It was her natural curiosity that led Lesley Kagen into unknown publishing realms. Her first four novels became reality through a traditional publisher, Penguin. Her fifth book she published on her own. And now, with her latest, she’s trying out an indie publisher.
Reached at her home in Cedarburg, Kagen talked about her need to try different things both in her writing and in the way that her books reach their intended audience.
“I like to check stuff out,” she said. “I think there’s a lot to be said for all three ways to go about this,” whether it be publishing through the traditional route, self-publishing or working with an independent house like SparkPress, which printed Kagen’s most recent novel, “The Resurrection of Tess Blessing” ($15, paperback).
“A lot of it depends on who you are as a person.”
After spending more than 30 minutes chatting with Kagen, whose husky voice is testament to her years as an actress and voice-over talent, who she is as a person comes through clearly. She’s outspoken about the sometimes dark topics of her books, including depression, cancer, PTSD, eating disorders, anxiety, and anger. She related an anecdote about an encounter she had recently with a reader.
“I’m out and about, and I run into this person who says to me, ‘I’m reading your new book. I’m kind of curious as to why so many of your books have people that are so, I don’t want to say damaged, but I want to say, really dealing with some serious stuff,’” Kagen said.
Her response? “Well, that’s what life is. Life is really, really hard, even though everybody likes to pretend it isn’t.”
And don’t even get her started on anger.
“God forbid now anybody expresses anger,” Kagen said. “Anger, instead of being a healthy emotion that’s completely 100% appropriate in many situations, now it’s, ‘You’re so angry, what’s wrong with you? You have to let that go.’ Well no, I don’t,” Kagen said, following up with some language to make a sailor blush.
So instead of pretending that everything is just fine, Kagen likes to dig in to topics that make people uncomfortable. In “Tess Blessing,” her protagonist deals with breast cancer, something Kagen went through herself.
“I like to use my life as a jumping-off point,” she said. She weaves fiction and reality together to create books that explore the human condition and, in her latest, she also uses a little magical realism. Her narrator, Grace, may or may not be real.
“By the time you’re done reading the book you’re never quite sure who she is. Is she an imaginary friend? Is she another deeper, more profound part of Tessie? Is she a guardian angel? I think in many ways she serves different functions within the book,” Kagen said.
That uncertainty allows Kagen to add more complexity to her story so that she can open the dialogues that are most important to her.
“I like to talk about stuff that matters,” she said. “If you’re feeling anxious, or you have breast cancer, or you’re depressed, no matter who you are, if we talk about it, it works out a lot better.”
Since her breakout 2007 best-seller “Whistling in the Dark,” Kagen has found a balance in her writing by infusing each book with humor despite sometimes sinister plots and dark emotions.
Most of the time, she said, she’s writing about people in pain. And the only way to rise above that pain is through humor.
“I think without our sense of humor we’re all kind of doomed,” she said.
“One of the purposes of books is to be entertaining,” she said. “I can get depressed without spending $25.95.”