This week, I was lucky enough to have a chat with Heidi Mastrogiovanni – author of the hilarious, gorgeously warm Lala Pettibone’s Act Two. I first came into contact with Heidi through our publisher (Amberjack Publishing), and completely fell in love with her book, which tells the tale of Lala; an irascible middle-aged woman with a serious crush on her boss and a wonderful obsession with rescue dogs. If you haven’t read it yet, I’d really recommend it.
Hi Heidi, thanks for taking the time to have a chat! It's awesome to see a more mature woman as a protagonist in a book - was this a conscious decision, or did Lala come into existence more organically?
I really think it was a conscious decision and it was also an organic outcome. Lala presented herself to me as a character who had done some living and who had a few life lessons under her belt already. And I have a special fondness for more mature female characters, on the page and on the big and small screen. Being a mature woman myself, I do want to be one of many champions for them. It’s about time, isn’t it?
As you can probably tell from my tone, ageism is something that outrages me, especially when it’s directed toward women – real or fictional ones. I’ve heard from so many of my female friends of a certain age that there are too many situations in their lives wherein they are made to feel invisible. I think stories about mature women are a good way to make us all more visible. Women of all ages deserve to be seen, and we deserve to be heard.
I completely agree, it’s about time that mature women are given a voice! In Lala Pettibone’s Act Two, you include another of your passions – rescue dogs. I know that you're really passionate about giving rescue dogs a home. Can you tell us more about that?
I really appreciate you asking that, because senior animals have, for years, felt like a special calling in my life. I’ve always loved animals, and as I got older, I wanted to channel that love into specific action, so I began working with rescue groups when I lived in New York and then when I moved to Los Angeles.
When you become a part of that rescue world, you’re often sent e-mails and other communications about animals that need help. One day, I received an e-mail about a homeless senior beagle. That beagle became the first dog my husband and I adopted together. We named her Eunice Petunia, and she was around 12 years old when we got her. We had her for three wonderful years. She was, and always will be, part of my heart and soul. That was it. I was devoted to adopting senior animals.
And so is Lala. It will come as no secret to anyone who knows me that Lala is a version of me. So she rescues senior dogs and, in the sequel, she helps feral cats. Lala and I both love animals.
Everything I’ve ever written includes at least one character who is a defender of animals. It’s my way of getting on a soapbox and making my values known. And Spoiler Alert (it’s not really a Spoiler Alert, but I just love using that phrase…), I can’t imagine ever writing anything that doesn’t include an animal rescuer in it as a character.
Feral cats – fantastic! (You know I’m a mad cat lady…!). You've got some hilarious characters in your novel - where do you find the inspiration for them?
I’m so glad they make you laugh! Many of the main characters are either directly inspired by one person in my life or they are composites of several people I know. There are a few that I came up with without basing them on anyone I know, and that was also a lot of fun.
I find inspiration everywhere…from my everyday life, from all the chapters in my past, from the lives of my friends and family and the stories they tell, from the reading I do, and from the stories I watch on the screen. I think that’s part of the job of a writer…to constantly observe. I bet you’ll agree that we’re never not working. Thank goodness we love our job so much!
The big question - are you a plotter or a pantser? Was Lala Pettibone’s Act Two meticulously planned out or did it evolve as you were writing it?
I love this question, and am I copping out of making a commitment to one method if I say I honestly am both?
Once I have an idea for a story (often inspired first by a character who comes to mind, or even a line of dialogue that I either hear or that somehow appears in my mind), I like to meditate on it until I get a general sense of the beginning, middle, and end of the story. I like to know how I want the story to wrap up, and I often work backward from that to discover how the story should begin and advance.
Once I have that, I find it very helpful to write a five- or six-page, double-spaced, short story of the novel, told in the present tense… “Lala walks to the store and debates buying a pint of gelato or a bottle of prosecco, realizing that the pleasure-per-calorie-count is roughly the same with either one.”
When I get that short story to the best version I can on my own, I send it to two fellow writers whose work I greatly admire and whose opinion I greatly respect. I value their feedback, and I use it to continue to massage the story. Once they’ve signed off on the broad brushstrokes of my story, I begin writing, and that’s when the elements of being a pantser appear. I am always gratefully willing to take a detour if that’s where my characters want me to go.
Yes, characters do have a way of doing their own thing sometimes, don’t they? Speaking of characters, the New York / Los Angeles settings feel as much a 'character' as the people themselves - was this intentional?
I don’t remember if it was a conscious decision on my part when I began thinking about Lala’s story, but in rapid order the two cities I love so much (and in which I’ve lived for many years) presented themselves as the places where Lala just had to be. Going from one city to the other is a very big part of what begins Lala’s second act.
For me, both these cities inspire so much love and loyalty and longing, and that ended up being the case for Lala as well. And, of course, they are both such world-class cities with so many layers and so many diverse neighborhoods, they offer infinite possibilities for situations and characters and plot points.
One of the things I love most about New York and Los Angeles is that they have so many differences and so many similarities. It’s possible to be madly in love with both of these cities, and it’s also possible to love one and hate the other.
Or maybe hate both, if you’re not a city person, but Lala and I are eternally city gals!
They really do feel like characters on their own, no matter what the story might be, don’t they?
The next Lala Pettibone book is out soon, what can we expect?
You are so sweet to ask! Lala’s got a very big decision to make in the sequel, and it’s not an easy one. So she heads to Paris for distraction. Because, seriously, who wouldn’t?
While she’s in the City of Lights, Lala buys an apartment building, goes on a romantic ride on the Seine with a handsome actor, and gets knocked down by a goat on a film set in the French countryside.
Ooh, Paris – exciting. I’m already imagining the goat scene…! Can you tell us more about your journey to publication?
I revised my first Lala manuscript quite a bit before I sent it to my two most trusted readers. Once they said it was good, I knew it had quality. That’s when I started searching for a home for Lala’s story.
And I must now pause to ask, seriously, how on god’s green earth did we even function before the Internet? I tell my nieces and nephews that if I wanted to look up something in college, I put on my jacket and I schlepped across campus to the library. They look at me as though I’m someone who somehow materialized in their modern world from the Dark Ages.
So, thanks to the wonders of the worldwide web, I found Amberjack Publishing. And that was like finding magic. Working with the team there is a writer’s dream. I followed the instructions on their website for submission (I think it was to submit the first fifty pages of the manuscript), and after a bit of time, I got an e-mail from them asking for the complete manuscript. And then, after sending that, a few weeks passed, and I got the e-mail every writer wants to receive; they wanted to publish my book.
Have I mentioned lately that I absolutely love working with them? They are dedicated and enthusiastic and so supportive. And I’ve met several wonderful fellow Amberjack authors, including you, which is such a joyous bonus!
They are awesome, I agree. Do you have any sage words for aspiring writers out there?
I love this subject so much, I wrote a post about it for a lovely British website. May I go ahead and share that here? It really does sum up the advice I wish I had gotten when I was starting out right after college:
If I had to share just a few words of advice, they would be to write and read ALL the time.
Thanks for that link, it’s a great read. And lastly, do you have any book recommendations to share?
Well, I’m currently reading the second book in a marvelous series… You may have heard of it; The Case of the Deadly Doppelgänger! I loved your first book in the Dr. Ribero’s Agency of the Supernatural series, and I’m loving the second one, so I absolutely recommend them both.
I also have to recommend my favorite classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo (in its full 1,500 pages; I never read abridged versions of any book). That novel was life-changing for me.
Recently, I’ve been overwhelmed by the brilliance of All the Light We Cannot See, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel of the Second World War. And I just finished Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger, which left me speechless with its courage and grace and with the beauty of the writing.
For anyone who wants to write, or who loves to spend time with words, in my forever-less-than-humble opinion these three books should be on your desk and you should refer to them on a regular basis:
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within by Dennis Palumbo
Many thanks to Heidi for taking the time to chat with us – if you’d like to check out Lala Pettibone’s Act Two, you can bag your copy here. Also, the second in the series, Lala Pettibone: Standing Room Only, is being published in August.