Lauren Kessler actively engages in her material, whether it’s working with Alzheimer’s patients, sitting through middle school classes or sweating through a two-week fitness bootcamp. She funnels research, interviews and hands-on experience through her own perspective, distilling all that material into award-winning narrative nonfiction. Above all, she’s a masterful storyteller with a keen sense of pacing and a journalist’s flair for recording pitch-perfect dialogue.
Her new book, Counterclockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging—a spirited romp through the real science (and the real hucksterism) of the anti-aging movement—launches today in hardcover and ebook editions.
“Her breezy style conceals an aptitude for reasoned analysis, and she incorporates a cogent summary of clinical research on aging into her tour of the fountain grounds, a one-woman guinea pig gamely trotting down a dozen different paths in search of the bubbling waters,” wrote Abigail Zuger in a review of Counterclockwise published today in the New York Times Science section.
Lauren will be reading from Counterclockwise and answering questions at Powell’s City of Books at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 12, at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St, Portland.
“I write because I’m intensely curious about everything,” Lauren said in her 2011 speech at HomeWord Bound, the annual Community Partners for Affordable Housing benefit. “Writing funds that curiosity and gives legitimacy to my nosiness.”
When her daughter Lizzie was twelve and thirteen, Lauren focused her investigative zeal on their relationship. She trailed Lizzie to middle school, the mall, summer camp and wrestling practice, while researching teen brains and talking to scores of parents, teachers and other tween and teen experts.
The result, My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, A Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence, should be required reading for every parent. The book is a brave and honest piece of reporting about the messy necessity of daughters pushing away from their mothers in order to forge their own identities. Lauren tackles some scary subjects—including the alternate selves these “Born Digital” children create online.
Lauren’s other books include Dancing with Rose, which won the Pacific Northwest Book Award (and is titled Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s in paperback); Clever Girl, a Washington Post bestseller; The Happy Bottom Riding Club, a Los Angeles Times bestseller and Full Court Press.
Stubborn Twig, the story of three generations of the Yasui family, was chosen for the Oregon Reads program in 2009 as part of the state’s sesquicentennial events. Lauren’s interest in subcultures within our midst fuels her work.
“I want—and I need—to learn about these worlds,” she said, “and I need readers to see what I see and learn what I learned.”
Lauren’s work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, O (the Oprah magazine), Ladies’ Home Journal, Women’s Day, salon.com, newsweek.com and the Nation, among others. She is the founder and director of the new multimedia narrative journalism master’s program at the University of Oregon’s Portland center.
Counterclockwise, published by Rodale, is widely available through Powell’s, Amazon, and your local independent bookstore. Lauren is posting essays, tips and other bits of wisdom on her new Counterclockwise blog. Her essay, “My Year of Aging Backward,” recently appeared in Prevention.
This interview with Lauren was first published in Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (October 2012, Forest Avenue Press).
1. Tell us about Counterclockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging.
My newest book is a frank, funny—and up-close-and-personal—exploration of the hope and hype of the anti-aging movement. Bootcamp in Utah in 118-degree heat. A raw foods diet. Hypnosis. Detox. A failed self-compassion test. “Uncomfortable” laser treatments. Watching my face age from twenty to seventy-five via computer magic. Or what about a regimen of bio-identical hormones? What will I subject myself to—and in the process educate my readers about—on my year-long journey to reverse time from the inside out?
Guided by intense curiosity and healthy skepticism, a sense of adventure and a sense of humor, I investigate what it takes to be younger, not just look younger. I am at once the careful reporter, the immersion journalist, the self-designated lab rat and a midlife woman who is not interested in being as old as her driver’s license insists she is.
My mission isn’t about vanity (well, maybe a little) but about discovering ways to prolong our “health-span,” the long midlife years we can spend enjoying high-level energy, robust fitness and physical and creative vitality. I think of this book as part Mary Roach, part A.J. Jacobs—and all me.
2. What’s the definition of narrative nonfiction? How is it different from memoir, biography and journalism?
Narrative nonfiction combines the force of fact with the drama of fiction. It meshes authenticity (this really happened, no fabrication) with resonance (this is the crafted, nuanced story of what happened). It is a form that allows a writer both to narrate facts and to search for truth, to blend the empirical eye of the reporter with the moral vision—the I—of the storyteller.
The “narrative” defines how the story is told, the motion and emotion, the creation of narrative arc, character development, scene-setting, action sequences, dialogue and interior monologue. The “nonfiction” defines the assiduously researched factual content.
Genres are often not hard-and-fast categories, but I would say that memoir inhabits the land between nonfiction and fiction, and is most often constructed from memory, not deep research. Biography is usually well researched but often not told in a compelling narrative fashion. And most journalism is about the gathering and logical ordering of facts, not the construction of story.
3. For My Teenage Werewolf, you immersed yourself in your daughter’s world for eighteen months. Did you study Lizzie the same way you approach other subjects, or did the ultra-personal nature of your research affect your methods? Does all your immersion reporting become personal to some degree?
All writers are immersed in their work, of course, but for me, immersion has a particular and distinct meaning. It is the way I learn about—and learn from—the worlds I want to illuminate for readers. In Counterclockwise, it is the fascinating world of anti-aging, from the labs of Nobelists looking for the answer to aging to the Internet hucksters selling the latest magic potion, from raw foodists to detoxers, fitness junkies to Botox queens. I learn about this world not just by reading about it and interviewing the people involved but by involving myself, by becoming that “self-designated lab rat.”
In My Teenage Werewolf, the world is that of the twenty-first century teen, the cultural, emotional, psychological, even neurological, world teen girls inhabit as well as the intense and tumultuous world of mother-daughter relationships. Immersion, as I practice it, is a cultural anthropologist’s tool and mindset… an active, intense observation that continues for so long or is done in such a way that the observer fades into the background. And yes, it was hard (and a continuous challenge) to be both observer and participant in my daughter’s life. But it also served to improve our interactions—the distance, the “this will be a great story for the book” comment when we were about to get into a fight—and ultimately our relationship.
I was also an immersion reporter/cultural anthropologist in Dancing with Rose (Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s in paperback) where I took a minimum-wage, in-the-trenches job as a caregiver at an Alzheimer’s facility in order to understand the world inhabited by those with this disease.
4. I’ve been raving about My Teenage Werewolf, telling my mom friends to read it before our kids get to middle school. How have mothers of pre-teen and teen girls responded to the book? And how did your daughter Lizzie respond? Did she read the manuscript before it was finished?
First, thanks for raving! The good kind, I mean. I have done a lot of raving in my life—especially when my daughter was between twelve and sixteen (she just turned eighteen)—and it wasn’t the good kind…
The response has been just terrific, from emails to comments on the blog where I’ve continued to write about mother-daughter issues (at myteenage werewolf.com) to Facebook and Twitter chat to actual handwritten letters (gasp). By “terrific,” I mean readers are relieved to learn they are not the only ones being driven crazy by their teen (or pre-teen) girl. I mean comforted and amused. It feels good to laugh about this in the midst of what seems like an endless pitched battle. Readers say they’ve learned a lot from the book (especially about the teen brain) and they thank me for being “Margaret Mead in middle school” so they get a richer understanding of that world. They also talk about the ah-ha moment of realizing what werewolves they were when they were teens (I know I was).
I read long passages of the book to my daughter during the writing process—she had veto power over anything—and she read most of the manuscript before it became a book.
This book would not have been possible without her. She had to buy into it completely, so she felt from the beginning that she held the power. She was my guide to the teen girl world. She was my insider source. She was my expert. So the experience actually empowered her, I think. Her reaction was very positive. She appeared with me (reading her lines of dialogue) at several bookstore and library events. That was her idea, not mine!
Now, of course, the book is old, old news. She doesn’t give it a thought.
5. Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you write and research at the same time, or do you complete your research first? Please describe a typical writing day.
It’s never a clean division. I need to know the shape and direction of the story before I start to write, so I do a significant amount of research just to discover the narrative line, to feel the movement in the story, to know who the characters are. But I am also often in the midst of immersion while I write. I find that it keeps the narrative fresh and exciting.
So, with Counterclockwise, I declared April to be “detox month.” I both, shall we say, “cleansed” and wrote about it simultaneously. Not a great month. Same thing with exploring superfoods and raw foods, and with many other things I did for the book. I would go in for a muscle biopsy in the morning and write about it in the afternoon. But, while writing, I’d be amplifying, filling in the blanks, enriching the narrative with research I had already completed.
My days can be quite different depending on whether I am in the midst of an immersion experience or just sitting in front of my computer. I always exercise before I write—go for a run, work out at the gym, etc. It gives me the energy I need, boosts my mood and gives me brainless time that is often the richest time to process the work. I write about five hours a day. I really, really try to not write any longer. I sit on a big red stability ball. I drink probably eight cups of tea (some green but mostly herbal) while writing. Sometimes I chain-chew Orbit Sweet Mint gum. I think that’s enough detail.
6. You are the director of the multimedia journalism master’s program at the University of Oregon. What does “multimedia” entail? Has technology changed the fundamentals of reporting?
The program is all about adding tools to the storyteller’s toolbox, enhancing the nonfiction storytelling process by expanding the ways a tale can be told. So you’re a writer who uses words to tell stories. Great. But sometimes sound is the richest way to tell a story, and sometimes still images are the most powerful, and sometimes it’s video.
The program is all about The Story—how to think story, and how to report for story (which may involve one person with a pen and a pad of paper or a team with lights and mics and cameras). It’s about figuring out the very best, most compelling, most audience-accessible way to tell stories. And doing it.
And yes, technology has an impact. But technology changes from minute to minute. There’s a new gadget announced every week, a new app, a new device. It’s impossible to keep up. The fundamentals of nonfiction storytelling stand outside and above technology, and they do not change: the art of conceptualizing a story, of finding the motion and emotion of the story, the imperative to be honest and thorough and accurate and compassionate about a story, the responsibility to maintain the highest of ethics. That’s what this is all about.
7. What advice do you have for aspiring nonfiction authors?
I wrote a piece, now much anthologized, a while ago called “The Ten Stupid Things Writers Do to Mess Up Their Lives.” It’s all about self-sabotage. Writers are masterful at this. It contains my best advice—and what I tell myself on a regular basis.
Lauren’s website is laurenkessler.com. Her Counterclockwise blog is counterclockwisebook.com. Lauren and her daughter Lizzie blog together at myteenagewerewolf.com and they co-write The A to Zs of Teenagers series at Mom.me.