On Campus: Exclusive Interview with Margaret Lukas on Farthest House

Author Margaret Lukas sits for an interview about the release of her very first novel, Farthest House, available on January 14, 2014.  As a valuable member of the University of Nebraska at Omaha community, she is an instructor of creative writing in the Writer’s Workshop program.  She received her BFA from UNO’s Writer’s Workshop in 2004, and obtained her MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington, in 2007.

Margaret is a recipient of a 2009 Nebraska Art Council Individual Artist Fellowship.  She is a contributor to NEBRASKAland magazine  as well as an editor for the quarterly literary journal, Fine Lines. Her writing also appears online and in the 2012 anthology, On Becoming, published by the University of Nebraska Press.  Her award-winning short story, “The Yellow Bird,” was made into The Yellow Bird, a short film and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

For this exclusive interview, we wanted to get better acquainted with Margaret, and wanted her perspective on Farthest House as the author, an educator, and a woman of exciting literary achievements.

Q. Although there is a short summary available, what would you, the author, say Farthest House is about?

A. The book is about my passions: passionate people, whether it’s painting or writing, or criminal investigation. And it’s about bad people who need smacked upside the head for hiding their evil deeds behind the cloaks, or vestments, of organized religion. It’s also about love and self-acceptance. As Clay in Farthest House says, “Everyone has something.” I really believe that. If you’re here, in human form, then just like Willow, you inherited a bum shoulder—whatever shape your particular defect takes. I hope through Willow’s struggle to reach self-acceptance, people are helped to reach their own.  I also wanted to write about family. There are so many lonely people in the world who feel that without blood relatives in their lives they have to live alone. I think we can find families and gather families.

Q. Do you prefer character driven or plot driven novels?

A. For me, characters are much more interesting than plot. I find people endlessly fascinating, and I can put aside a character-driven novel and reread it a year later and be fascinated all over again.  A plot-driven novel, again, this is just me, doesn’t hold that magic. Once the punch line has been revealed, and if that was the driving force, I’m done.  Characters stay with me.  My motto is “Fiction is Folks.”

Q. How long have you had the idea for the novel? How long did it take to write?

A. I spent about five years working on the novel before it was accepted for publication. But that’s not day-in-day-out time on just this piece. I was also working on a couple of other novels, and life happens as well. Weeks on end, no writing was done.  On a good day, I try to write two hours. If I get in fourteen hours a week, that might be the number of hours a Stephen King is able to put in a day.  So, to measure all writers by the same measure—say years—is really deceiving.

I hope that’s encouraging to people who aren’t finding much time to write. Keep at it. You’re still a writer, even if you’re only putting in one hour a day or week.  Keep plugging.  Those odd hours add up; the pages begin to form a neat little stack. Stay with it. There’s a saying, though I doubt I’ve got the wording exact, “Come as far as you can, and the Universe will meet you there.” I think that’s a great philosophy. Do your best, write when you can, and don’t compare yourself to the guy who’s knocking out a book a year.

Q. How long did it take Farthest House to be published? What was your most valuable lesson from that process?

A. The process (from acceptance to publication) took about two and a half years.  Which is pretty standard for publishing houses.  During that time, the novel was read by four different editors and I did four or five edits. It’s a long process, but necessary.  The one thing I learned was pay attention to punctuation.  When the comma guru went through it a final time, I was embarrassed to see my errors.  I teach this stuff, and I’d never let my students get away with so many errors.  But I was so absorbed in setting and characters, or so sure I couldn’t error, I just wasn’t paying close enough attention.

Q. At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to become an author?

A. I’ve wanted to be a writer since about the age of 12. I read Great Expectations at that age and was blown away.  That was the book that did it for me and probably countless others.  I tried to rewrite it.  After I married and the babies started coming, I quit writing fiction and took up journaling. I could pick up my journal even if I only had ten minutes and write without having to get into a fictional zone.  I was also an avid reader during those years and absorbing craft without realizing it.

Q. Do you have any specific exercises to help you during your writing process?

A. What works for me is early in the morning. I pour that cup of coffee and turn on the computer. The longer I wait in the day, the more likely it is that something else will rear its head and interfere.  If I’m writing, but feel nothing important is happening on the page and I want to quit, I’ll first set a timer. Just an old wind-up egg timer for an hour. Something about that thing ticking, and knowing this hour is it for the day, spurs me on and almost without fail the writing improves.  Silly, likely self-hypnosis, but it works. I also like music, instrumentals, the tempo. If I’m stuck, I’ll often pick up a pen and my novel journal and write in long hand for a bit. I’ll ask the characters what they think, and I’ll get pages of just what it is they do think.   That practice deepens the work.

Q. What inspired your novel?

A. The inspiration was not as clear cut as you might imagine. I had an image of an old woman who wrote mysteries and was neo-pagan. By that, I mean spiritual but not religious. When I first conceived of Mémé, that woman, I had her Native American.  Then I started reading about the campaign Native American’s have to stop the misappropriation of their religions.  I dropped that aspect of her character.  The rest of the novel has evolved in the writing. Draft after draft.

Q. Did you do a lot of research for Farthest House?

A. Not much. I did some research into the area in France where the narrator was born, and I studied Google maps of the region. Most of the novel though, is set in a fictional small town in Nebraska and in Omaha. I was raised in a small town, and for the last forty years have lived in Omaha, so no research was necessary on those two locations. I did have to look into the Willie Brown lynching for Jonah’s character. There’s so much written about that horrible day in Omaha history. It was easy to find far more material than I could use.

I love research, and it’s always a temptation to stop right in the middle of a paragraph and go off on some hunt that will consume the rest of my writing time.  I have to rein myself in. One thing that I’ve learned in terms of research is to print off everything that I’m going to use or even might use.  So often, I’d find something, use it, then feel the need six months later to recheck the fact. I’d be back revisiting sources—spending twice the time on research. Now, I make a copy of everything and put it in a three-ring binder under a proper heading. That single practice has saved me hours.     

To order your copy of Farthest House, click here!  To hear the first two chapters read aloud, click here!

In addition to congratulating Margaret on the release of her first novel, 13th Floor Magazine would also like to extend our thanks for her continued support and sponsorship.  It is greatly appreciated and we could not be more excited to share in her wonderful accomplishment!

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