An interview with Zara Lisbon – Michigan Quarterly Review
Selfie of Zara Lisbon nex to the cover of her book, Fake Plastic Girl.

An interview with Zara Lisbon

I’ve noticed a trend among many of the writers with which I went to graduate school: they’re writing YA novels and getting multiple book deals on the series they create.

Not all MFA programs encourage writing for young adult audiences, either due to preferential biases about this writing, or because they do not have the programming to support it. Irregardless of whether an MFA program has a YA track (or if the program encourages writers to write YA books), that doesn’t mean writers should shy away from creating work intended for this impressionable audience.

One of the talented people who has done just that is Zara Lisbon. Her book, Fake Plastic Girl, which B.J. Novak called, “fast-paced, fascinating, and frightening as celebrity itself,” is something both young adults and adults will enjoy (personally, I read it in 24 hours; I couldn’t put it down).

Zara is a writer of fiction and poetry. She was born in the West Village, raised on Venice Beach, and dreams of a flat overlooking Hyde Park in London. She loves and adores everything about Lana Del Rey, even the “terrible” SNL performance. Here are some more things she loves: air conditioning, abstract impressionism, artificial winter wonderlands, and falling asleep listening to the owl outside her window.

Below is an interview with Zara, which discusses her new novel, her writing process, and more. I hope she will inspire those writers hesitant to write YA books to do so.

Elizabeth Schmuhl (ES): When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?

Zara Lisbon (ZL): Truthfully, when I was about eight years old I got really obsessed with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and I got it in my mind that if I could write a play that they starred in, I could meet them. So I’d just write these little plays…then I discovered Nancy Drew and my obsession switched over to wanting to write novels. When I was sixteen I started thinking seriously about pursuing it as a career, and my parents never told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t…so I did!

ES: You went to graduate school for fiction. Were your professors supportive of FPG? Did you even mention it during grad school?  

ZL: I didn’t come up with the idea of Fake Plastic Girl until a year after graduating from grad school, but during grad school I wrote a novel called Crystalmethylacrilate that, in retrospect, was a precursor to Fake Plastic Girl in that in deals with the insanity of growing up around fame in Los Angeles. The only two people who have read that book are my mom and Domenic Stansberry, my Vermont College of Fine Arts adviser at the time.

ES: Did anything you studied in grad school help you write FPG? What, specifically?

ZL: So much, I wouldn’t know where to begin! What first comes to my mind is the study of syntax and its role in creating and shaping emotions that I did with Clint McCown. Playing with sentence length and structure can inform the emotional experience of the writing just as much or even more so than the words themselves. 

ES: When did you begin writing FPG and how long did it take to complete?

ZL: I began writing FPG in the Summer of 2016. From beginning to end it took almost two years to finish writing Fake Plastic Girl. 

ES: What was the editing process like for you? Did Eva-Kate Kelly or Justine’s character change much from when you wrote your first draft to the final version we’re reading today?

ZL: The editing process was (and is always) a painful experience for me. I get really anxious that as I move pieces around I will create knots that can’t be untangled or that some essence will be irretrievably lost. The characters (and the plot) do change as I edit, but that isn’t necessarily the bad, scary thing I think it is.

Originally, Justine was more obviously troubled and rebellious from page one. As I edited I made her go through more of a journey from innocence to chaos. Originally, Eva-Kate was supposed to be a niche-level celebrity that only a certain super cool subset of people would know of, but with each edit I made her more and more famous. 

ES: What are you currently reading?

ZL: I’m currently reading Fight Club for the first time ever. I don’t know how I’d never read it before, I’m very inspired by Chuck Palahniuk’s style. 

ES: Who inspires you?

ZL: Chuck Palahkiuk, as I just noted above. Bret Easton Ellis. Margaret Atwood. I’ve never read The Handmaid’s Tale but I loved the whole MaddAddam trilogy. I’m very inspired by Caroline Kepnes the author of You, Hidden Bodies, and Providence, who I met this year and is for some reason down to be friends with me. Though they aren’t novelists, on some days I’m most inspired by Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift. 

ES: What’s changed since you’ve published FPG / the series?

ZL: Not a lot! People invite me to talk on panels and do signings. People ask me seriously for writing and publishing advice. I’m best friends with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen now just like I always wanted (JK, but if you guys are reading this, hit me up).

ES: I know you identify as a sober writer, and I’m curious about how this informs your writing.

ZL: Writing sober is so much harder than writing drunk, but I think it’s safe to say that I’m a better writer when I’m sober. Whiskey always helped me get into the flow of writing, so sometimes I’ll trick myself into feeling that tipsy-flowy feeling by writing about whiskey. When Justine drinks whiskey it’s normally because I was feeling creatively stuck and needed to loosen myself up. So weird, actually! It’s like if Justine is a little drunk she’s not watching me so closely and I feel less judged, a little more free to just let go and write.

ES: What are you currently writing?

ZL: I’m currently doing rewrites on FPG’s sequel: Fake Plastic World, and starting a new novel that I have told literally nobody about yet. It’s another mystery, but it’s too early to say anything else about it. 

ES: I know you grew up in Venice; how did that setting shape your writing/art?

ZL: Growing up in Venice, California meant that I was exposed to a lot of very creative people and their artwork. Being from somewhere that celebrates artists inspired and motivated me to create my own art to contribute to the world.

I’ve always had creative urges and impulses, but the Venice environment encouraged me to pursue them. A more obvious answer is that because Venice was my first real home, and writing about it is sort of a comfort zone, my books and stories will likely often have a Venice setting. 

Zara has articles published on Hello Giggles, The Observer, and Hitfix, as well as short fiction published in FOURTH Magazine, Able Muse, Attic Salt, La Miscellany, and Cheap Pop

Fake Plastic Girl is her first novel. Fake Plastic World, the sequel, will be published in June 2020. 

You can follow her on twitter @zaralisbon and Instagram @z_list_celeb.

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