Lorraine Devon Wilke loves to do anything that challenges her creatively. When she is not working as a photographer or writing and singing beautiful songs, she likes to write stories with a lot of heart. Her debut novel, After the Sucker Punch is an example of where she used personal experiences to weave a fictional tale of self-discovery, reinvention and healing. As our author of the day, Wilke reveals how her own father's journal inspired the book and chats about her characters, Scientology and the Catholic faith.
Please give us a short introduction to After the Sucker Punch
After the Sucker Punch tells the story of a thirty-something woman, Tessa Curzio, a former rock & roller now full-time writer in Los Angeles, who, at story’s beginning, comes home to Chicago for the funeral of her father, a man with whom she’s had a mercurial and confusing relationship. On the night of his funeral, at the behest of one of her five siblings, she finds one of his journals and reads—pages and paragraphs—in which he detailed his disapproval of her life, concluding with the stunning assessment that she’s a failure. The impact is immediate and devastating, shattering her perceptions of her childhood and her relationship with her father, and causing her to go into existential free fall. From there we follow her journey forward, where hurt, doubt and anger contribute to the annihilation of her romantic relationship, the destabilizing of her job, and the introduction of new characters who force her to face her fears, and remember who she is, all of which lead to new perspectives on love, acceptance, and, ultimately, forgiveness.
Was there anything in particular, an event or anything else that inspired you to write this book?
There is the old adage—a writer “borrows from their life to create fiction”—that applies to this book. While not my or my family’s story specifically, a parallel could be drawn to the inciting incident: My siblings and I always knew my father wrote journals, which many within the family read, and years after my father died, a sister let me know that one contained a critique of my life as a young adult that wasn’t particularly complimentary.
Now, I was older than my protagonist when I read those entries; my life was much more stable and defined, and, frankly, I didn’t have quite the relationship with my father, or the yearning for his approval, that’s part of Tessa’s psychology. But certainly I was hurt to read those lines, and though I moved on pretty quickly, in talking about it with other people, I learned that those elements carried tremendous weight for many: the idea of internalizing and transcending criticism from someone you loved who is no longer available to you. With that, I started exploring a framework that ultimately led to After The Sucker Punch.
Besides being an author you are also a photographer and singer/songwriter. How do you find time to pursue all of these creative activities?
I don’t! But what I do manage is a sort of relay system: I go from one to the next as demand and opportunity lead me. When I’m working in one creative discipline I give it my all, usually at the expense of the others. But I typically can make the rounds with each over a given period of time.
More recently, I’ve been predominately focused on getting my novels written and out into the market (which, as every author knows, is profoundly time-consuming), so I’ve had to backburner my songwriting and photography, as a result. I am, however, starting rehearsals in January 2017 as a cast member of a new musical being produced in San Diego, CA. Once that starts, I’ll have no choice but to keep that part of my artistic landscape balanced with my writing, as I am also in the process of launching my third novel.
How do you go about creating your characters? Are they ever inspired by real life people?
Some of my characters have been loosely inspired by people I know, but even in that case, the process of creating fiction always leads me to stray from reality to create fully-imagined people, whose lives, traits, sensibilities, and worldviews are uniquely their own. I find when I begin sketching out the framework of a novel, I list the basic traits of my characters, but, in every case, as I get further into the process of following those characters through the twists and turns of their narratives, they grow and develop in ways I might not have imagined in the beginning. It’s a very organic, exhilarating process, and I’m always fascinated and amazed by who these people end up being by story’s end. Most often, I become deeply connected to them, feeling as if I know them as well as tangible people in my actual life. It’s a very creative, birthing process and one of the most gratifying and exciting parts of writing fiction.
Your books always explore emotional issues concerning faith, family and love. Why do you take this approach?
Life interests me—real life in all its maddening, confounding, exhilarating mess—so I write stories about that mess. All three of my novels, After the Sucker Punch, Hysterical Love, and my third, as-yet unpublished book, A Nice White Girl, focus on real people in real-life situations. Which means—as is typical of real people—the characters engage with family in one form or another; they struggle in and out of love—looking for, losing, chasing, or reveling in; they stumble and succeed in jobs and careers; they tangle and find solace with friends, and, in some cases, they explore their spiritual worldview (though that last one is specific only to After The Sucker Punch).
As with most writers, I write what I love to read, and I’ve always been drawn to stories that dig deep into the human experience, the existential battles we face and fight while traversing our lives. From the time I was little and became a voracious reader, books that made me feel, that helped me understand myself and my place in the world; that reflected experiences and emotions I recognized, were the most resonating books in my collection. When I started writing, there was no question those would be the kind of books I’d write.
I’m pulled into narratives that involve the stories, big and small, that reflect the emotional, psychological, and tangible struggles people experience in everyday life. I think there’s something reflective and recognizable in those stories, and while I can become fully immersed as a reader in great science fiction, nail-biting thrillers, far-reaching global intrigues, I’m most captivated and moved by the genre of stories I write... which is why I choose to write them!
In After the Sucker Punch, self-image and the relationship between father and daughter is a central theme. Why was this theme so important to you?
It’s universal. We all have some kind of relationship with a father, a father figure, and it’s one of the most weighted, emotional, self-reflecting elements in a person’s life, whether that father is present or has left a deficit. For a woman, a father is her first model of male interaction, of male approval or disapproval, male love or lack of love, male response or lack of response, and so it’s a deeply resonating, archetypal topic for most women, one that makes tremendous contribution, in one way or another, to our self-images.
Tell us a bit about Tessa. Who is she as a character and what makes her so special? How much do you have in common with her?
I love Tessa because she’s so damned imperfect, so complex and flawed, yet, at her center, she’s a really good person. I like people like that in real life, so I wanted to create a character that reflected a kind of humanity that I find compelling and interesting. Some readers have told me they didn’t always “like” Tessa; they sometimes hated her decisions or thought she was behaving like an idiot, and that’s all part of her authenticity. Personally, I respond less to fictional characters that seem too perfect, too poised and considered. Real people are messy, and Tessa is very, very messy. She’s also funny, creative, adventurous, relentlessly seeking, and deeply loyal. She a sort of edgy “every-woman.” I think I have at least that in common with her!
Which of your characters has been the most challenging to write for?
I’d have to say the father in this story, Leo Curzio. It’s challenging to write a character that is deceased from the very beginning of the story. You have the task of fleshing him out in a tangible way, and, in the case of this story, explore and reveal his dark side, his cruel, unthinking side, without losing all sympathy and compassion for the man. Some have asked if Leo is a depiction of my own father and he is not. He has some of my father’s characteristics; certainly I used the “journals” as a major plot point, and, yes, there are aspects of Leo and the way he relates (or doesn’t) to his children that reflect some of my family life. But I needed to be able to stretch beyond reality to give Leo traits and plot turns his character required. Not always easy, given the storyline – I mean, he is, basically, the villain of the piece – but I feel I was able to capture, much like Tessa’s character, a fully-formed, very real and relatable human being.
The Catholic Faith and Scientology play central roles in the book. Why?
Both are very dogmatic, very controversial, and completely demanding, immersing belief systems, and as a person who experienced both at different periods of my life, I found the arcane and compelling aspects of religion and spirituality to be very rich fodder for creative exploration. Many books, movies, TV shows have explored Catholicism, but few, if any, have taken on Scientology, with its strange, science-fiction origin-story, and often contentious and viral news coverage. I discovered that whenever people found out I’d been in Scientology for that early decade of my young adult life, they were fascinated, eager with questions and curiosities, so it struck me as interesting to bring that element into Tessa’s storyline. The ways in which cults and religion impact and influence our thinking – about life, the world, ourselves – is so intriguing, and in the context of this story, that exploration became rich material with which to develop Tessa’s journey.
Does After the Sucker Punch have an underlying message? What do you hope readers will take away from it?
It’s a story that, in its unique and unconventional narrative, takes on topics and themes I believe are universal. I’m one of those artists – in whatever medium I work – who feels compelled to find meaning and message wrapped, hopefully, in deeply entertaining and page-turning narratives. In After The Sucker Punch, the overriding message is contained in themes of forgiveness, love, creativity; personal responsibility and transformation. It’s a journey story, one that takes the protagonist from one wretched, disillusioned moment of her life through a year that kicks her ass, but simultaneously demands her growth... a sort of “mid-thirties coming-of-age”!
At its heart, it’s a love story, a story of growing up, of learning to forgive and let go. It’s funny, and sexy and I hope readers feel a lot while they’re reading. I hope they get angry, laugh, cry, and occasionally yell, “really, Tessa??” I hope, by ‘the end,’ their experience has been much like Tessa’s: an odyssey of twists and turns that concludes on a note of hope. And, as a bonus, there’s even a free download to an original song of mine at the end, so I hope they also walk away singing!
In your mind, what happens to the characters after you write their final chapters? Do they continue to "live on" in your imagination?
I can’t say I’ve ever imagined “where they go from here,” once a book is completely done. Which means they’re forever “held in suspension” in the time and story frame of that book! But, conversely, while I’m in the midst of creating them, they accompany my every waking thought, keeping me up at night, popping in during my power walks, throwing dialogue at me while driving.... very active, engaging characters while formulating their story. Once done, they quietly keep to the pages of their book.
To what degree do you believe authorial intent determines how a work should be interpreted?
Obviously every reader will interpret a book via their own personal filters, their particular emotional palates; their taste in what they enjoy, and their individual ways of processing, assessing, and translating the written word. Which means a writer cannot, ultimately, control how a reader interprets their work. They can only focus on the themes they wish to convey in ways that command attention. If they do that well, if they have the creative skill to formulate, imagine, and deliver characters, plot, and dialogue in ways that honor the book’s mission, readers will naturally get it. But art, in its every form and medium, is certainly subjective, so a writer always knows they’ll release their work into the public, and where and how it’s received is up to the sensibilities of each reader.
What are you working on right now?
My third novel, a timely, topical drama called, A Nice White Girl, is currently going through the editing process. This go-around, I plan to go the traditional route via a publisher, which means I don’t currently have a launch date. I decided to shift gears (given that both my other novels were self-published) because this book embodies a more dramatic, more controversial topic, which I believe will be best served by a wider-ranging release and marketing platform. For those interested, here’s the mini-blurb:
In a world so full of lonely people and broken hearts, Chris Hawkins, noted Chicago sound engineer, and Sidonie Frame, head manager of one of the city's buzziest entertainment venues, felt lucky to be in love, convinced that, by that act alone, they could inspire peace, joy, and happiness in the world around them. But as an interracial couple living in the politically charged environment of the city, their romantic optimism is shaken by a series of unprovoked and increasingly violent police encounters, culminating in the shocking event of criminal charges. Both are driven to question what they know of each other and just who to trust, with sometimes shattering results. A Nice White Girl, a "sociopolitical love story," explores the explosive landscape of racial politics within families, friendships, workplaces, and certainly out in the world, where bias and bigotry too often make the simplest act of being in love a political statement.
I’ll be posting developments along the way, so be sure to check my site for updates!
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I’m very active on Twitter and Facebook, I have my author page at Amazon, my music page at Sound Cloud; my photo collections at Fine Art America, a regular column at the Huffington Post, and a creative blog called Rock+Paper+Music. Links to all those portals, as well as ways to contact me, are easily accessed through my website at www.lorrainedevonwilke.com. I always enjoy hearing from people in whatever ways they choose to get in touch, and, of course, am always appreciative when they take the time to leave reviews at Amazon. I hope your readers enjoy After the Sucker Punch, as well as my other book, Hysterical Love, and get in touch with any thoughts or comments. Thanks again, Many Books!