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Writers on the Road, Ellen Hart, Lori Lake
by MARIE-JO PROULX
2005-03-30

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Pictured Lori Lake ( left ) and Ellen Hart.

Ellen Hart has won five Lambda Literary Awards for Best Lesbian Mystery and her latest, An Intimate Ghost, is a 2005 nominee. Between the Jane Lawless and the Sophie Greenway series she has penned a total of 19 novels. There have also been short stories, essays, and recently, a memoir in the Lambda-nominated anthology The Milk of Human Kindness, which was edited by Lori Lake.

The author of six novels herself, Lake is also an established name in the lesbian mystery genre. Published earlier this year, Have Gun We'll Travel is a thriller set in Minnesota. The title is somewhat prophetic. Its real life equivalent would be 'have books, we'll travel' as that is exactly what Hart and Lake are preparing to do. In April, they will embark on a tour of the Midwest to promote their respective novels and the anthology. The road trip will take them to a number of independent bookstores, including Chicago's Women & Children First.

This is what they had to say a few days before hitting the road.

Marie-Jo Proulx: What prompted this joint tour?

Ellen Hart: Over the past couple of years, Lori Lake and I have become great friends. … I do a fair amount of touring, but I'd never toured with another GLBT author before, and I thought a road trip where we primarily hit women's/feminist and GLBT bookstores would be a fantastic opportunity for both of us. So, we put our heads together one afternoon last winter and came up with a plan. Amazingly enough, it all clicked into place. …

Lori Lake: The opportunity to offer moral support, share expenses, and travel some distance with another writer very much appealed to me, so when Ellen suggested it, I was totally on board. …

MJP: Will you be reading from all three books at each of the events?

EH: I'm sure we'll read from our mystery novels, and we'll probably talk about the anthology. We'll also do a program that touches on a wide range of topics: GLBT mysteries, Lori's romance novels, our different writing processes, GLBT publishing, the pluses and minuses of writing a series, etc. And, of course, we'll make time for questions from the audience.

LL: … I've been itching to read a segment of the story Karin Kallmaker wrote, and I'd like to hear Ellen read as much of her memoir as possible. Both of those are terrific! … Every appearance is different. Ellen and I both tend to fly by the seat of our pants, so we'll just wait and see how it goes.

MJP: Although your books are also published in the U.K., Australia, and other countries, do you find that the majority of your readers, like yourself and many of your characters, are from the Midwest?

EH: I think my readership is fairly wide, but I'm also sure the Midwest is my writing base. Actually, the president of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library was in New Zealand last year. He walked into the main library in Christchurch and there was a big picture of me and my new book. William Kent Krueger, another Minnesota writer, and I were the featured authors that month. I was pretty blown away by that. One of the main reasons for doing a Midwest tour is that Lori and I can drive to the stores. Neither of us have tons of money to drop on a tour. Our presses do nothing, so promotion is always limited in one way or another by time, money, energy and personal creativity.

MJP: You write two distinct mystery series, each with its respective main character. Is there a chance that Jane Lawless and Sophie Greenway will ever cross paths in an upcoming storyline?

EH: No, I don't think so. I toyed with the idea years ago, but it never happened. After the next Sophie Greenway book comes out ( No Reservations Required, June 2005 ) I plan to move on to a new series. …

MJP: Your latest novel, An Intimate Ghost, is being considered for a Hollywood screenplay. Do you want to be directly involved in the eventual re-writing? Which actress would you like to see taking on the role of Jane Lawless?

EH: Actually, I will be involved in the rewrites, probably starting next week. The producer I'm dealing with has already sent the book out and we've gotten positive responses from a couple of key people. … We've already got some money people interested, but I should add this. Many of my friends have had books optioned for film or TV and only one person actually got the film made. So the likelihood of this ever happening is pretty small. Still, it's exciting to think about. As for Jane, I've always had one person in mind: Laura Linney. We'll certainly approach her, but she's a long shot. …

MJP: You teach mystery writing at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Are people seeking your help to create believable gay characters, or do your workshops focus exclusively on the narrative structure?

EH: I teach a class called 'An Introduction To Writing the Modern Mystery.' It's basically, mystery writing 101. We cover things like plot development, characterization, the rules of dramatic structure, dialogue, cliché in mystery fiction, mood, tone, setting, the hook in mystery fiction, pace, revisions, all the basics. … But I've been asked to do an intermediate crime fiction class, and I'm thinking about it. I'd work more closely with students and their novels, which I think I'd enjoy. …

MJP: The Milk of Human Kindness contains both short-fiction and memoir pieces. Why did you decide to combine the two?

LL: … I didn't want to cramp anyone's style. Some women prefer to write from a fictional point of view and some want to focus on mother/daughter issues from a personal angle. I wanted stories submitted that each author felt the most comfortable writing, and I was happy to get quite a variety.

MJP: If you could choose where it is displayed in bookstores, would you like to see The Milk of Human Kindness in the 'Mothering/Parenting' or the LGBT section?

LL: It would be nice to see the anthology in both sections. This is a book that can be read by anyone, not just lesbians, because so much of the mother/daughter experience is rather universal. The collection does portray some genuine, loving families, but there is also a balance of stories about heartbreak, disappointment, and angst. … My own story, 'The Bright Side,' for instance, shows the unbreachable chasm between the main character and her mother. In the 22 stories, there is a lot of variety.

MJP: It says on your Web site that you are currently working on three novels. Keeping every idea, detail, and plot separate must be quite a challenge, but how do you also maintain each story's integrity in terms of the writing? How do you avoid all three sounding the same?

LL: Because the topics and characters are all so very different, I don't have too much trouble keeping track of the storylines or plots. In fact, the projects are all so disparate that I have more trouble with their diversity than their similarities! But you are right that the details sometimes cause difficulties. I am not simultaneously working on all of them ( and now there are four, by the way ) , but every time I hit a roadblock on one, I move to another and work on it for a while until I get stuck. Eventually, I will see my way clear on one of them, and I'll be able to make a big push to finish the first draft and move it toward publication.

Apparently this is a very odd method for composing because most other authors I talk to can't, won't, or don't do it this way, but it seems to work for me to have a few balls in the air at once.

Hart and Lake will be at Women & Children First on Sunday, April 10 at 4:30 p.m. For more information, see www.ellenhart.com and www.lorilake.com


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