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Interview: October 6, 2006

October 6, 2006

SMALL ACTS OF SEX AND ELECTRICITY, the second novel by author and poet Lise Haines, explores the boundaries of friendship, love and envy. In this interview with's contributing writer Hillary Wagy, Haines describes the extremely complicated, sibling-like relationship shared by the book's two main characters and how that dynamic but volatile bond has negatively impacted each of them. She also addresses the presence, or lack thereof, of antiquated mores regarding love and marriage, and discusses the strong and encouraging figures in her life who indirectly have influenced her writing. Was there an event or specific idea that prompted you to write SMALL ACTS OF SEX AND ELECTRICITY?

Lise Haines: I saw two young girls in my head, Jane and Mattie, meeting for the first time on a favorite beach of mine. As you know, Jane is the presence, the one who takes up most of the frame in a scene, and Mattie is the observer watching her intently. I was curious to understand Mattie's envy and how this would play out. I didn't know at the time that the story would be about their adult lives. Miramar is a remarkable spot. Maybe it was the sense of place that created the novel. I envy anyone who lives there.

BRC: In SMALL ACTS OF SEX AND ELECTRICITY, you write that "a triangle is a stable shape...difficult to break apart," yet the relationship between Jane, Mattie and Mike is anything but stable. It is consistent, but simmering to a volatile state. Why did it take Jane so long to plug in the electricity between Mattie and Mike and unplug her own electrical current from him?

LH: Sometimes seemingly impulsive actions come out of long, simmering issues, as they do with Jane. She's reacting to her grandmother Franny's death, to having her lynch pin removed. It's a loss that's both liberating and completely uncentering for Jane.

BRC: If you took a poll among women and asked them if they had the opportunity to swap lives with their envied best friend, husband included, what do you think the result would be?

LH: You have to wonder. I need my best friends as anchors in the world, so I hope none of them are ready to take off anytime soon. I don't think of Mattie and Jane as best friends, however, but old friends. They both need each other, but have the kinds of conflicts that siblings can have.

BRC: I felt like Jane committed a completely unselfish act of love/friendship by giving her best friend Mattie what she'd always coveted --- her husband, Mike. The reality was that Mike was too weak to leave Jane and pledge his love for Mattie, thus the small acts of electricity between him and Mattie created a live wire of undercurrent that destroyed his marriage. Do you think Jane wanted Mattie to see firsthand that she had been lusting after a fantasy?

LH: This is a fascinating take on the book. Maybe there's an element of generosity that Jane expresses in leaving, but she's mostly out to hurt people, herself included. She's acting out of her own narcissism, using Mattie in her self-destruction. I don't know that Mike's loyalty was weakness --- in many ways, I think the opposite. He's tried to hold the family together. But he's reached a limit, and then circumstances provoke a change. I don't think Jane saw what she was doing as instructional or kind.

BRC: Franny is one of the threads that tie Jane and Mattie together. She creates a loving cocoon for two emotionally wounded girls. Wealthy Grandmother Franny, collector of "stuff," a chic vision whose Chanel No. 5 scent lingers after death --- we all have a Franny whom we look to and admire. Was there a specific inspiration to write Franny as you did?

LH: Fiction allows me to stretch out, so I'm pretty loyal to this idea of making things up, producing things out of thin air. But I will say that my mother had a closet full of great suits. She loved to fill her world with things of beauty. I wasn't thinking about her as I wrote the book, but afterward, I could see some influence.

BRC: Mattie knows Jane well. They share intimacies, dreams, memories, grief, little-girl antics and laughter. Mattie even envisions Jane at a roadside stand not far from the beach house the morning Jane drives off in the Jaguar. Do you think female friends really know this much about each other? What about the secrets that exist in a marriage behind closed doors? There don't seem to be any secrets between Jane and Mattie. Is that realistic?

LH: When the neighbors are over for dinner, and Jane starts to talk about Mattie's lover, she reveals privileged information. Mattie knows about Jane's box boy. I think they shared a lot of secrets and kept some things in reserve. And yes, I think it's rare when a friend shares every last thing. It's a blessing when you can feel that kind of trust.

BRC: I found Mattie passionless and childlike. She is a girl in a woman's body drifting through life as her parents drifted through the ocean in their sailboat. Why did you select such a graphic image for her to draw on the bathroom wall in the amusement park and where she scrawls her and Mike's initials on it?

LH: I think Mattie's passion funnels into one primary place, which thins out her other passions --- that her interest in Mike is intense and ongoing. With Franny's death and Jane's flight, Mattie goes through a process of self-discovery that makes her wobbly and perhaps regressive, as if she could go back and live her whole life differently. That moment in the bathroom is Mattie being the teenager who's completely self-directed and unfiltered --- the way Jane had a chance to be.

BRC: Mattie and Mike lust for each other. There are few words of love, no romance, and a hurried tone to their small acts of sex. Is it this lack of a 220-volt electrical current that leads Mattie to reject Mike's offers of clandestine meetings in hotels for the rest of her life?

LH: Mattie expresses romantic feelings in the way she observes Mike, in her nervous physicality when she's with him, in her speech. I don't think of their acts as small. The small acts are the men who have meant little to Mattie, because none of them are Mike. Initially she rejects a future with Mike, but that's about avoidance of pain, about the need to sort out who she is independently. Then you note where she heads the car.

BRC: The visual imagery in SMALL ACTS is identifiable. As a reader, I felt right at home reading the description of the beach house chaos: "Franny's bed had gone unmade, sandy towels worked up a mildew on the bathroom floor....Half empty glasses and cups, open lipsticks; I had no idea how many had found their way upstairs." Behind the closed doors of exclusive oceanfront properties are real people who live similar lives. Did you intentionally write a theme of lust? Lust for what we do not have?

LH: I'm glad the visual elements were so tangible. I care deeply about the visual, felt world. But going after a theme, for me, would kill the work. And you're right, all those houses are filled with real people who have very real concerns. I wanted to know about one group of people, in one house in my imagination. I still think of them a good deal. Although I didn't set out to write a book that speaks to desire, it weaves the story.

BRC: "I knew he was a split man." Is it possible for a man to love two women? Or vice versa? Writers of fiction have a tendency to make the male character stay with his wife and kids and engage in discreet affairs. What keeps writers from letting the man or woman passionately pursue the man or woman he/she loves and marry them? In reality this happens every day. Men and women divorce and move on. In novels, fiction seems to uphold outdated mores. Why?

LH: I think it happens enough to talk about. It certainly shows up in divorce courts, magazine articles, novels and film, Greek tragedy, psychiatric offices, confessionals....

The entire action of SMALL ACTS OF SEX AND ELECTRICITY takes place in a matter of weeks. Eventually, Mike goes after Mattie. Mattie makes a choice about what she wants, she turns her car around. But as a whole, if fiction were simply about people making clean choices and moving on, our interest would fall off. Funny, I often think the opposite, that old mores are rather dead in fiction.

BRC: Some men are good fathers, but lousy husbands. Mike takes good care of his children, but not his wife. Is this your impression of many marriages today and why you wrote Mike's character this way?

LH: We don't see much of Mike's relationship with Jane --- except through Mattie. And when we jump into the story, it's all about aftermath, a time when it's tough to judge the whole of their time together. Again, I don't have those large, sweeping views of marriage or people --- at least I hope not. I think I'd stop writing fiction if I did. The worst thing you can do is write a novel with an agenda in one hand and a pen in another.

BRC: Franny's greatest gift to the girls was not the "stuff" she left them, but the memories she gave them, and these words: "She looked back at us, said we'd be amazing women." Was there a strong female in your life who nurtured you, encouraged your writing and who created lasting memories for you to draw upon in your writing?

LH: Both my mother and father encouraged me to write, they were journalists. My mother was both nurturing and then completely absorbed in her career. She had a daily column in a major Chicago paper. It was my grandmother --- my mother's mother --- who indulged me, who allowed me to have a child-centered life for a time.

BRC: Is there one message you want your readers to take away from SMALL ACTS OF SEX AND ELECTRICITY?

LH: When I put down a novel or walk out of a movie theater really hit by what I've just experienced, I think about those stories for a long time to come. They keep revealing themselves in a variety of ways I find immensely satisfying. I hope my readers have that kind of experience when they read SMALL ACTS OF SEX AND ELECTRICITY.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

LH: I'm working on a novel and I don't have a date in mind just now. This is the fun part, when you simply get to play. I'm being a little mysterious about it for superstition's sake.