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Lauren Fox, author of Still Life with Husband

READERSVOICE.COM aims to give people a few good reading tips. For this issue I emailed Lauren Fox, author of Still Life With Husband - a novel about infidelity in Milwaukee.Also I interviewed Kazu Kibuishi, a graphic novel author and illustrator who also edits and publishes the excellent Flight anthologies of comics. First up, Lauren Fox.

READERSVOICE.COM: I read in one interview that you liked authors who mix sorrow and humor, and books that are literary page-turners, and you mentioned people like Ian McEwan (Enduring Love, and Atonement) Graham Greene, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Michael Chabon, William Trevor (The Story of Lucy Gault). What aspects of these writers or books did you incorporate into your writing style, do you think?

LAUREN FOX: These writers are role models for me. I tried — I’m not sure how successfully — to incorporate, or maybe to emulate, what I see as their use of humor (particularly Moore’s and Chabon’s) to tease out the inherent sadness of certain situations, kind of by catching the reader by surprise; also, I hoped to write a book that readers would want to read, a book in which plot played a crucial role, as it does in the works of these authors, without sacrificing technique.

It’s a tricky balance. Maybe I’ll have it down by the time I’ve written my sixth or seventh book!

RV: What sorts of magazines or journals do you like to read?

LF: I hate to admit that I have very little time to read these days, with a four-year-old who doesn’t like to sleep and a new baby on the way. I read the New Yorker, and my husband has a subscription to The Nation (an American political journal), which I sometimes pretend to read. I used to love reading literary journals, but those have fallen by the wayside in recent years.

RV: I liked how in Still Life With Husband you planted a series of questions which the reader progressively gets answers to. In between these questions and answers you provide information about Emily’s life and past. I was wondering how you decided what to put between these questions and answers, and what you wouldn’t put there.

LF: Although I carefully plotted and planned about 90 per cent of the novel, I decided on the bits of information about Emily’s life and past in kind of an organic and intuitive way. I sensed what was missing from the main narrative and tried to flesh out Emily’s personality with backstory about her friendships, her relationships and her family. What wouldn’t I include? That’s hard to say! I guess I wouldn’t have included anything that would have made the story confusing — that was a fine line for me — and I know that I edited a lot of superfluous joking around (my own) because it didn’t serve the plot.

I also removed a lot of extra fish poems! I had fun writing them, but there wasn’t much of a point to them, beyond the first two or three.

RV: Can you give some pointers on how you planned the plot of the novel, and how you made all the subplots (like Meg’s miscarriage and Heather’s new husband) fit into the main narrative?

LF: This connects with my last answer. I worked very hard, at the beginning of the writing process, to think through the plot. I knew how I wanted the story to begin and how I wanted it to end, and I knew most of the complications I was going to throw in in the middle.

Beyond that, I did try to let myself have fun with the story. The best thing I did was figuring out the psychologies and personalities of the characters at the outset, so that, to some extent, they could (this is going to sound goofy) make their own decisions every once in a while. If I got stumped, I could ask myself, What would Emily *do*? and usually, I think, I came up with the right answer.

RV: Was it tricky maintaining the lighter or ironic tone of the novel, and not letting it slip into straight drama or tragedy?

LF: Not really. I don’t think I could do straight drama or tragedy. Most minor to middling catastrophes, with enough distance, include major elements of humor and irony. Plus I wouldn’t have had as much fun writing the book if I’d tried to weed out the humor.

RV: How did you research the novel? Did you talk to many people who had had an affair like this, or whose lives were in a downward spiral through circumstances and choices they’d made? Or did you read up a lot on the topic?

LF: I researched the novel by having a lot of extramarital affairs. I had to! It was for my art. Just kidding. This kind of novel didn’t require research, per se, beyond paying close attention to the world around me. I’ve been talking to my friends about this sort of thing forever. And of course, if you look for it, stories of infidelity and adultery are all over the place, culturally and among the people you know.

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