For most writers, Laura Pedersen’s first act alone would have been a dream come true—hitting Wall Street at 18, managing millionaire status by 21, writing a memoir, snagging a gig with the financial section of the New York Times, and authoring several financial advice books. Not a bad start, yet Pedersen tends to shrug off her good fortune. She admits simply a knack for gambling and a desire to move past the “starving artist in a garret” thing by looking into investing and hoping for something lucrative. That she did so at an age that meant success would set her up for life is to her credit. She was so admired for her achievements that Bill Clinton, in 1994, honored her as an Outstanding Young American.
Pedersen’s fortune has continued her in new career, that of writer and novelist. Though her first book, the non-fiction Wall Street memoir, Play Money, was already on the shelves, Pedersen’s heart was set on writing fiction. Again, raw dedication paid off when, as a student at Columbia University sending out manuscripts to publishers, she got her first fiction book deal resulting in the publication of Going Away Party. Laura Pedersen entrepreneur had become Laura Pedersen novelist. She followed up Going Away Party with the aptly titled Beginner’s Luck, a coming-of-age story that introduced a recurring character in Hallie Palmer, a gambling expert and high school drop out who seeks refuge from her misguided family at the eccentric Stockton house. (Pedersen admits similarities between Hallie and herself.) Next in line was Last Call, a portrait of a grandfather, grandson, and daughter who deal with love, family, and death in Brooklyn. In Pedersen’s latest book, Heart’s Desire Hallie is back, continuing her own journey into adulthood.
Pedersen’s fan base is strong. She’s popular with fans of literature and commercial fiction, as well as the YA crowd, and even has a gay following due to certain key characters in her Hallie Palmer books. Even with this level of support, she refuses to rest on her laurels. Certain issued raised in her book suggest a desire to do more than simply satisfy a growing readership. Her books are havens for explication on various pertinent issues, including assisted suicide and reproductive freedom (something Pedersen attributes to her upbringing in the Unitarian Universalist church, known for attention to social problems and inclusion of minorities.) At the same time, though, Pedersen could be criticized for resisting the sort of thought-provoking analysis that would give her books the rhetorical weight of, for example, Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. PopMatters spoke with Pedersen about the weight of her stories, regional accents, and girl called Hallie.
PopMatters: Your career as a writer seems sharply divided between nonfiction memoir and financial writings and what has been called “endearing comic fiction.” Do you see your careers as related or separate? Was it a gradual change or was there a turning point, personally or professionally, that you could tell us about?
Laura Pedersen: I’m always going back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. I enjoyed writing columns and stories for the New York Times for 10 years. I’ve just finished a humorous memoir about growing up in Buffalo during the energy crisis that’s nonfiction. Every so often I’ll write a short story while experimenting to see if an idea has legs to become a novel—Last Call started life as a short story that won a prize in a literary journal. I’d say that I’ve closed the chapter on financial writing, aside from signing checks, as you really need to keep up with everything that’s happening on the global political stage and determine how it will impact the economy.
When I finished high school I didn’t start writing fiction because the starving artist route wasn’t all that appealing. My mother went back to school when I was eight and closed the kitchen, and growing up in a cold place during a gas shortage meant the temperature in our house rarely rose above 60 degrees. Therefore by the time I moved to Manhattan at age 18 I felt as if I’d done the whole coldwater-flat-eating-beans-out-of-cans thing. I had a knack for gambling that I thought might be easily translatable to the stock market and so I went to Wall Street for the same reason that Willie Sutton claimed he robbed banks—that’s where the money was. Once I’d earned enough for heat and fresh vegetables I began to write what I enjoyed.
PM: Do you think you’ll write nonfiction again, and how has the writing process been different for you?
LP: For me the drawback in writing nonfiction is all the research that’s involved. Writing fiction is basically getting paid to lie, to tell real whoppers, which is of course much easier than searching the dusty stacks of libraries for the mating habits of the fruit fly. I’m such a lazy researcher that one reason I keep the novels set close to where I grew up is so that I don’t have to look up any birds, trees, or flowers. I remember a few from being a kid and around when the seasons began to change. It’s safe to say that you won’t be seeing a novel set in an ashram in Jabalpur, India, from me anytime soon. However I don’t consider myself lazy when it comes to working on my plots and characters because that’s something I really enjoy. And I tend to include people in the books who I think would be a lot of fun to have around. These characters live in my head for months on end and so I need them to be for the most part pleasant, kindhearted, and enormously entertaining. I also steal from a few colorful friends.
PM: Beginner’s Luck and Heart’s Desire both take place in Ohio, in the American Midwest. Often in popular fiction, the Midwest is posed as the heartland, a place that is traditional, conservative or reserved, but the Hallie Palmer books paint quite a different, quirky and colorful picture. Was it your intent to play with convention here?
LP: I grew up in a small town in upstate New York during the 1970s, under the dark architectural cloud of urban renewal at the height of the Folk Music Scare, and finally moved to Manhattan in 1983, a few months after I turned 18. I know that geographically Buffalo is located in the Northeast of the United States. However, I’ve taken the liberty of reclassifying it as the Midwest, at least during the time I was living there. Certainly back then it had much more in common with Cincinnati, Des Moines, and Moline than Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
Furthermore, Buffalonians sound much more like Midwesterners than New Yorkers. Living with all that dampness we’re somewhat nasal-voiced. And most of us suffer from a disease of the vowels, flattening them out to the point where they can be walked across, in particular the letter “a”. What would be pronounced as “ferry” in most places, to rhyme with Ireland’s County Kerry, comes out as “fairy” in upstate New York.
Perhaps the age and place can best be summed up with an expression that was popular at the time: “Never return an empty tray.” Mothers passed on this turn of phrase to their daughters. In other words, when there was a function or a funeral and people brought casseroles and baked goods in glassware, and finger foods arranged on china serving platters, they placed a piece of masking tape on the bottom of the dish with their name printed on it. Not only was the dish returned clean, but usually filled with another homemade item such as sticky buns, oatmeal cookies, or an apple brown betty. Another common courtesy was that if you were in the supermarket and discovered that a coupon you’d brought along wasn’t needed you placed it on a shelf near the product so that some other homemaker could take advantage of the savings.
The fictional town where the Hallie Palmer books take place is located in the Northeast corner of Ohio, and so it’s really only about a three-hour drive from where I was raised. And, indeed, the majority of the citizenry are conservative and patriotic Midwesterners—neighbors with their American flags flying out front and a devotion to the grapevine. A town where the police chief spends most of his time answering calls about keys locked in cars and cats up trees, and a church every few blocks. However, it was my experience that in all the surrounding small towns, in every neighborhood, and even on every street, there was usually a family or person that stood out—the woman who painted her door a bright purple or the guy who was always practicing casting off his roof but never actually went fishing. The contrast is definitely that much greater in the midst of folk moving in lockstep with regard to their moral compass and behavioral patterns.
PM: Hallie endeavors to replace her family of birth with a family she chooses, a popular theme in current American popular culture. However, the mother-son relationship we see in the Stockton family is unusual in a different way, less strained or oppositional than we often see in mother-son portrayals. Can you tell us more about your nontraditional literary families?
LP: As Gil likes to point out about Bernard and Olivia (Bernard’s mother), the reason they argue all the time is because they’re so much alike, meaning they’re both very passionate about life in general and protective when the things they care for most are threatened. As it happens, they have slightly different causes dear to their hearts (Olivia’s are usually social issues while Bernard is concerned with finding the inspiration to be your best self through interaction with beautiful objects and fine food). In my experience, most of us turn out not all that unlike our parents, especially after having children of our own. And so I think Bernard and Olivia are probably a good example of this. And in my novel, Last Call, Diana and her father Hayden are a similar case in point. I enjoy working with parent/adult child relationships because they’re filled with so many challenges, and the people who bring out the very best and worst in each other are usually the ones who love each other and care for each other the most.
PM: Stephen King wrote in On Writing that commercial authors are rarely asked about their craft or technique the way more literary writers are. Do you see yourself in that statement? Do you feel your work is characterized as women’s fiction, and would you agree or disagree with the label, and the practice of labeling fiction? Do you see your audience as mainly female?
LP: It’s funny that you should ask that question because there’s always been a problem in categorizing my work. Beginner’s Luck, for instance, has had a large young adult crossover and is on many high school reading lists, but this can make a publisher nervous because that’s a different market. We have been using the blanket term “women’s fiction,” though people then ask if it’s chick-lit. And whenever I do a reading there are always a number of men who show up and they’ve enjoyed the books. Beginner’s Luck and Heart’s Desire also have a “gay fiction” crossover because Bernard, the other main character aside from Hallie, invites her to live with him and his lover, and it’s in their home where most of the action takes place. Older women tell me they identify with Olivia, Bernard’s mother, because she isn’t your stereotypical 60-something doddering grandmother type who is just a foil for the family
to work their problems and jokes off of. Olivia is intelligent, attractive, and she has an active love life. People actually seek out her advice. And she’s the one who remembers Eleanor Roosevelt’s column, “My Day”, and cultural milestones from the 1950s and ‘60s that older readers would know about. End result, I don’t worry about categories. My goal is to write books that I’d enjoy reading, [and] about characters I would like to spend time with, and to incorporate a lot of humor.
PM: Both Hallie Palmer books address social justice issues like homophobia, religious tolerance, and reproductive freedom. I was struck by the ways in which these topics were woven into the narrative, so that they were both unobtrusive but explicit nonetheless. Do you see your writing as social justice work? How is it connected to your Unitarian background? Do you see it as unusual for your genre, or as an aspect of your work that is overlooked?
LP: I probably engage in a broader social agenda than most writers of fiction these days. And yes, it’s probably a result of being raised Unitarian. I was up at the local Unitarian church just this past Sunday and they were busy with relief programs for the hurricane victims in addition to all the usual petitions, protests, committees, letters to congress, and so on. In the novels I do try to be subtle. If I wanted to write political treatises then I would just do so and not attempt to mask them as fiction. Thus my idea here, particularly where young people are concerned, is to encourage them to become passionate about something as they grow older, and to think about making a difference, even if it’s volunteering an hour a week teaching children to read. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the problems in the world, but change is possible. I’ve seen substantial progress in the fight against poverty and deadly disease and civil rights in my own lifetime (not that we don’t have a long way to go). And don’t forget to vote!
PM: What’s next for Hallie Palmer?
LP: The third book in the Hallie Palmer series is called Full House, and that’s scheduled to come out in November 2006. It’s the most serious book so far. Hallie’s father dies and she has to return home for a time and help pull the family together, though I certainly hope it’s not without the customary humor. I’ve just finished a stand alone novel called Fool’s Mate. The unusual name comes from a very aggressive chess opening where the queen dominates for a quick checkmate (usually four moves). It’s a romantic comedy that explores our fascination with smart, powerful women and the tradeoffs and stereotypes associated with being one in today’s complicated world. And now I’m starting Best Bet, which will be the fourth and final book in the Hallie Palmer series. It will end when Hallie is about 21, which happens to be the year I started to get incredibly boring, and so that seems like a good place to wrap things up.