Lisa Tucker grew up in a small town in Missouri and held a string of odd jobs before becoming a writer. In her novels, Tucker's dedication to storytelling is evident; her tender, engrossing plotlines infused with wit keep readers turning the pages.
In 2003, Tucker burst upon the scene with The Song Reader, a moving coming-of-age drama that resonated as much with adolescents as with adult readers. The novel's narrator, a vulnerable preteen named Leeann Norris, recounts the story of her adored older sister Mary Beth, a hardworking young woman who supports them both after their mother's death by waiting tables and reading songs -- that is, interpreting the events in people's lives by analyzing the songs they can't get out of their heads. When this extraordinary gift turns inward and a devastating family secret is revealed, Leeann must reach inside herself to save the sister she loves. Selected by Book Sense for its 2004-2005 reading group, The Song Reader received glowing reviews, and Tucker was hailed as "a brilliant new literary talent" (The Albuquerque Tribune).
Since her bestselling debut, Tucker has gone on to craft more compelling, emotionally nuanced novels that have garnered praise from sundry quarters. Her work has appeared in Seventeen magazine, Pages, and The Oxford American; and her short story "Why Go" (inspired by the classic Pearl Jam tune) was included in Lit Riffs: Writers "Cover" Songs They Love, an anthology of music-related fiction by Jonathan Lethem, Tom Perotta, and other contemporary writers.
Tucker is also a talented teacher who has taught creative writing at the Taos Conference, at UCLA, and at the University of Pennsylvania.
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In our interview, Tucker shared some fun and fascinating anecdotes with us:
"I started writing fiction in 1995 for no other reason than that I loved reading it. I'd never had a creative writing course or attended a workshop; I didn't know any writers. I still feel there's something so magical about just plunging in and learning the craft as you go."
"I've had a lot of jobs. Probably the most unusual things I've done are touring the Midwest and South with a jazz band and teaching math at an urban community college."
"Of all the nice things that have been said about my novels in reviews, I think Frank Wilson's description of my characters (in The Philadelphia Inquirer) had the most meaning to me:
'These aren't the human orchids populating so much of what gets called literary fiction. These are working stiffs, the store clerks and waitresses who inhabit Heartland America [and] Tucker has drawn them without condescension.'
No one else had mentioned this, but I do write about ordinary people, the kind I grew up with and still identify with. I used to get rejections that said no one would care about these people's lives. I'm so glad that hasn't proved true!"
"I love teaching almost as much as I love writing and hope to have a chance to do it again. I also desperately want to live closer to water. Anyone know of a teaching gig near the ocean?"
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In the summer of 2004, Lisa Tucker took some time to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman -- I love Whitman's poetry because it's profoundly democratic: about ordinary people, written in a very accessible style. Whitman is the reason I wanted to study American literature in grad school. He depicts our country as a place of enormous diversity and profound possibility, of men and women and children working and playing, struggling and finding joy.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville -- My favorite novel; I've taught this book to college students and read it 13 times. I used to walk around the house quoting Ahab, but now I'm trying for more of an Ishmael outlook on life.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison -- If there is such a thing as the Great American Novel, this has to be it. Pilate is the one character in fiction I would most want to know.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley -- The poor monster. Every author who hopes to write sympathetic "bad guys" should read and reread this book.
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison -- Dark and bold and heartbreaking. I'm still in awe of Allison's courage in writing this.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin -- A truly beautiful book; this one reminded me so much of my own childhood, when going to church and thinking about God were as much a part of my life as breathing.
Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson -- A wonderful story about family; I think this novel may have saved my life one summer. The last chapter from the mother's point of view blew me away. I remember thinking that Mona Simpson knew everything.
The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks -- I love all of Russell Banks's work, but this one is my current favorite. Banks always writes without sentiment about a deeply meaningful world.
Love Warps the Mind a Little by John Dufresne -- This book is so beautiful and compassionate. I picked it up at a time when I'd just lost a loved one, and it broke my heart and showed me the way back to hope.
I have about a hundred more books I want to talk about. Can I just list a few more?
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
Rich in Love by Josephine Humphries
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Father and Son by Larry Brown
Billy Dead by Lisa Reardon
The Brothers Karamazov by Fodor Dostoevsky
What are some of your favorite films? The Wizard of Oz
They Might Be Giants
The Straight Story
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
The Sweet Hereafter
To Kill a Mockingbird
Nightmare on Elm Street, all parts
Lost in Translation
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I can't listen to music while I'm writing because it will get in the way of the voice of the characters. Otherwise, I'm always listening to something: jazz or rock, pop, classical, you name it. In our CD player right now we have John Coltrane, Betty Carter, Annie Lennox, Elvis Costello, Bach, Ligeti, and Nirvana.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Moby-Dick, because it always ends up on those "books I could never finish" lists and I would love to get a club excited about it. It's very funny, which most people don't know. Whale humor is hilarious, I swear.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
From my immediate family, I love to get reference books like The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, which I'm too cheap to buy for myself. I also love to get novels, and to give them, especially if I can find a new writer who I think a friend will love.
What do you have on your desk when you're writing?
On my desk at the moment, I have:
A bottle of vitamin C, to calm the inner hypochondriac
A stack of marked-up novel pages to edit with a few phone numbers scrawled sideways, calls I was supposed to return and didn't
A bucket of pens, at least half of which don't work
A picture of my wonderful son, who inspires everything I do
A mug of diet soda
A heart-shaped rock
Worry beads my mother-in-law made for me
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 got my first agent in 1997. She wasn't able to sell any of my work. I got my current agent at the end of 2001, and she got me a two-book deal in about a month. The four years in between were hard, though I never stopped writing. Hanging next to my desk, I have a cheap little purple ribbon that I bought at a school supply store, the kind given out to the kids who don't win the prize: "I try my best." I wanted to succeed, of course, but mainly I wanted to live up to that.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
1. Don't take the rejections too hard. This is easier said than done, I know, but you have to believe in what you're working on. You can't let criticism stop you from telling the story only you can tell.
2. If you're involved with something that you think will help your career, but it hurts your writing, get out.
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