Freelance Blog + [writing]

5 Q's with Liza Monroy

I contacted Liza Monroy after reading her article about first person pieces on Media Bistro. With a novel coming out next year and several more projects in the works, Liza epitomizes the busy working writer we all aspire to be! Here's her take on the writer's life... Urban Muse: You’ve had personal essays published in The New York Times, Jane, Newsweek, and more, as well as teaching a Media Bistro course on the topic. What do you think goes into an essay that editors what to publish? Is it the writer’s voice? The content? Or something else?
Liza:
I think it depends on a combination of elements all coming together and falling into place. A successful personal essay makes a universal point, yet still relies entirely on details, scenes, and a uniquely compelling voice. I once received some advice from Nick Flynn, one of my all-time favorite writers and a tremendous inspiration, that I think captures the essence of the memoir form: “question every assumption, make wild claims, trust the reader to figure out what it all means.”

I like to reveal as though no one were going to ever see what I wrote – it’s freeing, and when the material is making me a little bit uncomfortable and giving me a little of that squirming in my seat feeling, I finally feel that perhaps it’s getting somewhere. Beware the “nice” essay.

If you’ve had an experience that’s been nagging at you to write about it, odds are it wants to come out – whether it’s funny or deep, light or dark – and the personal essay is a fantastic form in which to write about the eccentricities of life. As long as you find the universal, human element and draw it gently out, without hitting the reader over the head, you can channel the story in a publishable way – personal essay columns always need fresh voices. I also think developing a good, solid arc helps. And I’ve been told simple and chronological works better in short pieces than attempting to play with more complex structures. Conflict, tension, and vivid details, along with an interesting story and voice, are the basic ingredients to toss into the pot. From there, it’s all about following your own homemade recipe and improvising.
UM: Your first novel, Mexican High, debuts next year. What can you tell us about that project?
L:
Firstly, just how excited I am about it! It comes out in May 2008. I’ve always written, always wanted to be a writer – so to have a first book with Spiegel & Grau is a dream come true and an honor.

I worked on MEXICAN HIGH ( scroll down for a description ) for a year, spending countless hours typing away in the New York Public Library, two West Village cafes, the Soy Luck Club, and Grounded, and occasionally in the quiet of my apartment. I was freelancing at the time, so between essays, articles, and magazine jobs, I hid away and wrote relentlessly. I didn’t have an agent and I had no idea whether the book would be published or end up in my desk drawer for my future kids to one day dig out. So I feel very grateful to have connected with Jennifer Lyons, who in turn submitted the manuscript to my dream editor, Cindy Spiegel. Elle magazine had run an interview with Cindy and her partner Julie Grau when they first started up their new imprint at Random House. I’d clipped this article and had it taped up over my home computer the entire time I was writing the novel, so perhaps a bit of happy synchronicity came into play.

As for the story itself, it stemmed from a deep desire I’ve had since high school to write about Mexico City, where I lived for four years. My protagonist, Mila Marquez, appeared in my head one hot Monday night in August, on a ferry ride from Bay Shore, NY to Fire Island. Before that, I’d had a few false starts on the book as memoir, ultimately realizing I was not the right narrator – I wasn’t connected enough to the stories I wanted to tell about Mexico City. But once Mila sort of showed up and announced that she was taking over, I opened up a new document and out streamed the first draft, which I finished four months later. Then, of course, there was revision. Quite a lot of it! I believe in the old screenwriting adage, writing is re-writing (ed note: touche).
UM: Any tips on juggling multiple projects? How do you manage your time?
L:
By not managing it! For awhile, I tried putting my happily scattered self on a schedule: awake at 8, coffee, gym from 9-10, writing from 10:30-7, then free time for husband, socializing, TV or whatnot. It was a nice routine, but like all routine and me, it didn’t last. I’m a night owl and I feel more creative during the witching hours. I also realized – didn’t I quit having full-time jobs in order to *avoid* having a strict, set schedule? So I turned to the wisdom of the Tao: “Can you deal with the most vital matters/ by letting events take their course?”

Right now I’m immersed in the first draft of my second book, a memoir that might be titled Reinventing the Ring or Inviting Earthquakes or There’s Been a Slight Change of Plans, or something entirely different. (Votes welcome!) I also have a couple of freelance magazine assignments. I juggle them based on how I’m feeling – if I am on a roll with one project, I’ll stay on, if I’m not feeling it that day, I’ll move to something else. It’s all very intuitive and I find that letting go and allowing myself NOT to manage, I am more productive and more at peace.

This, however, all changes at tax time. At tax time, my discipline with the organizing of receipts is unstoppable.
UM: Could you tell us about your newest project and the writer’s residency?
L:
I’m the writer-in-residence at the Kerouac Project of Orlando this summer. It is an amazing experience that I’d recommend to writers everywhere. You spend three whole months with time and space in the glorious Orlando home where Jack Kerouac lived when On the Road was published in 1957. He also wrote Dharma Bums in the back bedroom – my current writing office! It’s a hauntingly beautiful place and I’m getting more done than I ever have – the productivity that comes with solitude and an inspiring environment. I’m also co-teaching a creative writing class through Valencia Community College and have met some wonderful people, so it’s not all typing in solitude - though those hours are the core component of my time here.
I’m working on the memoir I mentioned, which I won’t say too, too much about at this time. It’s set over a period of five years, in L.A. and New York, in which I was married twice by the age of twenty-five. It’s about being in your twenties, dealing with first jobs and muddled relationships, and trying to get over a fear of ending up divorced by entering a situation in which you surely will, but in which it won’t be a bad thing. I am examining what happens to a child of divorce once she hits her twenties and starts wanting a family of her own without having had any roadmap or template for how these sorts of things are supposed to go. And as a person who moved around constantly growing up – was I unable to ever settle down and find a meaning for the abstract concept of home? I spent a lot of time running. But it also deals with the laughable attempt at getting a foot up a rung of the Hollywood ladder, life with my gay best friend, dating (way) older men, and failed attempts at road trips. An essay centered around part of it will appear in the September issue of PSYCHOLOGY TODAY magazine, that gives a general idea of the book’s nature.
UM: What are your interests outside of writing?
L:
I love, love, love to travel and seeking out new experiences in different cultures. I crave the unfamiliar – food, language, terrain, conversation. I’m also a great outdoors fan, which I don’t get to indulge too often living in New York City. Camping, hiking, rafting, anything nature-and/or-adrenaline related makes me feel so much alive, as does going to the ocean and being near beautiful beaches. Reading comes up very high on the list – you have to be a great reader before you can be a great writer – plus I’m a magazine junkie and need my Sunday NYT fix. I love readings and author events. And I will never turn down a night of Carrie-Bradshawing it up on the town with my motley crew and/or my best friend, my husband Alex.
UM: Thanks so much, Liza!
L:
You’re welcome! Thank you.