Lauren moves from memoir to fiction for 'Pretty'

Kathy Blackwell

Published: Monday, Oct. 24 2011 1:23 p.m. MDT

AUSTIN, Texas -- In Jillian Lauren's best-selling 2009 memoir "Some Girls: My Life in a Harem," she told her own story of going through hell.

With her new novel, she gets to put someone else through it.

In the book, "Pretty," ex-stripper and ex-addict Bebe Baker struggles to emerge from a life built on bad choices.

It's familiar territory for Lauren, whose widely praised "Some Girls" recounted the 18 months she spent as part of the Prince of Brunei's harem in the early 1990s, an unsustainable palace life complete with insane shopping trips, parties and bags of money. She was one of the first American women to be recruited by the prince.

Lauren, a New Jersey native and New York University dropout who was in her late teens at the time, was able to pull herself out, connect with her birth mother and form a family of her own with her husband, Weezer bassist Scott Shriner, and their 3 1/2-year-old son, Tariku. They live in Los Angeles, where she writes, performs and contributes to her own blog as well as parenting blogs.

Although "Pretty" is her first work of fiction, she wrote the majority of it in her early 30s, so it predates "Some Girls," Lauren said during a recent phone interview.

''I actually wrote most of the book when I was in my MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles," said Lauren, 38. After "Some Girls" was published, she went back to "Pretty" and started making revisions.

When asked if her experience with "Some Girls" changed her perception of "Pretty," Lauren said: "I (took) into account the way that I changed as a writer. By writing a much longer nonfiction piece, I was in a sort of precise, almost journalistlike perspective. I was able to bring that kind of attention to it."

Switching from memoir to fiction for the revisions to "Pretty" was natural because she relied on some of her own experiences to tell Bebe's story.

''I did cull many of the details from 'Pretty' from my own life," says Lauren. She says fiction and memoir "are both ways of telling the truth. They're just different routes. ... I was taking my character and putting her through hell and exploring my own issues in a new way. In my memoir, I was telling my own story. I was very exacting about the events; I really researched them.

''I checked them with other people because I was exploring the way that memory functions and how that relates to the truth."

Another literary outlet for Lauren is her blog at jillianlauren.com, where she documents her life as a mom, writer and performer, although she doesn't plan to turn that into any kind of a book form.

''The voice that I use in my blog and the immediacy of the form won't carry over, I don't think," she says. "The voice of the blog is very specific, a very off-the-cuff thing that I enjoy doing."

Calling herself "a compulsive documenter," Lauren is working on another memoir, this one about her adoption, her and her husband's struggles with infertility and the adoption of Tariku.

Being part of a creative couple with Shriner is inspiring, but not without its challenges, she says.

''We're both practical and spiritual-slash-emotional, moody people. We usually balance each other out -- while one of us is riding high, the other is banging our head against the wall. Once in a while we hit a valley at the same time, and it's not pretty. But it's exciting to be engaged creatively."

Another source for inspiration for Lauren are memoirists such as Mary Karr, Lauren Slater and Nick Flynn, whose "Another (expletive) Night in Suck City" was on Lauren's desk while she wrote "Some Girls."

''I write with a book on my desk. It's the book that I hope will metaphysically infuse my writing," Lauren says. While writing "Pretty," her book of choice was "Rule of the Bone" by Russell Banks.

Lauren's book-on-the-desk technique appears to have worked. Banks created a memorable character in Bone, a teenager with a deeply disturbing past, who, on the run from trouble, begins to make his way toward something.

As narrators, both Bebe of "Pretty" and Bone have strong, realistic voices that elicit empathy, humor and a strong connection with the reader.

''That voice ... was the most mysterious part of the process for me," Lauren says. "Bebe's voice was there for me before I even heard it. I just plugged into it and downloaded it into my head."

Kathy Blackwell writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: kblackwell(at)statesman.com.

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