Note: The following is a dramatic reading of a one-act play based on the transcripts of an interview I conducted with Liza Monroy via e-mail. Liza and I read our respective lines with me reading the descriptive parts. This was based on the second practice run. I screwed up the intro the first time.
— Pat Greene
LIZA — A pretty, dark-haired 27-year-old New York City writer with a novel, Mexican High, coming out in the spring and a memoir in the works. She is also the writer in residence at the Jack Kerouac House.
PAT — A bearded, middle-aged, worldly-looking journalist who is constantly on the lookout for something more to life than the run-of-the-mill, whether it's Jamaican buffets, Cambodian tearooms, secret societies, barbershop quartets, beatnik ghosts or talent on the rise. Keeping a close eye on the Kerouac House comings and goings seems to be a good source.
A rainy, muggy Florida August night on the front porch of the Kerouac House, adjacent to an old oak draped in Spanish moss.
Liza and Pat sit in plastic chairs on the porch of a bungalow on Clouser Avenue and Shady Lane in Orlando's College Park neighborhood.
This bungalow (renamed the Kerouac Theater for the reading) is where Jack Kerouac wrote Dharma Bums 50 years back. It is also the location where Jack received the news that On the Road was being published.
Liza and Pat have a midnight snack of cucumber sandwiches (Liza says something like "yum" — no, it's more like "oom oom") and Blue Moon beers. They each have laptops on their laps, from which they read the script. (Pat mentions to the audience that they are reading from their laptops because they can't remember their lines.) A train whistles in the background. (Pat thinks about how perfectly it fits with the whole Kerouac/ beatnik setting.)
The Max Schwartz Orchestra supplies background music.
ACT 1, SCENE 1
(Liza points her right index finger toward Max to cue the orchestra and ambient music begins to play as Pat eats his cucumber sandwich and swigs beer to aid in digestion.)
PAT: (looks as if he's downed his sandwich too quickly, indigestion may result) Tell me about your experience at the Kerouac House. How did you find out about the residency?
LIZA: (sips her beer) Well, Pat, my screenwriting partner, Jennifer Cacicio, had applied for it when we were roommates in Los Angeles when we were 21. I think she found it online. So I'd known about the Kerouac House for six years. When I heard from board member Brad Kuhn that I would be invited to be the resident for June to August of 2007, I was thrilled. And my writing partner, who didn't get the residency back then, came down for a week and we wrote together. It was uncanny!
PAT: I've heard you read from your novel Mexican High. I'm pretty intrigued, partially because I'm a little bit of a drifter too. (Pat begins to think about traveling through France in the '80s, ooh la la.) Tell me about the book and the experience of writing and getting it to the public.
LIZA: I went to high school in Mexico City because my mother is in the Foreign Service (Pat drinks beer), but the similarities between my protagonist and I end there. I had several false starts on this book as a memoir before realizing that if I were to narrate it, well, it just wouldn't be that interesting, because the stories I wanted to tell about Mexico City didn't happen to me, per se. So I wasn't the best narrator. I decided to fictionalize, with some of the material being drawn off of reality. The setting was what inspired me, mainly — it was such a weird, strange world as far as a place to go to high school. There was ultimate freedom and it made you grow up fast. My protagonist, Mila, learns this in the novel. I spent years thinking about this idea and wanting to write a book.
When I finally sat down to write it, in August of 2005, I sort of jammed it out and had a super-rough draft in January 2006 (the music speeds up and stops abruptly). I revised it until May, then my friend, actress and writer Abby Sher, organized a reading at her theater, the Magnet, in Chelsea, and another friend brought her husband, who brought his buddy, who turned out to be the brother of the woman who became my agent. He came up to me afterward and said, "If the whole book is like what you just read, I think it would be up my sister's alley." I Googled the sister, who turned out to be Jennifer Lyons. I knew from my assistant job in book publishing that she was an amazing agent who represented authors I admired. I sent her the manuscript in May and we met the next month, when she told me she wanted to represent me and I signed with her. Then she had me revise the manuscript some more! It was done in August of 2006 and she submitted it to publishers in November. It was around Thanksgiving, and when Cindy Spiegel of Spiegel & Grau, a new imprint at Random House, made an offer, I was extremely thankful. It was probably the best Thanksgiving of my life. She was my dream editor. She worked on The Kite Runner, The Color of Water and many other amazing books, so I feel honored and humbled. (Liza yells, "Woohoo!", Max plays celebratory music, the actors toast.)
PAT: I mentioned that we are drifters. You've lived in Mexico City; New York City; Athens, Greece; Rome; L.A. and I'm not sure where else. How have the different settings and adjustments needed to relocate to the settings affected your writing and your life? (Pat drifts off and realizes his power bill is due tomorrow. He wonders if Liza is worried about her bills while she's doing the residency. He wonders if her mind drifts like his.)
LIZA: I like this question a lot. I think moving around all the time helped me as a writer because you just get to experience so many facets of life that way. (rain picks up) I learned to speak Spanish and Italian, which I'm sure helped with my love of language (car drives by; Liza speaks louder to compete with noise) and I've met and interacted with people from all over the world of every socioeconomic level.
I think I was curious to begin with, but being exposed to all the places and people I was exposed to gave me a set of tools as a writer that I'm so deeply grateful for. I've always loved to observe and listen and I love the little idiosyncratic elements of life, and traveling only reveals more of those things to a person.
It sounds cheesy, but it feels like fate because the combination of how I inherently am plus all the travel really made it come together as far as the writing life being the exact right thing for me.
PAT: (scratches his chest) What writers or other media such as film, visual arts, music, etc., have influenced your work? For instance, I know that you've studied/worked in film and are writing a screenplay.
LIZA: Yes. I was a film major at Emerson College. I actually double-majored in Film and Writing & Literature. I'm really glad I went to film school, because I learned so much about storytelling. Plus life in L.A. was great material and I'm using a lot of it for my second book, a memoir, which is what I've been writing at the Kerouac House. As far as influences, the film that's influenced me above any book, movie, work of art, etc. is Before the Rain, a Macedonian-British collaboration that was released in 1995. It has this amazing circular structure. I was in high school and I was just like, "Wow. I want to do something creative with my life; I want to work in film so badly."
After starting to work in film, I realized it was the storytelling I loved, not the "bringing coffee to manic producers" element. I had to do all sorts of things like refueling a Jaguar, painting a house in the Crenshaw Boulevard ghetto bright pink and then restor`ing` it, driv`ing` to Home Depot at 3 in the morning for wall sconces … you get the idea. I only ever wanted to create, so I turned to writing. My favorite authors are Milan Kundera and Joan Didion. Oh, but you asked about other mediums. I love films that tell interconnected stories, like Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, White, and Red trilogy. Music and art are sort of important in Mexican High — it takes place during the grunge era, which was a big deal in Mexico, too, so there's a lot of that, and one of the characters is a young artist whose father is an art collector. They collect Picassos, mostly, because that's how they are.
PAT: I read the story about your father's estrangement that you wrote for The New York Times. (Max plays New York Times-type music) It was heartbreaking. How have you dealt with this situation? How has it affected you as a creative person?
LIZA: (orchestra plays dirge-like music) It was heartbreaking. But the way I see it is — what's the point of literature? It's to communicate deeply affecting, often painful, often funny circumstances and situations that people will feel moved by, or cry, or laugh, or identify with something. I dealt with the situation by writing about it … personal essays need to be about those things that make you feel uncomfortable. I always say that if you feel uncomfortable, it means the piece is working.
My mentor Sue Shapiro, author of Five Men Who Broke My Heart and the upcoming Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons From My Favorite Literary Gurus, put it well when she passed along the advice, "Lead the least secretive life you can." She also told me, "When you've written something your family hates, it means you've found your voice." Good stuff!
PAT: (clears throat, looks confused and stares toward floor) I know that you are working on your next book, a memoir. What sort of future do you see for yourself as a writer and as Liza?
LIZA: Hmm … (looks toward Pat; may be daydreaming). Well, they're really one and the same, aren't they? Being a writer is interesting, because your job is so integrated with your person. It is you and you are it, in a sense. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say this, but I think my second book, the memoir, is stronger than my first. It's a totally true story about completely true things that I did and that happened to me. Funny, outrageous, embarrassing, laughable, painful, true things. I don't have a book deal for that one yet, but my agent is currently reading the first half, most of which was written right here in the Kerouac House. So right now my fingers are crossed, hoping that she likes it. I'm going to work on it more while at the Columbia program.
(Stage lights dim. Actors remain seated, drinking beers and eating sandwiches. It seems unnecessary to leave the stage, since there really isn't an audience.)
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