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Author Interview: Laura Fraser

This is my 200th post! To celebrate I have an interview with New York Times bestselling author Laura Fraser. Enjoy!

Laura Fraser is a San Francisco-based journalist whose latest book, All Over the Map, is just out in paperback. The book is a travel memoir, and a sequel to her 2001 New York Times bestseller, An Italian Affair. Laura’s first book, an exposé of the diet industry, was Losing It. Laura’s articles have been featured in The New York Times; O, the Oprah Magazine; Gourmet; Afar; Tricycle Buddhist Review; Vogue; Mother Jones; More; Health;; and numerous other magazines and anthologies.

MW: You said at a reading that after An Italian Affair came out, you made the decision to lead a memoir-worthy life. What did that entail?

LF: I guess it was William Zinsser, who is a mentor of mine and also a relative, who said something like, “To be an interesting writer, you have to have an interesting life.” So I think if you’re going to write about yourself and write memoirs, you have to live a life that’s worth writing about. For me that meant traveling a lot and sometimes going to places or doing things that I might not have done if I hadn’t been consciously thinking about writing about them.

MW: Can you give me some examples of things you did that you might not have done otherwise?

Almost every trip I took in All Over the Map, I took because I was writing about where I was going. I feel if you are writing about some place, you should have a story in mind rather than just traveling as a tourist. If you go somewhere with the idea that you are writing a story, it’s so much richer.

MW: What makes it richer?

LF: I think it had to do with meeting people. For example, I did a story in Puglia, in Italy, about this ancient tradition of pizzica dancing which is a kind of frenetic traditional music that developed because women would say they’d been bitten by a tarantula and had to dance it out of themselves. Doing a story like that meant I talked to musicians, anthropologists, ethnographers. It was an opportunity to really dig deep into a culture. When I went to Buenos Aires, I went as a Turista Tanguera, basically going to B.A. to learn to dance tango.

I guess a lot of writers dream things up in their offices, but I feel you have to go not just outside your office, but outside your realm of comfort to find a good story. You have to be a little off kilter. There’s a difference between knowing I am writing a memoir and trying to lead a memoir-worthy life. I wasn’t like Elizabeth Gilbert who had an advance for her book before she started out. But I see the world through the lens of a writer.

MW: Do you always see the world through the lens of a writer?

LF: Yes, I feel I digest my experiences as a writer. And I keep a journal when I travel.

MW: At a reading for All Over the Map, you said you felt naked discussing the book in front of an audience. What about the book makes you uncomfortable, and what part is the most difficult to discuss?

LF: It’s a very personal book, and a lot of times people seem shocked that I could write a book that is so personal. I feel like I have a way of storytelling that’s very honest and kind of raw that is sometimes hard to reconcile with how it gets perceived in the real world. Writing is a really private process for me and I feel I wanted to be able to really understand my emotions and experiences and write about them in such a way that is useful or enlightening to other people, but I never really think about those people coming up to me and asking me personal questions about my life.

MW: Was it reading in front of an audience or answering people’s questions that made you uncomfortable?

LF: This book was personal enough that parts of it felt uncomfortable reading in front of an audience. For instance, I write about an experience I had being raped, and it’s not something that I talk about. I felt that it was an important thing to write about because it’s an experience a lot of women share and it’s the danger of being the adventurous, independent woman. I wanted to be able to write about it in such a way that was both being honest about the emotional difficulty of it but also moving forward from it. I guess in some ways I felt if I could write about it, I had some power over the experience and how it affected me. My hope was that other women who had been sexually assaulted might be able to feel some sense of their own power by reading about my experience.

MW: Did you find that was true?

LF: I think it helped put it past me. It helped me move on. I felt like I needed to digest the experience by writing about it. And in fact I wrote a novel about it first, which I never published. It’s on the floor in my office.

MW: Why didn’t you publish it?

LF: It wasn’t a good novel. It was more a working out of what had happened to me. I needed to do that, but it wasn’t something that was publishable. I showed it to a couple of people and it had mixed reviews. Alternately, I didn’t think it was good. But I’m really happy I wrote it because I became a much better writer in the process. I’m much better at dialogue now, for example.

MW: How did writing All Over The Map differ from your experience writing An Italian Affair?

LF: An Italian Affair had more of a natural narrative than All Over The Map. All Over The Map is more tied together by theme than story. It was more difficult to write. I had a false start, where I wrote one version of the book and then completely scrapped it and started again.

MW: What was different about the first version?

LF: It was framed differently. I was going to write about building my house in Mexico, and I realized it just wasn’t that interesting. One of the main characters in the book was the guy who sold me the house, and he’s not an interesting character. More interesting was what problem was building the house an answer to in my life. So I had to start over.

MW: Your writing is both intensely moving and very funny. Was it tricky striking the balance between entertaining your readers and revealing emotional details that allowed them to connect with you on a deeper level?

LF: That is the trick. The last thing I want to come across as is self-pitying or self-obsessed. And I think humor is an important way to do that.

MW: But it wasn’t meant to be a humorous book?

LF: It was real. I wanted it to be a serious book with a sense of humor. That’s kind of how I am as a writer. I write about serious topics, but try to have a sense of humor about them.

MW: How would you describe the story arc of All Over The Map?

LF: I guess the story is setting out in your 40s to try to resolve the conflict between wanting independence and adventure and wanting comfort, love, and stability. I think that’s a conflict a lot of women experience. They want to explore themselves and their own lives, but they want partners, they want kids. Its kind of a version of how can you have it all? It’s a conflict a lot of women feel in a lot of different ways and that I acted out by traveling. For some women it’s about art, for some women it’s their careers. It’s all about the balance between expressing yourself and being the most you can be and being in a partnership or community and all the trade-offs women make. One of the themes of the book is the price women all over the world pay for independence.

MW: What’s an example?

LF: I interviewed sex-trafficked women in Italy. These are women who came from very poor backgrounds and who were trying to improve their lot in life by going to another country and getting a job and who ended up being trafficked. That’s a completely different experience and scale from anything that I’ve experienced, but basically we live in a time when cultures around the world are extremely ambivalent about women’s independence.

MW: Did you feel you had something in common with those women?

LF: I had very little in common with those women except that on a very basic level, we’re all living in a world that is profoundly uncomfortable with women making the choice to be independent and to take off and travel on their own. Also women who are choosing careers over having a baby and all the grief they are getting from people for making that choice at a time that it’s really difficult to have both.

MW: Looking back on your career, is there anything you would do differently? Any advice you have for writers who are just getting started?

LF: It’s such a difficult time to be a writer right now that it’s hard not to second guess the decisions I’ve made. I guess what I would say is to writers to not be fearful or to get someone’s approval before writing a book. Write about what you’re really passionate about and have it come from your deep-down desire to write it and not what the market wants. If you write with an eye to the market, it’s just not going to have the kind of passion that you need to sustain a book, and I think that comes through to the reader. Every time I’ve written a magazine article about something I couldn’t care less about, it comes out flat. You can’t really fake it.

MW: What decisions have you second guessed?

LF: It’s not like I can say, “Oh, I should have done this instead of that.” I love to write, and I’m very independent and I feel lucky that I get up and go to an office where I can write all day, but it’s difficult having thirty years’ experience and always feeling like I have to start from the beginning. I’m pitching stories to 25-year-old magazine editors who ignore my e-mails and treat me like I’m a total rookie. It’s frustrating. I was a contributing editor at one magazine for almost ten years and since they have a new editor, no one even returns my e-mails, which is shocking to me because I’ve written a lot of successful stories for them. They just dropped my name from the masthead. No one even called me. And of course there are fewer and fewer magazines and more and more writers out of work. Everyone keeps telling me I should write young adult novels (laughing).

MW: How have the drastic changes taking place in the publishing industry affected your career and your life as a writer?

LF: I’m not getting the money for magazine articles or for advances that I was getting fifteen years ago. I’m making the same per word, and often less, than I made fifteen or twenty years ago. I’ve been getting $2 a word for most of my adult life.

MW: What’s next? Do you have plans for another book?

LF: I’m working on a proposal for a journalistic-style book. I’m done writing about myself.

MW: Can you tell us what it’s about?

LF: Nope. Top secret.

What isn’t top secret is Laura’s raffle. If you buy the paperback version of All Over The Map, you’ll be entered to win a week at her Mexican writing retreat in San Miguel de Allende!

30 comments to Author Interview: Laura Fraser

  • What a great interview. I'm not a fan of memoir, but I think I might read Laura's. Her LOSING IT and articles she wrote on the diet industry very much influenced my first novel FOOD OF LOVE, which I hope to re-issue soon. All of that stuff is still true–probably even more so.

    Her observations on the state of the publishing industry are important for all of us. I blogged this week on the changing role of agents in the age of the puny advance, and some writers questioned the advance shrinkage. But every writer I know who's been in the business for a while says the same thing. Agents, too.

    I myself have almost given up freelancing, which used to be my bread and butter. I'd say 90% of the journals and magazines I used to write for no longer pay or pay very little. Those snippy 20 year olds are probably not getting paid beans, and have been told not to deal with writers from earlier times who expect to be paid a non-insulting fee.

    It's also possible Laura may have been blackballed, like so many who have spoken against the diet industry. A lot of those magazines depend on diet-industry advertising.

    • meghancward

      Anne – I'm late reading your post this week, but look forward to it tonight. Very interesting that your first novel was influenced by Losing It! I remember meeting Laura as an SPJ panel years ago and buying Losing It along with Peggy Orenstein's book Flux. And I think you're right that the magazines probably prefer to pay newbie writers who charge $.50 an hour than the veterans who charge $2. When I worked for the Oakland Tribune Co. they laid off all the most experienced journalists – the ones who were paid the highest. So f'd up.

  • meghancward

    Kristan – I traveled a ton in my 20s and 30s and then started having kids at 37, so I feel like I got the best of both worlds. That said, I have only two days a week to devote to my career and I would LOVE to be in Prague right now! Definitely not easy "having it all."

  • Excellent interview, Meghan and Laura. Super interesting to read. I love Laura's advice.

  • Ann Best

    Laura Fraser is a fascinating person. I'm glad I got to know her a bit through this interview. Thanks to both of you. (And it's so disheartening to see what's happened and is happening in our world today where writers and writing outlets are concerned. In fact, it's a struggle for so many people no matter how they're trying to make a living!)

    • meghancward

      Hey Ann – That's a good reminder that it's not just writers who are suffering, but everyone. The economy stinks. I think the big question for first-time authors is whether to go with a small press or whether to self-publish (assuming they don't land a large advance with one of the big six.) I'm curious to know whether you ever thought about self-publishing. (Maybe you've already blogged about this.)

  • m++

    Meghan, congrats on post 200! Your blog is amazing.

    Laura, congrats on your latest book release. Loved your written-at-16 romance novel excerpt from Regreturature — man was that funny.

  • Eunice

    Enjoyed this post! Very interesting and inspiring. Meghan, your new website looks great too!

    • meghancward

      Thanks, Eunice. I will soon be transferring this blog over to the new website design. It's on my To-Do list!

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