Who is Lucy Ferriss?
I’ve been writing books, in one way or another, since I was six years old and made up a bunch of stories about a boy down the street who had diabetes. I’ve published 10 books, most of them fiction, but also including a memoir and a literary monograph. I’ve also written articles for the New York Times and other nonfiction publications. I am passionately in love with language, and to that end, I blog regularly at Lingua Franca, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s site for language buffs. When I’m not writing, I’m teaching, sketching (visual art being another “language”), singing, playing tennis, studying Italian, traveling, hiking, and staying in touch with my two grown sons.
Why do you write?
I write because I always have written, ever since I could read. I write because it’s something I’m a little bit good at. Because I am, by nature, a storyteller. And finally, I write because I love readers.
I am primarily a reader myself, and I love interacting with fellow readers through my work. My work centers on stories about very human, lovable, fallible people living through the real situations that we often encounter only via news stories or opinion pieces.
What made you write this book?
The university where I teach has the best men’s squash team in America. Why? Because it recruits international students, many of whom come from cultures very different from one another and very different from New England. That setting, in itself, drew my attention. Then I started thinking, ‘What if one of these young men brought his sister along? What would the experience be like for her?’ I researched the origin of the best squash players in the world and found that the Pashtuns of northwest Pakistan had an incredible reputation. Since that area is also a hotbed of fundamentalist Islam, I thought such a sister would have a challenging time indeed, especially if she made the mistake in America of falling in love. Therein lay the germ of the story.
About the book
First and foremost, the book is about honor. The more I thought about honor, the stranger and more double-sided the concept became. It’s not just tribal societies that value honor; it’s a big deal in American sports as well, even though it is constantly compromised. The price of honor is huge, and it often comes at the cost of love, especially romantic love. So this story is one of family honor, personal passion, culture clash, and family love.
What do you think the readers will love about this book?
I hope they will love my characters. I love all of them, even (or especially) the ones who are flawed. I hope readers will feel with them, yearn for them, mourn and celebrate with them.
Tell us more about your work
I have always described my work as “edgy.” I’ve written seven novels, a book of stories, and a memoir, and all of them skated close to the edge of tricky, unresolvable concerns that we face in our daily lives and our political lives. Stylistically, though, I try to tell a story, through character and action and the central mystery that I always think inheres in a good plot. We understand our world through stories, and while mine, I think, are relevant to our time, the personal nature of my characters’ hopes and challenges transcends current events.
How do you balance writing with a day job?
I am lucky to have a ‘writer in residence’ position at Trinity College in Connecticut, where I teach both creative writing and literature and advise students who are ambitious to write themselves. I have always worked. The income gives me the freedom to write as I choose because I don’t need to scramble for a big book advance to put food on the table. Working also brings me stories, because there are always desire, conflict, hope, and change in the workplace, and those things are the stuff of fiction. Juggling work and writing was very difficult when my children were young; I lost perhaps five years of quality writing, and my 5-year-old once ordered me not to ‘do any more of that writing stuff.’ But I am not just a writer; I’m a human being in the world, and I like to feel I am good at my job, that I contribute something.
Is there a writing schedule you follow? How do you deal with writer’s block?
When I don’t have a class to teach, I stay in my bathrobe (I’m in it right now), nursing a cup of coffee all through the morning and writing without engaging with anything else. Once I’ve dressed and brushed my teeth, I’m prone to distraction and can mostly just reread what I’ve written and try to tune it up. As to writer’s block — I try to think like a ballet dancer. They don’t go to the barre because they’re in the mood; they go because they’re dancers, and they must flex their muscles every day. So I write through the block. I write badly, very badly, but eventually I come out on the other side.
Your advice for aspiring writers on writing/self-publishing/book marketing
If it’s just something you do when you have nothing else to do or the mood strikes you, you won’t dig into the core of your work. So write to prompts, or describe what’s outside your window, but write, if you possibly can, every day, and don’t let anything leave your hands until it is the very best work you can produce. As to publishing, self-marketing, and so on, I have little advice. I am not a good self-promoter. I wish earnestly that writers could write and let our books sell themselves, though that never happens! I do worry sometimes that the self-publishing phenomenon is making it hard for readers to comb through so much material to find the books that thrill them. Writing should be about the readership, not about the self of the writer.
Lucy’s favourite books and authors
My first love was Thomas Hardy, whose sweeping stories of passion & violence in the English countryside gave me some idea of what fiction could do — and whose palpable flaws as an author (clumsy plots, coincidences, gothic settings) let me know that even great writers make mistakes. Growing up, I also read all of Dickens, most of Twain, and my brother’s Hardy Boy books, which were more exciting to me than Nancy Drew. These days, I will read just about anything written by David Mitchell, Kate Atkinson, Michael Chabon, Pat Barker, Hilary Mantel, Colm Toibin, and Margaret Atwood. Their fertile imaginations and their sheer generosity — with their characters, with the spirit that motivates their fictions — inspire me.
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