Lara Ehrlich’s (MAPH '04) work been published in literary magazines, including F(r)iction, Hunger Mountain, and SmokeLong Quarterly, and has been recognized with many awards and fellowships; most recently, Animal Wife received Red Hen Press’s Fiction Award, judged by New York Times-bestselling author, Ann Hood, who called the collection “sensual and intelligent, with gorgeous prose.” Animal Wife, which launched in Sept 2020, has been praised as “remarkable” by Lit Hub, who said “the collection is a standout in a season full of amazing new releases.” Lara is the host of the interview series Writer Mother Monster and she lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter.
Tell us a little bit about your time at MAPH. What was your thesis project? What did you do during MAPH that prepared you for the work you do today?
I entered MAPH straight from undergrad at Boston University, where I also earned a self-designed degree (literature & sculpture). I've always been interested in combining interests without limiting myself to one course of study. In MAPH, I took courses in writing, Shakespeare, film, and philosophy. For my thesis, I wrote a play about the period during which the as-yet-unknown poet Rainer Maria Rilke served as an assistant to the venerable sculptor Rodin. It was a very cerebral play about what I imagined this relationship would be like. It has not been performed, or produced, and I'm glad it's in a drawer—but it was definitely a good creative exercise. It also furthered my interest in the performing arts that eventually led me to my current role as director of marketing for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
What kind of work have you done since MAPH? I see you work as marketing director for an arts festival, do you feel that your time at MAPH prepared you for this career?
After graduating from MAPH, I worked in telemarketing at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, front of house at Goodman Theatre, and subscription sales at Steppenwolf Theatre before securing my first full-time job at a publishing company in Chicago suburbs. There, I wrote sympathy cards and joke-a-day calendars that ended up in the remainder bins at Walmart. I quickly began looking for an organization with a more humanitarian mission where I could put my writing and editing skills to better use. But during that time at the publishing company, I got a certificate in writing from the University of Chicago, which helped me become a more marketable editor.
From there, I worked as the publication coordinator at Goodman Theatre, which I loved, until my husband (who I met in MAPH!) and I decided to move back to New England to be closer to family. We moved to the Berkshires, where I was the communications specialist at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. From there, we moved to Boston, where I worked for seven years as a senior editor and writer at Boston University, truly a dream job. When we were ready to put down roots and buy a home for our family (which now included a toddler), we took a leap of faith and bought a house in Connecticut, 15 minutes away from my hometown. I took the job at the Festival shortly after closing on the house.
I’ve always loved the arts and gravitated toward roles where I could put my skills to use for organizations with honorable missions. MAPH’s focus on the humanities prepared me for these roles; the course “Writing as a Public Intellectual” was particularly helpful. Until then, I’d written hundreds of papers for classes—and I’d always written fiction—but I’d never written for a broad audience. In that course, I learned to write journalistic articles, book reviews, think pieces, and even cover letters. I learned how to adapt my writing for different audiences. This was the single most useful lesson I brought to my career, as I wrote articles about plays for Goodman patrons, research-focused articles for Boston University, press releases for the Clark, and so many other forms of writing for various and diverse audiences.
What do you love most about your work at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas?
The Festival is a year-round organization based in New Haven, Connecticut, that builds community and advances economic development by hosting world-class artists, thinkers, and leaders from New Haven and beyond. The Festival’s flagship event is a two-week live festival in June, which, of course, was disrupted by COVID this year. Instead, we put on a two-month virtual festival that was exciting and extremely challenging.
I love that the festival is a mission-driven organization that serves its community, creates opportunities for New Haven students, and celebrates the arts. In 2020, we developed an Ideas Series of events whose topics were determined by community conversations. Experts from New Haven and around the world came together to offer their perspectives on issues of vital importance locally and nationally, like police brutality, immigration, and the future of democracy.
I also love that I’m empowered to set the marketing strategy for the organization. There hasn't been a director of marketing for a number of years, so it's been a joy and a challenge to come into that position with the freedom to shape the role and my department—specifically, during this unprecedented time during which we’ve needed to find creative new ways to present work in a virtual space.
Let’s talk about your new short story collection, Animal Wife. Were there any authors that inspired your own writing in magical realism? Do you consider your writing magical realism? Or do you think genre categories are superfluous and unnecessary?
Animal Wife is a collection of stories about women’s transformations from girls into wives, mothers, and monsters. I think it's appropriate to call it magical realism—with elements of fabulism, realism, fantasy, and science fiction. I don’t think about genre while writing; those elements are organic to the stories. In that way, I think genre is superfluous and unnecessary; it’s a means by which marketing departments label books in order to sell them to readers. I reject the MFA philosophy that genre writing is not literary. I also reject the misperception that books about women’s lives are domestic and sentimental, often dismissed as chick lit or romance.
I grew up idolizing authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, and CS Lewis—and then later, Faulkner, Hemingway, Nabokov, and Joyce, and more whimsical authors, like Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham. Like most people learning to write, I’d imitate my favorite authors’ styles—and their subjects. I wrote a lot of stories about men and boys. Before Animal Wife, I wrote a YA novel about a young boy athlete that never published, which in retrospect, I think is a good thing. Once I got that novel out of my system, I realized that I actually didn’t feel all that connected to young male characters.
At the same time, I started attending writing conference, where I was exposed to a host of authors writing cutting edge, wonderful stories; particularly women writers like Karen Russell, Maggie Nelson, Claire Vaye Watkins, Kelly Link, Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, Amber Sparks, Elizabeth McCracken—all these awesome women who are writing right now, often from the female experience. That cracked open a need to write from a truer place, to push myself to write raw and vulnerable and revealing. It felt uncomfortable and risky, and my writing changed for the better. Animal Wife came from that place of power.
I’m also tapping into this empowered place for my new venture, Writer Mother Monster, an interview series devoted to dismantling the myth of having it all and offering writer-moms solidarity, support, and advice.
Is there a story or character in your book that you love the most? (Or is that an unfair question?)
The last story I wrote is always my favorite. That’s “The Vanishing Point,” which is also the story that points to where I'm heading in my writing. I love Diana, the protagonist in that story, because she was so challenging to write. She was so outside of my own experience: she's a scientist, she’s single, she doesn’t have children or even friends, and she’s grieving the loss of her parents. She's a very lonely person.
Diana builds a deer exosuit to live as a deer in the woods behind her childhood home. It was so much fun, and so hard, to figure out how she’d construct that suit, how her body would feel within its mechanical framework, and how her emotional and mental state would change as she forces her humanity inside this fantasy creature.
Do you have a process or ritual to prepare yourself for writing?
Before I became a mother, I’d get up at five o'clock to write before work. At lunch, I’d work some more, and I’d devote weekend mornings to writing. Once I had a child, that routine went out the window. My daughter has taught me to be less precious about my process and routine; I've learned to write whenever and wherever I can. While commuting, I dictate to myself on my phone, working on plot, writing scenes, puzzling through problems. When I get home, I run the dictation through a transcription app. I wrote the entire draft of my new project, a novel, that way.
Although I've just said I’ve become less precious about writing, I do prefer a particular type of Moleskine notebook—black, lined, soft cover—and I write with disposable fountain pens. Small luxuries!
Do you have any advice you wish you could give to your younger self as you entered graduate school?
I’m happy with my graduate school experience and how it shaped the rest of my career—and my life, since I met my husband in MAPH, as well as some lifelong best friends. The one thing I might tell my younger self is to lighten up a bit. I think U of C’s reputation as “the place where fun comes to die” doesn’t refer to the school as much as the intensity of its students. I was certainly an intense graduate student. I have a lot of fun in MAPH, but I felt that fun was secondary and I often felt guilty when I wasn’t studying. I’d tell my younger self that’s okay—and important—to have fun, to enjoy my friends and the fact that they all lived down the street, movies played at the Doc every night, downtown Chicago was a bus ride away, and I was just getting to know my now-husband. It’s a magical year.