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Tara Ison is the author of the novels Rockaway, A Child out of Alcatraz, and The List, the short story collection Ball, and Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, a collection of essays. She is a professor of creative writing at Arizona State University.


Hi, Tara! I first want to say that I’m obsessed with Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies and my students are, too. Movies and creative writing really go hand in hand—we see moving pictures on a screen, we feel the conviction of a dynamic protagonist, and we stick with that protagonist through the conflict—moving pictures can truly inspire writers to “live, love, and die at the movies.”

I appreciate the idea of “layering” that’s mentioned throughout your book, a way for your experiences to be juxtaposed with movies such as Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, The Graduate, Fiddler on the Roof, Romeo and Juliet, etc., while also deconstructing and exploring the complexities of these film characters. On the other hand, the section titles are very succinct, for instance, “How To Be Lolita,” “How To Be a Jew,” “How to Be Mrs. Robinson,” etc. On the surface level, these titles seem to all read as a “How To” guide, but how much do you read them as a “How Not To” guide?

Yes, the "lessons" I learned from films were cautionary tales as often as positive and constructive “how to”s. Growing up, I was sometimes aware of that, sometimes not. I definitely learned how not to lose my virginity (thank you, Fast Times at Ridgemont High…), how not to be a drunk (even I knew Dudley Moore’s soused Arthur was a dangerously charming lie), and so on.

But just as often I either made conscious decisions to emulate behaviors that seemed glamorous or a good time (Sue Lyon’s Lolita seemed so desirably self-assured and in control; wow, writers all get to have beach houses, that's what I want to be in life…) or was simply oblivious to how I was being conditioned on a more subliminal level. Writing the book was a way to examine to what degree I internalized those ideas without questioning them, a way to try and understand which choices I've made were significantly shaped by my being so impressionable, and which were more authentic, thoughtful, deliberate. And if I wasn't able question the impressions being made in the past, to question them now—and appreciate the cautionary lesson.

Out of all the movies mentioned in this book, which one of them frustrates you the most, and why? And which one of them do you always come back to?

I’m frustrated by many of them—but that’s what keeps the fascination alive, what lures me back to watch a film over and over, as if Thelma and Louise might actually make it to Mexico, or Jean Brodie will suddenly be blessed with self-awareness. Maybe Denzel Washington will be able to leave those bottles of booze in the hotel minifridge alone this time. Maybe Randall P. McMurphy will stop mouthing off to Nurse Ratched, and avoid that lobotomy. There’s a kind of smug, soothing satisfaction in yelling Noooo, don’t do that! at the screen, as if we can distance ourselves from the calamity befalling a character due to our superior insight—that would never happen to me! And without those frustrations, there would be no reason to watch—there would be no source of conflict for the characters, and there’s no interest for me in a story about well-behaved people living unrippled lives. (Perhaps because there’s no lesson to learn...?)

That said, I don't always want to be challenged—I do love my mac-and-cheese films, too, the ones I revisit for pure escapism. Or sometimes I “spot watch” a certain sequence or scene in a film that was exceptionally funny or poignant, or visually compelling. Even frustratingly weak movies can have valuable moments.

I love how “How To Be Lolita” and “How To Be Mrs. Robinson” work so well together. Your speaker in “How To Be Mrs. Robinson” reminisces, “I had always liked older men, yes, was happy to trade bloom for worldliness; I like the empowering yet kittenish feeling their interest gave me, and the faint echo of my Lolita days.” The characters of Lolita and Mrs. Robinson have become so infamous that they’ve become their own tropes. If you had to add a third female movie character trope, who would it be? And how would you begin to deconstruct her and show readers her true desires and needs and psyche?

It turned out those two essays work structurally as bookends, and have a relationship to/with each other—but that was a fluke. I’d originally planned one (giant) essay, examining depictions of women dealing with issues of love and sex, but I realized there was too much to cover, too many themes, too many films, and too many stages of my own life to fit in. So, it became four essays, spaced out in the book in chronological order : “How To Be Lolita,” “How To Lose Your Virginity,” “How To Be A Slut,” and “How To Be Mrs. Robinson,” each of which explores an archetypal female role—four tropes, as you suggest: Little Girl, Virgin, Whore, Crone, which I think pretty much sums up the primary functions women have traditionally been “allowed.”

One trope that’s missing in the books is Mother—I don’t have children, so it wasn’t a theme I felt drawn to explore—but as with any role we're expected to play, I'm interested in the tension between the persona one feels required to present to the world and live up to, and the interior disconnect, the emotional misalignment. I haven’t seen the film Tully, but it looks like an interesting deconstruction/deglamorization of motherhood, with a focus on the “Mother” character's desperation due to her unfulfilled needs, rather than how she exists to fulfill the needs of others.

Speaking of needs, thank you again for your lovely Writer’s Regimen Craft Talk, “A Map for Needy People.” What is the quirkiest need you have ever given a character?

Thank you for inviting me to write one. As I discussed, I think “need” functions on two different levels: what I call “the story need,” the action a character believes she needs to take, which moves the plot forward, and “the driving need,” which is what consciously or subconsciously motivates the character on an emotional level. I want the gap between the story need and the driving need to be wide as possible; I find characters who don’t understand their own compulsions to be the most interesting, because it creates the greatest emotional conflict and cognitive dissonance.

I don’t know if it’s the “quirkiest” need, but a recent story of mine, “The Meat Bee,” has a character with an obsessional fear of sugar - her story need is how she refuses to eat any sugar, the need to avoid it at all costs; the driving need is grounded in a distrust of “sweetness” in any form, whether it’s the lure of her own addiction or the affection of her boyfriend. For her, sugar represents a vulnerability or weakness she needs to retain total control over. I didn’t go into the story with any of this thought out, though—in a first draft, I didn’t understand her character’s dysfunction any better that she did, which keeps me close to the character—the patterns emerged as I revised. Here's a link to the story:

What are your obsessions right now? (These don’t have to be literary-related.)

Knitting, always. You Tube videos of medieval European history; I just watched six hours of “Secrets of the Castle,” about a group of archeologists building a 13th century castle from scratch, using only authentic materials and methods—I now know how to mix mortar and forge nails. Next up: "The Victorian Pharmacy."

Can you name your top five movie heroes and villains and what you love and hate about them?

I generally don’t find either “heroes/heroines” or “villains” all that interesting, if they’re defined primarily by their heroism or villainy. So I’ll chose five characters I love and hate at the same time, for the complex, often paradoxical blend of their strengths and their flaws: