Andromeda Romano-Lax began her career as a travel writer and freelance journalist before focusing on fiction. She has published in multiple newspapers and magazines from Seventeen to Steinbeck Studies. She cofounded the nonprofit, 49 Alaska Writing Center (Anchorage, Alaska) and teaches at the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She freelances as a book coach at Antioch University’s Inspiration to Publication (i2p) program.
Her career accomplishments include her first novel, The Spanish Bow (2007), which was honored as one of the Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year, a Book Sense Pick by the American Bookseller’s Association, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. (The Spanish Bow has been translated into eleven different languages worldwide.) Additional novels include The Detour (2012) and Behave (2016). Romano-Lax has also published a travel narrative, Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez: A Makeshift Expedition Along Baja’s Desert Coast (2009), and written natural history and travel guidebooks about Alaska. Among her many awards, she has received fellowships from the Alaska Press Club and the National Association for Interpretation, and the Rasmuson Foundation honored her as its 2009 Artist Fellow.
Andromeda Romano-Lax and I conducted our interview via email in early March, 2017.
Shaneka Jones Cook: How did you become a writer? Did you have an early experience where you learned that language, words, and writing had power?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: As a teen, I tried my hand at shapeless short stories, the first pages of novels, and travel journals. I also sold my first articles to Seventeen when I was close to that age, which started me on the path to magazine freelancing, which was a thrilling, terrifying experience. (Propose an article to a stranger and then try to write it. I failed many times. There was no better training!)
One of several reasons why I didn’t study writing in college was that I had this idea that everyone writes—that everyone can and should write. I didn’t see it as a separate field, just an extension of one’s natural desire to remember, imagine, and think on paper.
One of several reasons why I didn’t study writing in college was that I had this idea that everyone writes—that everyone can and should write. I didn’t see it as a separate field, just an extension of one’s natural desire to remember, imagine, and think on paper. I thought the best way to become a writer was to study everything but writing: politics, economics, history, biology, psychology. The urge to write, for me, had nothing to do with power or achieving a preconceived goal or even about “expressing oneself.” It was mainly about noticing more, and about feeling more alive and engaged with the real world.
SJC: You began your career a freelance journalist and travel writer. What prompted or inspired you to become a fiction writer? And how was the transition? How do you approach these different forms of writing? Do you use similar craft tools and/or skillsets?
ARL: I became a novelist after 9/11, after asking that question that nearly everyone asks after major historic moments or personal crises: “If I could have only one more chance in life to do something, what would it be?” I dropped a depressing book project about climate change that I thought no one would ever read (because I hadn’t found any angle that would make it sufficiently interesting or accessible) and instead pursued a story that filled me with joy: the real-life saga of the cellist Pablo Casals, who stood up against fascism in Spain. I studied cello with an eye to describing cello playing better. I dove into the research, traveling to Puerto Rico and later to Europe with my husband and two young children, each time on a shoestring budget, staying in hostels, riding trains, and eating cheaply. I decided almost immediately the story would work better in novel form, and simply took the whole thing one fictional episode at a time, modeling the work on Don Quixote, which is intentionally episodic. The transition to novel writing was a thrilling leap into the unknown, and since I wasn’t thinking much about publication or readers, I never experienced anxiety or doubt. (I’m more anxious and concerned about outcomes now, unfortunately, though I do my best to keep that in check.)
The tools and habits I got from journalism and assignment-based nonfiction writing were: set deadlines and break the project into chunks. Just get each part done, no matter how imperfect it is. Interview people, travel to get the settings and other details right, be curious. That was all well and good, but I still had huge gaps in my literary knowledge, because I hadn’t read enough fiction. How dare I even try to write a novel without having read Woolf, Nabokov, and many more like them, not to mention contemporary authors? So I started doing that, methodically, keeping journals in which I recorded my slow awakening to craft concerns like POV, characterization, language, and so on. It was a DIY MFA and unbelievably fun. Later I got a real MFA in order to teach (and find my tribe), but this first period of self-training was the most important.
SJC: Where does the inspiration for your books originate from? Is there a process you go through to determine what subject you will write about?
ARL: The inspiration usually comes quickly and serendipitously in the form of a footnote, a tiny news item, a merging of two unrelated thoughts that makes something click. The whole process is organic. If the idea grabs me, I will start researching, or just keep thinking and imagining scenes in my head, and if it won’t let me go, the novel begins.
Sometimes I’ll have part of a story I want to tell but something is missing, and I have to wait for the final piece of the puzzle—the right voice for the narrator, or how the story it will be organized—to fall into place. But you can’t wait too long.
Ideas are cheap. Early drafting is a long-haul effort. But revision, I find myself believing now, is where the real work begins.
Here is the one thing I wish someone had told me twenty-five years ago, when I was anxious about not having enough ideas: if you keep reading and writing, ideas will multiply, to the point where inspiration is not the problem at all—only execution. Ideas are cheap. Early drafting is a long-haul effort. But revision, I find myself believing now, is where the real work begins.
SJC: In your new book, Behave, you state, “I wrote this novel to give voice to a woman mostly forgotten by history.” Its protagonist is Rosalie Rayner, a twentieth century behavioral scientist, mother, and wife of John B. Watson, a pioneer of behaviorism. Can you tell me what specifically captivated you to write about these characters and about behaviorism? What drew you to her over the many other forgotten female voices in history?
ARL: In the beginning, I never think in broad or abstract categories, like “forgotten female voices.” (I may think that way when the book is almost done and I have to say something for the author notes and marketing materials, though!) Specifics are what grab my attention. In the case of Rosalie Watson, I heard about her one night at a cocktail party and discovered she had helped her more famous husband do some alarming research on young babies. I wanted to know who she was, how she felt about what she was doing, and what happened to her later, in those few years before she died a strange and early death. I got home, started Googling, and knew she was my next narrator before I went to bed.
SJC: Behave is categorized as a fictional memoir, though it is based in historical occurrences. How did you approach the form of this book? Did you ever consider writing biography?
ARL: Many of my novels, and that’s how they are categorized, have been based on historical events and each has a different relationship to fact. Unlike my first two, in which I completely invented some characters (who interacted with historical events and figures), Behave follows the facts even more closely and is populated with all real people, drawn as close to life as I could manage, based on available information. I think the main reason that readers come to it is to learn about John and Rosalie Watson, to gain insights into the early decades of psychology, and to see how it contributed to unfortunate ideas about anti-attachment style parenting. Those are the same things I wanted to discover when I started writing the book.
At the same time, when you write a novel, you have to write in scene, include dialogue that no one ever recorded, and speculate about characters’ emotions and motivations. For a biographer, which I have never wanted to be, the gaps create problems. For a novelist, the gaps create opportunities. So little was known about Rosalie that I could embrace literary license and hopefully tell a story that reveals the experiences of many bright, conflicted women in the 1920s.
SJC: Your previous novels, The Spanish Bow and The Detour, are also historical fiction: the former about a cellist in the early twentieth century in Europe and the latter about a German bureaucrat in Italy during WWII. How did you come to write historical fiction? What are the particular challenges associated with writing historical fiction?
I consider myself an accidental historical novelist. I started out writing The Spanish Bow because I was in love with the cello and admired Casals and wanted to write a musical novel. It turned out that Europe in the early twentieth century was a time when music intersected with politics, the visual arts, and just about everything else.
ARL: I consider myself an accidental historical novelist. I started out writing The Spanish Bow because I was in love with the cello and admired Casals and wanted to write a musical novel. It turned out that Europe in the early twentieth century was a time when music intersected with politics, the visual arts, and just about everything else. I kept diving into history—with that novel and the ones following—because I realized that we are often blind to key issues in our present day, and that writing about parallel issues from the past can be a way of approaching things from a slant, sneaking past our defenses. In other words, the past is suitably defamiliarizing. It allows us to see even our own time more clearly. On top of that, it is simply fascinating. Writing about scientific ethics and difficult marriages in the 1920s, or morality and body image in the 1930s, or idealism and sacrifice in the 1940s, or the problem of caring for a parent in the futuristic year of 2029 (my forthcoming novel) has so far interested me more than writing about those topics set during my own lifetime.
As for the challenges, I’ll pick just one: knowing what to leave out.
SJC: What was one of the most surprising things you learned while creating your books?
ARL: I’ve learned that whether you get a big or small advance, whether you write for a giant or medium or small publisher (I’ve published across those categories), and whether your book seems commercial or esoteric, it’s still the same process. You start with a question, an image, or a scene that starts playing in your head. You block out the doubts and keep going, often with very little encouragement—and it’s best not to need any. The book comes out and people either read it or don’t read it, but within a strangely short time, you’ve forgotten nearly all of the praise and at least some of the criticism. Hopefully, you move on to the next story, because that’s where the excitement is. It is shocking how many published and even well-received and profitable books are forgotten within a few years of publication, but it’s freeing, too. You follow the next idea and try to do something you haven’t done before.
SJC: You are the cofounder of and teach at the nonprofit organization, the 49 Alaska Writing Center. Can you tell us about this organization and its mission?
ARL: We started 49 Writers in 2010 (it was a collaborative blog before that) to bring affordable classes, readings, retreats, and literary programming—all the things we wished our state could have, but didn’t—to communities all across Alaska, a really big state with lots of great writers and even more aspiring writers. The organization has thrived year after year, based on a whole lot of community energy, volunteers, grants, donations, and capable leadership. At this point, I’m only minimally involved, as an occasional blogger and teacher. And that’s the great part: seeing so many people pick up the baton and keep running with it. The best thing I did was co-founding the organization and the second best thing I did was step away so that other people could keep growing it.
SJC: You grew up in Chicago and lived throughout Mexico. Is there a way in which the current controversies about violence in Chicago or the infamous wall between the US and Mexico inform your writing? Does place play a role in shaping your narratives?
ARL: I’m sorry to say that I haven’t yet written anything about Illinois, where I grew up (in a dull suburb, not Chicago, which might have been more memorable) or even Alaska, where I lived for twenty years. But there are other places that have shaped my writing, including Europe (which I started visiting in 1984), Asia (we lived in rural Taiwan in 2014), and Mexico (where we lived until recently, not counting various trips in the 1990s and 2000s). As for current events: I yearn to write something about the violence in Mexico. An idea is pestering me. If I knew Mexico less than I did—I’m still an outsider, it goes without saying—I would probably approach the idea more boldly, but the more you know, the more you realize what could go wrong, narratively and politically speaking, and that hampers the process. Naïveté can be a gift. The first-time novelist feels alone and unsure, but she is in a fantastic position, able to take risks and to ignore all kinds of problems during those sensitive early stages of incubation.
SJC: What are you currently working on?
ARL: The seeds of the next novel, as well as two memoir projects: one about my three years learning Spanish, including living in Mexico (Baja California and Chiapas), and one about a year spent running in all fifty US states while dealing with health and family issues. They are both very much “midlife” books. The great thing about being a writer is that you can take something challenging, like dealing with one’s own aging brain or helping a dying parent, or you can take a dream, like traveling somewhere or doing something outlandish, and give it structure and meaning through narrative. We writers are extremely lucky that way.