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Lisa Lerner's Just Like Beauty

"I'm glad that I had the sense to sacrifice something."

Author: Lisa Lerner, 41, is a full-time writer living in New York City who divides her time between freelance projects and novel writing. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Bust and Self.

Book:Just Like Beauty (Farrar, Straux & Giroux, January) is a novel that follows a 14-year-old girl's steps toward maturity as her mother trains her for the annual Feminine Woman of Conscience Pageant. Set in the near future and sprinkled with dark humor, the plot's undercurrent carries powerful statements about the possible fate of society.

When Lisa Lerner finally finished the first draft of Just Like Beauty, she threw it in the fireplace. Literally. "I finished the book, and I hated it," she says. "I was absolutely bored by it."

Tucked away in a cabin at The MacDowell Colony, Lerner realized her book was missing the most dynamic aspect of her personality: her sense of humor. She was trying so hard to be taken seriously as a novelist that her book did not reflect her unique brand of dark humor—one that entertained audiences for years during a career in performing arts.

In a moment of clarity, the only solution seemed to be to start anew. So she sat down and, in a writing frenzy, produced eight pages: the prologue for the book as it now stands.

"Then I started to have a great time writing it," she says. "I'm glad that I had the sense to sacrifice something."

The resulting novel is the darkly entertaining story of a 14-year-old girl's struggle toward maturity in a futuristic world where nothing is genuine. But beneath the darkness of Just Like Beauty lies Lerner's true message, endorsing inner strength and the bonds of love and family.

In Lerner's eyes, the value of reworking a piece from scratch is a lesson many novice writers are too terrified to learn. "I think a lot of people writing first novels are telling stories that they need to tell themselves," she says. "It's a personal, cathartic, therapeutic endeavor that they're embarked on, making sense of the chaos inside them by organizing it on these pages. But that's not what a novel is. ... You have to be somewhat removed."

In 1987, Lerner moved to New York City and threw herself into theater. Just Like Beauty first came to her as an idea for a one-woman show. Only a year later did she realize her idea was a novel. Lerner has taken the craft of writing seriously since she first committed herself to the task.

Determined to tell her story, Lerner retreated to a friend's cabin in Wisconsin and vowed to read three or four books each week—in addition to writing. Returning to the city, she joined an urban writer's colony, which provided the affirmation she had lacked in her previous writing attempts.

Five years and one smoldering manuscript later, she sent a query letter and her inspired prologue off to 12 to 15 agents who had been recommended by other writers. Her personal diligence was rewarded—almost all of the agents wanted to read her book. She quickly decided on Jane Gelfman, of the Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents. In June of 2000, FSG bought the novel.

The editing process that ensued shaved 100 pages from the manuscript, and the production consumed nearly two years. "I always knew that once a book was out of my hands, it was out of my hands, like raising a child and sending [him or her] off to school on the first day," she says. "The longest part has been waiting to be published."

Lerner's love of writing sustained her through the process, but her discipline carried her over the publishing threshold. "I think I learned over time ... to trick [myself] into having some kind of discipline," she says. "This is your job. If you don't do it, you're fired."

Lerner's next book will follow young characters living in the near future as they struggle through issues surrounding youth violence, cults and environmental deterioration.

"It'll be me," Lerner says. "You'll see, 'Oh yeah, this is her. That's one of her books.'"

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