With stints in journalism and public relations, plus an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College, Lolly Winston was an experienced writer before she penned her first novel. Still, her initial goal wasn't to write a bestseller -- it was just to finish the manuscript. "Really, I just had the personal goal of finishing a novel before I turned forty," said Winston in an interview on her publisher's Web site. "Even if it was collecting dust in a drawer somewhere when I was on my death bed, I just wanted it to be finished."
The year before she turned forty, Winston took a hiatus from her other writing to complete Good Grief, the wry and touching story of a young woman coping with the death of her husband. Far from collecting dust in a drawer, Winston's novel flew off the shelves. It was chosen as a No. 1 Booksense pick and received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, where the reviewer wrote: "Throughout this heartbreaking, gorgeous look at loss, Winston imbues her heroine and her narrative with the kind of grace, bitter humor and rapier-sharp realness that will dig deep into a reader's heart and refuse to let go."
Good Grief renders the mourning process with such intimacy and accuracy that readers may wonder whether Winston herself is a widow. She isn't, but she did lose both her parents while she was still a young woman. "My father died when I was 29 and four years later my mother died," she explained on her publisher's Web site. "The day that my dad died I went out and bought a bathmat and a new lamp. Grief didn't hit me for a while. I even found myself resenting the mourners at our house. How could they accept his death so readily? I found grief like charging something on a credit card -- you pay later, with interest. Months after my father's death I started breaking down. I remember sitting at my desk at work one day, unable to pick up my pencil."
After her depression began to subside, Winston realized she wanted to write about what grief was really like -- including "the messy, quirky aspects of grief." Accordingly, the heroine of Good Grief sleeps in her late husband's shirts, eats Oreos by the package and drives her car through the closed garage door. She also struggles to keep living and moving forward, even though she can't at first imagine what her future will be like.
The result is a blend of pathos and humor that rings true for many readers. "Refreshingly, Winston has removed the sap factor that often makes these tales of lost love as gooey as Vermont maple syrup or as saccharine as an artificially sweetened Nicholas Sparks novel," noted a reviewer for USA Today.
In an essay on her publisher's Web site, Winston writes about "finding the comedy in tragedy":
"I've always loved novels that are funny and sad at the same time. The Bell Jar, Lolita. If you go back and re-read those books, you rediscover their humor with surprise. Suicidal depression, funny? Pedophilia, funny? Somehow, yes. This seems to be where poignancy comes from -- in finding the irony and humor in the worst things that happen to us in life."
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Winston:
"My first job out of college, with a major in English, was as a breakfast cook at a Sheraton in Durham, North Carolina. You don't ever want to get burned with hot grits."
"I was the world's worst waitress -- I spilled entrees, broke corks, mixed up orders. I was demoted, and that's how I wound up working in the kitchen and working various cooking jobs throughout college and grad school. This is an autobiographical part of Good Grief."
"When I was in my early 20s, I went to Hawaii for eight days and stayed for eight years. I learned to boogie board and dance the hula and barbecue in the wind without using any lighter fluid. My 20s were basically one long summer. Then I had to come home from camp and grow up and face the real world."
"My three cats are my writing companions. I cut and file my cats' nails, brush their teeth, and write songs for them. ‘Life's not too shi#*^, when you're a kitty!' I'm embarrassed to admit that I've become a crazy cat lady."
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In the spring of 2005, Lolly Winston took some time out to answer some of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Flannery O'Connor. I began reading her short stories when I was 15 -- around the time I started writing fiction. My first short story attempts were poor Flannery O'Connor imitations. (You can't write southern gothic fiction if you're from Hartford, Connecticut.) I think O'Connor is one of the best descriptive writers. I also like how she puts characters in extreme situations that serve to reveal their true natures. The way she blends horrifying and humorous details in the same story is brilliant.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
These lists are hard! As soon as I make a list of favorite books, I have a forehead-slapping moment on the freeway or in the shower when I think of a book I love that I wish I'd included. To narrow it down, I'll stick to novels written in the latter half of the 20th century and not mention the short story collections and memoirs I also love (The Liars' Club by Mary Karr, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, and short stories by Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, Christie Hodgen, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Ethan Canin, Lorrie Moore.... I'm officially cheating now).
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- I love this book because it's so dark and funny at the same time, and because the language is so extraordinary. And it has one of my all-time favorite moments: Humbert Humbert drives down the wrong side of the road; he figures he's already violated every other law of human nature, so why not drive down the wrong side of the road and see how it feels? It's great how this one moment captures the essence of the story and his angst.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath -- Another dark yet funny novel. Lolita is about obsession, while The Bell Jar is about depression. Two of my favorite topics, I hate to admit.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy -- I love this novel because I identify so strongly with the male protagonist. When I first read it I felt like Percy knew me. To me, this signifies what fiction is about -- not the male or female experience but the human experience. I don't think we need to categorize fiction as much as we do, into women's fiction, lad lit, etc.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson -- Gorgeous and haunting. This book inspires me to write.
About a Boy by Nick Hornby -- Hornby's one of those can't-wait-until-his-next-book-comes-out writers to me. I love his writing, his characters, and his combination of humor and poignancy.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon --This novel broke my heart and made me laugh at the same time. I always seem to look for that combination in fiction.
The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer -- A fabulous story that's beautifully written, with details that made me want to bust out a highlighter pen. After Anna Karenina, I think this novel has the best opening ever.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt -- A thriller and a literary masterpiece all in one. What I particularly like is how we learn right up front that the character Bunny is murdered by his friends. If we already know what happens, then why keep reading? Because we need to know how and when and why.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides -- This book, which crosses the Atlantic and spans generations, simply knocked my socks off.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham -- I usually fall in love with a book because I fall in love with the beauty of the writing, and that was certainly the case with this book. I loved it more than Mrs. Dalloway, its inspiration. Can I say that? Will someone come and take my English degree away?
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I love Woody Allen. Among my favorites are Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Mighty Aphrodite, and Interiors.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to music when I'm writing; I find it too distracting. But I do love music. Among my all-time favorites are: Elvis Costello, the Talking Heads, Bob Marley, R.E.M., Dave Brubeck, Chopin (especially when I'm sad, I love those stormy, keeling-over-from-TB pieces), and Vivaldi. I also love Jennie Stearns, Emmylou Harris.... It's hard to stop naming music that I enjoy.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh, The Master by Colm Tóibín, Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, Don Quixote by Cervantes, The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett, and The Odyssey by Homer. This is the current stack in the queue on my nightstand. I haven't read Jonathan Lethem yet, and I have a feeling that as soon as I do he's going to move onto that top ten list.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Signed books. I'm a groupie. I love to go to readings and get books signed for myself, and give them as gifts.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Cats, cat hair, and caffeine. I write from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Then I eat lunch with Terri Gross. (I listen to her radio program, Fresh Air.) Other than some coffee shop troll hand-editing, I don't work in the afternoons, because I don't have as much creative energy. In the early evening, while I'm cooking dinner, I usually spend another hour or two up in my office rewriting.
What are you working on now?
A second novel, called Happiness Sold Separately.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've been writing since I was 15 and wrote short stories for years. A few were published, but I have a bulging folder of rejections notices. Good Grief is my first novel. It took me five years to finish it. For four years I didn't really make it a priority. Then, as my 40th birthday approached, I decided I had to finish. So I ran up the Visa bill and reached the finish line. I've also been writing and publishing essays and feature stories for about ten years, but I don't really consider myself a journalist. I'm a fiction writer first.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
My friend Eileen Bordy. She's mostly just published essays, but she also writes fabulous fiction. She is one of the most funny, poignant writers I've ever read. If any agents are reading this, they should drop everything and call her.
In general, I think many books and authors don't get the attention and level of promotion they deserve. There's an imbalance. So much luck seems to be involved.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Well, Woody Allen said something like, "90 percent of life is showing up." And that seems to be what writing is all about. First, show up and do the work. Then, show up at workshops or writing groups or friends' houses, and get feedback from others. When your work is polished, show up at conferences and learn all you can about connecting with agents. There's a lot of persistence involved in the process of writing and publishing. An irrational amount, when you get right down to it.
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