You’ve heard of her historical fiction novel about greed and failure, now I’m sure you want to learn more about this inspirational author.
Welcome to Date with a Debut Author! A Bookstr series where we sit down with a debut author and get to know them, their writing process, and their book. Each week we’ll get the chance to go on a date with a new author.
This week we met with Joy Lanzendorfer, author of Right Back Where We Started From, to learn more about her and her journey to getting her first novel published.
Date with a Debut Author gets you up close and personal with the debut authors you should be watching out for. So, are you ready to get to know Joy better? Let’s go!
Conversations Over Coffee
Since we’re just getting to know Joy.
Serena Knudson (SK): I saw in your article, Flight of the Condors with Alta, that you have a list of animals you want to see in their natural habitat including a whale, a moose with full antlers, a hedgehog, a ring-tailed cat, any kind of monkey, and a swarm of monarch butterflies. Excitingly, you did get to cross one animal off your list a little less than a year ago when you saw a California condor. How did seeing this endangered species affect you?
Joy Lanzendorfer (JL): It was an amazing experience. Three condors circled around my head for at least five minutes. They were so close, I could hear their wings flapping. Condors have the biggest wingspan of any North American land bird, with trailing pin feathers as long as my forearms. They were stunning in the air, absolutely beautiful, which might sound like a strange thing to say about vultures. It was in the middle of the pandemic, and there had been wildfires up and down California, so seeing the condors so close was this moment of hope and beauty that meant a lot. It was a reminder that nature is still there and what we do to the world not only affects us but the animals around us as well.
SK: If you could have any other profession in the world what would it be and why?
JL: Good question. I can see being an artist since I’m a creative person and would have to put that energy somewhere. But I also like the idea of being a biologist who studies hummingbirds or colorful beetles or something like that. I get pleasure out of understanding nature, as you can guess by my condor article. Maybe I’ll combine the two fields and pick wildlife photographer. That way I can observe animals and be creative at the same time.
SK: In an article, you wrote with Lit Hub called All in the Timing, you said how it was nine years after you put Right Back Where We Started From away that you are finally publishing it. How long were you working on your novel before you decided to put it away?
JL: I worked on it for eight years. It was finished in 2012 and didn’t get published until last May.
SK: What was your favorite part to write of Right Back Where We Started From?
JL: It would have to be the initial honeymoon period when I was first discovering the world I was creating. I was figuring out who Sandra, Mabel, and Vira were and developing the events of the story – making up Vira’s journey to the Gold Rush or Sandra’s time in 1930s Hollywood. A lot of writers live for those moments when you’re completely inside the book you’re writing and it feels like a waking dream. You never know what’s going to happen when you write fiction, and that mysterious process can be very exciting and surprising, when it goes well.
SK: You’ve talked a little bit about how complex your main characters are in Right Back Where We Started From in different interviews, and how a lot of people dislike them because they are difficult. Would you get along with your main character, Sandra?
JL: Yes, I would. Sandra would be a lot of fun to hang out with. She’s vivacious and chatty and she wants people to like her, especially if she thinks they’re worth ingratiating herself too. When you read the novel, you see what’s going on inside her head, so you get an upfront view of how much she’s motivated by ambition and greed. You would never know all that if you were just having lunch with her. Many people are perfectly pleasant on the surface, but you wouldn’t like them if you could see inside their heads.
Let’s Get Intimate!
Don’t you want to know more about this interesting author?
SK: I’ve seen where you wrote a piece on workaholism for USA Today and then you participated in a discussion also about workaholism with The 21st Street in Illinois, is this something you have struggled with? Why is workaholism such an important topic to you, and why now?
JL: No, I’m not a workaholic, but I do work long hours and stare at a screen all day, like most people. I can easily see how someone could become a workaholic, especially with today’s hustle culture, which encourages people to work nonstop (hustle 24/7, rise and grind, etc). Many of us feel this insane pressure to be productive all the time. It goes back to the California Gold Rush, which created a sense in American culture that if you work hard, you can be fabulously wealthy and all your dreams can come true. My novel looks at what happens if you work hard and invest in your dreams, but they don’t come true. What if you go to the Gold Rush and don’t make a fortune? What if you spend your youth working every day, burning out your health, avoiding your family, and hustling 24/7, only to discover you aren’t a mogul or anywhere close to what you dreamed for yourself? What does that do to you?
SK: I can’t imagine how difficult it was to put Right Back Where We Started From away after all the time you worked on it. What convinced you to put this novel away and work on other pieces?
JL: I don’t think there was a moment where I thought, “I’m through with this book forever” but I was definitely discouraged and didn’t want to look at it anymore. I wanted to move on to new projects. Since the book wasn’t published, I concluded that it had failed, but also that lots of books fail, and the smart thing to do was to learn from it and try not to repeat any mistakes I made in the future. I wanted to use the situation to make myself a better writer, and I did that. Luckily it turned out that the book didn’t fail after all. It just had a very long time sitting in a drawer.
SK: You had so many obstacles when you were looking for a publisher almost a decade ago. During this time Hurricane Sandy, one of the deadliest and most destructive hurricanes affected so many people. Then not too long after that the horrific events of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting shook the United States. Unfortunately, the main character of Right Back Where We Started From was named Sandi at the time so many publishers already had a sour taste in their mouth from recent events. On top of all that, your agent at the time decided to leave the publishing industry and go back to school. After everything you went through to get to this point what is your advice to new authors who are looking to be published?
JL: My advice is to embrace the fact that you can’t control publishing. I had bad luck when I first sent my book out to be published. I hit the publishing trends at the wrong time because my characters were “difficult” when female characters were supposed to be “adorkable” (think of Zooey Deschanel in the sitcom New Girl). Then two big tragedies happened that had the same name as my character, which emotionally biased publishers against my book before they even read it. On top of that, my agent quit and left my book stranded. So it was a lot, but it was also not that unique – most writers have sob stories about publishing. It’s the nature of the industry to have bad agents or be rejected for reasons that are only tangentially connected to your work. Publishing trends have thwarted good writing for centuries. What writers can do is produce their best work, submit often, and continue to grow and develop their craft. Becoming a good writer is your defense against the publishing industry. I believe in that old adage, cream rises to the top. Find your voice, tell the stories only you can tell, and in the end you’ll win at this game – although, as I learned, winning may not look the way you imagined.
SK: You decided to stay with a longer version of Sandi when you decided to change the main character’s name to Sandra. Why did you select these names for your characters?
JL: No one has asked me that! Actually, Sandra is loosely based on my Grandma Sandi, who was a vivid presence in my life growing up. Changing the character’s name had less to do with Hurricane Sandy/Sandy Hook and more about creating distance between Sandra and my grandmother. Although my relatives are fine with me fictionalizing family stories, it felt more respectful to my dad and uncle not to use their mother’s name in my book, especially since Sandra does some bad things that my grandmother would never have done. So naming her Sandra created that distance between her and my character.
SK: Like mentioned before, your characters are difficult, some may even consider them unlikeable. Do you read the book reviews people leave for your book? If so, how do you process the negative reviews?
JL: No I don’t. I started reading reviews when the book was first published but then I stopped. I have a policy never to read the comments on anything I’ve written – articles, essays, short stories, etc. – so why start now? Although I will say that I’ve found most readers to be pretty kind.
Beside that, I think it’s fine not to like a character. You get to choose who you’re spending your time reading about, and if you don’t like the character, that’s your right. On the other hand, “not liking a character” isn’t really a criticism of the writing. It’s a personal preference and an emotional reaction. It’s not the same as a professional reviewer picking apart the mechanics of a book. It’s just saying, “I’d rather not spend time with this person, thanks.” That’s perfectly fair, but not all that useful for me as the writer.
SK: With all of the obstacles you have faced when writing and trying to get published, how did you stay motivated to continue to write?
JL: When I was younger, I was really called to be a writer. I felt the desire to write deep inside of me at a young age, but I ran away from it. I wanted to do anything else because I knew writing would be a challenging, difficult job. But when I finally committed to being a writer, I dove in and latched on with both teeth. That’s my personality, I guess. I’m tenacious and determined, and I keep going once I decide to do something.
And really, that just means I believe in my talent and voice. I have things to say and I’ll keep going until people listen. I like what Roxane Gay used to say about being a cockroach: “I’m relentless as hell. I’m a cockroach: even winter’s not going to make me go away. I think you have to believe in what you’re writing.” That’s pretty much it.
Fun and Games
Now that we’re well-acquainted with Joy, here are some fun questions and what she had to say about them.
SK: If your book was chosen for a movie, who would act as your characters?
JL: My mother called me the other day and said, “You know that blonde actress who’s on TV all the time talking about books? She should play Sandra in the movie of your book.” It took me a while to figure out she was talking about Reese Witherspoon. But she’s not a natural redhead–although neither is Sandra, to be fair. The actor who would play Sandra would have to portray a lot of humor and screwball energy, and also the rage and desperation that drives her as the book goes along. Reese Witherspoon has that range. So does Emma Stone.
SK: You are a fourth generational Californian yourself, if you could live anywhere in the world where would you live?
JL: I’m considering moving. California is expensive, badly managed, and always on fire. The problem is, I don’t know where to go. I’ve considered many places, but nothing is clicking. Suggestions?
SK: What is the most adventurous thing you have ever done?
JL: The adventurous things I’ve done are all ordinary tourist things, like snorkeling in Mexico or flying in a hot air balloon. The one adventure that sticks in my mind: Once my husband and I went kayaking at night on a bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico. The water sparkled with every splash and fish glowed when they shot through the water. I’ve never had another experience like it.
SK: What is one thing you wish more people knew about you?
JL: I guess it’s that I often don’t remember people. When I meet and talk to a person, I truly do care about them and listen to what they have to say, but if they’re wearing a hat or have different hair the next time we meet, there’s a good chance I’ll think they’re a total stranger. I’m like a toddler who’s constantly surprised when someone pulls a fake beard on and off their face. Who is that?! Oh, it’s you. Wait, who is that!? Oh, it’s you again. I get very upset when I learn I’ve hurt someone’s feelings by not remembering them, so I wish there was a way I could indicate that might happen at any point. I think I have that disease where people think everyone is a hat.
SK: If you could spend the day with any fictional character who would it be?
JL: I’m going to say Jo March from Little Women because who wouldn’t want to spend the day with the March sisters?
SK: What are your book recommendations?
JL: Funny you should ask – I have a podcast/radio show called What’s the Story? where I recommend a new book every week. I recently enjoyed Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder, which I’ll be talking about on there soon.
Right Back Where We Started From is a multigenerational historical fiction novel that explores ambition and how it affected the United States. Sandra Sanborn knows she is destined for success as it is in her blood. Her grandmother Vira moved West during the Gold Rush and established the family name as one of the most prominent in San Francisco. Sandra’s mother then grew up in a mansion and married into an agricultural empire. But auditioning is difficult for Sandra during the Great Depression, so instead of being in the movies, she stands outside Hollywood studios in a cardboard cutout when she knows she belongs with the rich and privileged. But when she receives a letter from a man who claims to be her father, Sandra begins to question everything she knows about her family. Until she learns the truth of her grandmother’s and mother’s fortunes, Sandra will just continue to end up right back where she started from.
Joy Lanzendorfer is a journalist, essayist, and author. She currently lives in California with her son and husband where she enjoys the wildlife. You can find more of Joy’s writing in The New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, Tin House, The Guardian, The LA Review, Necessary Fiction, and many other places. Joy is a fourth generational Californian herself and used family myths as inspiration for her debut novel, Right Back Where We Started From.