Author Q&A

Open book with Lara Tupper

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WASHINGTON — Author, writing teacher and jazz/pop singer Lara Tupper never gives herself a day off.

"I'm self-employed, officially, so I have the beauty of arranging my own schedule," Tupper said during a phone interview from her office space in Becket, where she finished writing her second novel, "Off Island," which hits bookstores Monday. She also recently finished her first full-length album, "This Dance."

Tupper knows about finding the space, time and energy to prioritize her work, whether it be writing or music. The writing teacher, who teaches workshops throughout Berkshire County, is a former creative writing instructor at Rutgers University. After years of "giving advice to other people and not following my own advice," Tupper realized she wasn't writing enough. "I knew needed some kind of shift, to get out of the city," she said.

In 2010, a friend invited her to attend a retreat at Kripalu Center For Yoga & Health in Stockbridge.

"I had a lovely time. I tried meditation for the first time; I had kale for the first time," she said with a laugh. "I felt there's a more holistic way to live."

She quit her job at Rutgers and moved to Stockbridge, volunteering for a year at Kripalu in exchange for room and board. She started teaching writing classes there — something she still does to this day — and returned to a daily practice of writing, and rekindled her passion for music.

"Kripalu was instrumental in providing me the time and space to help me remember what feeds me," she said.

It's that understanding of dedicating a life to one's art — and the affects it can have on relationships, lives around those who are committed to the work — that partially inspired the story behind "Off Island." The novel revolves around two couples a hundred years a part, each with an artist's struggles — and the struggles of the partners in the shadow of that work — at the center of the relationships. Two of the central characters, painter Paul Gauguin and his wife, Mette, were the catalyst for the novel, according to Tupper. She became interested in the couple's history after a visit to an exhibit of the artist's work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"I wandered into [the exhibit], and I was just enthralled by it," she said. "Not so much by his paintings, but more by the letters on display; letters he had written to his wife, Mette." The letters between the couple documented Gauguin's time in Tahiti, often with explicit details of his extramarital affairs, while she was in Copenhagen with their children.

"I thought, 'Wow, that's disturbing," Tupper said. "And then it got me thinking, 'I wonder what [Mette's] story is, what was that like for her?'"

Out of that came came a novel about prioritizing your art over other commitments, even at the expense of one's marriage. Tupper, however, is quick to point out that she is happily married.

"I'm lucky to live with a singer/songwriter and he understands what it is to prioritize that work in his life."

Those looking to pick up the book shouldn't expect female characters who are victims of circumstance; each is given a vibrant life and make difficult choices that Tupper hopes will be inspiring to readers.

"The idea of making a life for yourself that feels right is one component of the book — that does reflect my own path to the Berkshires."

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Tupper, who now lives in Washington, will share her work with Berkshire neighbors at the Becket Athenaeum on Saturday, Feb. 8. Ahead of her official book tour, Tupper took time out of her daily writing schedule to answer a few questions about her favorite books:

Q What books did you use in your research Paul Gauguin and his marriage?

A Quite a few! It was hard to stop reading. Gauguin's collection of musings, "The Writings of a Savage," was both helpful and disturbing. I read museum publications about Gauguin exhibits, particularly from the Met, where my idea for "Off Island" began many years ago. I read mean, graphic letters from Gauguin to his wife, Mette Gad, and knew she had her own story. I found very little about her. I was forced to invent, which ultimately helped.

Q What are some of the best books you've read about artists?

A "Girl Reading" by Katie Ward is an incredibly clever book. She imagines the (linked) stories behind seven portraits of women reading. I loved Courtney Maum's "Costalegre," which is inspired by Peggy Guggenheim. And Gauguin's scrapbook, "Noa Noa," is a beautiful collage of scribbles and drawings. It was Gauguin's self-promotional tool for European galleries. (He made it to entice buyers.) But looking at it provides a visual boost for me. The ability to create in that medium remains a great mystery.

Q What are some of your favorite novels about music or musicians?

A "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan is inventive and funny. "High Fidelity" by Nick Hornby remains a classic. (Hornby taught me how to organize my album collection.) In terms of nonfiction, I just received "Prince: The Beautiful Ones," and can't wait to dive in. I liked "Reckless Daughter," David Yaffe's biography of Joni Mitchell, one of my favorite songwriters.

Q What are your favorite books about the craft of writing?

A I often dip into "Still Writing" by Dani Shapiro. It's about the practice of writing and how to sustain the practice, despite paralyzing self-doubt and the temptations of internet browsing. "Writing Life Stories" by Bill Roorbach offers practical exercises for accessing autobiographical material. My teachers at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College have written a number of craft books and I keep these close. I recommend "Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction" by Charles Baxter and "The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work," edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett.

Q What is your favorite fictional love story?

A I want to say "Doctor Zhivago," as it was my parents' favorite (thus my name). But it's such a depressing tale! I'm thinking about how to classify a love story. Romantic love? The love between friends? Between parents and children? Self-love (learning to tolerate ourselves)? "Banshee" by Rachel DeWoskin hits all these marks. It's a stunning and brave book. The protagonist gives herself permission to let go of all societal restraints/expectations and simply follow her base desires. And Elena Ferrante's "The Neapolitan Novels" are gorgeous examples of love (and un-love) between longtime friends.

Q What's the last thing you read that you simply couldn't put down?

A "Severance" by Ling Ma, "Red Clocks" by Leni Zumas and "The Testaments" by Margaret Atwood, which I realize are all about dystopias. I appreciate this premise: How will we behave when things go awry? It forces an examination of human nature, of basic survival instincts, which is fascinating to me.

Q What books are currently on your nightstand?

A So many! It's a dangerous area, about to topple. All come highly recommended. I know they'll keep me up too late, once I start. Sion Dayson's "As a River" is at the top, followed by "Upstream," a collection of essays by Mary Oliver and "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" by Ocean Voung. And more books about artists I can feel free to read, now that my own writing about artists is complete (such as "The Last Painting of Sara de Vos" by Dominic Smith and "How to Be Both" by Ali Smith). And finally, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Neighborly Words of Wisdom from Mister Rogers." Because the movie made me cry.


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