Today I am excited to have Tara Ison, author of A Child out of Alcatraz, on my blog.
About the Author
What or who inspired you to start writing?
I was a huge reader as a kid, completely passionate about books…but what really inspired me to start writing was movies! Actually, the images of writers in movies – I think the first one might have been Julia, with Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman, but there was also Reds, Dr. Zhivago, The World According to Garp… I was a sucker for every cinematic “writer cliche” about writers and the writing life: long sunset walks on the beach in front of the charming Cape Cod house, the Parisian garret, all those slugs of Scotch and bottles of wine. Living for weeks in a rumpled flannel bathrobe, plunking away with furrowed brow at an old black Underwood while eating some abstract sandwich. Writers always seemed to have complicated relationships with complicated people, were always dashing off to some glamorous and important writerly event, to acclaim and applause. Fortunately, by the time I realized the hard, lonely, miserable “writing life” is nothing like those images, I’d fallen in love with the process of writing itself, writing for the sake of writing, for the sake of crafting sentences, creating characters and their worlds…
Do you have an all time favorite book?
Tough to answer, but…if I had to select a book I constantly return to – as both a writer and a reader – it would be The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore. A terrible title, but a gorgeous, heartbreaking book, about an spinster in 1950s Ireland. It isn’t a very “fashionable” novel, but it is a master course in the subtleties of 3rd person subjective point of view – I learned so much from that novel, and I love teaching it. And as a reader, I am moved to tears by the main character, every single time I read it.
How much of yourself, your personality or your experiences, is in your books?
Quite a bit – even the characters living in a wholly different time or place, or with significantly different characteristics, or life experiences I’ve never had. There’s that theory that every person who appears in our dreams us actually “us,” an aspect of our own psyche, and that really resonates for me, as a writer; every character is, well, me. (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” Flaubert said…) I have to tap in to what he or she is thinking and feeling from the inside out, and personalize it, find the shared intimacy with my own experience – almost like Method acting, I suppose. I realized that was happening with my second novel, The List, a dysfunctional love story between two completely mismatched characters – the novel goes back and forth, between Isabel and Al’s points of view, and the whole novel rests on their untenable, irreconcilable differences as people. But they’re both me, I relate to each of them equally – they drew out, or drew upon, all my own contradictions and inner-conflicts.
Have you started your next project? If so, can you share a little bit about your next book?
Yes, I have a new novel coming out this June, called Rockaway – it’s about a woman, a one-time painter, who’s wandered into a dead-end life but has a chance to turn everything around if she can create some new work for a big exhibit. So, she exiles herself to a lonely beach house in Rockaway, New York, for a summer (one of those “artist” cliches!), but nothing turns out as she planned. There’s a strange new relationship with a strange guy, a lot of internal demons from her past she’s forced to confront, she finds herself emotionally spiraling out of control…but ultimately comes out the better for it. It’s a coming of age story, in a way, although she’s in her thirties.
Do you write full-time? If so, what is your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
No, I wish I did – but I’m a binge writer. I might go weeks without writing a word, but then it sneaks up on me, I get totally consumed by an idea, a sentence, an image, a character (or a deadline…) – and I’ll finally sit down, start writing, look up and suddenly it’s three days later. I’m now a creative writing professor, however, so with a full-time job, I’ve had to learn to be more disciplined. But I still work best when I have a chunk of time to focus and escape the world – that’s my live-for-days-in-the-bathrobe and eat-sandwiches writing time.
About her book
Please tell us about your current release.
is a “Mother/daughter on Alcatraz” story – something we aren’t used to seeing in stories about “The Rock.” Between 1933-1963, while Alcatraz Island was a federal penitentiary for the “worst of the worst” criminals in the country, there were also about a hundred women and children living on the island, the families of the prison guards, in this very classic, Ozzie-and-Harriet neighborhood. A Child out of Alcatraz is the fictional story of one such family. It’s the history of Alcatraz from a female POV.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was touring the island (which is now a National Park), and the tour mentioned a sentence or two about the families, and their life on the island, and it stuck; the idea of being woman, or a little girl, living in this most masculine, threatening, foreboding place in the country – how Alcatraz was pitched to the public – absolutely fascinated me.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
A lot – the research took me years, before I wrote a single word. Dozens and dozens of books, films, and documentaries, interviews with former family members and prison guards, multiple visits to the island. I actually moved to San Francisco to write the first draft – and spent months in the libraries and museums and archives, going through old microfiche files, etc. (This was all pre-Internet, very old-fashioned research.) It was a huge project, but I never lost my fascination with it. I wanted to honor the experience, and get the details as authentic and realistic as possible
Did you base any of your characters on real people?
The Wardens and the more “famous” prisoners I refer to were real – but the family in my story is absolutely fictional, because I had a very specific story I wanted to tell.
Did the story turn out the way you planned from the beginning? If not, what change happened that you didn’t expect?
I feel I was lucky this was my first novel, in a way, because in order to be historically accurate, there was already a rough shape of the story in place: the events of the prison itself, every escape attempt, every policy change or new Warden, had to be accurate, and the narrative had to work with and around that, because those events would profoundly affect the family. So I wasn’t starting from scratch; I did have an outline to work from, or several outlines: the “story” of the prison itself, the daughter’s story, the mother’s story, and even the social, political, and cultural events happening in the country, all braided together. But once I had those dramatic markers in place, I could forget all about the outline, and just focus on the moment: the language, the atmosphere, the interiority of the characters and where that might take me. That’s why I find an outline liberating, as a writer – it’s like having a map in the glove compartment. Even if I never look at it, I know it’s there, and so I feel more comfortable to wander and explore in the moment, without worrying I will get too lost.
Set in the ’50s and ’60s, A Child out of Alcatraz paints a searing and compelling portrait of the downward spiral of a mother and young daughter. When the father takes a job as a prison guard, the family moves to The Rock, and soon the isolation and harsh living conditions become a metaphor for the dysfunctional family, forcing each member to escape in their own way.
About the Author
Tara Ison is also the author of the novel The List (Scribner, 2007), Rockaway is forthcoming from Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press, and the short story collection Ball to be published by Red Hen Press. Her short fiction, essays, poetry and book reviews have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Nerve.com, Black Clock, Publisher’s Weekly, The Week magazine, The Mississippi Review, LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, and numerous anthologies. Tara is also the co-writer of the cult movie Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead. She is the recipient of many awards, including a 2008 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship and a 2008 COLA Individual Artist Grant. Ison received her MFA in Fiction & Literature from Bennington College and is currently Assistant Professor of Fiction at Arizona State University.
You can find out more about Tara on her website.