Caren Lissner Derek Alger One on One

portrait Caren Lissner

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 86 ~ July, 2004

Caren Lissner’s second novel, Starting From Square Two, was released earlier this year, in March. Starting From Square Two follows the publication in 2002 of Lissner’s first novel, Carrie Pilby (Red Dress, Inc.) to positive reviews about its freshness and clever wit. Lissner is currently at work on a third novel which she says has nothing to do with her first two, as well as a screenplay.Caren Lissner

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, with a degree in English, Lissner was a regular contributor to the Daily Pennsylvanian newspaper. After college. Lissner moved to Northern New Jersey, continuing her fiction writing and satirical writing, as well as working for a newspaper in Hoboken.

Currently, Lissner is editor for a chain of weekly newspapers in Hudson County, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Weatherwise Magazine, just for variety.

Known for her wry sense of humor, Lissner’s online diary, or blog, frequently contains the simple but all encompassing entry: “Woke up, put clothes on, went to work.” It’s enough to keep people coming back to see the rare days when a few more details are added, she notes.

In her limited free time, Lissner enjoys road trips and co-hosts a “nerdy bar trivia game” every Tuesday night at The Baggott Inn.

Derek Alger: I’m not sure where to start, except maybe to say that from your two published novels it’s quite apparent that you have a creative, `what if’ mind.

Caren Lissner: Thanks. I’ve always thought of various `what ifs’ for any situation and wanted to explore them through writing, even when I was young. It’s something I could always rely on. Even when I was 12 and sitting in a corner scribbling in notebooks, I couldn’t help expounding on all the odd situations that formed in my head. In fact, part of me is still 12 years old and scribbling in those notebooks that formed in my head.

DA: Through your character Carrie Pilby in your first novel you tackle the big secret that many worry about, but few admit, the question of fitting in. What was your thinking in coming up with a nineteen-year-old genius, lacking in social skills, confronting the world?

CL: I wanted to look at the world through the eyes of someone who was intellectually aware but not very socially aware. And the truth is, sometimes children are smarter and more sure about things than adults. They don’t compromise or see shades of gray, and that can be good and bad. Kids develop a clear-cut sense of right and wrong that can fade as they get older and are faced with new situations. Carrie is a young genius but has not yet faced compromising situations. After she moves to New York at 19, she has to learn to become much less judgmental of other people, but also figure out the moral tradeoffs she should and should not make to fit in.

DA: Your second novel, Starting from Square Two, also has a strong character forced to observe life from an outside perspective compared to her friends. Writing about a 29-year-old widow is the epitome of being alone.

CL: Yes. Square Two is different, though, in that Gert, the main character, has fit into the world completely before she was widowed. Then all of a sudden, at 29, half of her support network is gone, and she’d had that network since her sophomore year of college. Suddenly she’s alone and has to fit into this new, harsh world — and come to some harsh realizations about herself.

DA: Although you don’t shirk from the dark side of life, you certainly bring wry humor to your writing. It seems you agree with the old adage that “Time plus tragedy equals comedy.”

CL: Thanks. I appreciate it. I’ve managed to find the lightness and humor in some of the challenges these characters face. People have told me they’ve enjoyed the humor. I’m working on a third book that’s not as purposely humorous as Carrie Pilby, and I’m finding that it’s a lot harder. Humor is a little easier for me to write.

DA: I hesitate to bring this up, only because I feel any attempt to put writing in a neat category is never absolute, but what are your impressions or feelings about what has become known as “chick lit?”

CL: While it’s true that generalizations can be limiting, I probably owe my writing career to this one. The “Chick lit” genre didn’t really exist when I started writing Carrie Pilby five years ago, so I definitely didn’t write it to be a `chick lit’ book. But by the time I got it revised and my agent had been sending it around, some publishers were realizing that books about single women trying to figure out their post-college decisions were doing well. My book was bought by Red Dress Ink, a “chick lit” publisher, because it came to them at a time when they wanted to diversify the genre a little. They published 60,000 copies of it, so it got seen by a lot of readers, and I’ve gotten some great feedback on it. I don’t know if there would have been a place for my style of humorous writing about the everyday lives of 20s/30s women otherwise. I don’t mind admitting that such a genre exists — there’s enough chick lit out there that people know that some of it is just fun and some makes you think, and some hopefully does both. My next novel (the one I’m working on now) is not chick lit, and I don’t have a publisher yet, but I have no problem with the genre. If I have another idea for a chick lit book, I’ll write it.

DA: Do you remember always thinking like a writer?

CL: I do. When I was little, I had a very active imagination. I would scribble stories in my notebooks when I was bored during class, and i’d fold over paper to create magazines and comic strips. I liked to spy on people and wonder about their lives. Even today, I’ll get focused on little things, like a colorful string of freight trains or an old sign or oddly shaped building, and I’ll come up with a whole story based on it.

DA: Did your family life growing up have any impact or influence on how you saw the world or prompt you to try and explain the inexplicable through writing.

CL: My family life had its ups and downs like a lot of others, but my writing was a definite constant that I could work on whenever I felt like it. So it helped in that sense. I haven’t drawn upon my family much to write novels so far; that might happen someday. I did draw upon it for a comedy feature film screenplay I just finished about a kid growing up in the `70s and ’80s, called “The Meltdown Years.” I know that this isn’t much of a specific answer, but I don’t want to get into all of my childhood. My parents were creative and encouraged my writing, though, and I lived in the suburbs and had a lot of time to explore.

DA: In college you were involved with the university newspaper, what help or influence was that on your future writing, aside from learning how to meet a deadline?

CL: In journalism, you’re writing about a TOWN budget OR LOCAL CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM and you know no one’s going to read past the second paragraph unless you find a way to draw them in and explain things creatively and clearly. It’s a challenge that’s good to bring to fiction, too.

DA: I suspect you had this ability before, but your five years working as a beat reporter in Hoboken probably intensified your ability to observe the immediacy of life from a somewhat objective distance.

CL: Hoboken is a pretty heated political town. The people who get involved in politics always think they’re the `good guys,’ whichever side they’re on. A lot of them get upset if they’re not the ones in control. I’ve learned to really reserve judgment until I have all the facts, and to look hard for those facts. It definitely helped me hone my observation skills, but I’ve been writing for newspapers and learning about journalism for a long time, too. I even went to a summer newspaper workshop in middle school — I was a nerd, what can I say? Oh wait, I’m still a nerd.

DA: Since this is an online literary site, how could I not ask you about writers and the Internet. So, what have you found beneficial about being a writer who knows the ins and outs of being online?

CL: Having a website ( has been great because so many people have found it and given me feedback on the books. I also link to my tale of how I got published and how beginners can get published, which I think is important because I had my writing rejected for at least 10 years before I sold anything. ( Before I had contacts, it was like stumbling along in the wilderness. When I did begin getting to know editors, it was because they’d rejected something of mine but said, “I like the writing and would love to see whatever you write next.” So it’s a long process, and it’s comforting to know that the hard work can eventually pay off. I’ve learned so much, and despite how low the odds are for getting published, I think people who have the burning desire to get their story out of their brain and onto paper should not be discouraged. Being on-line has also allowed me to meet other writers and like-minded people, and that’s a great thing. Writing can be isolating and sometimes it’s hard to meet people who love it as much as I do.

DA: You might be the perfect person to ask this. For the uninitiated, what is a blog?

CL: A blog is a “web log,” which is sort of a daily on-line journal that you update. I try not to get too personal on mine, because I can be something of a private person, and I don’t want friends of mine to feel like their lives are going to be on the web. But sometimes I’ll post about the writing process, so that people who are interested in that will see what it’s like. A lot of people use their blog to write about their personal life or to rant about politics, and neither of those is the focus of mine, although occasionally I’ll post my observations. It’s fun to read other people’s blogs. I still keep a journal in a regular notebook, and I’ve got journals going back to eighth grade that no one reads but me. So far.

DA: To blog or not to blog, what are the advantages, or the downside, if there is any?

CL: The downside is that sometimes mystery is a good thing. Would Catcher in the Rye be as interesting if we knew every single thing about what Salinger did every day? Blogs can be a great way to communicate with people, and also to let people know if there are readings and new books in the works. But if you’re writing fiction, sometimes people want to wonder how much comes from your real life, and you don’t want to pre-empt yourself and your next book by putting every single aspect of your life on the web.

DA: Your daily mantra of “Woke up, put on clothes, went to work” on your blog has become legendary among your readers.

CL: Thanks. Well, those are all true things that happen. Plus, I think it’s better than writing 1,000-word screeds on say, how I feel about Reagan’s death when others can do it better.

DA: I hope your next blog entry will be “Woke up, put on clothes, went to work, came home and loved reading my interview with PIF?”

CL: What makes you think I ain’t gonna read it at work? Silly boy. Really, thanks! I appreciate the interview, and keep up the great work at PIF!!