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Monday, June 13, 2011

Review/Interview: Lauryn Allison Lewis's The Beauties

My copy of The Beauties.
From the first few sentences, Lauryn Allison Lewis’s The Beauties makes a serious impact on the reader. One character is in a homicidal rage, but the main character describes her victimhood with language so delicate and imagination so vivid, you won’t be able to stop reading. The Beauties is a family saga, moving from a cinematic whirlwind romance during World War II through about the 1980’s on the extraordinary backs of Opal, Fern, and Enid – grandmother, mother, and daughter. Each woman has a unique gift (I won’t give away here) that is also her burden to bear. Each woman deals with her difference as best she knows how, and each shows herself to be an authentic character with a fully developed psychological life. Together, their differences make up a tale of survival and what it means to be human. The Beauties is a fast read at only 48 pages, but the emotional intensity and astonishing imagination of this book will not soon abandon the reader. 
I was able to ask Lauryn about some of the more puzzling aspects of this book, and she graciously answered.

JK: Why did you decide to release The Beauties as a chapbook?

Lauryn Allison Lewis: I decided to make the chapbook for several reasons, the first being that I wanted the experience of making a book by hand, from scratch. After so many years of writing, it started to feel strange to me that I’d never tried to put a book together. Like a chef who’s never tried to write a recipe, or something. From the folded pages, to the binding, to the cover art, each one was made entirely by my hands. So when you order The Beauties, you take possession of an object made exclusively for you, which is why I’ve been calling them haute chapbooks.

JK: When someone orders The Beauties, what comes to them is a thing of beauty (as readers can see in the picture). The book I received was hand-decorated beyond what is portrayed on the purchase site, with a ribbon down the spine, and beads, stars and sparkly glue on the cover as well as the hand-folded pages and sewn binding. Haute is a good word for it. It’s not something you see every day, that’s for sure.

There seems to be a lot more to this story, and on the acknowledgments page you mention a novel-length version of it.

Lauryn Allison Lewis: There is a novel length version of The Beauties, and it’s getting some exciting publication buzz, but I’m terribly superstitious and afraid to jinx the project by saying more now. Apart from wanting to craft the book, I also wanted to get the key moments of this story out to publishers and have a chance to gage what my audience’s reaction would be, before laying the whole hugely strange novel on them. I’ve had many readers tell me that they were struck by the intensity of the stories in the chapbook, and at times surprised by its grittiness, its sinisterness. The surprise seems to double when the reader is someone who knows me personally, knows that I’m really the antithesis of sinister and gritty.

JK: The chapbook is powerful, and not for the prudish. Did you have a specific audience in mind?

I think that The Beauties will resonate with all women, but it wasn’t written to be considered an exclusively feminist text by any means. If you have a mother, a sister, a daughter, The Beauties will offer insight into how they might have felt during various phases in their life, especially the more tumultuous ones; puberty, pregnancy, and growing older.

JK: Does the novel pick up where the chapbook leaves off, or flesh out the chapters?

Lauryn Allison Lewis: The novel length version of The Beauties fills out the spaces between the stories included in the chapbook, but it also expands on them and introduces many new characters. It has different plot twists and an entirely different shape. Readers of the chapbook are not going to have an identical experience to readers of the novel.

JK: And about this exciting publication buzz – not to jinx it, but what kind of feedback have you gotten? Are your family and friends supportive?

Lauryn Allison Lewis: The most common reactions are either stunned silence, nervous laughter, or mild incredulousness: “Where do you come up with this stuff?!” I’m also not shy about stories of a sexual nature, and that can make people flustered.

I think I have a definable fan base. I don’t want to be so presumptuous as to define it here, though. I have a ton of support from other writers in my community. I’ve been given so many opportunities to share my work in a safe and generous environment, with people I really admire and respect. I’ve forged lifelong friendships with other writers, and I’m so grateful for them.

My family is supportive, but they’d be supportive no matter what I was doing, I think. My parents are both artists in their own right, so I think they’re both delighted and not the slightest bit surprised that I chose to become a writer.

The friends I’ve grown up with are rather indifferent toward my writing. I don’t mean that in a snarky, pouting way. To them, writing is just something I do, not who I am, and they know precisely how convoluted my imagination is, so nothing really shocks them anymore. I’m grateful for people in my life that I can spend time with when I need to escape my work or the industry for a minute.

JK: Well, they may be indifferent, but I guarantee anyone who reads The Beauties will not be!

The Beauties can be purchased at Lauryn's website:
Come back on Wednesday for the rest of the interview!