Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is the author of Pastors’ Wives, a new novel from Penguin/Plume, and The Ordained, a 2013 CBS drama pilot. Previously, she was a staff writer for Time magazine.
I’m a mom, so I write between school drop-off and pick-up!
By which I mean I check e-mail, scroll through Facebook and Twitter, snort-laugh
at pictures of grumpy cats, take a yoga class, eat lunch—then, with forty-five
minutes to go, write like mad with sweat streaming down my face.
When you are writing,
do you use any famous people or people you know as inspiration?
Like many writers, I’m obsessed with other writers’
processes. How do they do it? How do they churn out 3,000 words a day? How do
they wake up at 5 a.m. and go till the Colbert Report? Invariably, the answer
is that they don’t have children. Or, if they do, they also have a wife. So
when I find word of an author who manages to deliver lovely prose while
parenting—Jennifer Egan (“A Visit From the Goon Squad”) and Maria Semple
(“Where’d You Go Bernadette”), for example—I’m filled with gratitude and
What is your
favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
A.S. Byatt’s “Possession.” It’s on the literary side, but at
its heart it’s a gorgeous love story. Also: “The Piano Teacher” by Janice Y.K.
Lee: also literary, but a heart-wrenching love story set in war-torn Hong Kong.
I just re-read “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and laughed so hard I cried. I resisted
reading Emily Giffin’s “Something Borrowed” for ages because it was so popular,
but I nearly ripped the pages off flying through it. Same for Jennifer Weiner’s
“Good in Bed.” Oh, my, that lady’s funny.
What is your writing
process? Do you plan first or dive in? How many drafts do you do?
As a longtime journalist, I am an obsessive reporter and
outliner. Before I write word one, I have to map out my plan in great detail.
This is because making stuff up is really, really hard, and I find myself
relying on my journalism tools so I don’t break down in despair.
The truth is I don’t know how many drafts I do, because I
edit compulsively while I’m writing, and I only create new Word documents when I
have a new set of notes from my agent or editor. But suffice it to say A LOT.
What was your journey
to being a published author?
My first book, “Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New
American Way of Death,” was about weird and wonderful funerals and burials. I
traveled around the United States to see how cremated remains are made into
diamonds; learn how bodies are buried au naturel in an environmentally friendly
cemetery; and attend countless colorful funerals to which I was not necessarily
invited. It came about because I wrote an article on the topic in Time
magazine, where I was a staff writer for many years.
My second book is also my first novel, “Pastors’ Wives.”
It’s set in an evangelical megachurch in the American South. A megachurch, for
those who haven’t experienced one or seen one on TV, looks like a stadium
hosting thousands of worshipers, and holds services that resemble rock concerts
with smoke machines and Jumbotrons. I got to know megachurches and pastors’
wives for an article I wrote about them in Time. Growing up Catholic, I had
never given pastors’ wives much thought before. But the women I met were
complicated, poignant and fascinating. The question popped into my head: What’s it like when the man you married is
married to God?
What do you think is
the biggest myth about being a novelist?
That we do it because we love to write! I think a lot of
people romanticize the writing process. These are the people who say, “Oh, I love to write. You’re so lucky you get
to make a living doing it!” They are so right: I am lucky, and I thank my stars for that. But to me, it’s work. It’s
labor. And I do mean labor, like giving birth. Remember that feeling? That
mess? Yeah. Not to be gross, but that’s me, on my productive days.
The only reason to
write a novel is because you have a story you can’t not tell. I mean a story that lives in your heart and takes over
your brain so that its characters talk to you while you’re chopping up the
onions and plot twists come to you as you’re sitting at the stop light and you
come to only when the cars behind you start to honk. For no other reason should
you embark upon this bloody, painful business.
What advice can you
give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
Know your story before you start to write; research the snot
out of it; and outline, outline, outline! Recently, at an author event, a young
lady came up to me and told me she disagreed with this advice—that if she
thought too much about plot or where she’d end up, she’d just constrain her
inner voice. Everybody’s different; maybe that works for her. Just because she
hasn’t yet published doesn’t mean she never will.
But it’s my belief that if you write, you should write to
publish. And if you want to publish, you must first pitch. Even in this
enlightened age of self-publishing, most new authors benefit from the help of
an agent and/or publisher, and to acquire that, you must first hook them with
an intriguing set-up, fascinating characters and a fabulous plot.
So my advice is to spend as much time, if not more, thinking about your story as writing it.
What are you working
on at the moment?
I write TV pilots as well as novels. CBS recently produced
my drama pilot, “The Ordained,” about an ex-priest who becomes a lawyer to
protect his New York political family from a deadly plot. It starred Charlie
Cox, Sam Neill, Hope Davis, Audra McDonald, and Jorge Garcia. It was very
exciting (and very, very cold!) to film the pilot in New York City; our
locations included the Waldorf Hotel, the State Supreme Court and outside Yankee
Stadium. But alas, CBS didn’t include it on the fall line-up. So right now I’m
gearing up for my next season of pilot pitching.
My third book and next novel is once again inspired by an
article I wrote while I was a Tokyo correspondent for Time magazine. It’s
called “Okinawa Nights,” and it’s a murder mystery set on a tropical island in
the south of Japan, the site of a huge sprawl of American military bases ever
since World War II. It’s about a young reporter (hmm, sounds familiar) working
for a New York-based news magazine (hmm, also familiar) who investigates a rape
and murder of a local Okinawa girl for which an American serviceman has been
accused. I hope you’ll check it out!