Girl in the Arena, a novel by Writing, Literature and Publishing Writer-in-Residence Lise Haines, has gained the recognition of Publishers Weekly, LA Times, Salon.com, and has been nominated for both a CYBILS and a South Carolina Book Award. Haines teaches Creative Writing: Fiction in the graduate and undergraduate programs at Emerson and has been Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard University. She is also author of the novels In My Sister’s Country and Small Acts of Sex and Electricity.
Girl in the Arena, a dark satire set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chronicles the story of Lyn, the 18-year-old daughter of a modern-day gladiator. In this alternate history in which gladiator sport is as big as the NFL, her father falls to his death in the ring. Lyn now faces a choice: marry her father’s murderer, according to the rules of the association that governs the competitions, or fight him to the death. With a nod to Roman history and a story resonant of Greek tragedy, Girl in the Arena takes a searing look at violence, gender roles, and society’s fixation on celebrity. Tom Robbins writes, “What Lise Haines has wrought is a kind of comic book without pictures, a wild pop novel that—rocking with violent energy and bopping with social satire—can generate suspense, horror, laughter, and even twinges of tenderness.”
In the following Q&A, Haines speaks about writing, teaching, and advising young writers on how to write their best stories.
What can you say about the success of Girl in the Arena?
I think Cathy Day, author of The Circus in Winter, put it best: “This book is like Edith Wharton/Jane Austen + Ridley Scott + George Saunders.”
The South Carolina Book Award aims to encourage students in South Carolina to read high-quality literature and honor authors that the students have chosen as their favorites. What was it like, hearing about the South Carolina Book Award nomination?
What a great feeling when teachers and librarians give your book such a strong vote of confidence.
How does the story differ from others you’ve written?
I have that same mix of humor and pathos, and the quirky voice and characters. But this time I worked on something with pretty scary political and sociological implications as well.
How did the reception of the book vary from that of your previous work?
It was exciting to sell a lot more books, and I was able to draw young adult readers along with my adult audience.
Describe your experience with Emerson College as writer-in-residence.
I’ve worked with generations of talented Emerson students while bringing three hardbound novels, along with their paperback editions, into the world. The faculty and students make this home. I love it here.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer for a living?
When I realized that I could take the lines humming in my head and make them into humming sentences with a big, fat pencil. That delight has never gone away.
What is the main piece of advice you can offer to young writers?
Write like your house is being torched and you just have to finish one more paragraph before you run to safety. Then once the paramedics are giving you oxygen, reach for your laptop and finish the page.