A couple of years ago, I heard a writer I did not know, Lisa Borders, read from her novel-in-progress. I was riveted. The characters were fully formed from their introduction and the plot sounded like a page-turner. I couldn't wait to read the book. I still can't.
There are literary myths about the manuscript plucked from the slush pile to: (a) shoot to the top of the best-seller list, (b) win the National Book Award, (c) be snapped up by Steven Spielberg, (d) fill in your favorite fantasy here. But more often, writing proceeds like gardening -- the slow and quiet tending of adverbs, weeding of dialogue, crafting of the work -- the way Lisa Borders is doing.
Borders is clearly a writer deserving of attention. All the ingredients are there. She has had short stories published in respected literary journals; has been given awards, grants, and residencies; and teaches fiction writing at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston. When writer Pat Conroy selected her novel, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," for the Fred Bonnie Memorial Award for Best First Novel, he called it "an absolute original by a fresh new voice in fiction." The book, which tells the story of a young female street musician's search for home, went on to win a Massachusetts Book Award as well.
But fame and fortune have yet to find her. She tends her literary garden out of the limelight, taking pride in the body of work she is steadily producing. That is probably the lot of most writers of literary fiction, and it is one she accepts with grace and equanimity.
"Probably when I was younger, I had grander dreams," she says. "It could still happen, but I've gotten past the point where I think I'm going to be famous. And I think if that's a writer's goal, they'd better do something else."
Even when her book was selected for the Bonnie award, it was destined to make more of a small ripple than a noticeable splash: The announcement was made on Sept. 10, 2001.
"After waiting years for this news," she says, "I had about 18 hours to celebrate before it looked like the world was coming to an end."
If she did not become an overnight literary sensation, Borders did find that publication of "Cloud Cuckoo Land" gave her new respect for herself as a writer and allowed her to protect time and energy for writing. Her writing time now takes precedence over her two part-time jobs, teaching fiction writing, and working in a lab as a cytotechnologist, or medical technician trained in the identification of cells. "I had had to fit writing around my jobs and now it's vice versa. It's a difficult juggling act sometimes."
She also balances long and short form, switching between work on her novel, "The Fifty-First State," and short stories. And she feels "Cloud Cuckoo Land" will have a second life at some point, possibly because of its strong lead character, Miri.
"I think Miri is too stubborn," Borders says. "She'll make sure her story gets told."
Readers might imagine writers lusting after literary stardom, but celebrity holds little attraction for Borders. While she wouldn't turn it away, she is clearly focused, instead, on the satisfaction of creating the work.
"I tell my students if you really don't need to do this, you might want to do something else. This will break your heart. You have to be a little delusional, and the odds are not in your favor."
Would Borders herself ever consider giving up writing? "No, I can't stop doing it. I'm a writer. This is what I do."