You were a fiction editor for many years, and worked with many successful writers. You are married to Eric Van Lustbader, a long-time bestselling author. What influence did your previous career and choice of mate have on becoming a writer yourself?
Let's have some fun and turn that around! My choices of career and mate were probably influenced by my attempt to avoid becoming a writer, although I'd wanted to be one since I was a child. Not that I didn't enjoy being an editor, or don't love my husband, but both my job and my marriage let me take the easy way out, sit on my own ambitions, be a good girl and a good help-mate to those who had the talent I thought I didn't. But often, I would find my sharp, blue editing pencil trembling over a page and dare to think, You could write this well. Maybe better.
Being married to a prolific and successful writer was for a long time a deterrent to my attempting to write. I couldn't imagine making the transition from help-mate to competitor, which was how I thought of it: that I would be competing with my husband, and I'd lose. Or worse, I’d win! That was a personal self-esteem issue I had to overcome in my own time. My husband has always been totally encouraging and supportive.
When did you finally start writing, and how? What got you past your fears and doubts? I started for real in the spring of 2001. The underlying psychological theme of the book I wrote first, Hidden, is repression, and the damage people do to themselves and others when their true natures and desires are squelched. Itís a very personal theme: what "got" me going was that I realized I was seriously unhappy despite having a wonderful life. Unhappiness is surely one of the greatest motivators of change; itís not a state one wants to dwell in. Iíd reached the point where I simply had to speak my voice, say what I felt, do what Iíd always wanted to do.
You seem to have made the transition from editor to writer easily. Hidden is so accomplished, it doesn't feel like a first novel. How did your editing career impact your writing process?
Well, here is the other side of the coin. I have no regrets that it took me so long to make that transition. Not only was I not ready to be a writer until some five years ago, but I got to learn a great many useful things while I was preparing myself. My years of editing, and of observing my husband's relationship to his work, gave me an unconscious confidence in my ability to produce good writing and a good read. Striving to be a good editor who could truly help other writers improve their work schooled me in story structure, pacing, and character development. It made me appreciate the talents I did have. By the time I had the guts to come out of hiding, I knew I had the talent to write, as well.
Rumor has it you were once planning to be a cellular biologist or some such. How did you end up in the publishing business? What happened?
Calculus happened. And adolescent laziness. Which just goes to prove that being a sluggard sometimes pays off. Yes, the sciences have always fascinated me, and still do [Iím reading up on quantum physics for the book Iím working on now… black holes, quarks, fermions, oh my!], but I would have made a terrible lab rat. By my sophomore year in college, I realized I didnít love science enough to do the required work. It was people that really fascinated me. I flirted with psychology, but ultimately became an English major. Pretty much because most of my friends were English majors, and I was still lazy and it was the easiest path to graduation. But as soon as I got my first job, at what was then Harper & Row, I couldnít deny that Iíd always loved words, and books, and writing, more than anything. Science, psychology, humanity, history… books contained everything. Iíd ended up exactly where I wanted and needed to be.
What are some of the challenges and benefits of having the same career as your spouse?
For us, I would say there are mostly only benefits.
Even after working with writers for years, the reality of living with one was an entirely different animal. Eric wrote almost constantly, and seemed "gone" most of the time. Having an intellectual understanding of why, and where he went, didnít help me feel less abandoned. It wasnít until I was writing myself that I understood viscerally what it meant to be partly living every moment in the world you were creating, and to appreciate what a joy that was. And to realize that it didnít make a writerís connection to the "real" world any less substantial.
Now, with both of us writing, there is nothing better than the times when we are in our separate offices, humming away on our books, feeling the creative vibes jumping in the air, each of us knowing that the other is having a good day. They arenít all good days, of course – writing can be a lonely, frustrating and dispiriting profession. We empathize with one another's ups and downs, down to the bone, and can often help one another. Eric and I write very different kinds of books, have different strengths and weaknesses, and can often complement the otherís way of thinking about a problem.
However, being that I'm only human, confident one moment and hopeless the next, it is hard at times to not feel like the family after-thought when I compare my fledgling career to what Eric has already accomplished.
You say you had the idea for Hidden 20 years ago. Did something specific happen to make you sit down and write, and how long did it take to finish once you began?
The underlying psychological theme of the book is repression in all its glory, and the damage people do to themselves and others when their true natures and desires are squelched. It's a very personal theme for me, as I was doing exactly that to myself. I finally admitted that I was seriously unhappy despite having a wonderful life. I'd come to realize that this leash I'd put around my own ambitions and self-expression was choking the joy out of me. Unhappiness is surely one of the greatest motivators of change; it's not a state one wants to dwell in. I'd reached the point where I needed and was ready to speak my voice, say what I felt, do what I'd always wanted to do.
It took me three years to write Hidden. It's a long, complex novel and, of course, required a lot of research. But also, during the first year I was tentative, still wrestling with my doubts and with the belief that I was doing something unforgivably selfish and useless. But once I got going, and received confirmation from a friend who is a skilled editor and writer himself that what I was writing was indeed good, there was no stopping me!
In Hidden, you plumb the many ways and reasons why people choose to hide their true selves, and the damage they suffer because of it. Was there anything in your own background that compelled you to explore that theme?
As I said above, the theme of Hidden is definitely a very personal one. I grew up in an unusually wonderful, loving, supportive family, but still, I grew up frightened of ever drawing too much attention to myself. My father was a very powerful, dominant personality, as were my two considerably older brothers. I was the baby and the only girl, and I thought it was my job to be good, to not cause anyone any problems. Which meant not making demands, showing unhappiness or asking for anything I perceived might be a hardship on anyone else. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to see the falsehood in those childhood feelings. I had to fight hard to believe in myself and in my power to withstand other people's reactions to me, their anger or disapproval.
And I had an added hurdle to overcome. My oldest brother, Michael, was thirteen years my senior; he was my hero, my idol, my second father. He had always wanted to be a writer but was a dutiful and responsible first-born child and sacrificed his uncertain ambitions to live a conventional life. He married, raised two wonderful children, and was a beloved teacher. He died when he was 57, just as he was beginning to explore his creativity. For years after his death, any thoughts I had of becoming a writer felt treasonous. Now I know that he would have been thrilled for me, and my proudest champion.
But it wasn't merely that these were hot issues for me that made me want to write about them. So many people, men and women both, harbor tremendous feelings of low self-esteem, are confused about what they are allowed to feel and be, and live their lives in service to what they believe is expected of them rather than what they believe is truly right for them. I wanted to write a book that would sympathetically illuminate the difficulties we face in finding a livable balance or a resolution between our deepest sense of ourselves and what the outside world (or more often our inner perceptions of what the outside world) demands of us. I was sure that if I succeeded, I would have a book that readers of both genders and all ages could relate to.
Early on, both your agent and editor admonished that the title should be changed to something "grander" in scope than Hidden. But Hidden it ultimately remained. Why? What is the significance of the title for you?
For me, Hidden was the only title the book could ever have. It's the one word that describes every character at some point in the story: hidden inside themselves, believing themselves safe from the rejection or censure of others. Hiding everything: ambition, love, desire, fear, anger. That simple word contains such sadness; it hints at how much of ourselves we feel we have to hide to get through our lives unscathed, and how lonely and damaged we become when we do hide.
When my agent and then my editor told me, very matter-of-factly, that the title should be changed, I told them they'd have to find a new one. I'd lived with Hidden for five years at that point and wasn't about to come up with something else. They both said, don't worry, we're good at titles. But months passed, the book went into production, and finally they both gave up and admitted that Hidden was indeed the book's proper title. And so it is.
What do you love most about writing?
That it is a personal, positive, spiritual experience. I am not a religious person, but like many people who can’t turn to existing belief systems or rituals for spiritual comfort, I am searching for it elsewhere: for an inner peace and contentment that makes existence meaningful. Writing is as close as I’ve ever come to finding that. It takes me out of my mundane self and puts me in touch with an undefinable creative force that exists both within and without.
The moments I love the most are when I’m laboring like mad over a sentence, a paragraph, concentrating so hard everything around me disappears, and then I sit back, read what I’ve written and think to myself, Who the hell wrote that? I know full well that I did, two seconds before, but the me who wrote those words is not the same me reading them. It’s a wonderful feeling to realize there is more to me than even I know.
On a more down to earth level, I love that it’s difficult. I love the challenge, and the belief in myself that I can rise to it, and I love when something comes together like nuclear fusion in my head and I’m off and running. Until I fall into the next ditch and lie there bitching and moaning about how I can’t do this. Or when I realize I’ve forgotten to make dinner because the work is going so well that me and my sense of time have parted company.
I think we all need to feel that we’ve created something from our lives that gives evidence of our having been here. For me, it’s turned out to be sharing what I know through my writing.