The Practice of Creativity

The Love of Landscape and The Power of Persistence: Interview with Author Lisa Harris

Posted on: February 16, 2014

I don’t always read the ‘Class Notes’ section of my college alumni publication The Bardian, but I’m grateful I did recently. As soon as I read the blurb about ’Geechee Girls, a debut novel by Lisa Harris, I knew I wanted to read the book and interview the author. ’Geechee Girls is a coming-of-age novel set in Savannah, Georgia, and chronicles two girls (one black, one white) navigating difficult times and difficult circumstances in imaginative and transforming ways.

Bard is a small, private liberal arts college that I graduated from in 1991. It profoundly shaped me. Lisa Harris graduated in 1974 and received her MFA from Bard in 1991. When I read Lisa’s bio, I saw that we had many overlapping interests including an interest in girl’s coming of age stories, female empowerment and creative production across multiple genres.

She says she started writing started when she was nine years old and won the Read Magazine short story prize. She did not write another story though until she was thirty-two (but continued to write poems and still does today). She has many publications to her credit. Her poems have been published by Puerto del Sol, Fennel Stalk, Bright Hill Press, The Cathartic, Karamu, Stillwater, The Ithaca Women’s Anthology, and ginsoko. Her stories have been published in ginosko, The MacGuffin, The Distillery, RiverSedge, Nimrod International, The American Aesthetic, and Argetes. Two of her stories won the Bright Hill Fiction Prize, and one story was anthologized in The Second Word Thursdays Anthology.

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Lisa has received residencies from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation and Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, as well as support from the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, Ithaca College, and the New York State Council of the Arts.

She is also a collaborative artist and has completed several installations with Carol Spence, print maker; Susan Weisend, print maker; and Nancy Valle, ceramic sculptor.

During the last six weeks, we’ve had a tremendous amount of fun reminiscing about Bard as well as discussing the demands of a creative life. I am in awe of Lisa’s dedication to writing and commitment to the creative process. I am delighted to welcome Lisa Harris to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

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Tell us about your new novel,’Geechee Girls. Why did you want to write this book?

I lived in coastal Georgia for eight years. Wherever I live, I begin to take in the landscape—until it enters my memory and lives in my bones. Writers are observers, and I watch the world closely. After I left Georgia and moved to New York state, I yearned for the languid humidity, the sweet, rich scent of magnolias, the painted buntings who used to perch in my live oak trees, and the voices of all the people I had listened to—close up and at a distance. I wanted to write a book to bring the world I had been a participant in to readers who have not gotten to live in Savannah and along the Ogeechee Road. I also wanted to preserve my memory of it.

How did you get bitten by the ‘writing bug’? Did you always wish to become an author?

I began writing when I was in fifth grade. I wrote a short story called “King’s Rescue” which won a Read Magazine award, and a poem, “The White Wedding Dress,” at about the same time. I always wanted to be a writer or a detective. Yep, another Nancy Drew fan. I grew up in a family of storytellers and talkers—people who worked to make sense of the world through stories and also used stories to entertain. I received a lot of support and belief from my family. Reading and writing have been good friends to me.

How do you decide what point of view a story will be in? Do you experiment a lot or just get a sense right away? Has there ever been a story you had to completely rewrite in a different point of view?

Point of view is so important in a story, and I wrestle with it and using tense effectively a lot in my fiction. I have to laugh a little here regarding the question have I ever completely rewritten a story from a different point of view! Yes, and yes, and yes. ‘Geechee Girls  was always in third person—so point of view wasn’t the challenge for me with that book—chronology was—because I wrote the book over a long stretch of time in bits and pieces, in meetings and on planes, at night when I was tired, with a lot of sketches dropped in and pulled out—until, ta-da, I completed it. Every rewrite made it better. Allegheny Dream had three different titles, Collisions, Where the River Meets the Rain, and now Allegheny Dream. It was written from the first person point of view initially and also had the sequencing issues because of my day jobs. In its completed version, it retains the first person point of view in the diary entries, which introduce each chapter, and the majority of the book is in third person. Both books had more than half of their contents published as short stories, so that was a rewriting demand, as well. I had to shape them so they could stand alone, and then reshape them to fit back into the books.

What was the most interesting tidbit that you came across while researching the geography of where your novel is set (i.e. Georgia and Savannah’s Low Country)?

I loved learning more about snakes, birds, and the Yucchi, the first name for the Ogeechee Indians. I did not know that snakes shed their skin in such a way that for a short time they are blind—they wiggle out of their skin as if it is a too tight turtleneck sweater. Echo location intrigued me in bird communication and also the fact of the bird’s extra eyelid. Readers will discover interesting lore about the Yucchi upon reading the book.

What’s on your bookshelf, next to your bed (or in your e-reader)? What are you reading right now?

I am reading Pavitra in Paris (Vinita Kinra), background non-fiction regarding Newfoundland and the Vikings for my novel-in-progress, THREAD, Landscapes of the Sacred (Beldan Lane), A Mercy, (Toni Morrison), The Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty, The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats, and the Bible. I read the King James’ Version to help keep my ears smart for beauty in language. I am also reading Julia Hartwig’s In Praise of the Unfinished.

What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

The best writing tip? Write. Watch and listen. Write. Meditate and travel. Write. Play cards, laugh and watch frogs, and you guessed it, write. Writing is an act of love, an honoring of life. Read!

Lisa Harris is a writer and educator.’Geechee Girls has just been released by Ravenna Press. Her next novel also with Ravenna Press is Allegheny Dream. Find out more about Lisa and how to purchase ’Geechee Girls from her website: http://lisaharriswriter.com/

Photo Credit: Jeff Spence

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2 Responses to "The Love of Landscape and The Power of Persistence: Interview with Author Lisa Harris"

I am grateful to Michele for contacting me and excited tp be in conversation with her!

[…] spirits although I graduated from Bard in 1991 and Lisa in 1974. In February, Lisa gave a terrific interview about writing and the creative process. We have been corresponding ever since. Her guest post today […]

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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