Meet my guest author Terra Ziporyn, fiction and non-fiction writer.
- When did you write your first book and how did it come about?
It’s hard to answer this question because I’ve been writing “books” since I was a kid, and the trajectory of my fiction and non-fiction is very different. I guess I completed my first novel during college, but it’s still in a drawer, along with various other novels I’ve written since then that may never go anywhere else. That first novel was inspired by the life of a troubled friend who life story needed telling. Whether or not it’s worth publishing remains to be seen—I’m a bit afraid to unearth it from my file cabinet. My first published book was an adaptation of my PhD dissertation, a historical study of the way medical research gets communicated in the popular media (Disease in the Popular American Press). That was back in the late 1980s. The first novel I published was Time’s Fool (2001), a historical novel that drew on my academic work in the history of science, centered on a 19th century utopian community.
- You write both fiction and non-fiction. Do you always write in the same genre or do you mix it up? And how do you make the choice?
Well, as my answer above suggests, some of my fiction definitely grows directly out of my work as a medical writer and historian of science, so I see all my writing as integrally related. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between science and society—in fact, that was the focus of my doctoral work—and I find that much of my fiction simply looks at those questions from a different angle. As to making a choice between genres, I often find that the choice is made for me. Some topics percolate in my head and simply cry to be conveyed through a story. Others need to be told more journalistically—although, quite honestly, I find that even in my non-fiction, I use many elements of fiction writing, including storytelling and dramatization.
- When you write, do you start with an idea and sit down and let it evolve, or do you make notes and collect ideas on paper beforehand?
My method varies with each project. I often have a sense beforehand of what needs to be done, and even a sense that there is book buried in an array of seemingly unrelated images and ideas. I also almost always have a firm sense of whether that book should take the form of a novel, a non-fiction book, or even a play—plus a sense of trust that something coherent can and will emerge from this mess. All of these convictions, most of which are largely faith- rather than reason-based, signal to me that it’s time to get to work. At that point I do sometimes start notating and outlining—but not always. Some of my novels have started with a full-blown sense of where things are going, others random scenes that I piece together, still others with extensive research that slowly allows me to understand the milieu and then set a stage from which a story can grow. Whether I start with an outline and carefully sketched characters or whether the novel grows organically, though, something unexpected always emerges that changes my original intentions.
- Would you like to give us a short excerpt from one of your books?
What writer wouldn’t? Here’s the first chapter of newest novel, Permanent Makeup. I hope it’s intriguing enough to make people want to read more!
She was not a night person, but she had no choice: she had no one else to do it for her. At well past midnight she started the Toyota, squinted through the fog and the rutted, narrow streets of Annapolis, and, with great relief, parked directly in front of the shop. Skirting two suspicious figures who were undoubtedly dealing drugs or transacting some equally sordid business, she hurried toward Inner Beauty Skin Care and let herself in, bolting the door behind her and noting that she must have the locks changed first thing in the morning so that Carole could no longer use her key.
The little bitch had quit two weeks ago with a Monday morning phone call: “Hello, Maxine, Carole here. Listen, I won’t be coming in today because I’m starting a new job. Bye now.” No notice, no apologies, not even a “good luck finding someone new.” Just up and left her like that, left her with a full schedule of clients, the first one due to arrive two hours after the call, and no one to greet them or answer the phone or set up the equipment, not to mention hire and train a new girl.
That was all bad enough, absolutely classless (though quite characteristic of Carole), but the horrid woman still had the key, and Maxine suspected she was breaking in at night, doing God-knew-what (Taking back her collection of coffee mugs and mascara? Pilfering moisturizers and toners? Soliciting some tsotsi on the corner for extra cash? Who knew with that woman?). All Maxine could tell was that someone had been coming into the salon at night because several mornings this week she had found lights on that she remembered turning off before leaving work, the toilet cover up when she always left it down, and yesterday, chillingly, a dirty coffee cup in the sink.
There was no one in the reception area. The appointment book on the desk was still open to September and the magazines splayed just as she had arranged them before going home yesterday, yet another duty recently tossed onto her already congested agenda. She peeked into the kitchen, and this time saw nothing amiss—no stray dishes, no spills, no open cabinets. The hall light was off, the bathroom light as well. She headed down the hall toward the work rooms, a bit tentatively but unflinchingly, a gnawing terror in her stomach quelled by the recurring conviction that she not only had to do this but that every step would turn trepidation into reality, the latter (however dreadful) inevitably more tolerable than the former. She reminded herself that Carole was no match for her. If she had been, she would have resigned respectfully, but clearly she had been terrified of the consequences—easier to do the ugly act all over the phone. In any case, Carole wouldn’t dare fight back now if she were caught breaking and entering, and Maxine would merely call the police before that pea-brain could think of a paltry excuse. Maxine reminded herself of all this, and yet her heart continued to pound.
All was still in the electrolysis room, and in the makeup room as well. Still, Maxine sensed something awry. It was almost a sense of a quickening, the way you feel a house come alive in the night, breathing and groaning, perhaps due to squirrels in the walls, the wind against a window, the settling of a floorboard. And yet it was more than that: she could sense that someone, not a rodent but a thinking, calculating human being, was physically present. Carole had to be in the supply room. There was no other place left. This was the only room in the salon that was perennially chaotic, even when Maxine had a halfway decently trained receptionist to help keep things tamed. No wonder Carole was tempted. She was undoubtedly coming in here for needles for her no-good husband, a man Maxine suspected had a serious heroin problem (Carole, too, for that matter, though she dressed like she lived in Beverly Hills, was a tramp through and through—you can have a girl take out the trash, as Maxine had always said, but you just can’t take the trash out of the girl).
Trying to ignore her racing heart, Maxine grabbed an umbrella from the coat tree. She swallowed, raised the umbrella in front of her, and entered the room. She flipped on the light switch and called, “Carole—this is preposterous! Come out now. You can’t get away with this!”
Her eyes searched the room, littered with half-empty cardboard boxes (boxes that Carole would normally have taken to the recycling bin had she still been employed) and countertops strewn with plastic-wrapped packages of syringes and cotton balls, sterilized needles, inks, and lotions. Were the boxes exactly where they had been last night? She couldn’t recall. It was possible that the two stacked nearest the closet had actually been side by side yesterday. Her memory wasn’t what it once was, and, really, she should have written this down to be sure. In any case, there was no one in the room now.
And yet—she sensed the life. The room almost seemed to breathe in unison with a human being’s real breathing, and suddenly Maxine knew: the closet. Still holding the umbrella in front of her, she made her way through the boxes toward the closet door, repeating “Come on now, Carole. There’s no use in you hiding because you’re dead meat now. Out!”
She felt absurd uttering such threats, keenly aware that she was a distinctly flabby and slightly arthritic “gentle-lady” who had never used physical violence on anyone. At the same time, finding that she had enough pluck to utter these threats and, just possibly, enough wrath toward Carole to implement them, impressed and invigorated her.
Taking another deep breath, she pulled open the door like she was taking off a Band-aid. Between two rather large RAD boxes she saw a down comforter, completely covering what had to be a human body. What an absolute dunderhead, she thought. Either that or she’s shot herself straight out of the stratosphere on something.
“That does it, Carole. I’m calling the police and reporting you for breaking and entering.”
As she turned to do so, however, a head popped up from under the comforter, a woman’s head of long, layered, gleaming chestnut hair that most distinctly did not belong to Carole.
Maxine stepped back, the umbrella immediately useless. “Oh my God!”
“Please. Please,” said the woman, whose face was puffy and purplish, and not at all the clear-complexioned visage that the polished hairstyle had suggested. “Please don’t call the police.”
“I most certainly will.”
Maxine hurried to the reception desk and grabbed the phone, cursing her arthritic fingers that instinctively, almost miraculously, wove hair-thin needles into and under her clients’ skin but struggled with every other mundane task. She had managed to push the “9” and the “1” of “9-1-1” when the woman from the closet snatched the phone from her hands and slammed it back into the receiver.
“Please. Call Dodie.”
Maxine stepped back. She could now see that this woman, slender in her mid-thirties, almost statuesque but stoop-shouldered, had a black eye, several long scratches and bandages on her pockmarked cheeks, and a puffy upper lip—as if someone had beaten her soundly. “Dodie? My Dodie? What on earth . . . ?”
“Call Dodie. She’ll explain.”
- What do you do when you are not writing or reading?
You mean I have to do anything else? Seriously, though, I spend a lot of my time these days leading a grassroots non-profit organization that I started, Start School Later. We’re working to raise awareness about healthy sleep and ensure school hours that give kids a chance to obtain it. This gives me a chance to use my background as a public health advocate and science communicator to write about the relationship between science and public beliefs, behaviors, and policies, as well as give talks to community and professional groups around the nation. I also do a lot of editing, especially in the medical sciences, which keeps me up to speed on the latest medical news and pays substantially better than my own writing (and reading). I spend a fair amount of time swimming, playing the cello, and knitting as well, all three activities that have shown up in some of my writing and that put me into a mindset conducive to new writing ideas.
- Do you have a blog?
I’ve been a regular blogger for Late Last Night Books since 2013, one of a stable of writers whose columns alternate throughout every month. This “blogzine” focuses on fiction but also includes reflections on books, reading, and writing of any sort. Most of my blogs are reflections on the writing and reading process, but I occasionally interview other writers or review books as well. I highly recommend blogging to any writer in any genre. Whether or not anyone reads these things, something I increasingly wonder, the discipline involved in producing an essay every month is invaluable.
- Are you working on a new book at the moment?
I’m finishing up a non-fiction project that I’ve been working on for an embarrassingly long time, well over 20 years. Entitled Bugaboo, it is basically a meditation on three hideous household nuisances that have become public health nightmares: head lice, bed bugs, and dust mites. Just mentioning these creatures usually leaves people scratching, shuddering—and changing the topic. What fascinates me, however, is that this very taboo against discussing these public health pests honestly has turned a minor nuisance into a major public health threat, one we can expect to have on our heads—and in our beds—for a very long time. In this book I try to confront our instinctive revulsion to these unwelcome but inevitable vermin from a variety of perspectives, dissecting the prejudices as well as the more rational fears underlying them, exploring their consequences, and considering how we might coexist peacefully with them. Once I finish up this project, and find a home for it, I hope to return to fiction. I do have a new novel percolating in my head, but I’m trying to ignore that until I find a publishing home for this long overdue bug book.
- We’ve all heard the advice that authors should “write what they know.” But fiction emerges from imagination and creation of new worlds. Do you feel a tension between what you’ve experienced and what lives only in your mind?
All writing is fiction to some extent. I wrote a blog on this very topic several years back, reflecting on how much I made up, and rightly should have made up, in my ostensibly historical novel Time’s Fool (IS HISTORICAL FICTION HISTORICAL?). To write this novel, I had to do extensive research about the Oneida Colony, a 19thcentury utopian community in which much of the book is set, and which grounds the story. Some of the characters are based on real people. Others are completely fictional but interact with these historically based characters. Where, I wondered, does history end and fiction begin? How much history, or “reality,” am I allowed to change? Can I let the fictional version of a character say something he clearly did not say, or at least something that I have no way of knowing he said?
These are questions not just for historical fiction, of course, but for all fiction, which is grounded in real life and facts of life even in the most imaginative of fantasies. Nor can any of us avoid coloring our creations with touches of our lived experience to some extent. At the same time, a writer’s imagination cannot help but warp even the most fact-based story—part of the reason I say that I use elements of fiction writing even in my non-fiction works. Ultimately, we cannot escape our own biases and limitations, whatever genre we write in, which is kind of a freeing realization. Perhaps we should stop worrying about genres, reality, and imagination, and merely think instead about telling good stories.