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Thoroughly Modern Wendy

Laurie Fox's The Lost Girls

Berkeley-based author and literary agent Laurie Fox recently published her second novel, The Lost Girls, a feminist re-imagining of J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan. In Barrie's story, Peter Pan promises to come back from Neverland for Wendy, but like all little boys, he irresponsibly shows up too late. Wendy has grown up and is unable to return with him. She offers her daughter to Pan in her place and begins a cycle of each mother sending her daughter to fly with Pan and explore Neverland.

This is where Fox's story begins. She explores five generations of women, with the narrative told by Wendy Darling Braverman, fourth in line and a child of the 1960s. From England to Wonderland to Berkeley, The Lost Girls travels a fantastical map. The novel explores Wendy's childhood, her flight to Neverland and her loss of first love.

As an adult in Berkeley, she manouvers through a city fused with its own far-out characters and new-age ideas, which Wendy eyes a bit skeptically. This background serves to highlight her travels to Neverland, where she learns to fly and psychologically is never quite able to leave. The trouble she has synthesizing her Neverland experience with her everyday life becomes more stark when she has a daughter of her own, Berry, who is tormented by a much darker version of Wendy's depression.

Laurie Fox's novel travels a curvy, often confusing path between time and space, reality and fantasy. A different typeface clues the reader to a shift in scene, to Neverland, but the line between the narrative "reality" of Berkeley and fantasy is often left for the reader to judge. In The Lost Girls, objectivity is impossible, and to enjoy it a reader must fly with each character on her quest of self-discovery and twists of imagination.

SF Station interviewed Fox earlier this month at her home in Berkeley.

Q: After you published your novel, did you find out anything new about your story?

Well, I was very relieved that it turned out not to be a male-bashing book! I don't harbor any residual anger towards Pan-like men despite the fact that I know several Peter Pans. Nevetheless, I was grateful that The Lost Girls was really a book about mothers and daughters and the emotional inheritance passed down from generation to generation. In a way, we daughters inherit our mother's emotional lives because emotions have a chemical basis. So it is possible that we might very well inherit our mothers' dreams and ambitions - their unlived lives and their aspirations.

While the novel has its share of charming albeit irresponsible men, it is far more concerned with the thorny negotiations that take place between mothers and daughters. Relationships between mothers and daughters are so complicated that they practically create their own weather system -- storm systems, flash floods and some sunny days too.

Q: What kind of response have you been getting from your audience?

I was speaking to a book group and a woman asked, "Why do all the mothers send their daughters off to Neverland if they know the consequences may be partly negative?" But there is a certain inevitability in this tale. A line in my novel says, "All rites of passage are paradoxical. There is an opportunity for personal growth and transcendence, but there are also serious blows to the ego." In tribal cultures when children are sent off on their rites of passage, they are supposed to be challenged by the elements, by being alone, by starvation, and hopefully, they reach a higher state of consciousness. These rites are not supposed to be fun. Remember, in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Wonderland is a somewhat violent place, complete with a Queen who says, "Off with their heads!"

Q: How in your book does flying work as a metaphor?

It is a very rich concept, yes? A metaphor for free will, transcendence of the body, transcendence of gravity, the soaring of the spirit - and freedom, of course. All children face the age-old dilemma of desire versus fear, of staying home or flying away. But I also wanted flying to be a visceral experience for Wendy. I offer glimpses of [her flight] throughout the book, but at book's end, we finally observe her sensual and intellectual experience of flight. I wanted to save the best for last.

Q: What did you think of the recent film version of Peter Pan?

Happily, it was visually beautiful and emotionally inspiring. Wendy was restored to her rightful place in the story and had a co-starring role. [Barrie's book] was originally called Peter and Wendy, but over time "Wendy" was dropped from the title. I like to think that my book places Wendy at the forefront of the story.

Q: What was your process for delving back into Barrie's novel?

I do all of my research after I write the first full draft of a book. I like to discover what I know instinctively, through osmosis. Through what my antennae have picked up. And then go back and see what is historically correct. In fact, I wrote my first novel, My Sister From the Black Lagoon, completely out of order in an attempt to follow my intuition. I have very little time in which to write, so I thought it would be best if I just chose the vignette that most intrigued me that day. I don't care to know what transpires in a scene until the moment I write it -- when I reach that particular intersection and peer around the corner.

Q: How does your illness affect your writing?

I often write in a kind of fog, because I have a serious autoimmune illness that can make concentration tough at times. Fortunately, this fog prevents me from judging myself while I write. Because of my physical discomfort, though, writing becomes a mystical experience for me. I suspend judgment on my work until the end of the process.

Q: The Lost Girls drifts between fantasy and reality. Was this intentional?

I have always been in love with magic realism, but my take on [my writing] is that, rather than being magical, alien or sci-fi in nature, it is the result of experiencing and relishing strong feelings. My more fantastic writing reflects my interior life, so it seems very honest for me to write like that.

Tonally, the book changes a lot: you will find a profound passage right up against a zany passage. And that is because I experience life like this. We watch a tragedy unfold on TV and are transfixed, and then someone comes into the room and says something outrageous and we laugh. I like to read books with emotions and moods that turn mid-sentence, and the original Peter Pan is likewise witty, sharp, acidic and also surprisingly profound.

Q: How do you compare your dual roles as an agent and author?

Well, agenting is a very social activity that requires me to interact with and relate to the world at large. The job requires a great deal of left-brain activity: editing, pitching, negotiating. Whereas writing is an interior process and a right-brained, solo activity. I don't have the luxury of thinking about my own work all week long, but I try not to be jealous of those people who have that life. Agenting has made me a better editor of my own work, and yet I am beholden to others for their wise counsel regarding my own work.

The Lost Girls
by Laurie Fox
Simon & Schuster; ISBN: 074321790
Hardcover: 274 pages (January 2004)