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Interview with Featured Writer Luisa Perkins

By Sandra Clark

We are pleased to introduce our newest Quarter Featured Writer, Luisa Perkins.

Luisa Perkins is the author of several books, short stories, and essays. She graduated from BYU and has just completed an MFA inWriting for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is in the middle of her fifth year of teaching early morning seminary. She and her husband are the parents of six children, and they live in a small town in Southern California. Luisa blogs sporadically at kashkawan.squarespace.com.

For those in our audience who are unfamiliar with your work, please share a few words about yourself, and your writing.

I mostly write novels, though I’ve also published a cookbook called Comfortably Yum. So far, my fiction has all been published by LDS-connected publishers, though I rarely set out to write for a Mormon audience. I tend to write fantasy, or magical realism, or slipstream. Gideon Burton once called my novel Dispirited “spiritual realism,” and I really loved that characterization. It felt just right.

What led you to it?  

I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a small child. Early on in life, I decided I wanted to create for others the kind of magic I experience when I read. There is a kind of time-traveling interpersonal connection between writer and reader that seems miraculous to me.

You write fiction, what freedoms and limits in this style of writing hold you to it, and which ones trouble you?

I believe we respond instinctively to stories, and that they teach us different things in different ways than nonfiction does. The freedoms of fiction are huge: a reader can safely explore all kinds of experiences, ideas, places, and people when reading a novel.

I think fiction’s only limitation is the same found in any other form of writing, and that is that books really only exist in the minds of readers. We point to a pile of bound pages and say, “That is a book,” but it’s only a book in the way a log is a fire. It has potential to be fire, but it’s not a fire until it’s lit. In the same way, a book is a book only when it is read. No reader is exactly like any other, therefore no reader’s experience of a book is like any other.

You just finished an MFA, congratulations! That’s massive. We have a lot of writer-readers and staffers who have done the same or are considering. Why did you decide to go back to school and how has your time there shifted your writing?

Before I went back to school, I felt stuck in my writing. I knew where I wanted it to go, but despite lots of practice and experimentation and the help of critique partners and writing groups, I couldn’t figure out how to get it there. When my phenomenal writer-friend Julie Berry suggested I pursue an MFA, that idea clicked almost immediately.

My MFA experience was life-changing. My advisors all possessed the most incredible combination of intellect, insight, wisdom, and compassion. They did more than identify my writing’s weaknesses; they invested significant time and attention to showing me how to see and address those weaknesses so that I could continue to grow and improve as a writer far beyond my graduation date. My fellow students became treasured friends. For two years, I had “permission” to make extensive reading and writing a top priority. It was a blast.

I highly recommend the experience. For those considering it, know that all programs are not by any means equal. Look carefully at both faculty and alumni, and question the latter closely, if possible. This is one area in which “you get what you pay for” is an absolute truth. Be prepared to work harder than you ever have before. Be willing to try new things, even if they seem counterintuitive.

Why? And what do you wish you could have done more or differently in your program?

Since I have no access to Hermione Granger’s time turner, I honestly cannot think of a thing I would change.

Tell me about your writing process. Is there a ritual, place or time that helps you write regularly and at your best?  

In my experience, writers who are also parents cannot afford to be precious about their writing. You have to take the time wherever and whenever it comes. Long stretches of hours and total silence and mental energy and focus are glorious, but rare. I’ve had to learn how to jump into my writing for as little as 15 minutes at a time.

That said, I do wear a fraternity medallion that belonged to my father if I need an extra boost of confidence. I have a big leather chair that’s ideal for reading and writing. But I also write poolside during my kids’ swim practice; in my minivan in the church parking lot during Young Women/Scouts/Activity Days, and at the chaotic children’s reading room at the library.  

I swear by the program Write or Die, especially when I’m feeling stuck. It forces me to turn off my inner editor. My MFA program helped me unlearn a lot of bad habits I’d formed over the years, the worst of which was focusing on the word/sentence level early on the process. I’ve learned the hard way that pretty paragraphs are much harder to revise or delete than rough ones. Now I save the prettifying for last.

Good writers are often great readers, who do you admire and what do you read to satisfy your heart and need for pleasure?

I would go further and say that you cannot be your best as a writer if you are not reading constantly and widely. I have so many favorite writers; I’ll name just the tippiest tip of the iceberg. These are all people whose work I read over and over again. Isaiah, John Bunyan, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Atwood, Mark Helprin, Marisha Pessl, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Stephen King, Susanna Clarke, Umberto Eco, Steven Peck, Annette Lyon, Anthony Doerr, Kelly Link, Sharon Kay Penman, and Tad Williams. I have posted a lot about books I love on my blog over the years.

What aspect of writing comes easily to you?

Um.

I can’t think of anything that comes easily to me except visualizing my story. I see it like a movie. However, trying to describe what I see–I always fail miserably at that. Writing is easy; writing well is difficult. But as my grandmother would say, “Sweetie, it’s not like digging a ditch.”

Whom do you imagine reading on the other side of your text as you write?

My ideal reader is someone a lot like me. Nerdy, obsessive, prone to overthinking and overfeeling.

How has that changed over time as your writing has grown and the attention to your writing has risen?

I don’t really think it has. Whether it’s a picture book or a novel for grown-ups, I still write the kinds of books I like to read.

What writing advice do you give yourself on hard days?

Just do it for fifteen minutes, and don’t be afraid to write badly. A bad first draft is infinitely easier to revise than a non-existent first draft. If I’m in revision mode, again, if I can get fifteen minutes into it, I almost always find a bit of rhythm.

Tell us about your latest book, Prayers in Bath, and it’s stunning publication with original art from Jacqui Larsen through the Mormon Artists Group. How did that amazing project come to be?

Thank you! Jacqui’s art is glorious, and I am delighted that it graces my book. I’ve known Glen Nelson, the founder of Mormon Artists Group, for decades. He asked me if I’d be willing to write a short novel that would become MAG’s first fiction publication. I about died at the honor and agreed. He wanted something with a Mormon theme to it, but other than that, I was on my own as to story. I went through my idea journal and almost immediately found something I’d written down a few years earlier about ancient prayer tablets found in archeological excavations in Bath, England.

Tell us more about the book that earned that honor.

Julia and her husband, Ted, have moved to England so that Ted can finish a biography he’s writing about Jane Austen. Julia hasn’t gotten a work visa because they’ve been trying to have a baby, but after spending years and money on infertility treatments, they’ve given up. Hoping to help Julia out of her depression, Ted encourages her to take an internship on an archaeological dig under Bath Abbey. She reluctantly does so. Magic and mayhem ensue.

What are you working on right now?

A contemporary fantasy retelling of the opera The Magic Flute set in Paris and the Cottian Alps. I’ve written several versions of this story over the years, and I think I’m finally getting it right.

Looking forward, what would you like to do creatively that you haven’t yet?

Now that I’m done with school, I plan to revise and expand my cookbook, which will correct a few errors and likely double it in size. I would be thrilled to spend the next 50 years writing all the books I have in my head. I like writing for all ages, so I plan to continue doing just that. I’d attempt a screenplay, but since I live in Southern California where everyone is writing a screenplay, the rebel in me has not allowed that yet. I also love writing songs, usually sacred choral pieces. Collaborating with composers and hearing my words set to beautiful music is a heavenly treat.

 

About Sandra Clark

Sandra Clark Jergensen's writing (most often about food) has been published in Gastronomica, Apartment Therapy, The Exponent, and at Segullah, where she was once the Editor-in-Chief, and now as Features Editor. Sandra geeked out on food and writing as a master's student food studies at University of Texas, Arlington. She makes her home in California where she runs without shoes, foster parents, teaches cooking, develops recipes, and struggles to take pictures with her eyes open, and sometimes all at the same time. She is the owner and creator of thekitchennatural.com.

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