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Lisa Portolan: Sci-fi to spirituality

Ray Mardia
I met with the fascinating Lisa Portolan on Sunday afternoon to discuss her new chick-lit novel, See Saw.

Lisa works in advertising during the day and her big smile exudes the warmth and confidence of a PR professional. Minutes into our chat, Lisa comes across as a curious, creative and worldly woman whose interests range from sci-fi to spirituality.

We talked about her new novel See Saw, but read on to get a glimpse into our conversation about life, the writer’s way and what it means to be a strong woman today.

Ray: I’d love to let HerCanberra readers know more about you and your background. 

Lisa: So, I’ve been a writer for a long time. I’ve worked in the public service in the comms and advertising sector. That’s often been difficult to balance, because I’ve favoured my work more than my writing. Which is a little bit sad, because I’ve always intended on being a writer. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to come out with my writing.

Interesting – was there a catalyst? 

I went to see Wendy Whiteley speak at the Portrait Gallery. She said to me, “When you create something, you need to put it out there. There’s no point creating something otherwise”. That had an impact on me, because I created a lot of stuff and thought ‘I’m not ready for the public’s criticism’. Recently I’ve come to the point where I think I’m ready to put myself out there and do this.

I also have a little baby girl, so she’s four months old! That’s been another thing for me. I really want her to look up to me and have a good example of a woman who’s out there doing her thing and being successful.

That’s wonderful. I want to take our readers back and ask where your love of writing comes from. What were you like at school? 

Look, I loved writing from the start. I’ve written since I was 6 or 7 years old. I know, crazy. I used to win awards at school. Between the ages of 10-15, I adored reading old romantic novels by Shelley, Bronte and Austen. It was like an escape for me. I liked going to all these places and experiencing these characters. I used to ask my mum to take me to the library, so I could research medieval books to write the new Robin Hood! Other things that have come and gone, but I’ve always gone back to writing.

When did you decide to become a writer? 

That’s a really interesting question. I’ve always written. I’ve had articles published. I have books under my pseudonym. But I’ve never considered myself a writer. It’s a bit esoteric and weird. But I only started recently thinking, ‘actually, I’m a writer’. I think  that women often look for an external person to say ‘You’re this. You’re a PR professional. You’re a mother’. I never had that, so I found it very hard to claim the word for myself. Only recently have I been able to say ‘actually, this is what I do. I’m a writer’. But i’ve been a writer for a long time.

I think many women identify with that, in terms of going through a process where you stop being defined by others and instead define yourself.

I claimed it for myself. It helps that I’ve had articles published, and now See Saw has been picked up by a publisher. It gives you that external validation, but I really don’t think you need it. You need to claim the term for yourself.

I want to congratulate you on See Saw.  It’s exciting that it’s been picked up by a US publisher. Tell our readers about what you wanted to explore in this novel? 

I found it very hard to find my style with writing. I’ve written sci-fi and post-apocalyptic stuff like The Hunger Games. Once a literary agent said to me, “I think your voice is chick lit. You’re witty and your books are really funny”.

To be honest, I felt offended by it, because I didn’t think chick lit was literature. I thought it was something people read at the beach. But when I wrote this book, it does say something about Cecilia, and society, her job, her pressures about getting married and needing to feel like she’s succeeding in life. It was about me reclaiming that space and saying that actually, chick lit can be cool and fun.

I’ve personally read more classic novels than contemporary ones. But I enjoy good chick lit because it’s fun but full of heart! I like how the genre draws on timeless struggles that women have into a modern setting. At its core, great chick lit tells a great story about a woman’s experience of self-discovery. 

That’s very true. You know although it’s considered highbrow literature now, Jane Austen was chick lit of the day. Chick lit is the literature of our day for the contemporary woman, told in a satirical light. Which I think Austen was anyway. 

I want to talk about Cecilia – what do you find inspiring about her? 

Cecilia’s the dark horse. You don’t think she’s going to succeed. She’s an advertising exec, she drinks a bit too much, she parties too much, she’s always late to work. But there’s something spontaneous, different and quirky about her that I think people are charmed by.

Cecilia’s really the ordinary woman – there’s a pressure for women to be perfect and successful with great hair, and on time at work. Most women aren’t that. Cecilia’s a representation of the ordinary woman and her charm lies within that.

I want to ask more about your process. You’re a working woman living in Canberra. You have a baby. Do you have a structure for writing?  

I don’t. I’m a very unstructured person. Very free form. When I get the idea, I just write it. I wrote this book in three months, 18 months ago. At that point, I was working full-time and was writing on weekends. I would write 5-10 thousand words in one weekend. But there would be 6 months where I don’t do any writing whatsoever. There’s no structure to it.

Let’s talk about the central love story. We live in the age of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey series, where I’d argue that the female protagonists are often dependent on their male counterpart to define themselves. Were you aware of this phenomenon when creating Cecilia and the romance in the novel? 

Very much so. Cecilia is a strong character from the get go. She goes through relationships where she changes things on the edges, realising that such compromises aren’t right for her. I wanted to create a strong modern woman who can find love with someone who accepts and loves her for who she inherently is with all her flaws, wits and charms. This isn’t something you see as often in modern writing, so I wanted to create it.

Yes, this is a woman who’s sure of herself but is also open to transforming and having new experiences in life. 

Absolutely. Since the 90s’ era when Candace Bushnell was writing chick lit, we’ve had a decline of strong female characters. We’ve seen weaker female characters who are defined by their male counterparts. I think it’s sad that a whole generation of girls are growing up with these women to look up to. That’s why I created Cecilia.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?  

Getting lost along the way – like writing 150 pages and feeling uncertain about how it will turn out. For some reason, sometimes the wind just goes out of it and it’s hard to continue.

What’s the easiest thing about writing?  

I’ve always had a strong imagination. I daydream about fictitious characters all the time. The easiest thing for me is to bring these characters to life.

How do you get over the dreaded writer’s block? 

If I have writer’s block, I don’t write.

You’re a purist! 

I’m a purist. When I’m in the zone, I write ten thousand words in a weekend. When I’m not feeling it, I just do other things. It’s a creative process, so I don’t do it if I don’t feel like it.

What are you reading at the moment?

The Emotional Life of the Brain. I’m doing my PhD next year around happiness and the advertising industry, in terms of whether you can reach optimal levels of happiness based on how much advertising you consume. We live in a day when everyone wants to be happy and so there’s a lot of research behind it.

Any tips for aspiring novelists? 

Find an editor you love to work with. They’ll help you achieve the clarity you need. There’s certainly a lot of luck to it. I’m one of those people that think you gotta keep trying and eventually – it’ll pay off. Books that get published often have a clear beginning, middle and end to it. It’s like Hollywood movies – because that’s what is consumed today unfortunately.

Back in the day, modernist writers wrote random stuff in a lyrical way but it was unclear where the story was going. Those are some of my favourite writers, but it’s very hard to find a publisher who’d publish that today.

So James Joyce would have trouble finding a publisher today! 

Yes he would, unfortunately.

What’s a life lesson that you come back to again and again? 

My most important lesson is that everything about me is ego. I’m a yoga instructor on the side, so I’ve done a lot of training with yoga and read spiritual teachings.

So my hair, my clothes, my personality – everything that I project is ego. When I’m having a bad day, when people are judging you or criticising you, I just remember: this is ego.  None of this defines me. Within me is the actual reality is who I am.

Will you be writing in five years?  

Absolutely. I hope I can write full-time by then actually. I’m currently working on a sequel to See Saw and I have a lot of other ideas that I want to write about.  

See Saw will launch on 4 December at Muse Bookstore and Cafe, Kingston. Copies are available across Canberra and Australia in all major bookstores. Find out more at lisaportolan.com
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Feature image via lisaportolan.com

Ray Mardia works as a lawyer in Canberra and can recite most of the lyrics of Baby Got Back. An epicurean at heart, Ray loves the good life, people's stories, nature, art and beauty in all its forms. Ray is a lifestyle contributor at HerCanberra. More about the Author

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