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An Interview with Lisa Lutz and David Hayward, Authors of Heads You Lose

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You know that writing project everyone seems to have done at least once where you and at least one other person takes turn writing a story with the rule that you can’t change what the other person has written but rather must continue that story? The fun part being the co-authors might change or alter the story’s path in ways you might not have expected.

Well, that device is not only tried and true – I’ve used it to do collaborative writing exercises at newsvine, my usual haunt – but, as this book demonstrated, can also work well when done by a professional best-selling writer.

I should admit, I suppose, that I approached this book with some hesitation. I have championed Lisa Lutz; I interviewed her for each of her great Spellman series books and promoted her in other interviews.

So why was I hesitant? Two reasons – jealousy (she was writing with another guy – one of her many exes – the protagonist refers in her books to each guy she meets as a possible future ex – and it wasn’t me) and concern that this book would not be as much fun as her others, which I’ve compared to a female Donald Westlake or – stealing one site’s description of her in a tag she said she likes as “Nancy Drew after a bottle of Jack Daniels,”

Well, I’m here to report this book is, of course, different from her solo projects, but still fun. The fun, as with this collaborative normally, comes in how one author will change the story in a way that frustrates or amuses the other. But when you factor that these are two exes who appear at times to be settling old scores by killing off characters it’s hilarious.

As I tell her and him in the interview that follows my favorite parts of the books are the footnotes  (she has long used footnotes in amusing ways but in this case it’s to take potshots at her co-author) and the notes between the authors in between chapters.

For example, she criticizes him for showing off his vocabulary and asks him to lower his level of word choice. Thus his next chapter, in much larger type than in the rest of the book, begins this way:

“Terry was cutting the pretty plants. Cut, cut, cut, went the scissors… Paul felt tired. He drove his truck to the house. Irving the cat was on the porch. He was eating a dead bat. Chomp, chomp, chomp, went Irving. Paul petted Irving. “Hello, Irving,” said Paul. “Meow, said Irving.

Dave then writes Lisa: “Lisa, here you go. Hope you were able to follow along without pictures.”

She replies, “My thoughts, in chronological order: 1. Fuck you. 2. Seriously, fuck you…. 4. What was I thinking collaborating with an unpublished narcissistic poet? 5. We’re sunk three months into this and there’s still a mystery to solve.”

Around this point in the book Lutz starts to suggest she should have worked with other authors instead of David but, in the end, the mystery was solved and these two authors don’t kill each other.

You can hear the two authors talking about the project here.

They are starting a book tour together and it should be hilarious – if this traveling road show comes to your town I’d highly suggest checking it out. For more information check out their web site for the book here and you can read an excerpt, as well as the rules and the reasoning for the project’s format. Also an enjoyable read at that site is her piece “A Tale of Two Copyeditors.”

How did the idea come about for this book i.e. alternating chapters?

Lisa: I came up with the idea for the book from the premise that collaborations are ugly, unpleasant endeavors. And I’ve always been baffled by the crime-writing duos who make it work. But when I started to imagine what it might be like to expose the conflicts, to use them in the story, I thought we could actually do something new and it could ultimately tell more than one story. The alternating chapters gave each author a voice that couldn’t be diminished by the other.

Had either of you written in that way before?

Lisa:  No way, Jose.

David: I’m an editor, so I have a lot of experience with critical back-and-forth and all the delicate ego considerations that go along with it. But no, I’ve never done anything like this.

What was the best and worst part of collaborating in this way?

David: The best part was the unpredictability—what Lisa came up with and how she responded to my chapters. The worst part was the unpredictability — what Lisa came up with and how she responded to my chapters.

Lisa: The worst part was waiting for Dave to finish his chapters. He takes forever. However, I loved working on something different. We were doing something new, but I was also aware that we were doing something kind of insane, and that was really liberating.

David, those of us who have read Lisa’s books and interviewed her may think we know her – how different is she really from that persona?  Lisa, before you object to that question feel free to dish on David.

David: Before writing Heads You Lose, I considered myself an expert on the Lutz persona and its likeness to Lisa the person. Now I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. That said, if you combined one part Isabel Spellman, one part Don Rickles, and one part Muhammad Ali, you wouldn’t be not too far off.

Lisa: Why thanks, Dave. That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said about me. As for dirt on Dave: you’ve seen the highbrow grammarian; but trust me there’s a low he can sink to that you can’t possibly imagine.

I found myself, reading this collaborating, looking forward most of all to the footnotes and the exchanges between you two in between chapters. Were those fun to do or were you as frustrated as you sometimes appeared. David, what IS your obsession with Monopoly (there are multiple references to it in his chapters) and trying to use higher level vocabulary words than Lisa?

David: The notes to each other were the easiest part. I wouldn’t say they wrote themselves, but we expended a lot more energy reining them in and toning down their hostility than creating them in the first place. Similarly, the “vocabulary gap” wasn’t so much a matter of effort as it was of resisting the urge to go even further over the top with it. I can’t defend the Monopoly thing, other than to say I knew it would infuriate, er, inspire Lisa.

Lisa: Let’s be honest. Dave didn’t know then or now what the hell he was doing with the Monopoly thing. As for the notes and the meta-fiction in the chapters, that’s how we managed to remain friends throughout the collaboration. We exorcized all our interpersonal demons through the book.

Lisa, what is the status of the Spellman series? When’s the next one coming? Can you give Spellman fans a peak into what’s planned for them for the next book or two? 

David, what do you think of the Spellman books?

Lisa: I have just finished the first draft of Trail of the Spellmans (#5). It should be out in spring 2012. As you know, the Spellman books tend to have numerous storylines; I wouldn’t know where to begin. Let’s just say the book is very surveillance-oriented and follows the continued evolution of the Spellman family. But I’ll give you one nugget: Rae becomes an environmental activist.

David: I loved the firs 14 Spellman books, but I think they started getting a little formulaic after S Is for Spellmans.

Was it hard to stick to rule of not changing the other writer’s copy?

David: It was brutal, especially for Lisa, as readers will discover. It’s hard to have a little bit of control over something while knowing you’ll never have total control. But that’s life.

Lisa: I have no problems with the way Dave structures his sentences; it’s just what those sentences are about that sometimes baffles me. That said, I created the rule, so I followed it. But I’m not a big rule follower, so I figured out ways to work around it.

Lisa, did you keep in mind your Spellman fans when writing this or just hope that they would like this too?

Lisa: I love the Spellman fans and I think about them respectfully whenever I’m working on a Spellman novel. It’s extremely important to me to keep the books fresh and to not phone it in. I have to admit that Trail of the Spellmans was one of the harder ones to write, but I see it coming together.

When I took a break from the Spellmans to write Heads You Lose, it was partly to keep my writing fresh and to explore new avenues. I hope the Spellman fans enjoy it; I also hope to find a new audience.

David: I hope Spellman fans embrace Heads You Lose, but I’ll be satisfied if they don’t assault me at readings.

Lastly, do you see you two collaborating again on another book?  Put another way, Did the collaboration rekindle the proper romance/relationship?

Lisa: Never say never. Although I like to say it all the time. My list of demands might be as thick as my next book. We’ll see.

David: The deepest wounds of the writing process were inflicted over a year ago, so another book is starting to become surprisingly thinkable. But there will have to be some serious negotiations first. I wonder what Jimmy Carter is up to these days?

To answer your other question — which was indeed put quite another way — the romance remains unkindled. And I think both of us might object to your choice of the word “proper.”

Lisa: Ditto. There was never anything proper about me and Dave.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.