Photograph ©Randall Lamb
with Elizabeth Sims
Elizabeth discusses Holy Hell, her first novel.
You can only be a first novelist once. What made you take the leap and start writing?
All my life I'd wanted to be a novelist, but I kept trying to avoid it. I tried to work it off on other things: I wrote for a local newspaper, I wrote technical manuals for a machine company, I wrote training videos for a bank, I wrote press releases for a bedwetting clinic, I wrote little poems and stories for little magazines, I wrote book reviews, I enrolled in graduate school and wrote papers about novels, I got a job in a book shop and sold novels written by other people. I really tried to avoid writing a novel.
Then what happened?
I finally thought, okay, I won't write a real novel, I'll just write a sleazy little short lesbian crime story with lots of sex, wait, no, I'll write a dozen of them, and they'll sell like mad, and I'll be able to quit this job in the book shop, and I won't have to write a real novel. So Holy Hell started out as a cold-blooded, exploitative exercise. But a funny thing happened: the more I worked on it, the more fun I had with it, the more respect I began to have for the process—and for myself. I'm delighted with the outcome. Most writers, you know, after their careers get going, they're embarrassed by their first novels. But I feel I'll be able to pick up Holy Hell ten years from now and entertain myself. And I'm very glad Alyson Books wants a series from me.
So is there a lot of sex in it?
Oh, no. There's some, and of course I'm a genius at writing about it, but I learned something very important about sex on the page. Some sex is good for a story, but more isn't necessarily better.
How did you actually begin the writing process?
When I decided to write seriously, I knew I needed discipline. A new coffee bar, very hip, opened up on my route home from work. Three days a week I worked the day shift, getting off at 5:30, so I decided I'd work on it then, in the coffee bar. I'd stop in, order some elaborate coffee drink, and sometimes a slice of cake, then camp out in the corner and write. After about one session, I realized that you can sit for an hour and only write one word. My rule became that I had to write 300 words before I could go home.
I'd read that Graham Greene wrote 500 words every morning, no less, no more. Not that I was a huge Graham Greene fan, but I found that inspiring. I mean, look at his output! Look at what he accomplished. So I thought, well, he was a working writer. I'm putting in more than 40 hours a week in that bookstore, so I'll set myself a lower goal, 300 words. I thought I could do that. And I did, and after a while I had a novel.
Why an "elaborate" coffee drink?
To have more to do at my table. In this coffee bar, when you ordered a cafe au lait, they gave you a tray with a little carafe of coffee on it, plus a little carafe of hot milk, plus a cup, saucer, and spoon, plus a tiny sugar dish, and a napkin. That was a nice lot of stuff to fiddle with at my table, as I gathered myself to pick up that pen and write a sentence, then another.
So you counted every word?
Yes. After a while I made it tougher on myself by not counting articles. And if I got to 299, that wasn't enough, I couldn't go back and add "very" to a sentence, I had to at least begin another sentence. If I was rolling, I'd keep going past 300 as long as it was fun.
What's your daily output now?
When I'm writing original stuff, it's 1000 words minimum. These days I just estimate. When I'm revising or editing, I can't really count words, so I try to put in a full day of honest effort. A lot of those words get thrown out!
You worked in a bookstore?
Yes, I started working for a wonderful independent called Borders, back in 1987. It was a great experience. The Borders brothers were just starting to open in new locations. One thing led to another, and I became a store manager, then they moved me out to the West Coast to open new stores. I left the company after ten years.
Most independent booksellers would consider you an enemy.
Many of them did. But I respect the ones who never took their customers for granted. They're the ones who stayed profitable through tough times. The good ones manage their inventories well, you don't see them sitting in their shops petting the cat, they're working hard. Most of all I respect every one who never whined. The superstores are vulnerable now, because they're cutting corners. There are more and more opportunities for industrious independent booksellers.
You mentioned having been a reporter for a local paper. Your main character, Lillian Byrd, is also a reporter. Did you base her on yourself, and were there events you covered that suggested the plot for Holy Hell?
Lillian possesses an amalgamation of traits I know I have, traits I wish I didn't have, and traits I'd like to have.
She's a bit impulsive—which I can be. She's good at messing up. I think people who know me know that even though I'm supposedly smart, I can mess up terribly. Lillian makes bad decisions, but she's principled, she always tries to do the right thing. She's unsure of herself, yet forges ahead in spite of it. And she's tenacious. You know, being a journalist, even in a very small-time situation, you get a window into all the little lies and vanities people allow themselves. And, you see the small heroic acts that happen every day, the moments of integrity and kindness that make life bearable. Lillian is an observer of these things.
She isn't very glamorous.
No! I wanted to write about a heroine who isn't glamorous and doesn't want to be. Part of the appeal of Lillian's character—I think—I hope—comes from the fact that she's very Midwestern. People from the Midwest tend to be upbeat. People from the Midwest are politely impressed when they're expected to be. People from the Midwest like plain food. People from the Midwest don't have that awful sense of smug self-importance you run into so dismayingly often on both coasts. I'm generalizing, of course. I hope Lillian stays humble. If she started to act like a hotshot, I'd hate her.
You asked whether any events I covered suggested events in Holy Hell. I wanted to capitalize on things I'd seen and wondered about. When I was a reporter, I covered only one body-dumping, and it was about the most unusual thing I covered, and so a body-dumping is how Holy Hell starts. Then, I'd always wondered just how pathological someone who couldn't handle her sexual orientation could get, and so we have a pair of twisted villains whose very first sin was being unable to love themselves.
There's something ulterior about the humor in Holy Hell.
I think pure honesty makes people laugh. When you blurt out something like, "I'm only nice to her because she's homelier than me," people laugh, because you're admitting things we usually spends tons of effort hiding. I try to pay tribute to that in my work. We exhaust ourselves trying to appear so good, so confident. So it's an aberration to voluntarily expose yourself as being otherwise. People love that! Poor us! We're all so insecure!
What do you think you'll accomplish with your writing?
Well, you read these kinds of books for fun. I don't think I'll achieve world peace with my books, but I hope I make my readers happy. I hope I give them pleasure. It's a rare pleasure to me to read sharp, well-crafted, unpretentious writing—and if people think my books are like that, then I'm happy. I do have other ambitions: I dream of writing a novel of massive literary significance. I know, however, that if you sit down to write something massively significant, what you usually wind up with is crap. It's a delicate process, one I'm exploring with humble expectations. It's slow. For me, that's good.
Who's your favorite author?
Flannery O'Connor. I've read every word of hers, including her letters and occasional pieces. She was sure-handed, screamingly funny, and grotesquely tragic, all at the same time. Her work is overlooked a lot because she didn't write about typical relationships and typical angst, but that's why I like her so much. She just wrote about what interested her: why are people moved to do what they do? Why do people spend so much energy searching for God, and for the devil? I'd like to add that Joyce Carol Oates's bizarre early short stories had an influence on me, though I'm not sure exactly what. I'd sit in my room reading them over and over, then I'd walk down to the shopping center and stare at the people, trying to read their strange, secret thoughts.
What other writers do you admire?
Well, you know, it's hard for me to admire other living writers, because my enviousness of them for their success is so intense. But I've enjoyed a couple of short story writers, Julie Hecht and George Saunders. I'm grateful to them for their writing. I guess this sounds odd, but I don't read many mysteries.
Oh, God, here goes. Because so many of them are plodding and cliched. Totally devoid of style and grace. If I read "a rat the size of a cat" one more time, I'll throw up. Same with "the place was crawling with cops" and "her green eyes flashed".
Who are some of these lousy writers?
Oh no, I can't possibly insult another writer in public. Even lousy writers have feelings. And fans.
What can you tell us about the sequel to Holy Hell?
This one starts on a dark and stormy night. Lillian makes her way West to help out an old friend, and gets mixed up with an LPGA golfer, who seems to be hiding a dangerous secret. Stay tuned.