Elinor Lipman's latest book is a collection of political tweets, Tweet Land of Liberty: Irreverent Rhymes from the Political Circus. She has written many novels, the most recent of which is The Family Man, and has often been called a "modern Jane Austen."
Q: How did you end up writing a book of political tweets, and will you continue tweeting on politics now that the election’s over?
A: On impulse! There's something like tweet pressure in the air when you're an author--many examples of Twitter giants like Susan Orlean--so I thought it was time to get on the bus. After one newsy tweet to my zero followers, I thought I know! One rhyming political tweet a day until the 2012 election! I'll enjoy that more than anything. I should've done the math and realized that meant 499 days… I tweeted the day after the election for a total of 500 poems, and have posted a few more since, but consider myself retired from the full-time daily grind. And the book part of it was just a wonderful fluke. At a party in Boston (the Grub Street annual conference), the publisher of Beacon Press asked me, "Someone's doing your tweets as a book, right?" I said, "Why, no." And she said, "Well, I am."
Q: Did you get complaints and/or plaudits from readers of your novels who saw your tweets and were either opposed to or in sync with your political views?
A: I seem to have left-leaning readers. To my surprise, hardly any negative feedback on the rhyming tweets. There was the occasional scold on Facebook, but more along the lines of "Oh, Elinor. I've enjoyed these so much but this one is in poor taste." I wanted to write back, "I know! Thank you!" but I didn't...
Q: Did you find anyone who disagreed with your politics who said they wouldn't be as eager to read your novels?
A: I didn't. People seemed to see the work on separate, parallel tracks. On the other hand, fearing backlash, I didn't look at the comments under the feature story in the Washington Post about Tweet Land of Liberty.
Q: Who’s your favorite character that you’ve created?
A: Oh my. I have several favorites. If pressed, I'd say Frederica Hatch, the narrator of My Latest Grievance; Natalie Marx, the narrator of The Inn at Lake Devine, and Henry Archer and his boyfriend Todd of The Family Man.
Q: You’ve been called a modern-day Jane Austen. What do you think of that comparison?
A: Who could not love such a comparison? When asked what we might have in common, I supply some answers from Carol Shields's wonderful Penguin Lives biography of Austen. She pointed out that "mothers are essential in her fiction. They are the engines that push the action forward, even when they fail to establish much in the way of maternal warmth." And this definitely applies: that the true subject is not current events or ongoing wars but "the search of an individual for his or her true home."
Q: Did you like the movie version of Then She Found Me? Why or why not, and what did you think of all the changes that were made?
A: I loved it. When I read the first few pages of the screenplay, I thought, huh? Where are my characters? But as it went forward, I laughed and I cried. It was smart and funny and touching. And I fully understood, after some exchanges with Helen Hunt (who wrote, directed, and starred in it), that she had tried many times to be more faithful to the novel, but that studios were turning her down. If cheesy changes had been made to enlarge or commercialize the story, I may have had a beef, but that was never the case. I was happy to represent the film at a few festivals, where I introduced it and then took questions at the end. It also brought the novel back to stores, 18 years after it was first published. When my son (who was 6 when it was optioned, and 25 at the premiere) met Helen, he put his arm around my shoulders and said to her, "I hope you know you made my mother's decade."
Q: Do you think writers are ever satisfied with the depictions of their characters in movies?
A: Some. I was. I'd been prepped to be realistic, having received very good advice from novelist Meg Wolitzer when the manuscript was optioned. She said, "Think of it as a movie based on characters suggested by the novel Then She Found Me." And also, a Hemingway quote: You drive to the Nevada border. You throw them the book and they throw you the money. Then you drive like hell back from where you came." As it turned out, my experience was quite wonderful because Helen Hunt was most thoughtful at every turn.
Q: Did you have an image in your own mind of your characters in Then She Found Me as you were writing the book, and did they look anything like the actors who ended up playing them?
A: I did picture my characters, quite vividly, but not in a casting kind of way. It was my first novel; I didn't know if it would be published, let alone become a film. Even though I knew novels did get adapted into movies, I was naive about the process; didn't even know the manuscript was being circulated, so the news came as a shock. It was so long in the making and so many actors discussed for the roles, that I stopped thinking about it. I learned, over the course of many novels being optioned and only one being produced, that you take nothing seriously. To quote Jack Nicholson about Hollywood projects, "It's nothing until it's something."
Q: Were you pleased or disappointed with the substitution of Colin Firth for the Dwight character in the movie version?
A: Well, let me see: my romantic hero in the book, a geeky librarian, would have been played by an actor who could win the part of Ichabod Crane somewhere else. Versus Colin Firth. I'm going to pretend you didn't ask me that...
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a new novel, The View from Penthouse B, coming out in mid-April 2013, and at the same time a collection of personal essays, I Can't Complain. And I have two rough chapters of another novel. And I do mean rough.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb