Author Interview: Mary E. Pearson on A Room On Lorelei Street

A Room On Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt, 2005). Zoe, 17, has had it with her alcoholic mother and manipulative grandmother. She moves out of the house and rents a room on Lorelei Street in hopes of a new start. But ghosts, living and dead, swirl around Zoe, trying to tug her back, and it’s hard making ends meet as a diner waitress. Zoe’s new landlady, Opal, has a fresh, hopeful perspective, but ultimately, Zoe’s uncertain future rests in her own hands. Ages 12-up. Highly recommended. (See more of my thoughts on this novel).

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

A book takes a long time to write, often years, so along the way a lot of inspirations intervene and help the story unfold, but first and foremost I heard the opening lines and got a sense of a character with heavy weight pressing down on her. From there I just listened.

I didn’t realize it as I was writing it, but looking back I can see that A Room on Lorelei Street is clearly a survival story. I had written a story about a girl who was being hit from all sides, over and over again, and you have to wonder if she will make it.

This story began on the heels of a rough period of my life. A serious illness in my family had brought my world to a grinding halt. For months I couldn’t write, but then when it finally seemed that things were going to be okay and I decided it was time to begin writing again, I had a new found sense of writing the truth at all costs.

I began A Room on Lorelei Street, wanting to explore life’s inequities and also the incredible iron bonds of family. But then during the course of writing the book, another dark veil fell, my mother was diagnosed as terminal and I had to set my story aside again as I cared for her in her last few months of life.

When I returned to the story, I was basically shell-shocked, much as Zoe was at that point of the story. What else could happen?

I think at that point, I decided Zoe had to make it–I needed her to make it–but honestly, I still wasn’t sure she would. This was not a story I planned; this was a story where I listened page by page and I came to know Zoe as well as I know anyone. Usually when you think of survival stories you think of wilderness stories, or medical stories, but there is a “falling through the cracks” kind of survival that happens everyday right beneath our noses, but gets little fanfare. Zoe’s story is such a survival story.

Other little inspirations also rubbed up against each other to make A Room on Lorelei Street happen . . .

As a small child I always passed a street on my way to school called “Lorelei Street.” I thought the name was so pretty–much prettier than my own “Bellflower”–and I always imagined what it would be like to live on Lorelei Street.

I am fascinated with names and what they mean. I came across “Zoe” and its meaning, “full of life,” and I imagined a character and why someone might name her that and what she might have to live up to. The name gave me a lot of insights into the father of the story, even though he isn’t actually even in the book.

In a similar vein, after I had begun writing A Room on Lorelei Street, I realized I didn’t know what “Lorelei”* meant so I looked it up. It was one of those goose bump writerly moments. The meaning hints of seduction and ruin–exactly what it would become for Zoe. It seemed like fate that I would choose that name.

As a writer I really enjoy exploring gray areas–right and wrong is often a matter of time and perspective. In A Room on Lorelei Street, we see many flawed characters, perhaps each with a similar goal, but with very different ways of achieving it. Most notably, Zoe and her grandmother seem at complete odds, and yet they both love Mama, and want the family to “survive,” but in different ways.

The story of course, is from Zoe’s perspective, but a few times I open a window where the reader can see the struggling or tender side of the grandmother too. Even the “sleazebag” has his own story, and Zoe at one point reflects on this, that he only wants to be “acknowledged.” The world is not black and white, so A Room on Lorelei Street gave me a lot of opportunities to explore the volume of the world’s gray.

I am amazed at the iron bonds of family. No matter how difficult or awful someone can be, when they are “blood” we never can quite cut the ties that hold us together. Family is always family. In A Room on Lorelei Street, Zoe had to learn how to reconcile this loyalty with the need for her own survival.

Becoming a parent means putting all of your needs, wants, and indulgences, in a backseat to your children’s. At least that is what I believe. Kids only get one chance to be kids. And yet from time to time, I have seen parents who refuse to grow up, accept responsibility, and they fritter away their own child’s precious growing up years. Because the parent refuses to grow up, they make their own child grow up too soon. It angers me, and I wanted to explore that in A Room on Lorelei Street. Similarly, I have seen parents who find their children to be an amusing hobby, but once the novelty wears off, the kids are on their own. That angers me, too. A little bit of outrage is always good fuel for a book.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Ha! Well, I think I already mentioned the major events. I wrote the first opening lines in December of 2000 and finished the rough draft in July of 2002. Of course, then it went out for critiques with my friends and the many revisions began. It was a long process, needless to say.

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

My challenges were very much like any writer’s challenges. To keep going for one thing. There were lots of times I thought about quitting. Writing is hard work. There are no guarantees. No road map. And at times–especially in the middle–you feel utterly lost. The challenge is to keep going, even when you aren’t sure of the way.

E.B White said that “Writing itself is an act of faith, and nothing else” and that pretty much says it all. You keep writing because you believe in something. It’s a gauzy intangible drive that whispers to you, keep going, and you do in spite of your doubts and fears. And when you finally have a completed novel, it feels like nothing less than a miracle.

More On A Room On Lorelei Street

Visit Mary E. Pearson’s blog, her Web site page on A Room On Lorelei Street (with prepublication chatter, award nominations, etc.), and check out the teacher’s guide for the novel from Henry Holt (guide is PDF file). More Cynsational thoughts on A Room On Lorelei Street.

More Recent Interviews

Vivian Vande Velde on Companions of the Night (Harcourt, 1995) and Being Dead (Harcourt, 2001); Laura Ruby on Lily’s Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2003); Anne Bustard on Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Kathi Appelt and Joy Fisher Hein on Miss Ladybird’s Flowers: How A First Lady Changed America; Elisa Carbone on Last Dance On Holladay Street (Knopf, 2005); Greg Leitich Smith on Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003); and Holly Black on Tithe: A Modern Faeire Tale (Simon & Schuster, 2002).

Cynsational News & Links

Authors and Animals are a Winning Team by Francine Silverman from The Source for New and Emerging Authors. See more articles from the site on promotion, publication, tax deductions, queries, niches and more.

Kindling Words 2006 will be Jan. 26 to 29. Note: “Kindling Words is a gathering for published authors, illustrators, and working editors and agents in the field of children’s books. To register, your publishing house must be recognized by the Children’s Book Council.” At the very least check out the gorgeous new KW Web site, designed by author/illustrator Janie Bynum.

Remember yesterday when I was talking about the auction at Brenda Novak’s site so you could bid on Niki Burnham‘s books? One of the items available for bid (today only!) is a reading of a children’s manuscript by editor Arthur Levine of Scholastic. Read a conversation with Arthur Levine from The Purple Crayon. Visit Arthur A. Levine Books.

Check out some Austin talents: illustrator Theresa Bayer, illustator Laura Logan, and author Janet Kaderli. Tell ’em Cyn sent you!