Lara SANTORO – Taos, USA – Writer, Novelist.

In her first novel “Mercy”, Lara Santoro, a writer and novelist based in Taos, New Mexico, draws on her experience as a journalist in Kenya to add her contribution to the long list of accounts and stories Africa, a continent both deadly and beautiful, has inspired. The close connection between Africa and its stories is hardly surprising. Africa is a writer’s dream and nightmare, offering vivid contradictions on a platter but it would be foolish to believe one can pick and choose. Africa comes as a whole package which can be both inspiring and utterly destructive. Whether it is from the solitary confines of a blank page or surrounded by the chaos of AIDS ravaged Africa, the way out is not obvious, one can lose oneself in both, but with eyes wide open, looking inward and out, the experience and its story can carve a narrow path out of the darkness and into the light. 

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ALOUD: Lara, how and when did your interest in writing emerge?

LARA SANTORO: I started writing very early on, I remember handing in my first piece of fiction in fifth grade. I began keeping a journal at age eleven and never truly stopped. My first ostensibly formal bit of training came at New York University, where I was given a fellowship to write and eventually received a Masters in Fine Arts. After the MFA I went straight into journalism, not because I wanted to but because I did not have the money to write fiction. Journalism soon became a passion in itself. I started out by translating the Associated Press for an Italian newswire, eventually quit and began freelancing for British and American publications. I covered my first conflict in 1995 and somehow my career got derailed to war coverage. I took a posting to Africa for The Christian Science Monitor, then for Newsweek magazine.  During this time I had no true creative outlet so I wrote a lot of poetry.

ALOUD: Can you describe specific “turning points” which have had a strong impact on the direction of your career? 

LARA: Possibly the biggest turning point was the birth of my daughter. I kept working in journalism for a whole year after she was born but soon came to terms with the fact that I was raising a dysfunctional child by taking off all the time. I stopped and started writing my first novel, Mercy. It took me five years, at one point I had 250 pages, I threw out two hundred and started out all over again. Writing and journalism are diametrically opposite occupations. In one you’re always going places, talking to people, working the phones, clearing obstacles to get to the story, which typically involves some kind of exchange with someone.  In the other you’re perfectly alone in what I call the junkyard of your mind.  To me it’s the single most solitary thing there is.  It’s just the nature of it, because not only are you spatially, physically alone, you’re also uncertain of what you are doing.  I don’t typically have people read what I’m writing until I’m done.  I don’t do drafts.  I rewrite obsessively until I think I’m done and only then do I show my work to people I respect and trust but until then, until that feedback starts to trickle back in, I am completely alone, riddled by doubt and uncertainty, incapable of objective judgment.  Is it good?  Does it suck?  Am I completely crazy?  That sort of stuff.  It’s lonely, very lonely business.  But the more you do it, the more you accept it for what it is, you don’t try to wriggle out of it by making the odd phone call.  In fact, you stop taking phone calls.

ALOUD: Can you name and describe a few of your inspirations?

LARA: I have a million heroes in literature.  I think Sylvia Plath was the greatest American poet of the twentieth century.  I think Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a perfect novel, along with Madame Bovary by Flaubert and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez.  I gasp at entire pages of Faulkner, I cannot believe how deeply Hemingway changed the way we write in the English language.  I could go on forever.  Flannery O’Connor was a genius.  Ray Carver too.  Thomas Pynchon, Don De Lillo, both great writers.  Annie Dillard is a magical writer, symphonic in her range.  So is Anne Michaels, whose Fugitive Pieces I keep at hand not far from my Thesaurus.  Do I steal?  Yes, I steal.

ALOUD: Can you tell us about your current projects?

LARA: I just sold my second novel, tentatively titled “A Child” to Little, Brown.  It should be coming out next year.

ALOUD: Do you have a tendency to let things evolve organically or would you rather follow a plan?

LARA: I do tend to let things evolve organically.  I came to a point in this last novel where I really had no idea what to do with it, how to end it.  For days I did not write a word but I thought about it incessantly, turning it around in my mind constantly, until it became clear to me that I had everything I needed, all the tension I needed, for a specific kind of ending.  It was an “eureka” moment on highway 285 driving back to Taos from Denver.  I’ll never forget it.  I went from thinking I had a piece of trash in my hands, a failed experiment, to knowing I was going to finish a book and with some luck, and the help of my unflappable agent Elaine Markson, who has tolerated me for years, I was going to sell it.

ALOUD: What would make you say “No” to an attractive offer?

LARA: What makes me say no to an attractive offer?  Absolutely nothing, provided it pays but I’m not talking fiction here, fiction has its own laws and can only function in aseptic conditions, by which I mean total integrity.  You can write magazine pieces or even non-fiction for money but not fiction.  I think it’s a karmic thing.  It just doesn’t work.  Never worked for me, at any rate. Working is absolutely essential.  I lose track of myself when I don’t work, I become uncertain of my identity.  And I get a little crazy, too, I start questioning the reason I’m even around to begin with.

ALOUD:  Are you able to make a living only from things you want to be doing?

LARA: I am supplementing my income, which has been meager in this economy – there’s definitively a cold wind blowing out there – by cooking in a great little restaurant here in Taos called The Love Apple. We cook local, organic food and we’re red hot right now so I suppose the answer is yes, I make a living doing the things I like.

ALOUD: Do you agree with this quote by Confucius “Chose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”?

LARA: Yes, completely. Confucius had it right.

ALOUD: Do you draw a line between your life and your work?

LARA: I make sure I have time away from writing because after a number of hours, typically five or six, you become spent.  I heard it said that Graham Greene didn’t get up until he had 900 words.  It seemed like good discipline so I adopted as mine.  But to write you have to write everyday, maybe take one day off a week.

ALOUD: Do you think that talking about your ideas helps the creative process?

LARA: No, I don’t, at all.  I am superstitious that way, I keep my work private until I am fairly sure it’s nearly done.

ALOUD: In conclusion, would you say that the risks are worth the rewards?

LARA: If you find yourself face down in the gutter one day, I guess no, the risk isn’t worth the reward, but how can you tell in advance.  We walk that edge all the time.  I wouldn’t know how to do it differently.  I wouldn’t know how to NOT walk the edge.

Click here to read an excerpt from Lara’s first novel “Mercy”. You can read reviews of Mercy here and here. Learn more about Lara on her website (currently undergoing maintenance).  Lara Santoro was recommended by Francesca Marcianowriter.

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  1. Jane

    One of the best Aloud. interviews yet!

    Just as Francesca made a clear distinction between writing screenplays and novels, so too does Lara when saying novels are a lonely business compared to magazine articles. I imagine it’s really ideal to be able to write both sorts. What could be better than a dose of human contact and then a dose of solitude?

    Either way, it’s clear we are reading about a perfectionist who is brave enough to trash 200 pages of work if she feels they just aren’t right. We often hear song writers say that when composing, their lyrics seem to just spurt out effortlessly as if by an unknown force. A novel is clearly a different case and requires longterm focus. For someone who feels unsettled when she is not working, it must be immensely gratifying to produce one.

  2. laurenbjorkman

    I totally laughed when I read the line, “If you find yourself face down in the gutter one day…” What does that say about me? Most writers I know write because they have to for their mental health.

  3. Hi Lauren, thank you for making yourself heard. I always enjoy seeing new visitors on the site and allowing me to have a glimpse into your own work.

  4. Syrian Jew

    Im in love with Lara since the day I met her

  5. Pingback: Exhibitions, Publications, Interviews & more: Find out what ALOUD.’s alumni are up to. « Aloud.

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