Telling a Good Story: A Conversation with Lisa Lenzo

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In 1997, acclaimed author Ann Beattie chose Lisa Lenzo’s first story collection Within the Lighted City for the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and it was published by University of Iowa Press. Lenzo’s novel-in-stories Strange Love (Wayne State University Press) captured a 2015 Michigan Notable Book Award. Her other honors include a Hemingway Days Festival Award, a PEN/Syndicated Fiction Project Award, and First Place for Fiction in the 2017 Literature & Medicine Writing Contest.

The stories in Lisa Lenzo’s first book, as well as her new collection Unblinking, are mostly set in Detroit, a city the author regards as both hometown and muse. In these ten stories, she paints Detroit as a place of beauty and grit, and like America itself, a place with complex attitudes towards race, politics, class, aging, people with disabilities, and more.

Lenzo says that much of what she writes could be categorized as autobiographical fiction because her inspiration comes from some of the real life characters and situations she has observed. From the sanctuary of her home in Laketown, Michigan, where she writes from a hammock, surrounded by the natural beauty of trees, fruit bushes, and flowers, she continues to cast an eye back to her beloved Detroit, no doubt in search of her next story.

It was my pleasure to speak with Lenzo recently about her writing process, the role of place in Unblinking, and writing diverse characters.

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The Rumpus: I like to think about a book’s title as I’m reading, especially a collection where one piece bears the book’s title. In many of the stories in this new collection, I noticed the (metaphorical) ideas of blinking, or not blinking, or remaining steadfastly unblinking. In some stories, there are moments that can be missed easily if a character (and in a way, too, the reader) looks away, or doesn’t look closely enough, or won’t look at something in an emotional sense. For me, the title is both description and warning. Was this your intention? What else can you tell us about this choice of title?

Lisa Lenzo: I see it as descriptive; I hadn’t thought of it as a warning. But I like it when people see more in my work than I do. I chose “Unblinking” as the title because it’s intriguing and because there is at least one character in each of these stories who is unblinking: who is looking closely and carefully at what is happening—or has happened, in retrospect—without blinking or looking away. In “In the White Man’s House,” Tremaine blinks when he walks out of the freak tent where he sees a black man being displayed, and he blinks again when he leaves Jay, his schizophrenic friend, and doesn’t return to visit him again, but in coming to terms with and telling us what he has seen and done, Tremaine is unblinking in his approach. Of course there is also the literal meaning of unblinking, which comes from a central character in the title story who can no longer blink due to Parkinson’s—and who also doesn’t blink in a metaphorical sense, at least not too often.

Rumpus: The first half of the book kept me off balance in a good way—there’s a strong element of not knowing what to expect from one story to the next. The stories in the second half feel more connected (some literally, others by theme or location); this progression intrigued me and made me think about overall structural and narrative design, and what kinds of decisions the short fiction author makes as a collection begins to coalesce. I wonder if you can address that ordering here, and the way the first half differs, and perhaps even prepares a reader, for the second half?

Lenzo: The thread holding all of these stories together is that they all are either set in or at least touch upon Detroit. I began with a story whose first scene draws the reader in: a young black man who wishes his parents weren’t so affluent surreptitiously snapping off a piece of his mother’s chandelier. And I ended with my longest and perhaps most memorable story. As in my first collection, there is only one story whose main character is an angel. I placed it early, before the reader’s expectations are set as to what the collection will hold. I didn’t want the reader coming across an angel and thinking, Where the hell did this come from? And then I followed the angel story with a story told by god—because they make a good pairing. I tried to place each story so that it opens nicely into the next. One way that the first stories prepare the reader for the following stories is that race, disability, Detroit, family, and even angels or ghosts show up both in the early stories and in the later ones.

Rumpus: I’m glad you mentioned that “race, disability, Detroit, family, and even angels or ghosts show up…” For me, it’s a pleasure to encounter fiction set in the American Midwest instead of New York or Los Angeles. Besides having a personal connection to the area, what makes this region so integral to your short fiction? The place feels like a character of its own. Does the city/region feel that way to you as well? How much of an influence did place have on the stories as you wrote?

Lenzo: Place is very important in my fiction—whether it’s Detroit, where I lived for almost all of my childhood, or southwestern Michigan, where I moved when I was eighteen. But Detroit is a more complicated place for me to understand and write about, largely because of race, class, and politics, and also because being a teenager was more difficult for me than being an adult. I’m now writing what is essentially a coming-of-age novel—something most writers tackle when they are in their twenties—because it took me forty years to reach a point where I felt I could approach Detroit’s complexity in a novel and succeed.

Rumpus: You also noted above that the first story, “In the White Man’s House” is told in first person from the PoV of Tremaine, a black teenager in the mid-1970s. With so much conversation lately about authors writing characters and stories that are not in their own personal experience (and if they have the right to do that), I’m curious about how you approached this. What was it about Tremaine that made you want to write from his PoV? Did you have any misgivings at first?

Lenzo: With any group or individual I write about, I try to be respectful, and to not write beyond my limitations. You mention that there is “so much conversation about authors writing characters and stories that are not in their own personal experience.” But black people were part of my experience as I was growing up. My childhood neighborhood, integrated when my family first moved there, grew increasingly black (and poor) due to white flight. When I was in tenth grade at Highland Park High, the student population was more than 99% black, and I was often the only white person in my classes. Tremaine and the other black teens in “In the White Man’s House” are loosely based on two of my childhood friends. I feel I knew them well enough to attempt to portray them—and that, growing up where I did, if I wrote stories about a white girl growing up in suburbia, I could more accurately be accused of cultural appropriation. White suburbia didn’t form and inform me from a young age. Even though I was an outsider, urban and black culture did.

Rumpus: I’m not sure I’ve ever read a collection with so many characters in wheelchairs and/or dealing with disabilities of various kinds. The first thing that struck me about those characters in Unblinking is that their disabilities matter and are a part of who they are, but are not entirely what makes each character or story interesting. As you were writing, which came first—the stories or the characters? Do you approach your fiction with the intention to include disabled characters?

Lenzo: In part I write about people with disabilities because I want to show them as unique and as admirable human beings, although not in stereotypical ways. I also want to show that their disabilities define them to a degree but not completely. My brother Kris, whose legs were amputated following a factory accident when he was nineteen, now dances, in and out of his wheelchair, in a semi-professional dance company. My brother Peter, whose epilepsy has resulted in damage to both his brain and his body, is a nationally acclaimed ceramicist whose work is in a number of private collections and museums, including the Smithsonian. My father suffered from Parkinson’s for the last twelve years of his life, but he led a full life before that, and even as his illness disabled him, he still enjoyed living. Because of these and other people in my life, including disabled characters in my fiction comes naturally to me.

Rumpus: There are so many memorable characters in this book: Mason, the wheelchair-bound blues musician from “Up in the Air,” the ill and aging, eponymous woman in “Lorelei,”  to name just two. What inspired them? Did you “know” these characters before placing them in the story? Or do you tend to develop the character(s) as the narrative unfolds?

Lenzo: I tend to know a lot about a character before creating a story, but he or she continues to develop as the story unfolds. Mason is a composite character made up of four different people, three of whom I know personally and one I’d only heard of—a friend of my brother Kris who fell from a tree while high and ended up paralyzed. The character Lorelei is very close to an actual woman I knew, whom I was at first repulsed by but ended up becoming very fond of, despite our differences. Delia, the hard-drinking, twice-divorced woman who has an autistic son in “I’ll Be Your Witness,” was created mostly by students in a class I taught—we each came up with a characteristic, which I wrote on the board, and then we each chose from this smorgasbord to create our own particular person. The characters based on my family are very close to the actual people, but I still make up entire conversations and incidents that never happened. Once my youngest brother read a story I wrote and said, “Oh, yeah, I remember that conversation.” And I said, “You do not! I made all of that up! I worked hard creating that dialogue!” Of course, as you know from being a nonfiction writer, choosing and shaping and writing about what actually happened is also hard work.

Rumpus: Ralph and Rosie, a long-married couple facing Ralph’s fast-declining health, appear in “Unblinking” and then again in “Marching,” the second time with their daughter Annie, a character the reader has already seen in “Lorelei.” There is such lovely tenderness in the physical interactions and the conversations between daughter and both aging parents, yet it’s not sentimental; the scenes of caring for the bodily functions of her incapacitated dad are rendered with dignity. What were you hoping the story would say on this complex subject of watching (and helping prepare for) a parent’s demise?

Lenzo: I wanted to show this man, who is based on my father, being a kind of hero—marching for civil rights at a time when people were being killed for doing so. But, as my oldest brother reminds me, the largest part of our dad was that he was our devoted father, both ordinary and extraordinary, as well as flawed. I wanted to show this man, and those around him, as he faces and prepares for death.

Rumpus: In “Marching,” Annie finally gets around to asking her father for details about his participation, as a younger, able-bodied white man, in the Montgomery-Selma marches; in “Unblinking,” before that, Ralph falls from his wheelchair during an evening stroll, and Rosie asks four young black men passing by to help pick him up. There’s such interesting symmetry and symbolism in all of that, but I admired your light touch on the material. When you’re writing short fiction, how much do you think about and write/revise in terms of metaphor, symbolism, or theme(s)?

Lenzo: I mostly try to tell a good story, and then as I revise, I pay attention to metaphor and symbolism and try to develop them in a natural way. The two writing teachers I was with the longest and who helped me the most are Stuart Dybek and Jaimy Gordon. Once, many years ago, I was struggling with how to put symbolism into a story and I asked Stu how to go about it. He told me that you don’t have to “put” symbolism into a story—it occurs naturally, he said, but then you have to help uncover and shape it. Another time, when I was struggling with how to end a story, Jaimy told me that everything I needed was in it, but that the story ended too quickly. Her suggestion on how to fix that? “Write a beautiful page.” Of course I grumbled to myself about her instruction not being specific. But then I sank back into the story, and I ended up writing one of my best endings. So I guess the short answer is I try to trust the material, myself, and other writers who help to guide me.

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Photograph of Lisa Lenzo by Charlie Schreiner.


Lisa Romeo is the author of the memoir Starting with Goodbye (University of Nevada Press, 2018). Her short work is listed in Best American Essays 2018 and 2016 and has been published in the New York Times, Longreads, Brevity and many other places. She teaches in the Bay Path University MFA program. More from this author →