which I think is a key factor in the character of Emergence, has been a constant throughout my adult life.

Dogs have also been a constant in my life. We always had a family dog but I was one of those kids who drove her parents crazy with my frequent “rescue” of vagrant canines, which I begged (without success) to adopt as “my own” dog. In the mid-1990s, I started to train and compete in Obedience with Golden Retrievers. In 2014, I had the highest-rated Canadian obedience dog (Fracas – upon whom Chuff is modeled), and my husband David Skinner had the second-rated dog. During a ten-year period, we were both regularly ranked among Canada’s Top Ten Obedience competitors. We have an active obedience coaching practice in Ottawa, having retired from our previous professional careers in order to spend more time playing with our dogs and our students.

Like Cass and Noah Harwood of Emergence, David and I have had a log cabin in the wilds of West Quebec for the last thirty years. Also like Cass Harwood, I am an avid wilderness recreationist (skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, kayaking, swimming) , constantly accompanied by my dogs. As Covid19 spread in March of 2020, David and I temporarily shut down our coaching practice and retreated to our cabin, where I wrote Emergence, start to finish, from May through July of 2020.

Please tell us about your current release.
Emergence is the story of two radically different people whose lives intersect with dramatic, potentially lethal consequences, in the wilderness of western Quebec. The two are Cassandra Harwood, who grew up an urban intellectual and evolved into a professional dog trainer, successful obedience competitor, and committed backwoods adventurer; and Xavier, a complex and enigmatic “wild child” who with his anarchist father, lives an isolated life in the bush near Lac Rouge, where Cass and her husband have a cabin. There is no model for Xavier. If you read my bio, I suspect you know who the model for Cass is.

The first part of the relationship between Cass and Xavier is unilateral – Xavier, a skilled woodsman, covertly surveils Cass and her three dogs in a process he calls Just Watching. This sometimes induces a latent feeling of discomfort, as Cass “feels” observed and then doubts her perceptions. During his long Just Watching, Xavier becomes enthralled first with just one of Cass’ dogs, Katrinka, and eventually with the whole group, and the relationships between them.

The desire to observe Cass and her crew more closely eventually leads Xavier to engineer a meeting with Cass, which gradually evolves into a guarded friendship. The end of Just Watching and the start of this friendship is the catalyst for the spiral of danger that eventually encircles all of the human and canine characters in Emergence, as their fates converge in a deadly loop of revenge, fear, guilt and hope.

What inspired you to write this book?
The first tragic event in Emergence is based on a real-life event. Though it probably reflects poorly on my character, the most propulsive driver for Emergence was my desire to exact vengeance for that incident, while remaining the good, law-abiding citizen I want to be,

Of course, there were many other, considerably less-visceral drivers. I wanted to write a compelling novel of psychological suspense, devoid of what I find to be some of the too-frequent conventions of the genre: 1) a vulnerable female protagonist attempting to either escape from or remember her past 2) the protagonist’s potential romantic involvement with males who may turn out to be either The Good Guy Boyfriend or the The Bad Guy 3) superficial character development 4) workman-like writing, devoid of lyricism.

I wanted to feature a strong female protagonist. I also wanted to create a story in which the protagonist’s perceptions are filtered through a very realistic filter of how serious dog-trainers view the world. And I wanted to create dogs who are legitimate and well-developed characters critical to the arc and momentum of the plot. This circles back to wanting to avoid fictional conventions I dislike. Way too often, I find fictional canines are too-cute by half, behaving in a way that is not convincing to anyone who really works with dogs.

Finally, with Xavier, I wanted to create a truly compelling adolescent male character, with a unique and lyric voice with which he narrates “his” chapters. I am happy with Xavier – I love him. The excerpt below, in which he processes some bad news from his father Stefan, is one of my favorites.

Excerpt from Emergence:
I could feel the blood leave my face and go rushing down into my feet. And I heard the ocean. I have never been to the ocean, but I’ve seen it and heard it in movies. And Stefan has a big shell, and if you hold it up to your ear, you can hear the ocean in it. And that’s what I heard inside my white bloodless head: the sound of the ocean, like there were waves breaking inside me. And then they broke through the shell of my body. I cried and cried, it was like the ocean inside me was spilling out of my eyes and running down my face. But I didn’t make a sound.

What exciting story are you working on next?
I wish. I wrote Emergence, start to finish, in three months – some of the happiest months of my mostly-happy life. But the process of publishing and marketing has dominated my life since then – considerably less happily. I hope to have enough marketing momentum established within the next few months, to start mulling What Next? more seriously. The only thing I feel pretty confident about is that there will be at least some chapters written in a first-person voice which is not my own. “Becoming” Xavier (or channeling him, which is really what it felt like) was the fun at the heart of writing Emergence.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve considered myself a writer since I learned to write. I still have the copious notebooks and journals that I started maintaining in grade school. If you asked any of my childhood friends what I was supposed to be, they all would have said “a novelist’. My sister maintains that this is what I was born to do. Note however – that I am 69 years old. Long gestation!

To be fair – I did make my living as a writer throughout the whole of my professional career, since it was the reports and writing projects I crafted in the service of others, which I perceived as the primary vehicles of my consulting success. And given my drive to craft and refine, I did get considerable practice and constantly augmented my skills, even though I was far from the fiction-writer I dreamed of becoming.

Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I always knew I didn’t have the discipline or passion required to write a book while I was consulting. There were just too many other things I loved doing to shelve them all to spend most of my non-consulting hours sitting in front of the computer. So I’d always planned to write when I retired. Except then coaching intervened.

So for me, the complete isolation of Covid was the ideal situation in which to finally write a book. It was a remarkably civilized process. I had no particular schedule, but probably spent 3-5 hours writing, maybe 4 -6 days a week. I did it when I felt like it, and didn’t do it if and when I was not so inclined.

That writing schedule allowed me to do almost all of the summer things I love to do at the cabin: hike, swim, kayak. The big sacrifice was reading: I read less during 2020 than ever before. The other big difference: typically when I’m in the bush, I am pretty successfully “mindless” – until Emergence I never used that kind of exercise as a slow-cooker for whatever I was working on. That changed completely during the time I was writing Emergence. In the bush or on the lake, I was often unconscious of where I was (got lost in the woods a couple of times!) because I was so enmeshed in developing ideas and passages for the book. Typically, I’d get back from whatever I was doing and run immediately to the computer. So while I said earlier that I spent 3-5 hours a day writing – that was just time spent on the computer. I was totally enmeshed with Emergence throughout the three-month period in which it was written, even though only 3-5 hours a day were spent actively “writing”.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I avoided starting work on a novel for…well, a lifetime…. because I dreaded the process of planning it and then adhering to the plan. With Emergence, I circumvented that by doing only minimal planning before I started. I knew who the two main characters would be, and what the three main dramatic events would be. But beyond that – nothing. I simply sat down in front of my computer and “found” Xavier. The first chapter, written in his voice, never changed.

I suspect my process after that was quirky: I’d write a chapter. After each chapter, I would outline the next chapter, and any other developments that came to me. But there was a distinctly iterative process throughout: write, plan, write, plan — in a much more improvisational process than I think is typical of novelists But you know what? I don’t know any other novelists. It could be that my process is not atypical. I’d be interested in hearing about this from other authors.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Big surprise: I wanted to be a writer. But there were other childhood reveries that are also relevant. One of my favorite fantasies was Ellie the Ranger. She was a heroic explorer. (The fact that she wore a silver hybrid cowboy/astronaut uniform with a red kerchief is probably irrelevant.) But even now, as I carry out my adventuring in the bush, I am well aware of little Ellie the Ranger still lurking within me.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
There are a couple of literary classics that I thought about often as I wrote Emergence. They were Deliverance by James Dickie; Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, and Lord of the Flies by Golding. I’d be curious to find out if any readers can see why and how these might be influences for Emergence.

Read the full interview on Lisa’s blog, Lisa Haselton Book Reviews & Interviews!

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