Lisa Jensen is the author of the novels, Alias Hook, and The Witch From the Sea, proprietress of the arts and entertainment blog, Lisa Jensen Online Express, and longtime film critic and columnist for the alternative weekly, Good Times, in Santa Cruz, CA.
Alias Hook was published by Thomas Dunne Books on July 8, 2014. I had the chance to speak with Lisa about it…
Sarah Chorn: How has being a film and book critic helped or influenced your writing?
Lisa Jensen: Viewing literally thousands of movies over the years has taught me a lot about shaping a dynamic story arc—I hope! And writing novels myself has made me more sympathetic to the creative process when reviewing someone else’s work.
SC: How did you get into writing? What’s your story?
LJ: I’ve always written stories and drawn comic strips for myself since childhood. Professionally, I started out as a part-time movie critic for a local alternative weekly newspaper. I wasn’t trained in journalism, but I loved movies and I loved to write, so I learned on the job, and eventually became the full-time critic. I also wrote book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years. It was all that reading and analyzing of other people’s novels that got me to thinking: Hey! I could do this!
SC: What do you do when you aren’t writing?
LJ: I still have my “day job,” so I still see a lot of movies! I still like to draw; I’m always sketching the characters in my books so I know what they look like! I love to bake. And although I’m not much of a gardener, my husband and I keep a pretty fabulous yard full of low-maintenance succulents.
SC: In Alias Hook, Captain Hook is a very sympathetic character. Was it hard for you to twist the story to make him sympathetic when just about every story ever told has him painted in such a bad light?
LJ: I’ve always loved the world of the Neverland—mermaids! Fairies! Indians! Flying children! But I’ve always like Captain Hook better than Peter; for one thing, Hook is much funnier! (Okay, I also have a thing about pirates.) But even when I was a kid, I thought Peter was too much like all the bratty little boys I went to school with.
When I encountered the tale again as an adult (I was reviewing a movie, of course), I was struck by the pathos of Captain Hook, an adult trapped in a world run by children. I started wondering who he was, and how he’d ended up in the Neverland. What had he ever done to deserve such a fate, playing villain to a pack of malicious little boys forever?
SC: Hook’s background was just as important as his experience in Neverland. I found it interesting how you managed to create two storylines for him in two different worlds and I’m wondering how you kept it all straight? Was it hard for you to keep the aspects of Hook straight? Furthermore, how did you go about world building, when you were basically simultaneously building two different worlds at the same time?
LJ: James Hook in the Neverland, at least when we first meet him, is weary and embittered. He’s trapped in this pointless war with the boys over nothing that never ends. But because he’s under a curse, he can’t be killed either, so the nightmare just goes on and on. But the young James we see in flashbacks, as a child, a young blood about London, a gentleman privateer, is a witty, dashing, roguish fellow, full of promise. I thought it was important to contrast these two aspects of his personality in alternate opening chapters, so the reader knows how much fun he was before, and realizes all he has lost.
But what connects the two parts of his story, the youthful and older James, is his caustic wit. Even at his lowest point in the Neverland, he has a fairly droll take on things. So once the forbidden woman appears in the Neverland—against all the little boys’ “rules”—I want the reader to be engaged by James Hook and rooting for his redemption!
As to world-building the Neverland: I didn’t have to. James M. Barrie did it all for me, particularly in the book Peter and Wendy, his novelization of his famous play. But for a place built out of dreams and so chock-full of magical beings, I thought Barrie had barely scratched the surface of the world he created. I wanted to dive in and find out what daily life was like for the Fairy Sisterhood, the merwives in their mysterious grotto beneath the Mermaid Lagoon, and the First Tribes in their villages. And, of course, the pirates!
SC: A lot of Alias Hook deals with relationships. Hook’s relationship to himself. Peter’s relationship to the Lost Boys, to Hook, to Neverland. Then Parrish drops in, and her relationship to everything and everyone becomes pretty central. In a world that is run by boys who don’t grow up and a pirate captain who is miserable and jaded, I’m sure building these dynamic and very personal relationships was hard to do without letting the characters lose their edge. How did you create such powerful relationships and why were they important?
LJ: Stella Parrish has the potential to disrupt everything in the Neverland, given Pan’s fear and contempt for grown-up “ladies.” An unease that Hook shares, at first. But I knew that Hook needed a powerful relationship with a woman to draw him outside of himself, and also to help him reclaim that part of himself that he’d lost. Because, since he’s stuck in Pan’s endless childhood, James Hook also needs to grow up. The real challenge for me was coming up with a female character strong and vital enough to be a good match for him.
SC: Stella Parrish is a fascinating character because she drops into this secondary world and takes it all very well. There aren’t any vast swaths of the book where her confusion overwhelms the plot. Furthermore, she feels really “natural” in Neverland, like she belongs there. You deftly avoided a lot of plot issues that so many books easily fall into with Parrish. Did you have any real methods that helped you overcome those plot pitfalls?
LJ: Well, Stella, unlike James, comes to the Neverland on purpose. She’s determined to believe in a place (as she imagines) of perfect childhood innocence. The Neverland proves to not be what she expected; there’s a bitter war going on, death is very real, and “innocence” is a question of semantics. The only aspect of the place she really doesn’t believe in at first is Captain Hook! But as she and James become allies and friends, she starts to see in him someone far more complex than the storybook villain. At the same time, she opens herself up to the magical aspects of the Neverland and its varied inhabitants in a way that James has never dared to.
Going back to the subject of relationships, once James and Stella begin to care for each other, the stakes rise alarmingly. Pan will do anything to crush their alliance; he wants to be the focus of Hook’s world and he’ll destroy any “game” that excludes him.
SC: Which of the characters was the most fun for you to write?
LJ: Definitely Hook! He started talking to me from the very first moment I got the idea for the book, and I found him an entertaining companion throughout. I couldn’t wait to give him the chance to rewrite his story!
SC: What did you learn while writing Alias Hook? What parts of writing this book surprised you? What are you the most afraid of regarding publication date?
LJ: I learned that strong characters will tell an author what they will and will not do. I was surprised that Stella insisted on being so funny; she comes from a dark place, but she’s an upbeat personality. And I’m looking forward to publication day to find out what happens next!