A Conversation with Jillian Lauren
By Lindsey Lewis Smithson
Before we get into the story itself, I’d like to first ask about your writing process. Near of the end of Some Girls: My Life in a Harem you talked about journaling and crafting short essays about your time in Brunei, was this the writing that eventually turned into the memoir?
The journals didn’t turn into the memoir, but they were excellent source material and provided details that I wouldn’t have remembered in a million years. Also, they acted as an important snapshot of my emotional and psychological landscape at the time. I tried to honor that reality rather than writing from the (hopefully) wiser perspective I come from today.
Was the book always in its original structure, as a straight chronological narrative, or did it go through other incarnations?
The beginning and the ending flipped around a bit, as did the backstory, but the main events of the narrative were always chronological. I felt it was a story best told simply.
Can you tell me about the seventeen-year time lapse between the events in the book and the writing of it? Was it difficult, after several years away, to work with those experiences, or did the distance make it easier?
It took that long to be ready, from both a craft standpoint and an emotional
standpoint, to do the story justice. For me, the trick to writing about such a wild and
often dark time in my life was to have a stable foundation. I have a pretty boring life now, and I mean that in the best way. I’m lucky that I was able to emerge from the period of time I describe in SOME GIRLS with my health and my sanity. And I’m lucky that I was then able to assemble a life for myself from which I felt safe enough to tell my story. But I wouldn’t use the word easy. I don’t think writing a memoir is ever easy, regardless of the years amassed between the events and the writing.
I am sure that a lot more happened with you personally, and in the harem, than is presented in the book. How did you decide what the key moments to include were and what events were ok to leave out?
I started out by writing the longest, most boring draft ever. I wrote it all. Then I tried to figure out what the story was really about and I began to sculpt the narrative arc around that.
Throughout the book I was struck by the compassion you expressed for other people, who, in my opinion didn’t always deserve it. When you said of Robin (Prince Jefri) “Even princes tire of being princes sometimes. There were moments late at night when he was sick of the party, moments in the morning when he lingered an extra ten minutes in bed before complying with his rigid schedule, moments when he drove his car too fast on curvy country roads and I wondered if he wanted to keep driving” I had really sympathy for him (271). Did you find it challenging to make people, like Robin, as dynamic in the book as they were in person?
Turning real people into characters always does them a disservice in some way. There’s simply no way to express the entirety of a person on a page. It’s yet another thing that, as writers, we must strive toward but at which we must ultimately fail.
Compassion is the absolute minimum we have to bring to any character we write, in fiction and non-fiction equally. One of the great gifts of writing the memoir was that I was able to discover a different level of compassion for both myself and for the other people who shared my story.
You’ve said in other interviews that this memoir did drive a wedge between you and your family, was that a repercussion you took into consideration when writing it? Given this, what advice would you offer others who are writing their first memoirs?
My parents were hurt by the book and that saddens me a great deal. But it was a story I was compelled to write and I believe it has the potential to connect with many women. I did my best to write a deeply honest and compassionate account of that time in my life and my family was part of that story. I had hoped my family would be more supportive of the book, but I have faith that we’ll work through this difficult time. We’ve gone through worse.
The thing about writing a memoir is that you don’t get to dictate other people’s reactions. If you’re going to write a book like this, there’s a possibility that you’ll lose some people. And the questions you need to ask yourself are: How deeply do I believe in this story? How far am I willing to go to tell it? How much am I willing to risk? If you’re not willing to risk much, maybe you should find a story that’s more essential to you.
You also have a book of fiction, Pretty, out as well. How has writing fiction differed, for you, than writing nonfiction?
Fiction and non-fiction inform each other. They’re both deeply personal forms. When I’m looking toward my next project, I usually play around with a few different voices, fiction and non-fiction, and see which one is clamoring more loudly to be heard.
It seems like there was only about a year between the publication of Some Girls and the publication of Pretty. Were you working on both books at once, and what was the publication process like for each?
I actually wrote PRETTY before I wrote SOME GIRLS and they were published out of order. Hence the Stephen King-esque rapidity of the turn around time.
There are a lot of tidbits of other stories that aren’t fleshed out in Some Girls, since they don’t follow the main narrative; have you considered writing another memoir that covers other aspects of your life, or one that delves into you’re your current life?
Funny you should mention it, but I’m doing exactly that. I’m getting back to it just as soon as I send you this document!
After everything that you have done, how did you decide to get your MFA from Antioch?
It seemed like a way to kick my own ass to get my novel (PRETTY) finished, as well as a way to get some crucial guidance and to make connections with other writers. It was excellent in all of those regards.