Pages Magazine interviewed Lisa Tucker - May 10, 2006
What a Coincidence
Life, math, and literature charmingly collide in Lisa Tucker's Once Upon
by Ellen Kanner
seems unfair the author of the 2002 bestselling debut novel The Song Reader
gets to be gifted with numbers as well as words, but she is. Surely it's
Lisa Tucker's inner math nerd speaking when she says, "A mathematical proof
is one of the most gorgeous objects on earth."
Math is where things add up, where every step makes sense. Life, though,
rarely works that way. Twists of fate, broken hearts, reversals of fortune,
bad guys winning-these things happen all the time. But why? For that,
Tucker, with graduate degrees in both mathematics and English, turns to
"The best stories to me are the ones where there's mystery," she says
from her home in Las Cruces, New Mexico. "I'm really interested in giant
mistakes, flaws. How did we get there? How does this happen?"
Tucker's characters want to know, too. For Dorothea, the innocent optimist
in her new novel, Once Upon a Day (Atria), the answer lies in what she calls
"the charming coincidence-when things in the world that are unconnected
suddenly connect, and a pattern emerges."
It's the charming coincidence, the happy inexplicable thing that leads
Dorothea to Stephen, a stranger who helps her on her quest to find her
brother. For Stephen, mourning the death of his wife and daughter, "a
pattern of serial killings was still a pattern."
When Tucker, whose debut has over 70,000 copies in print, starts a novel,
she starts with chaos. "I can't plan, I can't outline," she says.
"I feel guided by voices."
But once she finishes a draft, the analytical, pattern-seeking part of the
brain takes over. "There's a real striving for elegance in mathematics,
to use only the absolute essential things. If you don't need that step, you
cut it," she explains. "It helps me with the structural issue of
narrative. You ask, why is this here, how does it forward our understanding?
That cause and effect thread is like an emotional proof you're trying to
As lean and elegant as a proof herself, Tucker also helps writing students
at UCLA figure out their own work. While some writers find teaching to be
its own circle of hell, she says, "Teaching makes my writing stronger. It
makes your revision stronger. You're thinking analytically about problems
you don't normally think about."
Tucker never gave much thought about coincidence, charming or otherwise,
until this novel, which owes its genesis to a stranger she met in New York.
Like Stephen, he was a cab driver, and it was only by charming coincidence
Tucker got into his cab at the CBS studio. She'd just done a segment on The
Early Show to promote The Song Reader and, armed with a bestseller (Book
Sense recommended it as one of their half-dozen "Amazing Debuts") and a dose
of celebrity, Tucker was feeling fine.
Chatting up the taxi driver as he drove her back to the Algonquin, she
learned he was a Romanian immigrant wild about his wife, his children, and
the United States. Then, as he pulled up to the hotel, he met her gaze in
the rearview mirror. Since 9/11, he said, he had lost his hope.
"I was stunned-what do you say to someone? How do you get your hope
back?" says Tucker. "That's where the book started."
Tucker is into jazz, not despair. When she was younger, she went through
what she calls her Ahab phase. "You know-suffering hurts, why is the
world full of it?" If Tucker doesn't have answers, she does know this:
"Life is so fragile. You have to accept that fragility-but we can't.
People are too important to us."
That's why Once Upon a Day is full of suffering, too. On page one, we learn
Stephen "lost his family in a freak accident, and the rest he let go of
as easily as opening his hand and releasing a string of balloons." Then
there's Dorothea's mother, Lucy, whose fairytale world is shattered in the
course of a day.
"It killed me to write those scenes," Tucker says. "I was sobbing.
I thought, 'I can't write this; I can't do this to them.'" But she did.
A charming coincidence or two links Tucker's life to those of her
characters. Like Dorothea, Tucker lives in New Mexico. Like Dorothea's
father, Charles, Tucker has been, by her own admission, guilty of being
"OP-overprotective" of her son Miles, now 17.
She was never, however, as OP as Charles. He raised Dorothea and her brother
in total isolation, feeding them an altered view of the world where time
seems to have stopped in the 1950s, long before Dorothea (23 and never been
kissed) was born.
Stephen is the character who the author feels most resembles her. He's a
plain-speaker from Missouri. "So am I," says Tucker, whose
low-pitched voice still betrays a hint of a drawl.
You don't have to be a mathematician to see the pattern of absent or abusive
mothers in all three of Tucker's novels. She writes fiction, not memoir, and
wants the works to stand on their own. She will say, "My parents got
divorced and I did not live with my mother."
Patty Taylor, the young jazz-singing heroine of Tucker's second novel, Shout
Down the Moon, is the mother closest to the author's heart-and closest to
the author. "She's like me. She'd do anything for Willie," says
Tucker, referring to Patty's two-year-old son. "He redeemed her."
Tucker, married to a software designer, might have spent her whole life
happily writing proofs. Then she became a mother.
"Miles is why I told stories. I was this analytical person and he says,
'Tell me stories.' 'Oops, I don't have one.' " Tucker laughs, then adds,
"I don't think I'd written one line of fiction until he was a little boy.
He gave me back all this stuff. He reinvented the world for me."
But Once Upon a Day isn't about the author. "I don't want to write
autobiography," she says. "I want the emotional truth of the story,
the things we deeply believe, something truer than the actual facts. We can
do more without facts-condense, stretch, change until the truth is coming
Although the novel returns to the themes of Tucker's other works-meaning,
motherhood-the plot is more intricate, the canvas is broader. Once Upon a
Day, which whispers of Jane Eyre and They Might Be Giants (the 1971 film,
not the band), works as both page turner and literary novel with a larger
"There's a kind of compassion certain stories teach us," she says.
"They show us the interior of people who have done things that are
unforgivable." They show us things that don't add up.
"Life is really complicated. Human beings are really complicated." As
a writer, Tucker says, "you want to push the mystery of life farther so
everybody has more of a sense of possibilities."
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