Zibby is joined by actress, playwright, and author of Harvesting, Lisa Harding, to talk about her latest novel, Bright Burning Things, which is this month’s Read with Jenna pick. Lisa shares what life is like for performers after the end of their creative careers and why so many exhibit addictive behaviors like Lisa’s protagonist. The two also discuss Lisa’s unique writing style, what she wanted to convey about mental illness and addiction, and what life has been like in Ireland during the pandemic.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lisa. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Bright Burning Things: A Novel.

Lisa Harding: It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s lovely to meet you, Zibby.

Zibby: Lovely to meet you too. Could you please tell listeners what this novel is about?

Lisa: This novel is about a bad mom. No. She is an actress who is no longer acting, so that creative impulse is taken away from her. I think I heard you say something wonderful earlier, actually, about an injured athlete. I thought, that’s kind of like what Sonya’s like. Basically, she’s a very isolated woman with no supports whose acting career has come to a full stop, who’s on her own, has a little boy and rescue dog. She’s really struggling with profound isolation, with trauma from her past which hasn’t been dealt with, and with sitting with herself. Then she turns to alcohol to try to soothe herself and then recreate those highs that she really misses from her acting career. At the time we meet her in the novel, she’s a full-blown alcoholic. She really is quite dangerous. There’s a lot of mania. The little boy, he’s turning five. There’s a huge amount of love in there, but he is at risk, and the dog. She can’t even care for the dog. She leaves the two of them together. The thing about Sonya is she is full of love. That’s why I could stay with her when I was writing her.

Zibby: Her intentions always seemed so positive. The moment in your opening scene where she goes swimming and leaves her son on the beach with the dog and this concerned older woman comes over and is wondering why she’s swimming in her underwear and why she’s left her kid on the beach, and the dog and everything, yet she gets so fiercely protective. As the reader, we’re sort of alongside her being like, hey, get away from that kid. Who is this old lady? Then you slowly give us signs of what’s really going on and how’s she fantasizing about the cold bottle waiting for her, and the smoke in the kitchen. You clearly get a sense that even though she is so positive and possessive about her loved one and how she’s trying not to get him to cry in the backseat, all the mother things, you see quickly how perilous a situation it is.

Lisa: Perilous is a good word. As you say, it’s in spite of her better instincts. I know a lot about addiction and people in the grip of addiction and how — I love that expression, the imp of the perverse. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. Edgar Allan Poe, I don’t know if he coined it, but he certainly spoke about it. People’s impulses, it’s like a dark, little imp propelling you towards the destructive forces, whereas this is this other instinct that’s constantly battling in her, particularly when she has clarity. She’s either deeply hungover, which makes her very cranky and her reality is distorted at the moment, or she’s drunk at this point in the narrative. It’s a very distorted lens that she sees the world through. In her eyes, as with any addiction or mental disorder, it all makes perfect sense in there. I was really interested in writing about how the world rubs up against her. As you say, she’s constantly in conflict with herself and with the world outside her. She doesn’t have any supports. Nobody is looking out for her.

Zibby: No. It’s very sad.

Lisa: It’s very sad. A few of my friends read the novel during COVID. They were like, wow. They’re performers. A lot of my friends are performers. That part, once it’s cut away, it’s like what you were saying about the athlete as well. If you’re used to living at such a level of intensity and that’s taken away from you, you do feel bereft. You do feel slightly mad. I was an actress for about twenty years. My own career stopped. There was a variety of factors there. I remember facing the void thinking, I’m mad. What am I going to do with this energy that used to go into performing? Ruby Wax writes about it brilliantly. I don’t know if you’ve read any of her work about getting addicted to the charge of attention and performing. My Sonya character is very much an addictive personality and latches onto different things at different points in her life.

Zibby: There’s another book too, it’s sort of a different genre, but it’s called Palm Beach by Mary Adkins. It centers on a man who used to be an actor and a working actor for many years and even was nominated for something. Then he has a throat — a polyp removed. He gets his nerves damaged. I’m not saying the science right. Anyway, all to say, he couldn’t be an actor anymore and went on to be a house manager in Palm Beach, which is what the story is about. It’s about how you go from doing something like that and something he was so good at and loved and was rewarded and then shifting. Of course, this book sort of makes fun of the scene in Palm Beach of the uber-wealthy. It’s that same post-acting. It’s the same for athletes. I know I keep saying this, but yeah, athletes too. After this intensity, what next? What do you do? Where do you go? There’s no path.

Lisa: It’s very difficult. We know a lot of people have become very profoundly depressed. I think Sonya is actually in a state of depression although her actions are quite manic and she seems quite — when alcoholism gets to that stage where she’s drinking possibly three bottles of wine a night at this stage, really, it does bring on a kind of a mania. I think there’s something very magical about Sonya because of the actress in her. I don’t know if you remember, but there are scenes where she kind of play-acts Shakespeare with her little boy. She teaches him the lines. He’s Romeo. The little dog is dressed up. It’s completely bonkers in her world. There’s a lot of peril. It’s awful to know that a child is at risk despite the mother’s better instinct. It’s a horrible thing to witness.

Zibby: Sometimes I get overwhelmed doing this podcast because I feel like every book has a story about some poor child that has been traumatized or mistreated or something happens. I’m like, are any kids out there okay? Maybe just not the ones in books.

Lisa: In literature, there’s kind of a high stakes, isn’t there, if you’re writing about something like alcoholism anyway?

Zibby: Yes. Your writing style itself is so beautiful. I know you won a prize for your first novel and everything like that. It is so literary and beautiful and almost poetic, the way you write about the most mundane thing. A scene with a boy in the backseat of a car, the way I would write it versus the way you wrote it, it’s unbelievable. I’m trying to find when they were in the car. “As the car heats, fog forms on the windows. I draw a heart on the windscreen keeping one hand on the steering wheel and write ‘Mommy loves you’ inside it. ‘Tommy, look.’ I trace the letters with my fingertip reading aloud. He opens his eyes squinting, leans into Herbie, tries to hug him, arms only reaching a third of the way around his wide girth. The dog moans a happy, contended sound. ‘Good boy, Herbie. Best boy.’ His thick tail thumps on the tatty nylon seats. ‘My best boys, what would I do without you?'” Then you go on from there. It’s just so beautiful. Then the character thinks somebody is following him. You say, “I turned to the right checking the mirror and see him still, but then, no, it’s not him. He was just having his fun, harmless fun. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. My heartbeat slows down as I think of the promise waiting for me in the fridge. I’m glad I had the foresight to do that, chill it. It’s hot in the car now, and it’s still warm outside.”

Lisa: Thanks, Zibby. It’s lovely to hear it read out loud like that.

Zibby: It’s so good. It’s just such great writing. No words are wasted. I love this style.

Lisa: It’s not for everyone, that style, because it’s quite staccato. I did climb right inside her and wrote her from the inside out. As you’ve just read, it’s the first person. It’s I. It’s the first-person present tense. It meant that I was living with this woman for three years. Writing her, there were aspects of people I love and aspects of myself. I was like, ugh. It was difficult to write. Thank you for saying that about the prose because I do love lean prose. I love prose that doesn’t use — if you can get there quicker, get there. That’s how I feel. I’m quite an impatient, jittery reader. I don’t go in for long pages of descriptions or writers that are kind of pirouetting on the page. I do love that lean, mean machine style. There’s a little bit of poetry in there too because I love language. She is very magical in her thinking. Thank you for saying that.

Zibby: I love that, pirouetting on the page. That’s really cool.

Lisa: You know what I mean.

Zibby: I do. I know exactly what you mean. Yes, I do. Sometimes that’s really beautiful too. It depends what the goals are.

Lisa: Exactly, if it merits it. I often think the form and the content need to kind of marry up for me. Sometimes you can feel when a writer is really reaching. Sometimes, as you say, it’s completely intrinsic to the way a writer writes. I personally love getting to the bones of it. I love editing. I think editing is a huge part of writing.

Zibby: Anytime I write an essay or whatever — my go-to form is essay writing. Anytime I finish, I’m like, okay, now I have to go back and cut a hundred words, at least, because it always gets better with fewer words. I don’t know why. It’s what you’re saying. You take out the stuff that you don’t need. Then it just makes it better.

Lisa: It suits how I write. I was reading Madame Bovary again recently, she’s wonderful, Flaubert book. My god, he goes on, and the adjectives and the adverbs. I know that was the style as well. It’s interesting, isn’t it? It does kind of lull you into that when you get into that world where it’s really lush. The writing is really lush. You can kind of get in there. I think the modern sensibility suits better, that approach, particularly in a first-person as well. It would be completely unnatural for me to start writing long, overworked descriptions because it’s through her eyes. I had to stay true to her and what she sees and notices.

Zibby: I love that. It almost reminds me — have you read — it’s a memoir in recipes. It’s by Phyllis Grant. It’s called Everything is Under Control. It came out right as the pandemic was starting. She has a similar style in the way she parses words and how she can tell a whole story about something terrible happening or whatever in just a few images and a few — I think you’d probably like it.

Lisa: It sounds wonderful. I haven’t read it. Thanks. I’ll check it out.

Zibby: Everything is Under Control. It’s not long. It’s a memoir. It’s not a novel, but still. I should’ve said, what do you like to read aside from Flaubert? From Flaubert to Phyllis Grant in San Francisco.

Lisa: What do I like to read?

Zibby: Yeah, what do you like to read?

Lisa: I adore Elizabeth Strout. Maybe, who doesn’t? I really admire her. I think Olive Kitteridge was one of the best creations. I love that she was so spikey and so unlikable in so many ways. Again, a character that’s kind of not able to take charge of her own tongue and so cruel to her son and husband at times and yet so capable of such extreme love and warmth to people outside. What do they call it? The house devil/street angel thing. I think Elizabeth Strout has a beautiful style. She writes with such heart. It’s also quite funny and caustic. I really love her. It’s part of what I do, is reading, which is really wonderful. I read very widely. I love that Australian author, Tim Winton. I don’t know if you’ve come across him.

Zibby: I haven’t.

Lisa: He’s remarkable. I’ve read all of his works. I came across him because I saw a play of his at the National Theatre in London years ago. It was an adaptation of one of his novels called Cloudstreet. He creates these extraordinary worlds in Western Australia. He writes very differently to me in that he writes a lot about landscape and the place being a central character in his novels. He’s funny, again. The older I get as well, the more I really appreciate — I do go to the dark places in my writing, but I do appreciate the ability to offset it against humor. I love that. I just finished reading, before I went back to Flaubert, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It was Brian Moore. Very grim, very beautiful, 1950s Ireland, this aging spinster, just this aching portrait in loneliness. I love books in translation. I read a lot of French authors. There’s this incredible novel called Beside the Sea. I’m trying to remember her name. Véronique Olmi, O-L-M-I. She’s a playwright too. She wrote this extraordinary novel, it was quite a while ago, about a mother with very serious depression who, again, is very isolated. I’m not giving anything away, but she actually ends up — because it’s on the back of the book — smothering her children thinking she’s protecting them from this awful life. It’s so sparsely written and so tender, if you can imagine.

Zibby: Wow, that sounds really good.

Lisa: It’s very powerful.

Zibby: Okay, as if I needed my reading list to grow, but thank you for that. When you’re not reading and writing, what do you do? What’s your life like?

Lisa: It’s been pretty limited in the last couple years, and restricted. Ireland has had a tough time of COVID. We’ve had quite extreme lockdowns here. I am not a mother. I live with my rescue dog. A lot of the things that I love to do, like my dance class and teaching creative writing and being with friends, going to the cinema, going to the theater, that was so much a part of my life. It was a good balance with the writing. Stopped. I feel like I’m just kind of emerging back into life. I feel a little bit like I hit the madness of Sonya. Thankfully, I don’t have an addiction to substance, thank god, but that thing where you’re on your own too much and your thoughts just go round and round. It’s very hard to interrupt them even if you’re conscious. What I love to do, I love to hike in the mountains. We weren’t even allowed to go beyond two kilometers here. I couldn’t even go up the mountains for hiking, which I would do every weekend. I’ve got back into it. I love my rescue dog. Herbie is such a big character in the book. He’s one of my favorite characters. I can see your beautiful dog there. There’s so many things. I love dance. I love going to the theater and reading and hanging out with friends. Life is beginning to come back to normal. Then we’re getting all this dreadful media stuff at the moment. Genuinely, I think people that lived alone during the pandemic — quite a few of my friends are single. It seems to be a great proportion of society — I don’t know what it says about society now — are living alone. I think that’s had a great toll on people’s mental health. I don’t think we fully understand what the impact of being locked down on your own in a space — everything going online was very, very peculiar.

Zibby: Yes, I agree. I think that many of the effects of people who were alone, the effects on children, I know that mental health in children — I was just at this event by the Child Mind Institute. They don’t even know the full — they were calling them COVID kids. What does that mean? What does it mean when you grow up and you can’t see people’s faces? You’re right, isolation, I felt like I was going out of my mind all the time.

Lisa: Some of my friends are in partnerships. They have kids. Not all of them, but some of them said it was a beautiful time because they got to spend time with their partner and their kids in a way they hadn’t because they had such busy lives. That really can make people feel quite bereft that don’t have that. Do you know what I mean?

Zibby: Yes.

Lisa: It threw you back on this supposed idea — they’d use the word bubble. If people’s family relations are very stressed or they don’t have that, I think that there was people really looking at their life choices and thinking, ooh, what is this? Also, the alcoholism thing that I have written about in the book or people turning to alcohol, that’s really been on the rise, and also, we know, abuse within relationships where that was already there. There was times where I would actually get really overwhelmed when I think of kids that were in families where all this was going on, and it does. I have a friend who works for Women’s Aid. It’s here in Ireland. She was saying that the amount of phone calls from women in these situations and children just not even getting out to school, so not getting their usual outlets, and where everybody’s kind of stuck in a pressure cooker — in a weird way, that character that I wrote who’s so profoundly isolated, a lot of people ended up living that life.

Zibby: Makes me very sad. It’s scary.

Lisa: I know. I hope people are okay. I think there’s a kind of a PTSD out there, don’t you?

Zibby: Yes.

Lisa: I got on an airplane for the first time. I don’t know if you’ve traveled.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, the first time I went on an airplane, I was having a panic attack, literally. I had a panic attack going to a football game. I was like, I can’t do this. It’s been really hard. I feel like I’ve crossed over something. As there are more and more events, I’m getting used to it. I spoke to some woman. She’s like, “You know, you have undiagnosed PTSD right now. That is why everything is loud. Everything is hard. You’re scared to go to a restaurant and all this stuff.”

Lisa: Emotions are very raw. The way Sonya in the book lives her life, it’s kind of like everything is hyper-saturated. She feels everything way too intensely.

Zibby: I get it. I think so many people will get it. It was so beautiful. Are you working on anything now?

Lisa: I am. Actually, my first book has been optioned for a film. We’ve just handed in a screenplay with, it’s the British Film Industry, BFI, this side of the world. That’s in development. Then this, Bright Burning Things, has just been optioned. I was talking to a wonderful Irish director. We’re discussing about turning it into a series, actually. I will be involved in that. I won’t be the only writer. I’m writing novel number three, which is actually funnier. It’s dark because it’s kind of my bent, but it is funnier. All I know so far — I’m in the process of writing it. I never know what I’m writing, really. It’s about a group of first-year college students who come from very dysfunctional homes and kind of find themselves and form an alternative family. Then they turn on each other. It is pretty dark. It’s almost cult-like, what they create.

Zibby: Ooh, that also sounds really good. Wow.

Lisa: But it’s funnier. I am enjoying writing it. It probably has a little bit more of a thriller edge. I’m allowing myself to go there.

Zibby: I hope you’re allowed to get out of your house more.

Lisa: I know. It’s beginning to open up. Then in Ireland, in Dublin, they’re very, very frightened here because of our health care system. It can get overwhelmed very easily. They’re talking about bringing in more restrictions. We’re coming into the winter here. Our last winter, we were locked down fully for three months, two kilometers. I think everybody’s just in fear that’s going to happen again.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I’ll be thinking of you.

Lisa: We’ll be okay, won’t we? I don’t know what the percentage in America is, but a lot of us are vaccinated.

Zibby: I could just keep you here in a Zoom in the corner of my screen. We could just hang out.

Lisa: No, Zoom doesn’t do it for me, though.

Zibby: I know, I know.

Lisa: It’s this weird alternate reality, isn’t it?

Zibby: Yes, I agree. I’m ready for 3D. Maybe Zoom has to move to 3D or something. Maybe someone’s working on that. Last question, what is your advice to aspiring authors?

Lisa: Aspiring authors as in an author who hasn’t written anything yet, I think it’s really good to find a creative writing class. I think that’s a great idea, give you impetus and support in the beginning. Then what I did was I moved from — I did go back and do an M. Phil., but you don’t have to at all. Just do a course. There’s so many amazing courses online at the moment as well. Then it’s lovely to be part of a writing group. I’m part of a very supportive writing group at the moment. They’re wonderful. It’s a wonderful bunch of women. To have people that you really respect their opinion I think is important, and respect their writing. That’s important to me, anyway, because I don’t want to take advice from someone that I’m like, hmm. I think it’s good to seek out people who are on the same journey.

Zibby: That’s great advice. Excellent. Lisa, thank you. I’m so glad our paths crossed. Thank you for introducing me to your character and taking me in. I just love the way you write.

Lisa: Thank you, Zibby. It’s been lovely to meet you. Thank you so much for having me. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.



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