Lisa Gitlin, Author of I Came Out for This? and Postcards from the Canyon
From Lisa Gitlin's bio on her website:
"Lisa Gitlin was born and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, went to Ohio State University in 1969, had the proverbial sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll experience, dropped out after her junior year and moved to New York City to become a writer, ran around the filthy graffiti-slathered city while the Bronx burned and Son of Sam killed and Ford told the city to drop dead. She got her B.A. from the New School, and began her career as a journalist. After many years in Cleveland and the Washington, DC area, Lisa moved back to New York in 2014, and she now lives in Brooklyn.
"Lisa loves driving around the city, and marveling at the Manhattan skyline as the sun sets over the East River. She loves schmoozing with her friends, reading, dining out, and traveling. She savors many things about her unpredictable life. But her greatest joy -- above all -- is writing.
"Lisa's feature articles and columns have been published in many magazines and newspapers, including The Plain Dealer, Crain's Cleveland Business, Cleveland Magazine, Modern Medicine, The Education Digest, Cleveland Free Times, and Jewish Woman Magazine.
"Lisa's debut novel, I Came Out for This? (Bywater Books, 2010) achieved a first in the history of the Independent Publisher Book Awards: In 2011, it won a gold medal in two categories. I Came Out for This? won gold in both Humor and LGBT Fiction.
"Lisa's second novel, Postcards from the Canyon (Bywater Books, 2017) won the bronze medal for LGBT Fiction in the Independent Publisher Book Awards."
* Lisa Gitlin's website: http://lisagitlin.com
* I Came Out for This? (Bywater Books, 2010) by Lisa Gitlin. Amazon link
* Postcards from the Canyon (Bywater Books, 2017) by Lisa Gitlin. Amazon link
* Bywater Books link: http://bywaterbooks.com
Be Careful or You'll End Up in My Novel... Again
A Conversation with Lisa Gitlin, the Author Who Made IPPY Awards History
Lisa Gitlin just won her third IPPY Award, even though she's only had two books published.
How is that possible?
No, this isn't one of those annoying word problems from a long-ago math class.
In 2011, Lisa's debut novel, I Came Out for This? (Bywater Books, 2010), made literary history when it won a gold medal in two categories of The Independent Publisher (IPPY) Book Awards.
Although books are often submitted in more than one category, no book had ever won gold in more than one. And that is still the case.
But, in 2011, I Came Out for This? won IPPY gold medals for Humor and for LGBT Fiction.
Then, in 2018, Lisa's second novel, Postcards from the Canyon (Bywater Books, 2017), won a bronze medal for LGBT Fiction.
Shortly after she won her two IPPY Awards for I Came Out for This?, I interviewed Lisa for the July 2011 issue of Independent Publisher magazine. and she explained how her life intertwined with her writing:
"I grew up in Cleveland where my father was a reporter at The Cleveland News. He also did some fiction writing, some short stories. He was a passionate writer, and he taught me to have high standards. He died five years ago and my book is dedicated to him. I've had hundreds of articles published in Ohio newspapers and magazines, including The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cleveland magazine, and alternative weeklies. But I think about how he would've been kvelling over my book winning two IPPYs. I went to Ohio State during the heady counter-culture days and I was a counter-culture kid. I moved to New York in 1971 and lived there for five years. I was also writing. I graduated from The New School in 1975. Then, I went to Cleveland to my parents house for Thanksgiving and never went back to New York. I was gay and suppressing it and I was a mess. I couldn't get it together to go back to New York. I stayed in Cleveland and had a pretty robust writing career in Cleveland, but didn't have the good sense to come out for another 16 years. I wasted a good part of my life not being myself. I poured all of my passion into writing and that might have delayed my coming out."
You can read that full 2011 interview, Be Careful or You'll End Up in My Novel, here: http://independentpublisher.com/article.php?page=1461
Lisa finally moved back to New York in 2014, and now lives in Brooklyn.
After she won her 2018 IPPY Award for Postcards from the Canyon, her second book, but the first book in a planned trilogy, we spoke on the phone about writing and the universal themes in her books.
* * * * *
Q: The book within Postcards from the Canyon -- the part that takes place in Cleveland, about growing up in the 1960s -- is loosely based on your life, just as I Came Out for This? was. The main character, Joanna, is writing the story of her life. And some of the other characters are based on some of the people who have been in your life. What prompted you to organize this as a book within a book?
A: It wasn't even in my consciousness that I was going to do that at first. I started writing about Joanna's childhood, and it didn't have the complexity that I wanted, so then I got this idea to put a frame around it, and have the contemporary story as the frame: The adult Joanna is telling the story. It was very challenging to write a book within a book, to do the transitions. Second novels are notoriously difficult to start. I started a few different ones and they didn't feel right. Sometimes, I'd write as much as 50 pages. Then, I started this one. It just felt right. Joanna feels right. She's my alter ego. Writers like to be understood. And that's why we write. I write because I'm a born writer. That's what I do. I write to make magic. I write because it's the most wonderful thing in the world to me. It's creating something out of nothing. I feel a physical flow of energy while I'm writing. If I don't feel that flow of energy, then what comes out is not that good. With writing, it's all about rhythm, and about having an ear. I have a good ear for dialogue. When I write, I want to make something harmonious. It's like making music. And, I want to give people an experience they've never had before.
Q: Even though her name is Joanna, she's not the same person in both books. The things that happened to the Joanna of Postcards from the Canyon, your second book, didn't happen to the Joanna of I Came Out for This?, your first book.
A: Because both books are autobiographical novels, in that respect she's the same person. But, Postcards from the Canyon, my second book, is not a sequel or prequel to I Came Out for This?, my first book. I tried different names for the second book, but I wasn't comfortable with those names. I just love the name Joanna. My dad was a journalist and writer, and when I was three he used to tell me stories about a little girl he made up named Joanna, and her friends, Spencer the giant, and three little dogs: Blacky, Whitey, and Yellowy. He even made records of the stories, he got them recorded. So, that name is meaningful for me. When I tried other names for her in Postcards from the Canyon, they just didn't feel right.
Q. What is the most important message from Joanna's story?
A. I wanted to communicate the feeling of growing up in the 1960s, but also how horrible homophobia was, what it did to kids growing up in that era. Joanna was gay, and not only could she not express it and be out, she couldn't accept it, she couldn't admit it to herself. So she walked around with this terror of who she was. That's what produced some of her behavior problems. In adolescence, she had no outlet for her sexual feelings. She had no attraction to boys, she did have a physical desire for girls, but she couldn't act on it. When you read about homophobia and what it does to people and how awful it is for gay people, it's always about people who are out, you never read about people who are hiding, who are closeted, and the devastation that results. Straight people don't realize that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people who will go to their grave with that secret. They'll never have love. This character Joanna knew she'd never get married, never have children.
Q. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, one day being able to marry a woman she loved, and becoming a parent, wasn't something she could've forseen because same-sex marriage wasn't possible back then.
A. When she looked into the future she didn't see anything. There was nothing. Joanna could not imagine growing up. She was totally alone. When I was young, I didn't know that anyone else was like that. That was the terror. I didn't see any gay people, they were all closeted. Joanna thought that homosexuals were sick, perverted people, because that's what she -- and we -- were taught. In the book, when she's 13, she becomes aware of a lesbian couple, Penny and Geraldine. She and her friends make fun of this couple and torment them. That was all Joanna's internalized homophobia. In those days. it was considered an illness, and it was also a crime.
Q. Postcards from the Canyon is the first book of a trilogy, so we'll get to see Joanna during many stages of her life. We'll also get to see society during those decades, and how it changed.
A. I'm writing the second book of the trilogy now, but I won't have a title until I'm done. It goes from 1969, when Joanna goes to college, to around 1980, when Reagan was elected. It takes place at Ohio State during the Vietnam War, and in the 1970s. She leaves Ohio after her 3rd year and finishes college in New York. The rest of the story in the 1970s takes place in New York City. The third book will cover the decades after. Joanna won't come out until she's about 30, at the end of the second trilogy.
Q. Your books have universal themes, including tolerance and acceptance, that all readers can relate to.
A. You don't have to be gay to be an isolated, unhappy teenage girl. People can understand these things. I've gotten as much positive feedback about this book from guys as from women. And the homophobia affects everyone. It's Joanna and her straight friends tormenting the gay couple in the book.
Q. And somehow, through it all, both books are funny.
A. It has to be funny. I don't try to make it funny, I'm just funny. That's me. Joanna is my alter ego.
Q. You talk about what's important to you through the life stories of these characters.
A. That's true. The characters I create all embody part of me. Everything I write about is important to me. otherwise I wouldn't bother writing about it. Through writing, I want to produce something universal. If you work in a creative field, it's your way of communicating with the world. I feel that writing fiction is my gift to people who are going to read it. I admire people who can create very unlikable characters and get away with it. They have something in their arsenal that I don't have. I want my characters, especially the major characters, to be sympathetic, to give people the experience of relating to the book.
Q. Since your books are based on your life, did you ever consider writing a memoir instead of a novel?
A. I tried to write my first book as a memoir, and it was a wreck. As soon as I turned it into fiction, it was so liberating. You have so much more freedom and can be more creative. Some people were meant to write memoirs, and some were meant to write novels. I have a good imagination. I like making up characters and making up crazy things that happen to people.
Q. The third book in your trilogy will take Joanna through the present at the point you're writing it. When you finish with the trilogy, will you feel like you've completed telling Joanna's story, or since Joanna is based on you, would you consider writing more about her in another book beyond the trilogy? Joanna's story is intertwined with what's going on in the country, in the world, in every decade.
A. That's so far into the future that I have no idea what I'd want to write about at that point. So much of it depends upon what happens to me. That's probably 10 years from now. I can anticipate my own growth as a human being, but I can't control what's going to happen in the world, I can't predict that. My boundaries between myself and my environment are very porous. I take it all in.
Nina L. Diamond is a journalist, essayist, humorist, and the author of books including Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers & Healers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Poynter, Omni, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, The Sun-Sentinel, and The Miami Herald.
She has been a contributing writer for Independent Publisher magazine since 2003, and wrote her Much Ado About Publishing column from 2003-2012.
Ms. Diamond was a writer and performer on Pandemonium, the National Public Radio (NPR) satirical humor program, for it's entire run on WLRN in Miami and in select markets nationwide from 1984-1998. As an editor, she works with other authors and journalists on both fiction and non-fiction. You can find her on Twitter: @ninatypewriter.