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Writing Crime

Sister to Sister: Lisa Lieberman
By Hank Phillippi Ryan
Posted: 2021-02-23T04:45:00Z

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Being president of the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime is a daunting taskincredible responsibility, everyone needing something, decisions to make and plates to spin and futures to plan. And the honor, too, is equally daunting. You become part of a lineage, and your actions and legacy will last long after your term is over. And your personal challenges remain, too.  Your writing, and your deadlines, and your life.


So take all thatand then add a pandemic. And that’s what the brave Lisa Lieberman is undertaking now. (No pressure, Lisa!)


You know Lisa writes fiction and nonfiction (and more about that below), and is a hybrid author who chose to create her own imprint in order to continue publishing her historical noir series after the publisher of her debut mystery ended their mystery line. (More about that below, too.)


But in a different kind of Sister to Sister, I asked her how she felt about that. And then, like every S to S, about some other things, too.  


HANK: President during the pandemic! What do you think about that?


LISA: I've discovered that leadership has less to do with taking charge than with creating an environment where people feel valued and supported and inspired, ultimately, to support one another. At the end of 2020, as I prepared to step into the role of President, I published a blog post looking back over the months of loss and loneliness. So many of us have been touched, personally, by illness and I wanted members to know that they were not alone. In the weeks since that post appeared, I've been moved by the outpouring of love, the sharing of stories and random acts of kindness that have come forth, unbidden. A member asked for "company" in the midst of her isolation while undergoing chemotherapy. People stepped up, including some who didn't know her, to offer reiki healing, poetry, and laughter.


HANK: Yes, and it’s such a pivotal time. And you are so mid-journey in all this.

Do you remember the very first time you thought: Im going to write a novel, and I can do it. What was that moment?


LISA: Well, it wasn’t so much an aha moment as a gradual realization that I was trying to compress too much into my short stories. I was in my thirties when I started writing fiction, an assistant professor of history working toward tenure, and the mother of three young children. I didn’t have much time to write—and I wasn’t supposed to be writing fiction!—but I would be thinking about the characters, their backstories and relationships, imagining them in various situations as I was cooking, or walking across campus, or sitting through a faculty meeting. I’d get it down on paper (I like yellow legal pads) and then, when I could carve out a couple of hours, I’d turn the notes into a story.


HANK: And then?


LISA: Gettysburg Review accepted a longish story of mine and an agent contacted me out of the blue, a very fine agent known for trawling literary quarterlies in search of new talent. He assumed it was the beginning of a novel and asked to see the full manuscript. I had to tell him those twenty-odd pages were it, and I didn’t know when or if there would be more, but his response got me thinking.


HANK: Did that first novel sell?


LISA:  Alas, no. That agent was very patient. It was five years before I was able to take him up on his offer to read the first fifty pages of my manuscript. In that time, I’d earned tenure, published my first nonfiction book, Leaving You, with a trade publisher, served as on-site director with my husband for our college’s international programs in Bologna, Italy and Norwich, England. Wonderful years! Every so often, I’d pick up the novel and write a bit more, but I kind of lost my drift. The agent didn’t like the new stuff, but I couldn’t find my way back to the original vision of the story, although I kept plugging away for another five years, in and around various nonfiction projects. Eventually I let it go and started All the Wrong Places, my debut mystery, which came out on Five Star in 2015. I wrote it in under three years. By then I’d left the academic world and founded an educational nonprofit, our children were grown, and I had uninterrupted time to dedicate to my writing.


HANK: Has there been one person who has helped you in your career? (I know, it must be difficult to choose just one, but…)


LISA: Ivan Dee, the publisher of Leaving You and four subsequent e-books (two of which were selected as Kindle Singles and sold like hotcakes), launched my writing career and still serves as my sounding board. He doesn’t mince words—I’ve come to value his brutal honesty—although it was hard to take at the outset. He asked for several rounds of revisions on Leaving You, made me scrap the first chapter, which I’d slaved over. The day he called me in England, full of praise for the final draft, I was over the moon.


He taught me to set very high standards for my own publishing imprint. Five Star allowed me to give input to the cover designer, and together we came up with the noir “look” of All the Wrong Places. The series is set in the 1950s and I wanted to play off old movie posters from that era, the fonts and the images. The designer got it and I’ve stayed with her and the formatter, rely on the services of an excellent editor, and don’t cut corners. Just before Covid hit, I was out in Chicago visiting our son and had lunch with Ivan. I’d brought along a copy of the third mystery in my series, The Glass Forest, inscribed “To Ivan, who taught me to make beautiful books.”


HANK: Awww. That’s a wonderful  story. And yes, those covers are brilliant.  And what’s inside is, too! Do you outline? Has your method changed over the years?


LISA: I outline continuously, as my story develops (for fiction) or as my understanding of a subject deepens (for nonfiction). I always want to know where I’m going when I sit down to write, but I also want to be receptive to those random flashes of inspiration.


Writing All the Wrong Places was an exhilarating journey, waking up each morning and not knowing quite where I'd be going that day. Who knew that there was a DP camp in Trani, a coastal town on the instep of the Italian boot (which I picked randomly by looking at a map, to determine a good spot for my heroine’s car to break down) and that, to get to it from the ferry port at the toe of the boot, one passes through Rudolph Valentino's home town? Of course, that sent me off on a movie-watching binge. He had something, that Valentino.


HANK: Well, yeah. All too briefly. And I love that, how sometimes research points your story in a direction that you’d never have dreamed up. What are you working on right now?


LISA: I’ve put my mystery series aside and am writing nonfiction again, a book about noir and the postwar world. I’m calling it Flinch. Here’s the log line: We had a chance to remake the world. Instead we looked away. Ivan thinks I’m onto something, I’m happy to report.


HANK: What book are you are reading right now?


LISA: Lesley M. M. Blume’s narrative history of John Hersey’s investigative reporting on the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World. I read Hersey’s book in a high school journalism class. Blume is a superb writer who makes me see why it has stayed with me, all these years. 


HANK: What a storyteller, right? And so instructive about research and character, and stakes. Which brings us back to your new job as president—again, it must have changed your life already.


LISA: I myself lost two old friends last month, one to cancer, one to Covid. People covered for me until I was ready to return to duty. Truly, it is with gratitude that I serve as President of this wonderful, caring community.


HANK: And we are grateful to you, too. Sisters, tell us something you’re grateful for! As Lisa says—and as the SinC motto (created by Kate Flora!) says—you write alone, but you are not alone.  What makes you realize that?


 Lisa Lieberman is President of Sisters in Crime New England. She has published essays, translations, short stories and film criticism in Gettysburg Review, Raritan, Michigan Quarterly, Mystery Scene, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Noir City, 3 Quarks Daily and elsewhere. Media experience includes interviews on National Public Radio’s “To The Best of Our Knowledge” and Australian National Radio’s “All in the Mind,” and a panel discussion on KQED’s public affairs call-in program, “Forum.” In her spare time, Lisa lectures on postwar efforts to come to terms (or not) with the trauma of the Holocaust. On the lighter side, she talks about books and movies at public libraries and leads writing workshops at literary festivals throughout New England.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the USA Today bestselling author of 12 thrillers, winning five Agathas and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and 37 EMMYs for TV investigative reporting. THE MURDER LIST (2019) won the Anthony Award for Best Novel, and is an Agatha, Macavity and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee. Her newest psychological standalone is THE FIRST TO LIE. The Publishers Weekly starred review says "Stellar. Ryan could win her sixth Agatha with this one."

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