Laura Jensen Walkeris a national speaker and the author of several books including Thanks For The Mammogram, Dreaming in Black and White and Reconstructing Natalie, Women of Faith’s Novel of the Year for 2006.
Laura graciously gave of her time to do this interview with my Book Club after we had discussed Reconstructing Natalie.
Why a story about a 27yr old getting breast cancer?
Because, unfortunately, women in their 20’s are also getting breast cancer. It’s not just women over forty who get this disease and I wanted to draw awareness to that. I was 35 when I was diagnosed and was told ‘you’re so young!’ and yet when I travel around the country and speak about breast cancer, at every event I always meet at least one or two young women in their 20’s who are fighting it! And I wanted to give a voice to those women, and in particular, to show what it might be like for a young, single woman to go through the experience.
What made you choose Tap dancing as a hobby for Natalie?
Because I’ve always loved it (especially watching it in the old MGM movies with Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, etc.) And I’ve always longed to do it (and may still take lessons ONE of these days) but years ago a tap-dancing friend tried to teach me the basic step-ball-change step and I just couldn’t get it. One of these days, though… Also, for Natalie, I thought it was important to show her growing and trying new things having beaten cancer. We’ve all heard about breast cancer survivors going whitewater rafting or climbing mountains to celebrate their victory, but I wanted something a little different.
I absolutely thoroughly enjoyed reading Reconstructing Natalie; was writing the book an easy task for you?
In some ways, yes, in other ways, not so much. Natalie is very near and dear to my heart because of the subject matter and I’m really hoping it will minister to a lot of women, but reliving those chemo scenes as I was writing them wasn’t fun! It was also the first time I’ve ever had to ‘kill a character off’ and that was difficult too. (Although the less said about that, the better, as I don’t want to spoil it for readers who haven’t read it yet.)
Did you put much of yourself & your own experience into Natalie’s character?
Some… That initial blindsided feeling of shock and fear when you’re first diagnosed with cancer was the same, as were the reactions of some friends and acquaintances, and Natalie’s chemo reactions were pretty much mine (unfortunately because a nurse forgot to give me my anti-nausea medication BEFORE my first chemo) however rather than having my treatments in a chemo-recliner at a cancer center, I was hospitalized each time because of the high dosage I received. There were definitely bits and pieces of my experience woven into Natalie, but a huge difference was that I was
married and had an amazingly supportive husband to help me through my cancer experience, while Natalie was single—which comes with its own unique set of concerns when you’re dealing with breast cancer.
I noticed the running theme of movie titles throughout Reconstructing Natalie, and having read your other two fiction books, I was wondering where your obvious love for movies comes from? Have you really seen them all?!!
From my dad. As a little girl I’d get to stay up late on the weekends and watch The Late Show (Movie—not Letterman) with him where he told me many things about the stars (i.e., that Alan Ladd was so short, he had to stand on a box to kiss his leading ladies, and that Betty Grable had her famous legs insured for a million dollars, that John Wayne’s real first name was Marion, etc.) And I’ve seen a zillion movies, but not all. (Just about every one that I listed in the end of Dreaming in Black & White though.) There’s still a lot of classics I haven’t seen, but want to, including: Ben Hur, The Grapes of Wrath, Spartacus, The Day the Earth Stood Still…
Favourite movie and or favourite line please!
Too hard to pick just one! I’ll try to narrow it down to three though:
The Best Years of Our Lives
Meet Me in St. Louis (with the incomparable Judy Garland)
But wait! I forgot To Kill a Mockingbird, I Remember Mama (a must for every woman writer, especially if she’s Norwegian) Random Harvest, Bringing up Baby, The African Queen, Little Women… the list goes on and on.
“We’ll always have Paris.” (Casablanca)
“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” (All About Eve)
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” (Casablanca)
If you were casting roles for Reconstructing Natalie, who would you choose?
Natalie – A brunette Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Garner or Anne Hathaway. (Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock would also be great, but I’m not sure they’re young enough since Natalie’s only 27…)
Merritt (Natalie’s artsy, curvy best friend) – Drew Barrymore or Scarlett Johannson
Jillian – Gwyneth Paltrow or Kate Hudson
Rashida – Queen Latifah or Jennifer Hudson from Dreamgirls if she were older
Andy – Matt Damon or Jake Gyllenhaal
Have you seen Reconstructing Natalie impact women to self examine/see a doctor, etc.
Yes—a few women have written to say that after reading Reconstructing Natalie, they went and scheduled a mammogram. And a couple male radio hosts told me they now feel more prepared/know what to expect and how to act, should, God forbid, their wives ever get diagnosed with breast cancer.
How long does it take you to write a book?
Ideally, 6-8 months, but I’ve done some fiction in less than four (although I hope never to do that again!) My short, non-fiction humor’s completely different. My average was usually 3-4 months, but I’ve done a couple in just six weeks.
Not having read your other fiction books it does appear though that they are about younger women (at least one other one is). Why is this so?
Because I’m writing chick lit, and by definition, chick lit is about youngish, single women (in their 20’s and early 30’s.) Also, I didn’t get married until I was almost 35 and I well remember those singles days and all my longings and hopes (and neuroses, too J )
If you are willing to share, what (one is fine) on your road of faith changed as a result of your experience with cancer?
I came face to face with the fact—and the fear—that the cancer might kill me, one night at 3 a.m. in my hospital bed, but when I cried out to the Lord for help, He comforted me through His Word (the Psalms, especially Psalm 18: 4-6, 16-17) “The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help…He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.”
His Word took away my fear and replaced it with a sense of absolute peace. I knew that my Lord would rescue me. I didn’t know how, only that he would—whether that meant healing me or taking me home to be with him, I was no longer afraid. Death could claim my cancer-ravaged and chemo-riddled body, but it could never touch my cancer-free soul. The Lord promised he would never leave me or forsake me, and he never has. He never will. It’s wonderful to have that assurance so completely and totally.
You have written a number of non-fiction books – Who encouraged you or what made you decide to write a novel and seek its publication?
I’ve loved—and devoured—fiction my whole life. (I read much more fiction than non-fiction.) And in my heart of hearts, that’s what I always dreamed of writing. But non-fiction was a natural outgrowth of my journalism background, and it came easily to me. Pretty soon, I’d written 10 non-fiction humor books, but around the ninth one, I was feeling a little burned out and didn’t have much else funny to say (especially since I mined my own life for my books.) I’d already written about dating, marriage, breast cancer (Thanks for the Mammogram) and menopause (Mentalpause —I went into it early thanks to chemo J ) as well as friendship, home improvement, etc., and was thinking, what else can I write about? My family had all been encouraging me for some time to move to fiction, but I was absolutely terrified to try. I felt I didn’t know a thing about writing a NOVEL! Too scary. Too intimidating. No way could I ever do that!
But then, on my way to a writer’s conference I was having a dialogue with God—basically saying, okay, Lord, what am I supposed to do now? Am I done with the writing and is it time to call it a day and find a 9-to-5 job again? Or… (big gulp) am I supposed to try and write fiction—my lifelong dream? Except, I don’t even know how to begin! So if that’s what you want, Lord, you’ll have to show me very clearly ‘cause I’m clueless.
Then I took a fiction class with the amazing T. Davis Bunn and he said “Before you even begin to write your novel, you have to know—or have a general idea—of how it’s going to end.” A-ha! That afternoon I went to a fiction editor’s panel where you can ask questions and I timidly raised my hand and asked, “Um, are you looking for humor?” And one of the editors said (and they all emphatically agreed) “IF you can write it. Most people can’t.” Bingo. That’s when God showed me that humor would be the bridge to take me from non-fiction to fiction. A few hours later I scribbled the opening line to what would become my first novel (Dreaming in Black and White) “My thighs were at it again.” I wrote a couple more paragraphs and nervously showed them to my good friend Dave Meurer to see if he thought that maybe, just maybe, I could write fiction. Dave howled with laughter. Whoa. When the guy who’s been called ‘the Christian Dave Barry’ thinks your stuff is funny, that’s a good sign. Encouraged, I went home and wrote several chapters which two of my novelist friends—Randy Ingermanson and Cindy Martinusen—kindly offered to read. When they both told me they ‘loved’ it, I cried. What are you working on now? Who inspires you? My dear friend Annette Smith, one of the best ‘undiscovered’ (but not for long) novelists in CBA. Her A Bigger Life is absolutely fabulous! Also, Cindy Martinusen, Anne Lamott, Rick Bragg, Lisa Samson, Pat Conroy, Jennifer Weiner, Siri Mitchell and some I’m probably forgetting at the moment… What are you reading at the moment? Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwiler, and West with the Night—the memoir of Beryl Markham who was an adventurer and pilot in Africa in the 1930’s. (The latter two are research.) Please share something of your faith journey Although I had a background of church and Sunday School when I was young, I left that behind as a teenager. My father—whom I adored—died when I was 15 and the next several years were filled with grief, anger, and confusion as I sought to fill the huge gap in my heart he left behind. Any final comments………….. Thank you so much for choosing my heart novel, Reconstructing Natalie for your book club. I pray it will help remind you to be diligent about your own breast health—get to know ‘your girls’ intimately! And if you ever do feel an unusual lump, or something out of the ordinary, that you’ll get thee to a doctor immediately. Thanks so much Laura for an inspiring and entertaining interview! Natalie Portman! Wouldn’t she be absolutely perfect? Don’t know why I didn’t think of her earlier—since she even shares the same name. Duh.
A chick-lit series called ‘The Paperback Girls Adventure Club’ that revolves around a group of women in a book club who decide to not only TALK about the books they read, but also to start living out some of the adventures in the books! The first book in the series (which I’m currently writing) is Daring Clementine which will release in June/July 2008.
Finally, I came to the Lord when I was 27 and on the verge of suicide after some wild-and-crazy years of bad choices and bad relationships. Shortly after becoming a Christian, I met, began dating, and soon became engaged to a nice Christian guy—who dumped me a week before our wedding. (It wound up being a very good thing, and definitely God’s leading, although I couldn’t see it at the time.) At the time, all I felt was devastation and hurt. That break-up proved what I’d always believed—that no man could ever love me because of my past.
But Jesus did. And as He healed and restored those broken places in my heart and soul, He was also preparing the man he had for me. A man who would accept and love me unconditionally. Like Jesus did. A man who only one year into our marriage when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, would kiss my mastectomy scar and say, “I love this scar because it means I’m going to have you with me for a long time.” Thank you, Lord, for your perfect providence!
Early detection is key. It helped Natalie. It helped me. And it can help you. And more than help, it can save your life! God bless.
Look for Laura’s new release, Miss Invisible, due out in March, 2007.
What are you working on now?
Who inspires you?
My dear friend Annette Smith, one of the best ‘undiscovered’ (but not for long) novelists in CBA. Her A Bigger Life is absolutely fabulous! Also, Cindy Martinusen, Anne Lamott, Rick Bragg, Lisa Samson, Pat Conroy, Jennifer Weiner, Siri Mitchell and some I’m probably forgetting at the moment…
What are you reading at the moment?
Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwiler, and West with the Night—the memoir of Beryl Markham who was an adventurer and pilot in Africa in the 1930’s. (The latter two are research.)
Please share something of your faith journey
Although I had a background of church and Sunday School when I was young, I left that behind as a teenager. My father—whom I adored—died when I was 15 and the next several years were filled with grief, anger, and confusion as I sought to fill the huge gap in my heart he left behind.
Any final comments…………..
Thank you so much for choosing my heart novel, Reconstructing Natalie for your book club. I pray it will help remind you to be diligent about your own breast health—get to know ‘your girls’ intimately! And if you ever do feel an unusual lump, or something out of the ordinary, that you’ll get thee to a doctor immediately.
Thanks so much Laura for an inspiring and entertaining interview!
Natalie Portman! Wouldn’t she be absolutely perfect? Don’t know why I didn’t think of her earlier—since she even shares the same name. Duh.