On Writing, with Shari Lapeña
Shari Lapeñais the author of Happiness Economics (Brindle and Glass), as well as the 2008 novel Things Go Flying.
Shari talks with Open Book about big questions, believable murderers and why Happiness Economics could be the perfect official book for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Tell us about your book, Happiness Economics.
The main character, Will Thorne, is a blocked poet. He is married to Judy, a successful celebrity economist who doesn’t understand him, or poetry, at all. Will’s struggles with his art aren’t appreciated by his wife. Society doesn’t appreciate Will either, because society — which has such a great, unrecognized need to listen to its poets — instead hangs on the every word of people like his wife, whose books are bestsellers.
Pressured by his destitute Governor-General’s Award-winning poet acquaintance, Gord Mutic, Will starts a charitable organization, The Poets’ Preservation Society, to assist poets in financial need — Gord in particular. But in order to persuade his high-powered wife to get him the necessary funding, Will must make a devil’s bargain with her: he will write advertising slogans (a job she has found him), so that he can, in Judy’s words, contribute to society. Writing advertising slogans for toilet paper and spending his free time on the administrative work of The Poets’ Preservation Society, Will has neither the time nor the inspiration to finish his novel in poems, which he has been working on for close to ten years.
But then Will discovers his muse — the lovely Lily White — and he becomes inspired in all sorts of different — and disruptive — ways.
As the book opens, Will is pondering how “nobody takes a poet seriously, even though poets — arguably even failed ones — ought to be taken more seriously than anyone.” As a society, we pay attention to money. Will’s complaint — and the theme of the book — is that contemporary society values consumerism over meaningfulness. It’s not just that we’re not reading poetry. It’s that poetry is being replaced by advertising and commercials as a form of shared discourse. Consumerism is rampant.
When the financial collapse of 2008 exposes the scope of the greed and of the underlying flaws in the financial system, it forces Judy to wake up a little. She begins to take an interest in happiness economics as a subject — does it really make sense to measure everything in terms of money? Should governments start to use broader indicators of national happiness to gauge our well-being and make policy, rather than sticking to purely economic indicators like GDP? Judy, the economist, has to rethink her view on these things — she moves from thinking that GDP is the best measure of everything, to questioning if that approach has really led to a good result. Meanwhile, Will becomes a poet guerrilla, spray painting poetry all over the banks in the downtown core.
Personally, I think Happiness Economics should be the official book of the Occupy Wall Street movement that is catching on all over the world now. Because that’s what the book is about — Will becomes an activist because he feels the values of the society he lives in are terribly skewed. There needs to be a fundamental change.
Will and Judy have a tough time reconciling their views about the value of art. Is he naïve? Is she a cynic?
I don’t think so much that Will is naïve, but he wishes he could be. He is actually rather cynical about the world, but idealistic at the same time. Judy doesn’t look into things as deeply, she doesn’t question. Will is at bottom an idealist, and this causes him to be cynical, because he is so disappointed in the world.
What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?
I find that in each book, I’m usually concerned with some big question. In my first book, I was thinking about what happens after death — my main character was struggling with the daunting idea of an eternal afterlife — he wasn’t keen on the prospect. In Happiness Economics, I’m exploring where society is going in terms of its values.
As far as things that keep showing up in my writing — it seems to be family dynamics — different families, dysfunctional in different ways, but all struggling to make it work in the context of their own reality and the wider context of the society in which they live.
How does your background as a lawyer and teacher inform your writing process?
I don’t think either one has had much of an impact. I’ve always wanted to be a writer since I was about nine years old. Becoming a lawyer was a misstep. I think writing comes from your inner self, irrespective of what you’re doing otherwise. Of course if you write police procedurals it probably helps to be a police officer. And if you’re writing about dysfunctional families it probably helps to come from one. I don’t think training to be a writer through an MFA program is at all necessary — it’s all about your perspective on your world and what you bring to it. You can come from anything.
Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?
I think the writers who most affect me are the ones that can be both very funny and very sad and dark and bleak at the same time, because I think they best capture the full breadth of human experience. Finding humour in the depths of despair is a time-honoured coping mechanism. I saw this described as “life’s mad laughter” somewhere recently — I like that phrase. Dostoevsky can be heartbreaking and hilarious at once. Jonathan Franzen can be simultaneously funny and sad. It’s a kind of genius to be able to do that.
Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?
I recently read Practical Jean, by Trevor Cole. I wish I’d written that book. It works so well. It’s very funny, with a wonderfully light touch. But the lightness is deceptive. How he can create a character like Jean Vale Horemarsh and make her believable as a murderer is something to be admired.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my third novel, which is about a beleaguered mother raising a child with ADHD while married to a husband with ADHD. Not as rare a situation as you might think. And it has a lot to say about how distracted we are as a society these days, about our shrinking ability to pay attention, and about what we choose to pay attention to. It’s funny in a dark way. I think I might go darker in this next book — I suspect that’s how I need to grow as a writer. I need to be willing to go more into the dark places.