Interview: Lara Zeises
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Lara Zeises writes books. Most of them bear her own name, while two - the Confessions of a Teenage Starlet books which inspired last year's Lifetime television movie - were written under the pseudonym Lola Douglas. Lara's newest YA novel, The Sweet Life of Stella Madison, made me smile, laugh, and cook macaroni and cheese. Seriously.
While I was revamping her website at zeisgeist.com and while she was gearing up for the book's release, we squeezed in this interview about books, body image, foodies, and fake names. We even had a lightning round. GO!
Please tell everyone at home how to properly pronounce your name.
My first name is Lara, rhymes with "mascara." Last name is Zeises, rhymes with "ices." Married name will be Deloza, which doesn't rhyme with anything but is much easier to pronounce than either of my given names.
When did Stella Madison first sneak into your brain and say, "Write about me, please?"
The idea for the novel actually started with Stella's dad, Andre Madison, who was inspired by a real-life chef I know named Phil Pyle. I say "inspired" because even though Andre shares Phil's culinary philosophy and storytelling prowess, Andre's kind of an ass at times, and Phil is so totally not. Anyway, I first met Phil at this place called Celebrity Kitchens, which is what I ended up basing Stella's mother's business on. Stella herself came to me after asking myself who these two people might give birth to. I knew there were only two ways to go - either she'd be a total foodie or she'd be the exact opposite. And it was so much more fun to write about a junk food junkie who just happened to be saddled with parents who were gourmets.
FUN FACT: Andre was named after Andre Dubus III (THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG), who was a teacher I had in grad school at Emerson. His philosophy of writing impacted mine to an enormous degree, and like Stella's dad (and Chef Phil), Andre is a really dynamic speaker - when he's telling you a story in person, the whole room lights up.
What aspects of Stella's life and personality mirror yours?
Stella's an only child, for starters. She's also the product of a broken marriage, though her parents' split was amicable and my parents' rivaled World War III. While I don't have tresses quite as curly as Stella's, I too am a brunette who really can predict humidity levels based on how frizzy my hair is in the morning. Oh, and in the book, Stella ends up interning at the local paper, which I did for a couple of summers back when I thought I was supposed to be a journalist. But other than that, we're completely different people. One key example: Stella is relationship-phobic, completely afraid of the L-word (as in love, not that racy series on Showtime), whereas I've always been in love with, well, love. My fiancé, Joe, told me he was going to marry me before we had our first date - if this had happened to Stella, she would've bolted immediately. Me? I thought it was a little odd, but also sort of charming. So, yeah. I'm definitely more of a romantic.
Do you ever give characters traits you wish you had?
Definitely. This is very much the case with Stella, who is way more confident than I ever was at her age, or even am now. When Stella gets dolled up, she knows she's foxy. She flirts as if she could medal in it like a sport at the Olympics. And it's not like she's conventionally pretty, which even she acknowledges. Stella is the kind of girl who's comfortable in her own skin, even though she's not a skinny little nothing. I made her a size 8/10 on purpose, in part because as I was writing one of the drafts, I read about how a reprint of the Sweet Valley High series would tout the twins' "perfect" size 2 bodies, as opposed to the size 6's they wore originally. There's something so twisted about that, you know? A girl who wears size 8 jeans is normal, not obese - and promoting healthy body image in teen girls is something I'm very passionate about, for a variety of reasons.
I like all of your books, but Bringing Up the Bones, your first novel, may very well be my favorite. What was the inspiration for the story and the title?
Bones was inspired by two incidents. The first was that one of my best friends lost her ex-boyfriend in an accident almost identical to Benji's in the novel. He was 19, driving home from a day of art school classes, and had been pulled over for speeding. A truck driver suffered a heart attack at the wheel, and plowed into the breakdown lane. To me it felt like this incredibly senseless death. And it's not like he was killed by a drunk driver, so there wasn't anyone you could blame. I kept thinking, how do you deal with that kind of grief? Benji's wake was very much based on the one I attended to support my friend; I come from a Jewish family and Jewish funerals are very, very different. There are no viewings, no open caskets, and the body goes into the ground within two days. To me, that's so much more humane.
The second thing that inspired Bones was an incredibly painful breakup with the first guy I'd ever really loved. I often joke about how there's no better way to get over a guy than to kill him off in a book, but the truth is, the breakup felt very much like a death. Like Bridget, I spent a period of time not knowing who I was without this person in my life. And, like Bridget, I eventually came to the painful realization that you can't bury your loneliness in another person – you have to learn how to love yourself, by yourself, before you can be with someone else.
The title comes from a line in one of my favorite poems by Samuel Beckett, an excerpt of which I used as the epigraph.
I like the subtle tie-ins between your books. Loyal readers will recognize characters from one book that make cameos in other books. Would you ever write a sequel to any of your stories?
Well, there's a sequel to True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet, the brilliantly titled More Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet. The only other book I've ever wanted to write a follow-up to is Contents Under Pressure. I actually outlined a sequel at one point, titled Dangerous Curves Ahead. But my publisher, Random House, wasn't jazzed about the idea. They were open to me writing a companion novel, possibly focusing on Lucy's friend Tabitha, but I never followed up on that. Instead, I wrote a year and a half's worth of blog entries in Lucy's voice that pick up several months after the novel ends.
How did you get the book deal for True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet, and then its sequel? Why the pseudonym?
There are many complicated answers to this question, but the short of it is that at the time, Random House was publishing my books 18 months apart. It's hard to make good money on that time frame, especially when you're just starting out. I looked into doing some work for hire stuff for a book packager, and through a series of serendipitous events ended up conceiving the plot line for Starlet. Morgan Carter, the protagonist, was inspired by a childhood hero of mine, Drew Barrymore. Of course, most people assume I was ripping off Linday Lohan's life, but at the time that I wrote the Starlet proposal, Lindsay was still a Disney darling.
As for the pseudonym … the simple answer is that it was a contractual thing. To write YA for a competing publisher, I wasn't legally allowed to use my own name. The larger reason is that my agent and I wanted to draw a distinction between the more literary books I was doing for Random House and this more commercial series I did for Razorbill, which was then a very young imprint of Penguin.
When and how did you find out that Starlet was going to be made into a movie?
The book had been optioned by its producer, Barbara Lieberman, on behalf of Lifetime the summer of 2006. I didn't hear anything for months and months, but then, in the spring of 2007, my agent casually mentioned in a voice mail message that things were moving along with the movie deal. Shocker! My film agent then explained that the project had been green-lit “cast contingent” – meaning, if Lifetime liked who Barbara signed to play the leads, then the movie would get made. He said they were gunning for “the actress JoJo” (that phrase still cracks me up), but there were scheduling issues that needed to be worked out. Then, that summer, I got a Google alert that picked up the news on one of JoJo's fan pages. Seriously, the JoJo bloggers knew my movie was getting made before I did! They have better intel than the CIA.
Have any of your other books been optioned for film or TV?
Sadly, no. There was some interest in Contents from an indie producer, but that never panned out.
If it were a film and you had your say, who would play Stella?
This is a no-brainer: Lyndsy Fonseca. You may know her as the future daughter of Ted on How I Met Your Mother (which Joe and I affectionately dub How I Met Yo Mama), or as Katherine Mayfair's now-grown daughter on Desperate Housewives.
What are your ten most favorite books?
Ranked by the order in which I read them:
1. Life After God by Douglas Coupland
2. Girl by Blake Nelson
3. The Pigman by Paul Zindel
4. Dangerous Angels by Francesca Lia Block
5. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
6. Damage by A. M. Jenkins
7. Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
8. Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
9. Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
10. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Lightning round/word association: Say the first word or phrase that comes to mind:
Favorite movie: WHEN HARRY MET SALLY
Favorite TV show: CHUCK (okay, just to note - this really is the first thing that popped into my head. I love the show but have never actually called it a "favorite" until now)
Favorite pasttime: Scrapbooking
Favorite place in the world: In my fiancé's arms (I know, I'm cheesy)
Stella = love
Scout = criminal cuteness
Writing = hard work
Foodie = something I never thought I'd become, but somehow have
What's now? Wedding planning, nesting
What's next? Writing a new book, marriage, babies
What's past? Fear
What's that? Fear = the thing that's held me back more than anything else
Visit Lara's website and blog, where she's having a 50 Book Giveaway!