This week, we had the pleasure of interviewing author, comedian, and researcher, Laura Lee! Laura has published over 20 books, including her latest, Oscar’s Ghost, a nonfiction novel about the drama that surfaced after the death of Oscar Wilde. Check out what she has to say about life, publishing, and Mr. Wilde, himself.
You’ve been a comedian, a radio announcer, and even a professional mime, what made you decided to be a writer? Have you always like to write or did you interest develop over time?
My father was a professional writer, and I always wrote. I just didn’t see it as a special talent. My father had a home office, and my mother would edit his books on her IBM Selectric. A lot of my father’s friends were writers, and I just thought everyone wrote. My grandmother, who was a radio actress, encouraged me in that direction. Acting and performing seemed much more glamorous. I don’t really have the personality to be a performer. Especially when I was younger, I was too inhibited and self-conscious. But when I started writing one act plays and later radio copy I always got such amazing feedback. So in a sense I fell into it. It was the path of least resistance, but once I committed to it, it is a career that offers up resistance at every turn. At some point you can’t imagine doing anything else. It becomes a way that you view the world and the way that you think.
Do you find that your theater background has helped you with your writing? Do any tricks of the stage translate well to paper?
I did recently try to go back to my theater roots and I wrote a stage play, but it hasn’t been produced, and I think it needs a bit of reworking. I think each story has its best form and the particular story I was thinking of seemed visual, like a theatrical play, rather than a novel.
You’ve written in several different genres, covering everything from comedy reference guides to nonfiction and children’s literature. Do you have a favorite genre to write in or do you enjoy the variety?
There are a couple of answers to that. One is that I do like the humorous reference, and I don’t think of it as a lesser talent or skill than the novels or a book like Oscar’s Ghost. Interestingly, I had an agent at one point who kept saying one day I would write a “serious book.” I sort of resented the implication that humor was somehow lazy or that anyone could do it. It was only when I got past the idea that I should write something “serious” that I found myself writing novels and research projects like Oscar’s Ghost that take years to complete. I had to own my voice, I think. So, I like books like The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation and The Elvis Impersonation Kit. Now the second answer is that at this point in my career, I often get invited to write things that “sound like” a Laura Lee project. Those are always the humorous reference books. I don’t have to go and beg anyone to buy my idea, I get paid and I produce them, and this allows me the financial liberty to do a time consuming, and expensive project like Oscar’s Ghost. When I started writing books, I figured I just had to do two books a year and I could make a decent living. This was in the old publishing model before print on demand and so on. To make a good living, I think you probably need to do three books a year, but publishers don’t really work that fast. The difficulty of doing so many genres is that agents tend to specialize and to have contacts in one area or another. So it can be tough from a working perspective. I just do the projects that come to me, whether through assignments, or because I have stumbled onto an idea that just won’t let go and I know I’ll have the momentum to finish.
Do you find that you have to approach each of these projects differently? Are there any special challenges that have surprised you when you’ve tackled a new project in a new genre?
Going back to playwriting after a long time away from the stage surprised me. I tend to have a natural feel for how a particular genre should sound, but theatrical writing is very stripped down and incredibly short compared to a novel. It is action and dialogue driven, whereas novels give you much more insight into a character’s inner world.
Your latest is a work of nonfiction called, Oscar’s Ghost. It follows the little-known story of the drama that followed the death of Oscar Wilde. It’s a fascinating history of love, blackmail, stalking, and lawsuits, as two of Oscar’s closest friends battle each other over his legacy. What inspired you to write this? How did you come across this particular piece of history?
I was very taken with Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” when I read it. “De Profundis” is a long essay Wilde wrote in prison in the form of a letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. The version I read was an edited version that contained Wilde’s philosophical musings on the nature of guilt and innocence, the role of outsiders in society and the concept Christ as Artist. When I went back and read the full version, which had not been released until years after anyone mentioned in it had died, I was bothered by some of the cutting remarks Wilde wrote about Douglas. The long version was full of recriminations against him. I wondered how Wilde could so clearly be in love and suffering for someone who seemed, in his description, to have no positive qualities whatsoever. So I wondered what the other guy had to say about it. I read all of Douglas’s various autobiographical works. In them, he talks about his feud with Wilde’s friend Robert Ross, who became his literary executor. Douglas was very bitter about him, and so I wondered again, what the other guy had to say and I read biographies of Ross. I wasn’t really satisfied with that. I wanted to understand more deeply, and so I sought out rare books, archives, letters, eventually police and court files. What I found was that the story we tell of Wilde today was very much shaped by this feud.
What is your favorite Oscar Wilde quote or piece of work?
“Surely a gentleman has a right to fail if he chooses.”
You’ve published over 20 books! How has the publishing process been for you? Do you have any tips for writers trying to attract the attention of a publisher?
I started in a different era, when indie publishing didn’t really exist in a meaningful way. I don’t think there was anything magic in what I did. I just wrote the best proposals I could and sent them out until someone responded positively to them. Patience is key. Some books strike a chord immediately, some have to cross a lot of desks.
How do you find your courage? A lot of new writers are scared of putting themselves out there to be judged. So much so, that many of them never even take the first step. What advice would you give to them?
I just saw Adam Ant in concert this past weekend, so the chorus of “Prince Charming” popped into my head when you asked that. “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of.” So, you know, don’t you ever stop being dandy, showing me you’re handsome.
But my real answer is that you need to accept that most of your feedback, especially at first, will consist of rejections. If someone takes the time to send you comments with the rejection, instead of just a “no thanks” form, then that is advice to pay attention to. Now you may not agree, and you don’t have to take all criticism and be bounced around like a ping pong ball, but you should pay attention, especially if you hear something a lot. One thing to keep in mind about professional feedback is that you may be able to address a problem that an editor or agent points out without doing exactly what they suggest. For example, they might not like something a character does in the second act, not because it is wrong but because you didn’t set up some element of the context enough earlier on.
Also, I had the advantage of having a father who helped me with formatting my proposal. Editors are very busy, they want to get that pile off their desks and they look for reasons to say no. So you have to have a solid proposal to avoid giving them one.
I have to ask, one of your bestselling titles is “The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation: 97 Things That Annoy, Bother, Chafe, Disturb, Enervate, Frustrate, Grate, Harass, Irk, Jar, Miff, Nettle, Outrage, Peeve, Quassh, Rile, Stress Out, Trouble, Upset, Vex, Worry, and X Y Z You!” which you recently revised and updated this year. It must have been interesting collecting all the data for the most aggravating things of day-to-day life. What do you find to be the most aggravating of all the aggravating things?
At the moment I have a sinus infection—so it’s my stuffed up ear.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m focused on letting people know Oscar’s Ghost exists and trying to persuade them that they would like to read it. I had to cut a lot out of Oscar’s Ghost, and I found an entire side story that didn’t quite fit in the narrative, so I would like to sell a follow up book and use that material. I’m still quite engaged in researching it. It is like being a detective. I also just heard from one of the editors I work with that there might be another humorous reference book project soon. And then I’m on the road five months a year with a ballet master class project. So between tours I do all the bookings and so on. Between those things, I’m pretty busy.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our readers?
I have a lot of events coming up if they’d like to come see me or learn more about the feud over Wilde’s legacy. I post most events related to that on the Oscar’s Ghost Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/oscarsghost/
You can see the list of my books at lauraleeauthor.com and I also have a list of events at my blog Story and Self https://lauraleeauthor.wordpress.com/ which I imagine will include any events (interviews and so on) related to the updated Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation if any of those come up.
A special thanks to Laura for taking the time to talk with us about her work. Don’t miss out on her fascinating novel about the story behind the scenes of Oscar Wilde’s life and death!