Following up on her critically-acclaimed debut novel Cloud Cuckoo Land, Lisa Borders’ new release, The Fifty-First State, explores the lives of half-siblings Hallie and Josh Corson, brought together in Southern New Jersey following their parents’ untimely deaths. An influential Grub Street instructor and co-founder of the Novel Incubator, Lisa took time out to speak with Dead Darlings about her new project.
Both of your novels, Cloud Cuckoo Land and now The Fifty-First State, have focused on the concerns and struggles of young people approaching adulthood. What has drawn you to this material?
For a fiction writer, I think that age bracket is a dream. As human beings, our abilities to change are never greater than they are when we’re adolescents and young adults. An argument could be made that creating an older character who goes through a transformative experience is a greater challenge to a novelist, but I tend to be drawn to coming of age stories as a reader as well as a writer. With Miri in Cloud Cuckoo Land, I was young enough when I started working on the book that I saw her as a peer. With Josh in The Fifty-First State, there’s definitely a maternal component.
The death of Josh and Hallie Corson’s parents in a horrific automobile accident kicks off The Fifty-First State. Can you talk about opportunities and challenges in using a point of attack with such emotional weight?
Cloud Cuckoo Land starts with a kind of slow burn, and takes a couple of chapters to get to the event that really sets my character on her way. I knew that I wanted The Fifty-First State to start with a big bang; something to hook the reader from the first page, but also, a clear sense of the journey the characters were about to go on. I think the challenge with an explosive opening is to live up to it – to keep the stakes high, and the reader’s engagement level high, throughout the book. Because this novel is character driven, the two main characters’ climaxes are internal, but my goal was for the changes in those characters to be as huge for them as the event that opens the novel .
You’ve done a masterful job rendering Josh and Hallie’s emotional states throughout your new novel, especially given the toll of their parents’ untimely death. Can you talk about the process of working through their psychic ups and downs during the revision process?
Exploring grief, and the ways different people react when grieving, was one of my goals in writing this novel. When I wrote the first two drafts of the book, I found Josh’s emotional life very easy to get down on the page; it felt natural to me. Hallie was a huge struggle; every time I got to one of her chapters, it felt like so much more work than writing Josh. At first, I thought this was simply because Josh is fairly straightforward emotionally and Hallie has layers of denial and repression to cut through. Later I thought it was because Josh’s emotional makeup was like mine, whereas Hallie’s was foreign to me. Somewhere during my third draft revision I realized that the characters are both parts of me, but Josh has more of what I like about myself; Hallie has many of the traits I struggle with, the bits I really don’t care for in my own psyche. Once I figured that out, it blew Hallie wide open for me, and writing her moved along much more smoothly.
As the adult sibling, Hallie decides to move from New York City to Oyster Shell in Southern New Jersey to take care of her younger brother Josh during his senior year in high school. Can you talk about Hallie’s internal conflict in making that choice, and the role of setting more generally in The Fifty-First State?
Hallie’s mother was originally from farther north in Jersey, closer to New York, and she’d never quite taken to the slower rhythms of living in rural South Jersey. After her mother’s death – Hallie was 11 – she began internalizing her mom’s feelings about the area. Hallie’s inability to properly grieve her mother at that age, coupled with her gradual estrangement from her father, led her to flee the area for college – to New York, where she thought her mother had always wanted to be – and to never want to return. What was really keeping her away, of course, was her difficult relationship with her father, but I think it was easier for her to blame it all on the town where she grew up.
When the novel opens, Hallie barely knows Josh, since he was born when she was 19. On some level, she blames him and his mother for pushing her aside, out of her father’s affections. So the last thing she wants to do is return to this town she thinks she despises to take care of a half-brother she barely knows. Without giving too much away, I think her decision to return and take care of Josh has everything to do with the way he touches her emotionally in the early days following his parents’ deaths. There’s a part of Hallie that’s very tender, and even though she’s done her best to build huge walls around that soft spot, Josh slips right in there, very quickly. Once that happens, there’s no other decision she can make but to move back to South Jersey.
In Cloud Cuckoo Land you focused on a single first-person point-of-view heroine, Miri. In The Fifty-First State you alternate between Josh and Hallie in third-person. What motivated this choice in your new novel, and how did it affect the way you told the story?
I love big, sprawling, multiple point of view novels – Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections immediately come to mind as examples. First person was a natural default for me when I was a younger writer, but I was seeing its limitations by the end of writing Cloud Cuckoo Land, and I definitely wanted my next novel to be in third person. Once I conceived of the story, I felt many voices were important, and so in my first draft I didn’t limit myself in terms of point of view – I had seven, and an 820-page draft! Through many revisions I whittled those voices down to five, then three, then finally the two points of view that tell the story now. Around the third draft stage I had some trouble letting go of the points of view of characters Ram and Nancy, who are now secondary characters, but my agent at the time and a wise writer friend pointed out to me that the heart of the book was Hallie and Josh’s story, and the additional points of view distracted from that story.
Your secondary characters Ram, Cal, and Damien play important catalytic roles in “The Fifty-First State.” I’m interested in the appearance of Ram, who lives in South Jersey but is culturally an outsider, and who brings a strong ethical core to the narrative. Can you talk about Ram’s role in the book?
Ram’s character went through an interesting genesis. In the earliest days of the first draft, Ram and Todd Schwegel (now a minor character) were the same person! I had this idea of a township sheriff who was a steward of the environment, and shared some of Ram’s other ethics in terms of animal rights and veganism. But as I continued writing, I found I couldn’t bring that version of Todd into sharp focus. I couldn’t picture him clearly, and I felt he was an outsider in more ways than just his beliefs. I had a very dramatic moment on a train ride to New York when I was working on the character, trying to figure him out, and I could suddenly see him in Mollusk Creek, and he was Indian. Of course, if he were Indian, then his name would not be Todd Schwegel! At first I resisted this idea as I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pull it off convincingly, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. By embracing animal rights and vegetarianism, Ram is actually going back to his grandparents’ beliefs, beliefs that his parents set aside when they moved to the U.S. I wrote a ton of backstory about Ram and his family that is no longer in the novel, but which really helped me to shape him as a character. I also discussed him with Indian friends of mine; Visi Tilak was especially helpful, including providing me with his last name.
Ram is, of course, the heart of the environmental subplot of the book, but he’s much more important than that. He forces Hallie to rethink some of her stereotypes about the region and the people she went to high school with, and he’s one of many people in the book who shows her that in some ways, you can go home again, in the sense that people remember her more fondly than she might have imagined. He’s also Josh’s closest confidant and has shaped the boy in a number of ways.
Cloud Cuckoo Land unfolds over 15 years, whereas The Fifty-First State takes place in a single academic year. What choices did you make in light of this relatively constrained time frame?
I found Cloud Cuckoo Land really unwieldy to write because it spanned so much time. When I conceived of the next book, I wanted it to take place over Josh’s senior year of high school and the summer after, ending just before he starts college. This first year of grief seemed to me a good place to explore, and allowed enough time to pass that the characters could believably be in a better place with their grief by the end of the book. But I will say this: in my experience, the book presents a very compressed time frame for grief. Most people would probably take at least three years after a devastating loss like this to get to the place where Josh is by the end of the book. The time compression was necessary for the purposes of the narrative, but I don’t think it’s inconceivable. Josh is a very well-adjusted kid with deep inner reserves of strength, and I believe that he might indeed be in a fairly decent place, emotionally, a year later. Hallie, on the other hand, lost her mother at 11 and never got over it. By the end of the novel, she’s finally put her mother’s death in perspective, but has just begun to grieve for her father. And I think that’s believable, too. Grief is such a different experience for different people.
Cloud Cuckoo Land and The Fifty-First State both draw heavily on rock & roll. What are the special pleasures and challenges of working with music in your fiction?
I’m a huge fan of rock & roll, as you know. Music is as important to me as books are, and if I’d had any musical talent whatsoever, I might have joined a band instead of becoming a writer. Because music is such a big part of my life, it’s often an entry way into characters for me. I think about what they would listen to, how it might make them feel, and that can often be a beginning for me in building character traits.
Cloud Cuckoo Land was overtly about music, with musician characters. Music is more in the background in The Fifty-First State, yet it’s important to many of the characters in the book. An early reader at a literary agency (who liked the book otherwise) wrote a note: “Why is there so much music in this novel?” My only response: “Because I wrote it?” I don’t mean to be cavalier in saying that; it’s simply a reflection of my world view. Music is such a huge part of my life that I can’t conceive of a novel where it doesn’t play some role. A life without music seems unbearably bleak to me.
You’ve developed a cult following within the GrubStreet community and beyond as an instructor. How does your teaching influence your own work, both in terms of content and process?
That’s very kind of you! I believe there’s an open secret among writers who teach writing as to how much we learn about our own work in the process of teaching. Part of this comes from seeing my students’ writing and helping them to find narrative solutions, which sometimes apply to my own work. Reading craft essays for class helps to reinforce good habits, and in doing writing exercises with my students, I’ve created scenes that find their way into my work. It’s also very energizing to work with committed, engaged emerging writers, and GrubStreet is a magnet for that type of writer. I feel incredibly lucky to have had such amazing students.
Where is your writing likely to take you now?
I’m working on two projects right now and still trying to decide which one to commit to. One is a set of three novellas set in and around the Boston music scene in the last decade. The other is a novel about a middle-aged woman who escapes her narrow life and finds a sense of belonging with a transgender teenager and an elderly man with a violent criminal past. I can’t say for sure, yet, which one will win out.