I connected with P.J. Lazos online as a fellow indie writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her discussions on environmental issues, writing, human virtue, and family are so compelling that I just had to introduce her to all of you.
First, let’s talk about you. Your biography reflects many passions: a passion for truth as a journalist, a passion to fight for what can’t as an environmental lawyer, and a passion for words as a writer. Which of these passions shown itself in you first, and how did it influence your other passions?
I think my strong sense of justice started in childhood. My mother had a baby who died at three months old. I was three years old at the time and remember thinking how unfair it was for our family, but especially for my mother who was devastated by the loss. I think I tried so hard to make it right for her, but of course, what could I do. Maybe the words grew out of that experience — definitely the emotion. I remember journaling when I was a kid although then it was called “keeping a diary” an no where near as in vogue as it is now so clearly the name change helped. As for my bit with the environment, well, my mom used to wrap me in a blanket and tuck me under the big oak tree in the backyard and I would lie there and have a conversation with the tree, or at least that’s what it looked like in the video, so I think that started then, too.
Your Six Sisters series delves into the nuances of family life and all its beautiful imperfections. Now I’m not going to strictly ask if this is autobiographical, but were any characters inspired by family or friends in your life? What drew you to share their stories?
That’s funny. My brother-in-law from my first marriage — I still maintain a solid relationship with my ex-husband and former in-laws — asked me the same question about List of 55. The answer is complicated. No, in that the over-the-top behaviors of the characters in that story were definitely not us, but yes in that the underlying emotion behind a break-up was definitely there. You don’t have to have a specific experience to write about it convincingly as long as you can access the emotion behind it. For example, I remarried and my now husband’s first wife died when their two kids were very young. Hearing that story from his POV allowed me to access his unbearable loss and I created a character — David Hartos in Oil and Water — loosely based on my husband who was also a commercial diver. He provided me with insight into how a heart completely busted open by grief struggled to raise two kids as well as how the world of commercial diving worked. I think that as writers, a piece of you lands in every story you ever write, but some are just more autobiographical than others. The part of List of 55 where the central character has a miscarriage — that precise situation did not happen to me, but I did have a miscarriage in a bathroom stall at 30th St. Station in Philadelphia and I think it may have been the saddest, most horrific moment of my life. I tried to write about it before, but it never came out with the gravity I wanted to convey so I put all that angst into Belinda’s character and that’s what I got. Sometimes it’s easier to process your own pain through a made up character. Isn’t that a staple of psychological counseling for kids, and aren’t we all just kids walking around in adult bodies, still harboring all the crap and still relishing all the joys we experienced in childhood?
Now, your most recent novel, Oil and Water,is an environmental thriller. Considering your legal expertise, I imagine you didn’t have to do a ton of research for this novel…or is that being presumptuous?
Yeah, I wish it worked that way for me, but it doesn’t. I started with doing some initial research about converting trash into oil and about the Marsh Arabs and the wetlands in the Fertile Crescent (which you would remember from studying Egypt or Mesopotamia), but a lot of the rest, like you, I googled as I went. I have enough information in my head to get me started, but my memory isn’t always a straight arrow so I need to fact check. My favorite kind of fiction is where you learn something so I wanted to be sure I was passing on real time information.
As the premise of Oil and Water brings readers to difficult questions about our dependence on fossil fuels, your website Green Life Blue Wateralso informs readers of some amazing environmental initiatives that are doing their communities some good. Are there any current programs you’d like to highlight right now?
Rain gardens and aquaponics! I’m a member of the Junior League of Lancaster, a group that’s been operating in Lancaster since 1923. This is my 8th year in the League and I love being part of a volunteer women’s organization. We are doing some really cutting edge stuff like building rain gardens which are basically bowl-like depressions planted with hydrophytic plants that hold stormwater and rain water in high flow times as a way to divert it out of combined sewer system.
This year we’re adding aquaponics to the mix which is basically a fish tank with food growing on top — veggies, herbs, whatever you want (well, maybe not pumpkins). The fish poop fertilizes the plants so it’s a self-contained system. We’re doing a pilot project at an elementary school here in Lancaster, installing four tanks in four second grade classrooms and putting together some curriculum to go with it. We want to make a “pizza garden” with basil, oregano, cherries tomatoes, and a few other things so when the kids harvest the food in the tank we can throw them a pizza party. So lots happening: how ecosystems interact, close up look tan water and nutrients, nutrition, and more, I’m sure. Hands on learning is really the best way to get those kind of lessons across. I just learned that the Aztecs were the first to do aquaponics. The called it Chinampas. So you see, I’m learning something, too.
You are also a member of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group, correct? Can you tell us a little about this program and how writers can join?
I actually don’t do that anymore. It was quite fun, but a friend of mine asked me what I had to be insecure about since she loved my writing. That started me thinking about The Law of Attraction and how what you think about all day long is what manifests in your life so I stopped participating in IWSG and started participating in WATWB, We Are the World Blogfest, which had just started. WATWB happens on the last Friday of every month and it showcases positive news stories as a way to counteract all the negativity in the world, an “accentuate the positive” approach to news and life. I also found this group to be more “my people”, writers all, but focused on social justice, environmental issues, a better life for all people. Plus you get a real lift from reading the stories people post.
Lastly, what advice would you like to share with those who are unsure how to explore their family or other passions with writing?
Journaling is always a great way to get started. I always kept a kind-of notebook, but when my daughter was born, a friend gave me a beautiful black sketch book with lovely, creamy paper. I had four months off from work, plus another four on a very part-time basis, I wrote a journal in earnest, a love letter to my kid that I intend to give her one of these days when she’s ready to read it. Her dad and I split before she was born and I wanted to get everything I was feeling down on paper. We joke now that she came out screaming because I was so angry when I was pregnant. Unless I’m reading her wrong, today, like me, she laughs readily and sees both the irony and the gifts in most situations. I don’t write in a journal as much as I used to, but I have a blog and much of what I would write in the journal goes in the blog. One thing I would suggest and that I myself need to get back to is morning pages, something Julia Cameron suggested in “the Artist’s way.” A brain dump every morning to get the gook out and start fresh — something that both reaps and sows benefits. Your mind is clearer, and you’re not as much of a jerk to the the person behind the counter who gets your order wrong or the one who cuts you off in traffic. It helps you to be more chill, in addition to generating ideas, and we all could use more of that.
My deepest thanks to P.J. for taking time to time to talk to us! You can find her Amazon page here and her Twitter page here.
Would you like to be interviewed on Jean Lee’s World, or plug your creative work in my newsletter? Contact meand let me know!
Oh, and I just gotta say how cool it is that four of my Tales of the River Vineare STILL in the Top 10 Free YA Fantasy Monster Fiction.
That’s two months now, and going strong! Thank you thank you THANK YOU!
I do hope you’ll leave a review on my novel letting me know which characters you dig–and which you want to see more of! I’m brainstorming up some more Tales. xxxxxx
A collection of book reviews by Patricia Skalka — A Chicago native, life-long reader and author of "Death Stalks Door County," "Death at Gills Rock," "Death in Cold Water," and "Death on a Ferry," the first four volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series.