Q & A with author Lian Dolan about Elizabeth the First Wife and Helen of Pasadena
Questions and Answers with Lian Dolan, author of Elizabeth the First Wife
In Helen of Pasadena, your protagonist was a woman roughly your age, with a teenage son about the age of one of your sons. She even majored in the same thing in college that you did. But Elizabeth Lancaster is younger, single, childless, and a Shakespeare professor. Was it more of a challenge to write her?
Actually, it was more a lot more fun to write Elizabeth than Helen. With Helen, there were so many obvious parallels to my life that I really had to work to make it clear she wasn’t me! (I thought I’d done a fine job, but I can’t tell you how many people have called me “Helen” since the book has come out! Or introduced me by saying, “This is Helen of Pasadena!” Um, no.)
Elizabeth’s the cool, slightly cynical single gal that I’d like to think I would have been had I not gotten married and if I had a PhD. I had a fantastic Shakespeare professor in college who literally brought the material to life with her passion and sometimes brought us to tears with her lectures. Elizabeth is an homage to her, but she comes with more emotional baggage and a funkier wardrobe.
One similarity you have to Elizabeth is being the youngest of the family—in her case, a highly accomplished family, and in your case, a very large family, also with its share of accomplishments. How has being a youngest shaped you as a writer?
When you’re the youngest in a big family—or probably any family—you end up observing more than contributing for years of your life. No one wants to talk to the youngest or hear what you have to say at the dinner table. So, I spent a lot of years listening, laughing, and making copious mental notes about people, behavior, and conversations– all kinds of human interaction that comes in handy as a writer. And, you have plenty of ‘lives’ to borrow material from. Was that funny story about the bad date mine? Or my big sister’s? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter who went on the bad date, I can use it in my writing.
Shakespeare looms large in Elizabeth the First Wife. Have you always been interested in the Bard?
I grew up in Connecticut near a town called Stratford which is home to an ‘official’ Shakespearean Theater, so from elementary school through high school, seeing a play was an annual field trip. And I can still remember the discussion about The Taming of the Shrew in my 8th grade English class with my groovy, feminist teacher. I think that early exposure gave me an interest and a comfort level with the material. Let’s face it, the first few Shakespeare plays you see, you barely have any idea of what’s happening. But the more read and watch, the more you understand.
In high school, I also loved going into New York City in the summer to see the Shakespeare in the Park with friends because that was a whole happening, from waiting in line for the tickets to seeing great actors on stage in an outdoor setting with a raucous audience. By college, I eagerly signed up for a full-year class, reading a dozen plays and even playing Hamlet in our in-class production.
But a lifelong fascination with the Bard was cemented during my junior year abroad in Athens. I had the opportunity to see an amazing Royal Shakespeare Company/Peter Hall production of Coriolanus with Ian Mckellen in the title role. The production was staged in the ancient amphitheater on the Acropolis. There was no need for a set really because it was the ancient amphitheater on the Acropolis! Just the words, the acting and the lighting but with Shakespeare, you don’t need any more. It was ‘mind-blowing’ to steal a phrase from the book. Just one of those experiences that connected me to thousands of years of theater, words and the whole human experiences in a single night. Made me a life-long believer in the power of the Bard.
How challenging was it to write about Shakespeare, the most influential literary figure of all time?
Very. The more I researched for the book, the more I realized I didn’t know jack about Shakespeare! At first, I thought I’d weave some Shakespearean mystery into the plot, something to do with the writing of Midsummer and the noble family for whom it was written. But after dipping into my research, it became very clear to me that there were lots and lots of serious Shakespeare scholars and a ten times more enthusiasts who would bust me if I didn’t get the research right. That reality was sobering! That’s why I decided that Elizabeth’s research in the book would have a pop culture slant and be more accessible and fun than arcane. That was really a critical decision in the creation of Elizabeth’s character and the plot. As a writer, it felt really inspiring when I decided to go in that direction.
In Elizabeth the First Wife, you’ve created a book-within-a-book, All’s Fair. What inspired that?
Once I decided to ditch a super-serious scholarly bent to the Shakespearean material, I focused on creating pseudo-scholarly material that any reader could enjoy. The idea hit me in the shower—where I do my best thinking—and I immediately got out and searched for contemporary relationship books based on Shakespeare. There weren’t any! I was shocked, but thrilled. It seemed like really contemporary way to use the material and I like writing about contemporary women and their lives.
Plus, let’s face it, even for educated readers, their last exposure to Shakespeare play might have been in high school! Details get fuzzy. And, who’s kidding who? Life is busy and nobody sits down to read The Tempest after they put the kids to bed. But, I thought, readers might have read The Tempest at some point and would like a little refresher class. I hope All’s Fair, the book-within- a-book, makes readers feel on top of their Shakespeare again! Like they are back in the literary game, dropping references and quoting quotes without having to work too hard!
Is there a Shakespearean heroine you most identify with?
Before I wrote the book, I probably would have said Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing just because she is fabulous and easy to like. The Elizabeth Bennett of the canon. But doing the research on all the Righteous Role Models made me appreciate so many more of the female characters for various reasons. Juliet was one tough teenager. Cleopatra worked it. Portia made a feminist statement in an age when those didn’t come too easily. There’s a lot to admire in almost all the women of Shakespeare, especially when viewed through the perspective of time.
In this era of extremely heated political debate, you’ve created a world in which Democrats and Republicans not only get along, but love each other. Is this literary wishful thinking or actually possible?
When I conceived of the book, we had a Republican governor of California who was a fiscal conservative, a social liberal and a body-building movie star married to a Kennedy clan member! Clearly, here in California, anything IS possible.
Elizabeth Lancaster sticks to her career guns and doesn’t do what her mother wants her to do. Is this an essential message for you?
One of the themes I wanted to explore in Elizabeth the First Wife was the idea of breaking free of your family’s expectations and being your own person. (That’s definitely the baby of the family in me!) But, I’ve observed in my own life and the lives of others, that being your own person is not that easy, even as you slide into mid-life! And ironically, it seems, it’s even harder to carve out an adult identity if you have a close family where you can get stuck, never really evolving from the role you played when you were 12.
With Elizabeth Lancaster, I wanted to explore a woman sticking up to not only her mother, but really her whole family who have plenty of ideas of how she should be living, what she should be doing, how she should be dressing. The Lancasters are purposefully an intimidating bunch, high-profile and high-powered, making it even tougher for Elizabeth to strike out on a new path. Plus, Elizabeth is definitely stuck romantically at age 23 when she got totally burned, so that’s not helping her overall forward momentum. The book focuses on Elizabeth, in her mid-thirties, defining who she is and finally making choices as she sees fit, not to please her family.
And I do feel that finding a professional path is critical for women to establish their adult identities. We have a lot of roles we play in society or in a family—wife, mother, sister, aunt, caretaker— and, by definition, those roles always rely on others in our family. But in our professional lives, we get to create our own persona. Be who we really are when our mother isn’t watching! I think that’s important in a woman’s overall self-identity.
Once again, Pasadena serves as a major setting and theme in Elizabeth the First Wife. Has your vision of Pasadena evolved since writing Helen? Can we expect to see you escaping to Ashland any time soon?
I know so much now about Pasadena than I did when I wrote Helen of Pasadena. Wow, lifelong Pasadenans have dished the dirt on all kinds of scandals and local lore. I won’t be walking away from Pasadena anytime soon, there’s too much good stuff to mine and great cultural institutions to explore. But I did like bringing in another locale. It keeps my writing fresh and provides a comparative setting for Pasadena which is steeped in tradition. Next book, Pasadena and somewhere in Europe because I think I can write the trip off as research, right?
That being said, Ashland is an amazing town with a wonderful spirit and a creative soul. I’d love to find my own little Sage Cottage there one day.
Helen Fairchild swoons over the manly forearms on the sexy archaeologist. Elizabeth Lancaster swoons over the manly forearms on the sexy political operative. Is it safe to say you have a thing for masculine forearms?
Guilty as charged. Forearms are revealing. I think as a gender, we’ve focused on men’s backsides and abs for too long. Six-packs don’t tell us anything, except the guy spends a lot of time in the gym and probably doesn’t eat pasta. A man’s forearms say a lot about his life choices. Are they tanned and muscular? They the guy gets outside and moves dirt around, figuratively or literally. Are they pale and slim? Too much time in the office! Could be dull. There’s a story in every forearm and all you need is for the guy to roll up his sleeve to get a good look.
Does writing a novel get any easier the second time around?
How do you feel about the moniker “chick lit”?
I spent ten years on talk radio where I was called every awful name in the book by listeners, critics, and even fellow radio hosts. So if “chick lit author” is the worst I’m called these days, I’ll take it!
A Q & A with author Lian Dolan about Helen of Pasadena
Unlike your protagonist in Helen of Pasadena, you’re not the daughter of pot-smoking Oregon fiber artists—you grew up in Southport, Connecticut. Isn’t that a lot like Pasadena? How did you get that outsider’s perspective that allows for such a witty and smart look at the more upscale side of the city?
I often say that Pasadena is like Southport with palm trees. There is a real sense of tradition and civic pride in Pasadena that is very familiar to Connecticut Yankee. Many families have lived here for generations, attending the same schools, belonging to the same clubs, raising money for long-standing organizations, and living in the same neighborhoods. The residents of Pasadena love their city and everything it represents to the world in terms of arts, cultural, education, and sports. They can’t imagine living anywhere else.
But, even while I’m comfortable with the societal workings of Pasadena, I’m not quite on the inside, having only lived here two decades! That leaves a lot of opportunity for observation.
Pomona College is what brought you to Southern California… what made you stay? And why Pasadena?
I left Southern California after graduation, but I guess it never left me. Six years later, I was back because I fell in love with Pasadena boy. I was living in Portland, Oregon when we were engaged. At the time, I was working in sports broadcasting. It wasn’t much of a negotiation because he was clearly never leaving Southern California to live in the Pacific Northwest. Plus, he already owned a house near the Rose Bowl at 25! Everything I owned fit in a Volkswagen. It made sense for me to move to Pasadena. I stayed because the beauty and energy of the city really fit my style. Plus, again, husband never leaving, so I didn’t really have a choice.
You were a Classical Studies major in college and studied in Athens your junior year. Did you want to be Indiana Jones?
I was 16 when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, so mainly I wanted to marry Indiana Jones. But the movie did inspire me to love archaeology. Plus, my parents forced me to take Latin in high school, which I ended up loving. In college, I studied Greek, plus history and archaeology. After spending a semester in Athens, I really thought I would have this very rewarding, romantic career digging up stuff in the Greek Isles. But, frankly, I wasn’t smart enough. Advanced Ancient Greek did me in. And so did the thought of spending ten years post-college in pursuit of a doctorate. Instead of grad school, I moved to Jackson Hole to be a ski bum for two years. I think that says it all about my academic fortitude.
But I still love history and am hugely jealous of people who can make a career pursuing the tiniest historical details with passion and scholarship. That is a dream job to me.
It’s said that first novels are usually autobiographical. Is the title character Helen based on you?
Absolutely not. Hahaha.
Is Dr. Patrick O’Neill based on one of your college professors?
Don’t I wish! Then maybe I would have found that academic fire I needed! Actually, I did have one archaeology professor that I had a little crush on… but he owned no nubby sweaters as far as I know. To create Patrick O’Neill, I researched actual archaeologists and modeled Patrick’s fictional work and resume after the real Dr. Manfred Korfmann. Korfmann was a famous German archaeologist who managed the excavation at Troy until his early death. For the sizzle, I turned to the Facebook group “Bringing Sexy back To Archaeology”. Yes, such a group exists and the women of Sexy Archaeology were very helpful in describing the sexiest professors they had ever had. I owe Patrick’s nubby sweaters, his tattoo, his tanned forearms and his quiet, thoughtful work habits to them.
You already had a busy enough life as the mother of two sons and roles as a columnist, podcaster, blogger, school volunteer, wife, sister, daughter and dog walker—how did you ever manage to find time to fit novel-writing in there?
My writing teacher said that to write a novel, you have to give up something. I had to give up yoga. Honestly, to finish up the book and do the rewrites, I gave up yoga to write in the morning or else I never would have finished.
But before I even got to that stage, I knew I had a novel in me but with so much going on, I couldn’t focus on fiction. Then when my radio show Satellite Sisters ended unexpectedly, there was an opening in my schedule. I had been creating and performing six days a week on air, so I refocused that energy on writing. Unlike Helen, I jumped right in without overthinking the situation too much! I took an online novel-writing class and forced myself to write for the class critique group to stay accountable. I am a big believer in deadlines and being on the hook for stuff as a motivator. Announcing to the world that I was writing a novel and really committing my energy to the process was key.
There’s never a perfect time to write. If you wait for that, you may never get anything done. Plunging in was the key for me.
You’ve lived in Pasadena a long time and have a lot of friends and family here. Were you worried that any of them might be offended when you have some fun at their town’s expense? Or if they see themselves in some of the more comic characters?
Should I be worried? Dang, I hope no one eggs my house. I think most people have a sense of humor about themselves and the lives they lead. I satirize with much love. Hey, I’m the girl who gave up her career in sports for Volvo with a keyless remote entry! Plus, I was sensible enough not to use any one person wholesale as a character in the book. Or one school or charity. Everyone and everything really is fictionalized—a hazy stew of the people, places and events I’ve experienced.
Has your teenage son read Helen of Pasadena? Does he think the character of Aiden is based on him?
No, he hasn’t read it. At least there’s one upside to having a boy who doesn’t like to read! I could have made Aiden exactly like him and he never would have known! There are similarities between the two boys, but Aiden is not a carbon copy.
I made Helen’s child a boy because I feel like I do know boys better, being the mother of two young men. For the plot’s sake, I wanted Aiden to have that parallel with Merritt and the pressure that comes with that. Plus, contrary to popular belief, boys at that age are emotional and complicated. But they can still be very sweet to their mothers.
Is your husband anything like Merritt?
100% no! First of all, my husband is a UCLA fan, not a USC guy. Enough said.
In the book, there’s a lot of psychic energy expended on the part of the characters over education—specifically, the panic to get kids into the “right” school. Do you think college-educated American parents obsess too much over their kids’ educations?
Of course we do! As parents, it gives meaning to our angst. I don’t know why we’ve ratcheted up the stakes for our children, but we have. Pasadena is a town where a large majority of kids attend private or parochial schools, so the jockeying for admission starts in pre-K and then gets out of control by college. That was new for me, having gone to public schools my whole life, only going through the admission process as a senior in high school. But the pressure on kids to perform academically and athletically exists all over the country in every community.
Having Aiden not attend the expected high school was my not-so-subtle way of saying that even though we may have expectations for our children, they have their own set of strengths and weaknesses, hopes and desires. Just a little parenting message in the fiction!
We hear you’re working on two more novels in what’s being called the Rose City Trilogy. Can you spill a bit about them?
Both books will combine contemporary women and their historical counterparts. Both books continue to explore the many roles women play in their lives as wives, friends, sisters, mothers, daughters, patrons of hair salons. And, of course, both books will be set in Pasadena, using the city’s rich cultural heritage as a backdrop. You may see some familiar characters popping up again, because every book about Pasadena should include a former Rose Queen!