Interview: Lisa Goldstein
By Lori Ann White
28 July 2003
(photograph by Frank Wu)
After nine well-received novels, two short story collections, countless nominations for just about every award in the field and an American Book Award for her first novel, The Red Magician (1982), Lisa Goldstein is one of the most critically-respected writers in speculative fiction today.
Lisa would be the first to admit that this respect has not translated into broad popular acclaim. She has not gotten the notice, or the print runs, of George R. R. Martin or J. K. Rowling. Genre readers do not tell their friends, "Say, you like Robin Hobb, don't you? Then you've got to read Lisa Goldstein."
They don't tell their friends this for a very good reason: they can't. Lisa Goldstein is not like Robin Hobb, or J. K. Rowling, or David Eddings, or Guy Gavriel Kay, or Patricia Wrede, or any of the newer writers, such as Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Jo Walton, or Jacqueline Carey. Indeed, Lisa Goldstein is usually not like Lisa Goldstein. Her books range in setting from Nazi-occupied Hungary (The Red Magician) to Elizabethan England (Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon), from Paris during the birth of the Surrealist Movement (The Dream Years) to the San Francisco Bay area of both present and future (Walking the Labyrinth and A Mask for the General). Her imagined worlds are either of this earth (Amaz in Tourists) or somehow adjacent to it (Neverwas, in Dark Cities Underground). Only one book, Summer King, Winter Fool, uses what might be considered a "typical" fantasy setting. Her historical backgrounds show extensive research while her imaginary settings demonstrate considerable skill at building worlds and societies. Her characters range from historical personages such as the surrealist André Breton and the Elizabethan alchemist and scholar John Dee, to Jeremy Jones, who owes a large debt to Christopher Robin Milne, to entirely fictional characters such as Valemar of Etrara.
And, most damning of all, Lisa has yet to publish a trilogy.
Lisa's work is impossible to categorize, but that doesn't mean it lacks coherence. Her novels are quiet, slender works marked by spare, elegant prose and characters who lead real lives in the midst of the unreality they face. Their strength is drawn from their reality, both within the context of the novels and to us as readers.
Who is this elusive author who ranges effortlessly from high fantasy to magical realism to urban fantasy to historical fantasy? A professor of philosophy? A reclusive poet? A New Age healer?
None of the above. Lisa is a California native who was born in the L.A. area but who currently lives in Oakland with her husband Doug, a very talented musician and computer programmer, and their dog Spark, who howls when Doug plays the concertina. Oh, and by the way -- Spark is the Cutest Dog in the World (Lisa's brother Larry's Bichon Frise notwithstanding). Lisa is petite and very pretty, with dark eyes and masses of dark hair I've envied for decades. She's possessed of a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor and she reads omnivorously. Doug wishes she were more partial to kung fu movies.
As for what made her the writer she is today:
Lisa Goldstein: I always wanted to be a writer -- ever since I could remember. I learned to read when I was pretty young. Then I wanted to be a science fiction writer when I saw Star Trek. Embarrassing, but true. . . I started reading a lot of science fiction, but not fantasy because I'd read Tolkien and no one else was Tolkien. There wasn't any other fantasy being marketed then that I liked, except for a series of Ballantine Adult Fantasy books.
Lori White: So you had a pretty good grounding in science fiction?
LG: Yes, I did. I read Arthur C. Clarke -- I thought he was the coolest of the Big Three. I remember being sent to detention for reading a Clarke book in class. Detention was a room with a stack of Analogs in it. I thought, "This is punishment?" Then there was a big earthquake in 1971 and L.A. High had to come to Fairfax High -- Fairfax was the Jewish neighborhood where I grew up -- and I met Danny Brin, David's younger brother. I went to college at UCLA, and a group of us from that time still hung out together. We'd sit around talking about how we'd be science fiction writers.
LW: Were you already writing?
LG: Yes -- I wrote a lot in college. I've got a lot of failed short stories that someday I'm going to look at. I have a feeling they're not very good.
LW: How did you make the shift from science fiction to fantasy?
LG: I was an English major at UCLA, but I took every folklore class I could -- folklore and mythology. Then I became interested in other cultures -- real cultures. I was trying to write Celtic stuff and it wasn't working. I thought, "Hey. I can use my own culture." I grew up with Hungarians -- my mom's family -- and I'd heard a lot of stories from her life. When I was researching the novel [The Red Magician] I didn't tell her. I just asked her a lot of questions without letting on why.
LW: So The Red Magician not only springs from your cultural background, but your family history as well?
LG: My parents both came over from Europe in 1947. We can go into their history -- their history is far more interesting than mine. My father was born in Germany. When the Nazis came to power the family moved to Holland because the Gestapo went after Grandfather. My grandfather imported auto parts from the U.S. . . . His business partner turned him in. A lot of this seems so similar to today. If your partner's name is Mr. Mohammed, you could say he's interested in flying lessons. It just has the same feel to it from what my father told me -- the sense that our freedoms are being taken away one by one.
My father ended up in Westerbork. It was called a "work camp" but it sent a thousand people a week to Bergen-Belsen. My grandfather died there. Dad got out in 1945 when the camps were liberated. He and his mom -- my grandmother -- went back to Holland, and then to the US in 1947. For some reason he moved to L.A. -- I think because the '32 Olympics were in L.A., and of course the '36 Olympics were in Berlin. It was just such a contrast. It fascinated him.
Mom was born in a Hungarian part of Czechoslovakia. She was the fifth daughter in a family that wanted a boy. My uncle was born next, so then they stopped. Some of her family went to Auschwitz. My grandfather, grandmother, and aunt Erzebet [Elizabeth, after whom Lisa is named] died there. One aunt, who was blonde, managed to get papers; one went to Romania. My uncle just somehow managed to survive. My mom was in Auschwitz -- she made vacuum tubes. She was there until 1945, when it was liberated along with the rest. She came over in 1947, like my dad, and they met in an ESL class.
LW: A lot of material for a novel in there.
LG: I actually wrote the first chapter of The Red Magician as a short story, but people told me it didn't have a plot. So I turned it into a novel and sold it to Ellen Kushner during her short time at Pocket.
LW: And then it was nominated for the American Book Award--
LG: I was in Paris to research The Dream Years by that time but then my head was turned by the award. I decided I was a "literary writer." I thought I was a literary writer. Tourists came out of that period, and I still think it's a good literary novel, but my fantasy career took a detour as I made an attempt for mainstream acceptance. That was a dismal failure. <Laughs>
Somehow I remembered my roots. I realized I didn't like literary stuff all that much. I decided to write fantasy again. But the literary detour probably took some steam out of the fantasy career.
LW: And next came Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon.
LG: I researched that one for about two years. I spent all my time in the UC-Berkeley Library. While fantasy is like losing yourself in an imaginary world, this was like losing myself in a real world -- Elizabethan England. I really like research and discovering things about history. It keeps me from writing. But starting with Strange Devices I wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted to know every little detail -- how they delivered the mail even if nobody in the book got a letter. But you know -- I got tired of it.
LW: The Alchemist's Door must have taken a lot of research. . . .
LG: I did do research for The Alchemist's Door, mostly about Prague and Hungary. I had already done the research concerning the Elizabethan era. Now I'm getting back into epic fantasy. While no one else is Tolkien, George R. R. Martin's work is wonderful. I also like Patricia McKillip and the Earthsea books. I rediscovered what I liked about fantasy.
LW: What about Summer King, Winter Fool?
LG: That was too short. I can see why people write big fat fantasies. You're making up an entire world. You have to get it all in. People kept talking about these books being bigger and having more scope. I didn't understand what they meant for a while. Now I think I do.
LW: Is this hinting at another change in your direction?
LG: I talked to my agent and editor. They thought I should write under a pseudonym since Lisa Goldstein is known for "literary fantasy."
LW: You mean--
LG: I'm already done with the second book. <Smiles> They'll be coming out under a jealously-guarded pseudonym. I'm sure it will be revealed at some point but for now I just want to have fun. I've had friends tell me that when they wrote under a pseudonym they felt like a different person, and I do. It's let me write a whole different type of story.
If this works out I can write fantasy under the pseudonym, and then I can write "Lisa Goldstein" books -- weird, quirky books.
LW: And each of them different.
LG: None of my books is like any of the others. That's not good for a career. But it's fun.
Copyright © 2003 Lori Ann White
Lori Ann White lives with her husband (writer Gary W. Shockley) and three cats in the SF Bay area. Her work has appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and a piece is forthcoming in Polyphony 3. She's currently shopping a historical fantasy novel around, and she really wishes she had hair like Lisa Goldstein. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact her, email email@example.com.