July 29, 2007

Not In It for the Fame

A couple of years ago I heard a writer I did not know, Lisa Borders, read from her novel in progress.  I was riveted--the characters were fully formed from their introduction, the plot sounded like a page-turner.  I couldn’t wait to read the book.  I still can’t.

There are literary myths about the manuscript plucked from the slush pile to: (a) shoot to the top of the best-seller list, (b) win the National Book Award. (c) be snapped up by Steven Spielberg, (d--fill in your favorite fantasy here).  But more often writing proceeds like gardening: the slow and quiet tending of adverbs, weeding of dialogue, crafting of the work. The way Lisa Borders is doing.

Borders is clearly a writer deserving of attention. All the ingredients are there. She has had short stories published in respected literary journals, has been given awards, grants, and residencies, and teaches fiction writing at Boston independent writing center Grub Street.  In selecting her novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, for the Fred Bonnie Memorial Award for Best First Novel, writer Pat Conroy called it, “an absolute original by a fresh new voice in fiction.” The book went on to win a Massachusetts Book Award as well. 

But literary fame and fortune have yet to find her.  She tends her literary garden out of the limelight, taking pride in the body of work she is steadily producing.  That is probably the lot of most writers of literary fiction, and it is one she accepts with grace and equanimity.

“Probably when I was younger I had grander dreams,” she says.  “It could still happen, but I’ve gotten past the point where I think I’m going to be famous.  And I think if that’s a writer’s goal, they’d better do something else.”

Even when her book was selected for the Bonnie award, it was destined to make a more of a small ripple than a noticeable splash: the announcement came on September 10, 2001.

“After waiting years for this news, I had about 18 hours to celebrate before it looked like the world was coming to an end.”

If she did not become an overnight literary sensation, Borders did find that publication of Cloud Cuckoo Land gave her new respect for herself as a writer and allowed her to protect time and energy for writing.  Her writing time now takes precedence over her two part time jobs, teaching fiction writing and working in a lab as a cytotechnologist.

“I had had to fit writing around my jobs and now it’s vice versa,” she says. “It’s a difficult juggling act sometimes.”

She also balances long and short form, switching between work on the novel, Fifty-First State, and short stories.  And she is feels Cloud Cuckoo Land will have a second life at some point, possibly because of its unforgettable lead character, Miri.  

“I think Miri is too stubborn.  She’ll make sure her story gets told.” 

While readers might imagine writers lusting after literary stardom, celebrity holds little attraction for Borders.  While she wouldn’t turn it away, she is clearly focused, instead, on the satisfaction of creating the work. 

“I tell my students if you really don’t need to do this you might want to do something else.  This will break your heart.  You  have to be a little delusional and the odds are not in your favor.”

Would Borders herself ever consider giving up writing?

“No, I can’t stop doing it,” she says.  “I’m a writer. This is what I do.”
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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

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