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Interview With an Author: Elizabeth Little

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Elizabeth Little and her latest book, Pretty as a Picture
Author Elizabeth Little and her latest book, Pretty as a Picture. Photo credit: John Michael Bond

Elizabeth Little is the author of Dear Daughter, which won the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel, and two works of nonfiction, Biting the Wax Tadpole and Trip of the Tongue. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. Her latest novel is Pretty as a Picture and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Pretty as a Picture?

With my first novel, I could mark my inspiration down to the minute: It was a CNN Breaking News email that kickstarted Dear Daughter. This book, however, came to me very differently. At the time, I was working on an entirely different follow-up that, for a wide variety of reasons, wasn’t working. So I think I was looking for a life preserver—any idea even marginally compelling enough to justify setting fire to the work-in-progress. And the first idea to fit the bill happened to be, according to my Notes app, "true crime movie set murder????"

But maybe desperation is as good an inspiration as anything because I’m very proud of the story that scrap of an idea ultimately grew into.

Are Marissa, Suzy, Grace, Isaiah, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

There is a major character in the book who is a director—Tony Rees—and he was very loosely informed by what I know about a number of well-known and demanding film directors, notably Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher. The rest of the supporting characters, however, are entirely figments of my (overactive) imagination. Marissa, on the other hand…well, I’ll get to her below.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I wish I were the kind of writer able to move in a straight, sure line from concept to execution, but my process is just an absolute mess. I usually outline. Then I throw out that outline and write a bunch of garbage. Then I go back and outline again. Then more garbage. I repeat this until it’s my deadline and I am eventually forced to hand something over.

If there is a benefit to this strategy, it’s this: I’ve already made so many big changes by the time the book gets to my editor that I don’t mind making a few more big changes based on her notes. So I think I’m unusually flexible at the revisions stage—probably the only thing in the book that didn’t change dramatically over time was Marissa’s voice, which I nailed down early and did not waver on.

Pretty as a Picture is a pretty accurate portrayal of how the entertainment industry works and what it can be like on a film set. Have you worked in the entertainment industry? If so, what did you do?

I’ve actually only been on a set two times in my life, so I’m always pleased when readers report that my depiction was credible. Some of it was based on research—and, more generally, a geeky, movie-loving lifetime spent accumulating behind-the-scenes trivia—but in the nitty-gritty, I was helped immensely by the fact that I’m married to a former filmmaker. Whenever I had a logistical or procedural question, I could just shout it across the room at my husband.

Marissa and one of the other characters of the novel seem to experience the world differently than most people. Did you base Marissa’s internal struggles on your own experiences or those of someone you know? If not, what type of research did you do to learn about her condition?

Although Marissa and I are absolutely two distinct entities, we definitely (and deliberately) have the same operating system. This was partially a selfish, almost therapeutic choice: I typically exert a tremendous amount of effort to seem as if I’m not painfully uncomfortable in most if not all social situations, and I wanted one place where I could acknowledge just how difficult and nerve-wracking even basic human interaction can be for me. In this respect, inhabiting Marissa was an almost physical relief—like sliding my feet into fuzzy slippers after a day spent in high heels. For the first time in a very long time, Marissa let me be myself.

It was also important to me to ground Marissa’s character in my own lived experience because I wanted to do right by both of us. There’s a lot of pretty terrible neuroatypical rep in fiction—particularly in mystery fiction, which loves itself an ambiguously autistic super-detective—and I didn’t want Marissa to be counted among their number. So I hewed closely to a neurological profile that I knew really, really well: mine.

This ultimately resulted in a more intimate look into my own mind than I would normally grant my closest friends—much less the public—but it allowed me to create a character who is incredibly precious to and (if privately messaged responses are anything to go by) who really resonates with readers.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui and Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. The former is new, and the latter is an old favorite, but both present their information in bite-size portions that suit my current attention span. In ordinary times, I usually read a novel every two days or so, but I haven’t been able to manage that kind of focus since March. I will have to find a way to adjust soon, though, since I need to be writing a novel of my own.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Probably Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which had me convinced for many, many years that if I just tried hard enough I could move a pencil with my mind. But a close second was Double Crossing, a slightly racy Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys crossover that I reread so many times the book fell apart. At the time, I was scandalized/transfixed by the romantic tension between Nancy and Frank—and to this day, I prefer mysteries with a little romance in them. Perhaps this was where it all started.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

No, but only because I was careful enough to choose dirty books with comparatively unremarkable titles and covers—shout out to the cover designer for The Clan of the Cave Bear series.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

If you dig deep down to the roots of my literary ambitions, you’d probably find tiny clay idols in the shapes of Jane Austen, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, Iris Murdoch, and Edith Wharton. But these days I find myself more inspired and influenced by authors who do great work both on the page and in the larger literary community—if I had to pick just five, I’d say Steph Cha, Kellye Garrett, Alex Segura, Lori Rader-Day, and Laura Lippman.

What is a book you've faked reading?

I’m usually pretty scrupulous about owning up to the wild asymmetries in my reading profile, but in high school I definitely wrote an entire paper on a book I just couldn’t bring myself to read; The Scarlet Letter, and twice I have pretended to have read Catch-22 in order to get a guy at a party to stop talking about it.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I have never bought a book just for the cover, but if I’m picking between two equally compelling synopses, a pleasing cover—looks nice, feels nice, makes me laugh—might be the deciding factor. That said, sometimes I still think about the paperback cover of Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and wish I had it on my shelves instead of the e-book on my Kindle.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Every book changes my life, at least for its duration—that’s a large part of the appeal, right? But the most monumentally life-changing book was certainly the first book I ever read: Hop on Pop. I learned to read spontaneously, so when I pulled out Hop on Pop that day, I couldn’t read. I just wanted to look at the pictures. But then I opened the cover, and somehow, like magic, I could make sense of absolutely everything on the page. I spent the afternoon going through all my babysitter’s Dr. Seuss; within a month I was reading chapter books. I’ve never felt so powerful, and books have been my constant companion ever since.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I have a bad habit of very freely giving out copies of Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head, which is definitely not a book everyone should read—but for some reason, I try anyway.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

My enjoyment of most books I love isn’t at all diminished in the re-read—for some, familiarity might even enhance the experience—but I suppose a book with a big, satisfying surprise never hits the same way again. So with that in mind, I think I would say The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, which introduced me to the pleasures of being outwitted by an author at the height of her powers.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I doubt I would have given this answer two months ago, but right now just about the best thing I can think of is a long, lazy outdoor cookout with my family and all my closest friends—basically, all the people I most wish I could see in person, plus potato salad. Normally all I want is to keep people at arm’s length, but even I could go for a hug or two these days.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

“What kind of books do you think you write?” (Comedies!)

What are you working on now?

When I’m able to, I’m working on my next book—a locked-room mystery set in Silicon Valley—and I’m also sketching out what I hope is a novel take on a PI series. But it’s so hard to envision a fictional world in a moment when real life beggars belief (much less when I am responsible for so much more of my son’s education than I was when he was in school). So it’s coming along very slowly. But then again, the life of a novelist has always been a tortoise’s game, so I just try to take each day as it comes.

Pretty as a Picture
Little, Elizabeth