Interview with Author Lisa Jensen

aliashookCM: When did you first become interested in writing?

LJ: Well, it’s not like I ever had a plan. I’ve just always loved to write. I kept journals from the age of 12, and corresponded for years with a couple of overseas pen pals. Out of college, I worked in a movie theatre and a bookstore —I could see movies for free, and take books home to read, if I was careful not to damage them! After a few months, I answered an ad in the local alternative weekly newspaper for a part-time film critic, dashing off a one-page review of some film I’d just seen. And I got the job — evidently because I was the only applicant who actually sent in something written!

Years later, I still have that job (I’m the full-time critic, now). I also reviewed books for the San Francisco Chronice for several years, as one of their many freelance stringers. And working in journalism has taught me plenty about deadlines, word count, editing, and compromise — all useful stuff to know when you start writing books.

CM: Why did you decide to write a Peter Pan story for adults?

LJ: I think the lure of eternal childhood is something that only appeals to children. As you start to grow up, move away from the home environment, and get to know yourself better, as your horizons broaden, the thought of being stuck in childhood forever would be horrible. It would for me, anyway.

And then, a few years ago, in my day job as a film critic, I was writing a review of a live-action Peter Pan movie. Of the actor playing Captain Hook, I wrote that he really made us feel the tragedy of an adult trapped in a world run by children. Instantly, a voice popped into my head—Hook’s voice—looking around the Neverland and telling me exactly what he thought about this so-called paradise for children. I hit “save” on my review, opened another doc, and started writing down everything he said. That’s when I decided this was a Neverland story that needed to be told!

CM: What drew you to Hook’s story in particular?

LJ: I’ve always loved Captain Hook better than Peter Pan, as a character. For one thing. he’s a lot funnier, and has better lines! Peter always reminded me of all the bratty little boys I went to school with, so I never really fell under his spell, even when I was a child myself. And besides, I’ve always had a thing for pirates!

CM: What was your favorite Peter Pan scene to translate into your own book?

LJ: The scene where I actually show the moment when Pan cuts off Hook’s hand — and how, and why it happens — was very powerful for me to write. And I think it’s a pretty stirring moment in the book. Besides that, I really enjoyed inventing a complete society of merfolk in their underwater Mermaid Lagoon — which is a part of the Neverland that J. M. Barrie never shows us!

CM: Who’s your favorite character in Peter Pan?

LJ: James Hook, definitely! His voice, talking in my head, telling his side of the story, is what set me on course to write this book. And boy, did I love setting the record straight! As I went along, I also knew that I wanted to write a love story for James, and I had a fabulous time imagining who that lucky woman would be, and why. My heroine, Stella Parrish, has her own story to tell, as well, and I wanted her to be a real match for James, in wit, spirit, and courage.

Maybe it would have been fun to write more of the book from her viewpoint, but James’ voice was so strong in my head, I just had to let him take over. But their scenes together, as their relationship deepens, was the most fun part of the story to write.

CM: Was it difficult to write about a story that people are so familiar with?

LJ: Surprisingly, no, because my view of the characters is so different from what people think they know about them. And, of course, I’m not telling the same story that Barrie told. My story is about what happens long after Barrie’s ends, and so I felt at liberty to create entirely new groups of pirates and Lost Boys, and fairies and Indians. Only Pan and Hook, ageless and eternal, remain the same.

CM: What are you some of your favorite (non-Peter Pan) fairytales?

LJ: I’m a big fan of Beauty and the Beast, which is the subject of my next novel. It will be my sort of twisted — well, let’s say unorthodox — retelling of the classic tale! I also loved the Alice In Wonderland and Oz books when I was a child. (Do those count as fairy tales?)

CM: What is the most difficult part of the writing process for you? The most fun?

LJ: Plotting, is definitely the most difficult! I usually come up with a great idea, and then I flesh out the characters and setting, and write a few scenes of dialogue with the characters talking to each other. And everything is all great, and then I think, oh, wait: now they have to do something!

The most fun for me is writing dialogue, for sure!

CM: How much of your books do you outline or plan before writing?

LJ: I never used to outline at all, which is why it took me so long to write a book. Just flailing away, hoping a story comes together by magic is not a good game plan! But once you get a book published, I’ve discovered, and you have a working relationship with an editor, he or she might ask you for a fiction proposal. (That is: a lengthy synopsis of the plot as a means of getting an idea approved — as opposed to having to write the whole book first!)

This is common in non-fiction; you can sell an idea for a book based on a proposal and a couple of chapters. But fiction writers, particularly first-timers, are usually asked to submit the entire book. So, while writing an outline/proposal is new to me, it makes so much more sense to actually know where the story is going!

Of course, if you start with a proposal, or any kind of outline, it’s not set in stone. Everyone knows that things will change in the writing process — the story may shift direction; characters will occur to you that you haven’t even thought of yet; entire subplots may be added, or subtracted. But as a general blueprint for themes, characters, action, setting, and, oh, yes, plot, a proposal is invaluable. Keep it short, and stay focused — I recommend 10 pages, or less. Save the details for writing the book itself.

CM: What was your querying/publishing process like?

LJ: Chaotic! I had a New York agent for my first novel, The Witch From the Sea, and while her agency sold the German-language rights immediately, she was never able to sell it to a US or British publisher. The German-language editions were gorgeous — hardcover, and trade paperback — but nobody I knew could read them, including me. My agent and I amicably parted ways, and it was another four years before I sold the book myself to a small, indie publisher in the US, and got a copy I could actually read!

I rewrote my query for Alias Hook dozens of times, sent it to scores of agents, then reworked the manuscript with two or three interested agents, each of whom, ultimately, declined to represent me. It was very disheartening. But I’d heard of an indie publisher in England, Snowbooks, that did not require you to submit through an agent, and finally, I was so weary of the whole process, I just thought, why not? I didn’t hear anything back for a long time, and so I thought it was just like sending a query to an agent who doesn’t respond if she’s not interested. Seven months later, I got an email telling me Snowbooks was going to publish the book!

Snowbooks offered no advance, and the royalties were not huge. But they did produce a good-looking book. And there were other perks: the publisher at Snowbooks knew an editor at Thomas Dunne Books in the US, and sent him my Hook manuscript. We chatted on the phone for about 20 minutes, and then he made an offer to publish Alias Hook in the US. They came out with a beautiful hardcover edition in 2014, and a paperback in 2015.

In the meantime, my editor at TDB showed my manuscript to an agent he knew — the intrepid Irene Goodman! She must be the only agent in NYC I had never queried (I’d read somewhere that she wasn’t interested in fantasy, which is what I thought Alias Hook was.) But in the end, she queried me, calling me up on a Sunday and offering to represent me. She also fell in love with my Beast book, which had been on the back burner, and sold it to Candlewick, which will be publishing it in Spring, 2017.

So, the moral is: a) Get your book out there, by any means possible! You only need one person to fall in love with it. And b) Never, ever give up!

CM: Do you have a favorite Peter Pan movie/book adaptation (other than your own)?

LJ: Well, the 2003 movie, Peter Pan, is the one that inspired me to write Alias Hook. (Thank you, Jason Isaacs!)

CM: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

LJ: Keep reading: get inspired by books you love, and learn from the ones that don’t work for you. Keep writing: it doesn’t have to be perfect; the act of writing begets better writing, if you just keep at it. And never give up!


LJ By ST 2014
Photo by Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz Sentinel

Lisa Jensen is a film critic and newspaper columnist from Santa Cruz, California. Her reviews and articles have appeared in many publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, where she reviewed books for 13 years. Her adult fantasy novel, Alias Hook, was published by Thomas Dunne Books in 2014. Her YA fairy tale fantasy, Beast: A Love Story, will be published by Candlewick in 2017. Her swashbuckling historical novel, The Witch From The Sea, was published in 2001.

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