author of We Got Him
Interviewed by Aqueela Culbreath-Britt
Solstice Intern, Lesley University MFA Student
Aqueela: Much of your fiction seems to incorporate major headlines; how do you decide which headlines you will write about and why take on such controversial topics?
Elizabeth: I was raised on News- my Dad was a passionate News junkie and always called his TV political news the ‘Greatest Show on Earth.” He insisted that we watch the News during dinner. So headlines were always reverberating in my head. As a writer, different news stories grab me for different reasons. With the Boston Marathon bombing manhunt, it was a terrorist event unfolding on my family’s home turf. The sight on TV of armed tanks rolling through quiet Watertown, MA–where my son went to elementary school– was chilling. It felt to me like the apocalyptic movie Blade Runner had come to life. As the mother of a son myself, the fact that the surviving bomber suspect turned out to be a teenager really hit my heart hard. I know I want to write about something when I can’t stop thinking about it. The face of the nineteen-year-old Boston bomber stuck in my mind.
On a lighter (but still dark!) note, the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan scandal grabbed me as a writer (and reader) who loves dark comedy. Like millions, I could not get enough of that crazy ‘knee whack’ scandal and its Stranger Than Fiction characters and details. I started taking notes on it right away, long before I knew what I would do with them, writing-wise.
Why take on controversial subjects? Those subjects are often controversial because they involved charged and primal matters, extreme acts of violence or betrayal. Since time began, writers have been drawn to dangerous stories, to the worst things people can do. I often quote Dorothy Allison and tell my students that writers should follow their own ‘divining rod’—if something from life or the news feels charged and fascinating and/or scary to you, dig into it. Find out why.
Aqueela: What inspired you to write a libretto about the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan story rather than a novel? What is your overall goal for this project?
Elizabeth: TONYA & NANCY; THE ROCK OPERA has been like a runaway train for me and I am still enjoying the ride—I first wrote about the ice scandal in a novella, CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE, which centers on a young actress auditioning to play Nancy Kerrigan, with the real Tonya and Nancy as figures on TV. Then my talented niece Abigail Al-Doory Cross asked me to come up with a subject and libretto for an Opera since she wanted to compose a one-act Chamber Opera for her composition degree at Tufts. Instantly, I thought of Tonya and Nancy—again, figures I never got out of my mind. And once I hit on the idea of that skating scandal plus opera, I never looked back.
An Opera with larger than life characters set in the dark sparkly skating world seemed to me the perfect way to tell their twisted story. Since then, the show morphed into a full length full-metal Rock Opera, with music by rocker Michael Teoli. The Rock Opera has had productions in Boston; Portland, OR; LA, and a run ‘off Broadway’ in NYC as part of the New York Musical Theater Festival. It just finished an exciting 6 week run in Chicago. With each new run, I keep rewriting and cutting and adding on. Theater is very alive and you have to learn to rewrite onstage. What are my goals with this show?
To keep it up and running, alive. I am always thrilled by the different productions of this story, which has always seemed to me to be a microcosm of our crazy culture, even more so now in the Trump era, with its obsessive focus on winning and losing. I even slipped a Trumpian reference to winning ‘bigly’ into our latest production. Our show is a dark comedy, for sure, but we aim to do it with heart, and to capture the All-American nightmare both our lead characters in different ways endured. I loved how one critic in Chicago summed up the show, saying it’s about “ambition, competition, manipulation, and the appalling way men and women treat girls.’ Our ultimate goal? I’d love it if we could eventually bring it back to NYC. But right now, it’s exciting to have it play different cities and to still be shaping it. I just want it to skate on!
Aqueela: In your latest novel, “We Got Him” you tackled the high intensity moments of the Boston Marathon Bombing; what inspired such a complicated dynamic between the stepmother and stepson?
Elizabeth: Intensity is something I’m drawn to as a reader in characters and in stories. As a writer, I look for those combinations of story elements that create energy and tension. With the bombing manhunt, I had the idea of setting a birth on that scary night. Babies and bombers; this combination scared me as a Mom and writer. I always look for the ideas that make me feel, simultaneously, ‘Oh I could never write that’ and ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to write.’
In this case, I already had two characters, a married couple, that I had written about in several short stories: an older man and younger wife who were trying to have a baby. The young wife has to deal with a troubled stepson. When I saw the unforgettable first photos of the younger bombing suspect—those photos so blurry at first he could have been ‘any’ teenage college boy with a backpack—I thought a lot of dark-haired young men were going to be pulled over that night. This made me wonder: what if the dark-haired ‘stepson’ character was one of those boys?
As I began writing the novel, I did find myself delving deeper into the stepmother and stepson. PJ, in the novel, is all about pushing limits and disrupting the ‘perfect’ new family Sarah and Paul are trying to build. PJ has been raised by his unstable mother. Although he has visited his father a few times a year, he is in many ways almost a stranger to Sarah. His feelings for his stepmother are a confused volatile mix of love and resentment. In the years before the bombing, Sarah is at a needy time in her life as she faces possible infertility.
PJ plays on all this and pushes taboo limits, confiding in Sarah his secret attraction for her and making wild claims to his father as the birth night unfolds. I wanted this little family to be severely ‘tested’ on this manhunt night. So I do make Paul and Sarah face many of the darkest fears of any couple giving birth. PJ is drawn to violent talk and he brandishes a knife, but in the end, he mainly ‘attacks’ his own family in emotional and psychological ways. But this family, like Boston, does manage to stick together and ride out the storm.
My title WE GOT HIM is from a Tweet message by Mayor Tom Menino when the bombing suspect was finally captured. It also refers to the birth in my novel and how Paul and Sarah eventually ‘get’ their baby son. A third meaning is that we as a society have ‘got’ a lot of troubled young men, many like PJ coming from broken families, carrying huge chips on their shoulders, trying out extreme ways of gaining attention.
Aqueela: Would you have still been motivated to write about this headline if there had been a different outcome in the end?
Elizabeth: Interesting question. When Nancy Kerrigan was asked by the Boston Herald if she would attend our Opera, she replied, “No, because I already know how it turns out.” I liked that wry reply! Yes, a challenge with creating fiction from real life news stories is you do know how they ‘turn out.’ With the Marathon bombing manhunt, if somehow the police had not caught the suspects, if the bombers’ identities had never been uncovered, then it would be a much different kind of story. If I were to write about it, I wouldn’t have set it on just one night—a night which turned out to have such a definite end-point. So factors like that in a news story do influence how you approach the material. But I’m a big believer in the ingenious nature of writers. If a story fascinates a writer, they can always find a way to tackle it and make it their own.
Aqueela: How much of your writing process did you learn from books or other writing professional and how much of it did you develop on your own?
Elizabeth: With my fiction, I started seriously writing at Arizona State University in a Creative Writing class. My early teachers there and at Oberlin College definitely guided me. When I went to grad. school at Brown University, I was lucky to have a mentor in the late great John Hawkes who voiced strong opinions (he mentioned that when he wrote ‘good’ on a MSS, it was often illegible because he was ‘excited when I write that’) yet he also believed in letting students go their own way. Walter Abish, another professor at Brown, advised our class to always take a ‘playful’ attitude toward our material, advice that has stuck with me. Once out of school, I wrote a blue streak but I always had my ‘girl group’ of trusted female friends and fellow scribes to keep me grounded. So I’ve always gotten a lot of good guidance with my fiction.
With theater, which I didn’t start writing seriously till I was in my forties, I’ve been more ‘self-taught.’ I’ve gotten great advice along the way from various theater professionals, mostly folks working with us on the rock opera, but I’ve never taken a class. There is no MFA, that I know of, in Rock Operas—thank goodness! Some art forms don’t belong in a classroom. I learned as I rolled along. I have always loved music; I listen to it all the time, especially since my husband John is a freelance amateur DJ who regularly DJs incredibly varied and inspired CD concerts in our living room. We listen to music for hours on end, the way many folks watch TV. Thanks to John, I have been to—and I still attend it daily– the School of Rock.
ELIZABETH SEARLE is the author of five books of fiction, including her new novel We Got Him, and the librettist of Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera, which has drawn major media coverage. The rock opera was produced in Chicago in 2016 and Off Broadway as part of the New York Musical Theater Festival. Her previous books are: Girl Held in Home, Celebrities in Disgrace, a novella that was produced as a short film; A Four-Sided Bed, a novel nominated for an American Library Association Book Award and released in 2011 in a new paperback edition, and My Body to You, a story collection that won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. A Four-Sided Bed is now in development as a feature film. Elizabeth’s theater works have been featured in stories on Good Morning America, CBS, CNN, NPR, the AP and more. She is the co-editor with Suzanne Strempek Shea of a forthcoming anthology on Soap Operas from McFarland Books. Elizabeth lives in Arlington, MA with her husband and son. www.elizabethsearle.net www.tonyaandnancytherockopera.com