Today I got the chance to chat with Lisa H. Owens, author of a fascinating memoir and numerous short stories. [Poppy Kuroki]
Hi, Lisa! Thank you for talking with me today. Tell us about your upcoming book release.
I completed my first book, written in 2020 during the shelter in place element of the pandemic, titled Dear Melinda, How I Met Your Brother. It was an accidental book that began when I started writing a letter to my sister-in-law about mine and her brother’s (my husband of thirty-four years) separation. One letter became many, so it turned into a something I never anticipated, a humorous epistolary memoir. I began querying traditional publishers in October 2020 and plan to continue on that route for a while and see what happens. I have put 30 queries out with 4 rejections to date, so a slightly over 10% failure rate. Not too bad!
I wish you all the luck in the world with your queries and hope it’ll be picked up by a publisher soon! What’s the first book you ever remember reading?
One of the Richard Scarry children’s books published in the late 1960s. I think it was Great Big Mystery Book, and I was absolutely obsessed with it. I received it as a Christmas gift from my Aunt Joyce and it was the nicest gift I had received (except my creepy ventriloquist doll, Sammy Cement, who I still have in my closet fifty years later… just to mess with my kids when they visit! My lips always moved anyway). I slept with it and carried it everywhere I went. It started me on the path to appreciating and collecting books.
Getting books as gifts is the best! Clearly your Aunt Joyce had good taste. So what inspired you to start writing?
Being an avid reader my entire life, I always had it in the back of my mind that I would like to write some of my childhood stories, memories of multiple moves my family made over the years. Six of us were stuffed into an aging Volkswagen Beetle causing a veritable clown show everywhere we went. Instead, my first story was taken from a vivid dream that I had when I was fifty-six years old. After writing the one dream inspired micro-fiction, I never looked back and began to write a monthly humorist column (stories about my oddball family) for two newspapers. Once the two-year stint with the newspapers ended, I continued to write flash fiction and essays and then the “accidental book.”
Currently, I’m working on turning photos into illustrations for a children’s book about my personality-challenged rescue dog called Fred is Grumpy.
Fascinating! It all sounds so exciting. Who is your main inspiration?
Gosh! I would have to say I have been inspired by my family and some of the things we have been through together. Without those antics, I wouldn’t have been able to write the funny weird stories that pop into my brain.
Aside from writing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I am working full time, remotely, as an environmental compliance manager for a small company, but also just spent the last several months having my house put back together. It was literally falling apart. I call it my “Brady Bunch House,” because like the home in the show, it was built in the 1970s in a similar style – floating staircase and all. Now that the house is no longer falling apart (and I am broke… lol), I work, garden, walk with my rescue dogs and volunteer one afternoon a week at a horseback riding facility for special needs children. It has been such a blessing in my life. I also try to write something each day. I have a great fear that one day I may forget how to write.
It sounds like you have a productive lifestyle, which is great. Good news about the house being complete too, that must be a lot of stress off your shoulders. It’s also important to write daily, something all aspiring authors should do! Tell me about your writing space. Where do you usually write?
Believe it or not, I wrote my entire book on my phone. I typically sit outside on my patio with coffee and open a Google document and type using an awkward combination of thumbs and clumsy fingers. Thank God for spellcheck. On occasion, usually when querying, I use my office set up which is a living-room-behind-the-sofa, wall-facing, giant wood and iron Pottery Barn desk with matching file cabinets that I bought at a garage sale for about $100 many moons ago.
All on your phone, wow! I respect you so much for that, it couldn’t have been easy. Are you a morning or night person? What time of day do you prefer to sit and write?
I write in the morning. I am up having coffee with my daughter by 7:30 am before she heads off to work as a journalist for our local newspaper. I crash by 9:30 pm but spend about an hour doing crossword puzzles before turning on the Calm App bedtime story of the night.
I’ve heard about that app; sounds like it works! It’s good to be up early and sleep early. Do you plan out your stories or are you a pantser (making it up as you go along)?
Pantser all the way, so far. If I am going to attempt to write another book or even a short story longer than 2,000 words, I am going to have to learn how to outline and plan, I think. Maybe not, though. I will wing it and see what happens.
Of all the authors I’ve interviewed, you’re the first who’s said they’re a panster. That’s great! And it’s definitely okay, especially for shorter works. What’s your favourite book genre? Do you write in that genre?
I read a lot of suspense/thrillers and milder horror stories but also enjoy authors like Fredrik Backman and Louise Penny. I just enjoy reading books that paint a picture. I don’t write in a specific genre. I have had short stories published in several genres: horror, comedy, relationship stuff and even a bit of prose.
Thank you! Tell me your top three favourite books of all time. You can’t say your own!
[waiting on email]
Have you ever read a book that changed your life?
Yes. Some self-help books here of late. The most important one helped me with social anxiety and changed the way I think about conversations with strangers and even friends. How to Be Yourself by Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
That’s so great. Self-help books can really help people. Who is your favourite book character who you’ve created?
Well, having only a memoir, I enjoyed recreating my flight attendant training experience and building/embellishing the characters of my three roommates. Two out of three of them read and loved the story. The third, I haven’t located yet and she isn’t portrayed in the best light (at times) but she was still a fun character.
Where can we find out more about you?
You can find out more about me, as well as my short stories, on Lisahowens.com.
Thank you, Lisa! Best of luck finding an agent!
Lisa H. Owens
Interview conducted by Poppy Kuroki, Dark Fantasy Author
August 18, 2021
Elaine Marie Carnegie: "Please welcome Lisa H. Owens to the Writer's Journey Blog this week!"
Books have always held a special place in my heart, beginning in elementary school, when my Aunt Joyce and Uncle WT gave me an illustrated book by Richard Scarry for Christmas. I immediately ignored the other gifts I had received from family members and even Santa Claus, as I found myself mesmerized by the witty cartoon creations and quips. I even cast aside the number one choice on my wish list, Sammy Cement, the name I ended up giving to the Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll I had been so adamant about needing from Santa Claus.
Weird facts about Sammy Cement:
1. My parents could never figure out why I chose the name “Sammy Cement,” because “em” sounds are by far the most difficult to say without moving your lips.
[Try keeping your lips still while saying "Sammy Cement." You’ll see what I mean.]
2. Sammy is kept in a large shopping bag in my closet, though he is now missing one hand and his mouth string doesn’t work so well anymore. He is utterly terrifying.
[Imagine Billy, the dummy in the movie “Dead Silence.”]
After reading most of the Richard Scarry creations, I continued to read, getting engrossed in many of the classics (Little Women, Mark Twain, Oliver Twist, The Call of the Wild, Don Quixote, Treasure Island, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Gulliver's Travels to name a few) when my Daddy would drop me at my hometown public library in Graham North Carolina most weekends, where I would curl up on a cozy rug in the Children’s Section and read for hours.
When I got older, on occasion, I would fall asleep while reading, not realizing I was asleep and continued “to read” while dreaming and concocting a whole new scenario. It was strange to awaken and find my finger placed on a drooly passage where I had left off.
My introduction into really writing occurred when I was 56 years old. I had taken melatonin to help me sleep and had a dream so emotional and vivid, that I had to write it down. Upon waking, I grabbed my phone and opened a Google doc, and typed it out in one fell swoop without even taking a breath. The story had elements of some special people in my life. My son, now 31 years old, my daughter, now 33, and my younger sister. Somehow, this little story called, Star of the Show, brought my creativity to the foreground and my next story was longer and based on a true event. It was titled, The Laundry Room, and described my near abduction by Ted Bundy in Pensacola Florida in 1978.
A local newspaper picked it up and thus my two-year stint as a monthly humorist columnist was born. It was kind of a “right place at the right time” stroke of luck since the timing of the story coincided with the capture of the Golden State Killer in 2018. I was told I had free reign in style and genre, as long as the stories were kept to about 500 words.
I struggled with the concept of what I wanted to write. After a few false starts with poetic thoughts of birds chirping and flowers growing, I decided that wasn’t me and I needed to stick to what I knew. I knew a lot about hardship and moving and always being the “new kid” at school, since growing up, my family moved around—a lot.
I attended a total of nine schools in six cities in four states before my first year of college in 1980. I decided to run with that. Write what I knew and not try to get all fancy and contemplative. My column turned into a humorous series of short stories inspired by the antics involved in making those numerous moves—from north to south and east to west—with my oddball family. My editor loved the concept; and I loved the experience of revisiting those times, sometimes evoking tears, but mostly laughter, and sharing with the local subscribers.
That ended in 2020, just after the pandemic started when my editor was laid off…permanently… due to budget cutbacks within the company and really the entire newspaper industry, a fact since the same thing happened to other acquaintances of mine. Fortunately, I had a day job and didn’t rely on writing for my income.
“By day,” I am an environmental compliance manager. The creation of job-specific Excel spreadsheets and GAEA Winlog Soil Borings, something I approach with gusto, has earned me the coveted title of nerd among my office peers. I was one of the lucky ones who was allowed to work remotely and kept my job.
Working remotely certainly had its perks, so I had time each morning to work on my debut book, a humorous epistolary memoir describing my first year as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines back in 1984. I was shocked at how quickly the words flowed as I described head-shaking scenes detailing my naivety in moving from a small town to a big city, Boston Massachusetts. I called it the accidental book since my initial reason for writing the very first letter to my sister-in-law, Melinda, was to explain how my relationship with my in-laws didn’t have to change because her brother, my husband for 34 years, and I had recently separated.
As I began to write, I wondered if she had ever heard the entire story of the reason behind my move to Boston and the fated series of events that led to her brother and I meeting in the first place. And that is how an entire book was born. It was a 55K-word fun ride to relive those memories and prompted me to call my former roommates from that period of my life. We had lost touch and now try to touch base every so often.
I think the most pertinent piece of advice I could give to a new writer; is to write what you know or the things that interest you the most. When approaching it that way, the words will usually flow, and if they don’t, put it away for a while and revisit the story another time with fresh eyes. I find myself looking at things in a different light with writer’s eyes.
Everything can become a magical story if you look hard enough.
Lisa H. Owens
The Writer's Journey Blog Guest Author
August 5, 2021
Elise Brooke [pen name-Sheila] creator of My NZ (New Zealand) Dream writes:
Introducing Lisa H. Owens, new guest writer: June 3, 2021
My NZ Dream Blog welcomes our new guest writer Lisa H. Owens; Lisa will be providing the blog with a monthly short story read spot called Remembering Wrong.
My Mama once said to me, "You only remember the bad things; and you remember them wrong."
Well, you're fixin' to read a whole heap of wrong.
~Lisa H. Owens
My NZ Dream Blog - Introduction to Lisa H. Owens
June 3, 2021
Interview Platform: The Muffin
Interview Conducted by: Margot L. Dill
Welcome to Lisa H. Owens who won second place in our latest creative nonfiction essay contest! Her essay is titled, "What You Can Do in 8 Minutes and 46 Seconds." You can read it here, and you don't want to miss it. It's powerful, and we discuss below why she was motivated to write an essay about George Floyd and his treatment by the police officers who were arresting him. But first here's a bit more about Lisa:
"Growing up, my family moved around—a lot. I attended a total of nine schools-in six cities-in four states before my first year of college. My first attempts at writing became a series of short stories inspired by the antics involved in making those numerous moves—from north to south and east to west—with my oddball family. Two local newspapers picked them up; running one story per month in a humorous memoirs column for a couple of years and that had me hooked. I continued to write, entering contests and submitting a piece periodically to The New Yorker magazine and am quite proud of receiving a few rejection emails, which was a step up from the old, 'If you haven’t heard from us in three months, we won’t be using your story...' scenario."
"Most recently, I have completed my first book, a compilation of letters to my sister-in-law describing my first year as a new-hire flight attendant in the magical city of Boston called, Dear Melinda, How I Met Your Brother. Now the hard part, finding a publisher. I have two wonderful children (now in their 30s) and reside in North Texas with three rescue dogs and a WFH job as an environmental compliance manager. I am continuing to write part two of my book, Dear Melinda, How I Married Your Brother. You can read a variety of my pieces (poetry, humorous memoirs, and stories dealing with more serious subject matter) at lisahowens.com."
WOW: Welcome, Lisa! Congratulations on your second place win. Why did you want to write a piece specifically about what happened to George Floyd?
Lisa: The idea of writing a piece about George Floyd came to me, as I stood in my living room bowing my head to observe the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence—the length of time Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck—called for by Al Sharpton on the televised memorial service of George Floyd on June 4th. As I stood up (from the comfort of my sofa) with my eyes closed, my mind began to wander. I opened my eyes. Only one minute and thirty seconds had passed. I closed my eyes again. I began to fidget. I had laundry in the dryer to fold. I opened my eyes. We were at three minutes now. I walked out to the garage, retrieved my basket of clean clothes, and sat down to fold. The clock continued to creep along toward the eight-minute mark. I couldn't wrap my brain around what an eternity nearly nine minutes must have felt like to George, as he begged for mercy. Next, I found myself thinking about how much a person could really accomplish in that time-frame. Once upon a time, I used to run a mile in around eight minutes.
WOW: Thank you for describing that to us. Honoring Mr. Floyd's life in that way was very powerful. Why did you decide to write the piece in a list form?
Lisa: The list formatting was born out of the thought process: What are some things we can do in around nine minutes? This piece really called for the bullet point formatting. I wanted to keep it simple and to the point.
WOW: It definitely works. The bullet point list is extremely powerful and makes your point well. Did you research all those different points, such as how many times you can hand-write I love you?
Lisa: Yes! I did research every point on the list. I used Google mostly, googling things like: 9 minute Guinness Book world records and picked the most outrageous one I found (2013 eating 141 hard-boiled eggs). At one point, I was going to cook Totino’s Pizza Rolls and read the baking instructions. One serving (10 rolls) in 9 minutes at 425º. I thought the list should start with light, fun facts and slowly become more serious in nature. I was absolutely blown away when I connected the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center Tower on 9/11 (0846 am EST) with the amount of time George was denied a breath of air. As far as the specific points like heartbeats, typing, handwriting, and reading, I needed a range so researched the high and low of each category using a one-minute time-frame (example: the lowest number of human heartbeats in one minute; then the highest number of human heartbeats in one-minute; then used the average for each). I had to ask for help with the math involved to calculate the totals at 8 minutes and 46 seconds. There is a weird formula involved when converting base ten numbers to time, and I didn’t know what that formula was! I wanted the numbers to be accurate, and math was not my strongest subject in school.
After I completed the cerebral parts of my story, it was time to do the one thing I dreaded. It was time to watch the video filmed by Darnella Frazier. I’m not going to lie. It was hard, and like everyone else in the world with a soul, I cried and asked, “Why?” I was shocked to see Chauvin with his hand in his pocket...at least that is how I interpreted it. Nonchalance. Nothing out of the ordinary for him. A normal day on the job.
WOW: Just hearing you describe it is extremely heartbreaking. I think the order you put the items in really makes your point. Let's switch gears a little: It sounds like you have a very interesting book and that you are looking for a publisher. Tell us more about that book and your process.
Lisa: It is my first book titled, Dear Melinda, How I Met Your Brother. It is an epistolary memoir; a series of letters written to my sister-in-law when my husband (her brother) and I separated after being together for thirty-four years. It mainly highlights (in hilarious detail) navigating a new job and a new city (Boston) as a naive new-hire flight attendant from the Deep South and a series of fated events that ultimately led up to the night I met Melinda’s older brother for the very first time. When I began the first letter, I had no idea it was going to turn into a book. I was literally going “old school,” writing a physical letter to Melinda telling her I still love her and all of my in-laws whether her brother and I are together or not—but it turned into something else. A letter almost every day for several months talking about my life before meeting the man of my dreams—in the past; but then I began to throw in a letter here and there to talk about what was happening currently in my life with the pandemic, the George Floyd marches, the Confederate Monument standoffs, and the challenges of being alone after thirty-four years. I sent the completed book to Melinda because if she wasn’t on board, it was dead in the water.
She loved it and said, “I laughed and cried about a million times, as I read it.” So, I am excited about how it came together (with the help of Chelsey Clammer’s professional editing) and can’t wait to see where it goes from here. I have promised myself that I will submit to one publisher or literary agent every day and not get overwhelmed.
WOW: That book sounds fantastic! And we know that if Chelsey helped you with it and it is also coming from you, it is going to find the perfect home! What is next for you? What are you working on now?
Lisa: I am getting ready to begin the continuation of the book because there are so many crazy stories and situations that occurred once Melinda’s brother and I began dating! I may call it, Dear Melinda, How I Married Your Brother. We’ll see!
WOW: We can't wait to see what the future holds for you! We are so glad you decided to enter the contest, and best of luck with your writing!
CREATIVE NONFICTION ESSAY WINNER, SOCIAL JUSTICE ESSAY
Interview with Lisa H. Owens conducted by Margo L. Dill for "The Muffin"
November 7, 2020