Instructors Lauren A. Forry and Gina Troisi Talk Writing

On Wednesday, November 16, 2022, the Word for Word Reading Series at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) presented its first annual Instructor Spotlight event, featuring two SNHU writers: Gina Troisi, an instructor in the English and creative writing bachelor’s program, and Lauren A. Forry, who teaches in the online MFA. Troisi read from her award-winning memoir, “The Angle of Flickering Light,” while Forry read from her forthcoming sci-fi mystery novel, “The Launch Party.” The following is adapted from the Q&A moderated by hosts Jacob Powers, associate dean of the BA and MA in Creative Writing programs, and Paul Witcover, associate dean of the online MFA.

W4W: Our first question is for Lauren. “The Launch Party” is a locked-room murder mystery that takes place in a hotel on the moon. In the excerpt you read, there is sense of impending doom, yet there are a lot of amusing and humorous touches as well. How do you balance these elements in your work?

Lauren ForreyLF: Yeah, I like to say this is the least dark book I’ve written to date. But I’m a very sarcastic person, usually, and I really wanted that type of humor in this novel, because — let’s face it — it’s a ridiculous scenario. It’s a hotel on the moon, which will likely never happen in our lifetimes. And it’s kind of silly to think about.

So I felt like I had to have fun with it. Yes, something serious is going to happen. And there’s going to be danger and doom, and obviously a heavy threat to people’s lives. But if I didn’t have any fun with it, then I don’t think the reader would have any fun with it either. Not only that, but if people were really there, and even if it was that deadly, I think there would be a lot of dark humor among the actual group. Just as a coping mechanism, you know?

W4W: The scenario that came to my mind as I was reading it and listening to you read it was Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” I think that must be kind of an influence on you in this novel. Can you talk a little bit about your influences?

LF: It really goes back to when I was a kid. My dad was an FBI agent. He was the real deal, you know, a special agent. We used to watch lots of classic murder mysteries together on PBS, but he was also a huge “X-Files” fan. I started watching it when I was eight years old from the first episode with my dad, because it had FBI agents, and we watched it together, every episode. We used to laugh at the parental discretion warning.

I’ve always loved mysteries and weird stuff, and just trying to solve a puzzle. So when I started writing, that was very obviously the type of stuff I wanted to write. “And Then There Were None” is probably one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels because it’s one of her darkest ones. It doesn’t have one of her famous detectives in it. It’s really just people in a house getting picked off one by one.

W4W: It must be a lot of fun to write a book like that. I was thinking of the movie “Murder By Death,” which kind of satirizes that whole genre of mystery.

LF: I love books like that. Alice Feeney’s “Daisy Darker” that came out recently, loved it. “The Paris Apartment, by Lucy Foley, and “The Guest List” by her. I’m a sucker for people trapped in a location and getting picked off.

W4W: Let’s bring Gina into the conversation. Gina, a line that really stuck out for me in your memoir is “We who had not yet grown into women would be left behind,” which captures a consistent theme throughout the narrative: the feeling of being abandoned and lost. From a writer’s perspective, do you consciously work to carry a theme like this throughout the memoir? And what techniques do you utilize to keep that theme consistent? Or does it all just kind of come naturally as you write it out?

Gina Troisi

GT: I think it’s a little of both. In the beginning stages, these themes come out organically. And then, in the revision stages, I really hone in and focus on how can I maintain the themes throughout the narrative throughline of the whole memoir.

For this memoir, in the beginning stages, I was just writing everything out. Much of the book was written first as standalone essays. And I kept seeing the same themes, characters, a lot of recurring material. Later, when I put it together as a book, I had to really think about what was tying the whole thing together.

And you’re right. Abandonment is a huge, huge theme. First, being abandoned by others. And then the narrator really abandoning herself throughout the whole thing. Self-abandonment, kind of, until the end.

W4W: Another line that struck me, toward the end of the memoir, was when you said that writing requires a person to be alone with themselves for hours at a time. Could you talk about that, and what that looks like to you, and how that helps you channel your truths onto the page?

GT: When I was younger, it was really difficult for me to be alone with myself. But as I got older and grew more and more serious about my writing, I came to understand that it was a requirement for all of us who do it. I mean the ability to not just endure really intense solitude but thrive in it. I don’t mean a writer necessarily needs eight hours of solitude in a day. Forty-five minutes might do it. You grab what you can. But I do think writing well requires an intense focus that can really only come out of solitude. We have to clear away the noise, whatever that may be for us externally. At least, that’s how I have to work. I need a little bit of space to get through the clutter of the mind. And when I do, there’s this timelessness that occurs. It sounds a little cliche, but I really feel that. It’s like, Oh my gosh, where did that forty-five minutes go? It’s almost like a form of meditation, in a way, when you’re really into it.

That doesn’t mean it’s not hard or that I’m trying to say it’s easy. I tell my students all the time that the only people who think writing is easy are people who do not write.

W4W: You mentioned that the memoir began as a series of standalone essays. I assume that some sections were written later to tie the memoir together. Even so, there are still a lot of places where, for example, you might hear about a particular character in passing, and then, 200 pages later, that character suddenly reappears, and there’s a much more in-depth explanation as to who that character is. Or there are movies that pop up, movies the parents are showing to the young girl, age-inappropriate movies like “Fatal Attraction,” which come to have a cumulative impact. I noticed this kind of repetition on a structural level but also on the sentence level. There are times where you’ll say things like, I ignored him because, I ignored him because, I ignored him because, within the same paragraph. Can you talk about your use of repetition a little bit?

GT: I think as a prose writer — and I do say this to my students a lot — I really believe in learning from the poets. So on a line level, writing is really important to me as far as syntax, making sure every word is there for a reason. So I do use some devices, like repetition, for emphasis in different places. It’s a delicate balance, because we want to convey our messages to the reader. But we also don’t want to hit them over the head. We want to trust them to be able to connect the dots and the details.

I try to do that on a line level and then as well, like you said, on a macro level, where there are recurring themes. You mentioned the movies. And to me, that’s woven throughout the book because there’s also this theme of everything is not . . . so often things are not what they appear to be. So there’s that thread of the movies too. You’re outside looking in on a situation. And so often we don’t really know what’s going on inside that situation. I guess it’s metaphor, in a way, in that sense. It’s this thematic connection. But then on a line level, repetition is increasing the tension and the emphasis for the reader.

W4W: I have one more question for Lauren, and then I’m going to put both of our readers on the spot. Lauren, I read your previous novel, which begins in sort of a similar way to “The Launch Party,” in that there are a bunch of people that come to a certain location, and then bad things happen. The twist is that what starts as a murder mystery turn into more of a psychological thriller. And here you’ve got a science fiction element. So it seems to me that you are a writer who likes to blend different genres together. And I wanted to ask you a little bit about why you do that. Do you feel like you are better able to express your ideas by pulling aspects of different genres and putting them together in new ways?

LF: I love pretty much every genre. I read almost every genre. As long as it sounds like something that’s going to interest me, and then it ends up having strong characters, I’ll read it, and particularly with speculative fiction — so some sci-fi, thriller, psych thriller, dark humor. I’m very eclectic in what I watch too. And so I don’t like to be pigeonholed to one thing or write the same book over and over. I like reading things that mix genres and play with genres and authors that change up their genre. And since that’s what I like to read and it’s what I like to watch, it’s what I like to write.

W4W: Let me pose this to both of you. At first it might seem that your work is very different. I mean, what possible commonalities could there be between a memoir and a locked-room mystery on the moon? And yet, listening to both of your readings, it struck me that there are commonalities. There’s that sense of impending dread. There’s a sense of mystery.

Lauren, you have a locked-room mystery. But Gina, you too have a locked-room mystery, because what is going on in the bedrooms of the parents? That’s a mystery every child wonders about and has to solve. So I want to ask you two to talk a little bit amongst yourselves about the element of mystery in these particular works but also in your works generally and in your motivations as writers.

LF: Well, I have to say, Gina, when you were reading and the description of popping your sister’s or the sister’s cysts on the back, I’m like, that’s a great horror description. It’s like, I could really take that and make it body horror and make it really, really gross there and elaborate on it.

But yeah, I think with memoir too, it’s a story about life, a story about a person’s life. And you’re reading it, and you don’t know what happened to them. Or even if there’s flash-forwards and flashbacks, you don’t necessarily know how they got there.

From the memoirs I’ve read, I’ve really liked that element of mystery. It’s not who killed who, necessarily. But what has gone on in this person’s life? What has made them the way they are? What are these things they’ve hinted at, the inside jokes or the references to family events that I don’t know yet? But I want to know. And keep reading. And I find that the gradual reveal that happens in memoir is very similar to what happens in a standard mystery novel.

GT: In the end, it’s all really storytelling. We’re increasing the tension for the reader. We have a narrative. But I absolutely agree. When I teach memoir-writing, I talk a lot about how we are investigating our pasts, in a way. Some people choose to integrate more research than others. But we really are delving into character the way we are in fiction as well. People are multilayered. They are multidimensional. They are complex in fiction and in nonfiction. So I think that’s a big similarity too. There’s drive and motivation and desire on the part of a character, whether it’s a narrator who might be one version of yourself that you’ve been, or whether it’s a fictional character.

LF: When my students do their character sketches, I’m always saying, well, you want to make it feel like it’s a real person you could meet on the street. And in memoir, it is. Maybe not that whole person, but, like you said, a view of them. You’re taking those same facets and having to convey them through just the words and the events.

GT: Absolutely. I actually write fiction as well. Not speculative, but I do write fiction. But there’s still that element of displaying the character through different point of views, even if it’s a character in nonfiction. So even if I’m writing about somebody I’ve known in real life, I try to make them well-rounded enough that the reader isn’t necessarily seeing them exactly as I saw them at that time, the way we do in fiction, where we show all different angles of these characters through different people’s point of views.

W4W: I’ve got a question for Gina from the chat. When writing about memories that may have been painful for all parties involved, how did you deal with the notion that the others involved may come off looking less than pleasant? Did you just go raw and real, or did you soften the edges?

GT: I think it depends on the character or the person that’s part of your story, that’s in your book or in your writing. And I think it depends on your relationship with them. This is talked about so much in memoir. And there’s not an easy answer.

There’s a craft book I love called “Writing Hard Stories.” It’s an anthology of different authors talking about their experience writing memoir. But some common things come up over and over again. Most memoirists are worried about what people are going to think when they put certain people in their stories. But there just is no way to leave other people out of your story, because there are other people that are part of your story.

In the end, you have to be comfortable with what you’re putting out there. We all have to live with what we’re putting out into the world. We all have to be able to sleep at night. So I had to really pick and choose what I was comfortable putting out there in my memoir. There were definitely certain things I was more worried about than others. I was mostly worried about my father, who is still alive. Even though I’m not in touch with him, I was pretty worried about what would happen if he read the book.

But the other thing I’ve learned — and this is where it’s so great to have a tribe of writer people you can talk to about these things — is that most of the time, what we’re worried about does not come to fruition. Do you know what I’m saying? You’re worried about this person’s reaction to how you portrayed them. And they say, ‘Oh, thanks for including me in the book,’ or something totally unexpected.

W4W: Or they don’t even notice that you based the character on them.

GT: It’s a good life lesson. And I do change all names too. Except for my sisters and my current partner, pretty much everyone’s name in the memoir is changed to protect people’s privacy.

W4W: Lauren, fiction writers have to deal with that too, don’t they? You’re writing all these murder mysteries . . .

LF: I joke with the students I know well that if you do something that’s annoying, I’m going to kill you off in a book. But I’ve never actually based a single character off one person. I cherry-pick. A phrase that I heard in my MFA that stuck with me was “information squirrels.” You want to be little information squirrels and gather up nuggets. So when I see somebody do something interesting or an interesting quirk of their personality, I save it. Then I’ll put it into a character but mix it up.

And really, the only people that can tell are my family and my best friends. I literally kill my best friend’s husband in “The Launch Party.” It’s a backstory murder for the detective, a backstory case. It’s not part of the plot. But I did ask for permission for that so I could use his full, wonderful, British name that had a nicer ring to it.

W4W: Lauren, you’re writing sci-fi. You’re creating this near-future world. How do you make that world plausible, plot and story-wise? For “The Launch Party,” did you do a lot of extensive research to capture what the moon is like?

LF: I did some, because I needed to know certain things — basic things about gravity, sunrise and sunset on the moon. That sort of thing. I read a couple of books about the moon, a couple that included some accounts of the astronauts who’ve been there, because they’re the only ones with first-person experience.

What made it easier is that I usually write in the limited third person. So I can only put in there what my characters know. And none of these characters are scientists. None of them are astronauts. None of them are physics professors or anything like that. They’re pretty much regular people. So a regular person that’s traveling to a hotel on the moon isn’t going to find out the specifics of how that actually works, what the mechanics are behind it.

I did enough research to ensure that there would be nothing glaringly off about this building that sits on the moon and what could happen there. People don’t start breathing outside or anything, obviously. But I didn’t have to do a lot of hardcore science research for it, because my point of view was limited.

W4W: You’re both accomplished writers at this point. But when you were starting out, how did you approach publication? Did you stay focused on one particular project at a time? Or did you switch projects? And what made you ultimately decide to push forward with the ones that were published?

LF: My debut novel was my MFA thesis project. I had done my undergrad in cinema studies. And after, when I decided to go back for my master’s, I was like, I want to go in there with a clear path of, when I come out of this, what job can I get? Because I’m tired of freelancing. So I wanted to create one novel, use my MFA to create a novel that I could go on to get published, which is what I did.

I find that I focus better if I’m working on one project at a time. I have a lot of trouble switching back and forth, unless it’s the occasional short story I can get in there and knock out and then go back to the novel. But even then, switching back and forth in days, I don’t know. My brain just likes to stay in one world and one place before moving on to the next.

GT: It’s funny, because we definitely have some overlap there and then some totally opposite things related to our processes. My memoir was really what I was generating during my MFA, too, from ’07 to ’09. But I didn’t go into the program nearly as intentional as you did. I went in to get my MFA and said, I just want to work on my craft. I’ll start submitting for publication after I’m done with the MFA. I just want to become a better writer.

I may have been in denial, but I thought I was just writing these standalone essays — no intention of ever publishing a memoir. It felt way too scary to me to do that. So I just kept working on standalone essays until the point came when I could no longer deny that this was a book. But it really originated in my MFA program, like you.

But then a big difference is I do work on several things at once. And part of that may have been it was a long road to getting my book published. I started it a long time ago. And the road to publication was not short. So there were years where I was working on other things, and then returned to the book.

W4W: We like to stress to our students that there is no one way to publication. You have to find the approach that works for you. Often the best way to do that is by trial and error. A lot of students think there is a magic formula. But there really isn’t. Or if there is, it’s different for every writer.

Thank you both. This hour flew by.