Writer Elizabeth Searle talks with a rapid-fire cadence, has an engaging laugh, and an optimistic sparkle to her eyes. But beneath this lies a writer who is interested in the darker side of American culture; the side obsessed with competition and winning at all costs. According to her website she is :
“ … the author of two works of theater and four books of fiction: CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE, a novella and stories; A FOUR-SIDED BED, a novel nominated for an American Library Association Book Award and MY BODY TO YOU, a story collection that won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize and a 2011 novel, GIRL HELD IN HOME. The New York Times Book Review called her novella Celebrities in Disgrace “a miniature masterpiece.” Elizabeth Searle’s and Michael Teoli’s Rock Opera, TONYA & NANCY THE ROCK OPERA– as well as her and Abigail Al-Doory Cross’ original opera, TONYA AND NANCY: THE OPERA– have drawn worldwide media attention. Searle’s short stories have appeared in magazines such as PLOUGHSHARES, REDBOOK, NEW ENGLAND REVIEW AGNI, and KENYON REVIEW and in anthologies such as LOVERS and DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME. Elizabeth has taught fiction writing at Brown, Emerson College, Bennington MFA, Stonecoast MFA, and the University of Massachusetts (Visiting Writer, 2007-08). She served for over a decade on the Executive Board of PEN/New England and founded the Erotic PEN readings. She teaches at Stonecoast MFA…”
I talked with Searle on my Somerville Community Access TV show: Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.
Doug Holder: You are a novelist, and playwright. Which do you identify with the most?
Elizabeth Searle: I like to jump. I am a hyper sort of person. For years I would have said fiction right away. But theatre has always been an interest of mine. And I have spent a great deal of time on the Tonya and Nancy opera. It is a show based on the famous knee attack on Nancy Kerrigan that Tonya Harding was suspected of being behind. It is one of the top rated sports events of all time. It is a scandal that I followed breathlessly. To me it has so many themes of America. It is an Only in America story. We created it as a sort of black comedy. We produced it both as a rock opera and an opera. Both productions seemed to get a lot of media, and we have gotten good reviews too. The Boston Herald gave us a very good notice, and a lot of good media outlets like The Boston Globe covered us.
DH: How did you get the idea for this opera?
ES: My niece was studying at Tufts University. And she wanted to do a short opera as her final project. She asked me for help in coming up with an idea. And I came up with this idea partly because I have written about Tonya and Nancy in my novel Celebrities in Disgrace. So when I thought of an opera—I thought that their story has all the emotions—the whole range. We had greatly talented and professional people involved with this. It was presented at the Zero Arrow Theatre in Harvard Square—a theatre associated with the American Repertory Theatre. So now I relate to a lot of theatre writing. Now-this may not make the Met, but, hey, there are a lot of strange operas out there by Philip Glass, John Adams, etc… Recently some people invited me to the Tony Award ceremonies—which was thrilling—so who knows?
DH: Some writers say teaching detracts from their work—others say it adds to it. Your take?
ES: I think it is a great job to have as a writer. You can’t beat the hours. Yes, it is a lot of work, a lot of reading. But luckily I have taught at programs where the students are talented so I can enjoy the reading of their work. Stonecoast where I have taught for 10 years is great in this way because we get students of all backgrounds, ages, and they are talented. Sure it takes a lot of creative energy to teach, but the hours are such that I can be with my husband and children.
DH: You studied at Brown University—any mentors that you can mention?
ES: John Hawkes—the great American writer. I was in a small class with just five people—so it was memorable experience. I also was influenced by Robert Coover. I did my undergraduate time at Oberlin College. Field Magazine was situated there and it was a great time to be a creative writing major. This was a time when a lot of programs didn’t have a presence like that.
DH: I know back in the day you were in writing groups with writers like Debra Spark, and Jessica Treadway. Both are writers that I have interviewed. How important were for you? Are they still?
ES: My writing groups are still important to me. In my heyday of writing groups I had two great girl groups that included Debra and Jessica. I am involved with a writers’ group that has two members from the program at Brown University when I attended.
DH: You were the Vice-Chair of PEN NEW ENGLAND for a while. What was your role there?
ES: I was on the Executive Board for 10 years. I was also secretary and I helped run the children’s program they had. We had a book fair at the Boston Medical Center—and we gave free books out to the public. We had this event where we sat at a typewriter and would type up things kids would dictate to us—and then make them into books.
DH: You often write about ambitious women that are preoccupied with fame and hunger for attention. Is this in anyway like you?
ES: Oh sure. I am a very practical person. So I realize fame is a very rare thing in the literary world. I am an ambitious writer—I mean I published four books. In my own life I wouldn’t act out in the ways my characters do. However those dark emotions are very American, and I am fascinated with them.
DH: How are these dark undercurrents American?
ES: Our culture is obsessed with winning and competition. I think in a way it runs the American engine, but in another way it is out of control. There is a yin and yang-a good and bad.