Pages Magazine interviewed Lisa Tucker – May 10, 2006
What a Coincidence
Life, math, and literature charmingly collide in Lisa Tucker’s Once Upon a Day.
by Ellen Kanner
It 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 literature.
“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 figure out.”
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 out.”
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 message.
“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.”