National Writing Project

Author’s Corner: Elizabeth Leiknes and The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns

Date: July 22, 2009

Summary: Teacher and novelist Elizabeth Leiknes discusses how jotting ideas on napkins, having a baby, and writing in small chunks of time all led her to write her first novel—a Faustian tale with "a healthy dose of Midwestern guilt."


Elizabeth Leiknes
Elizabeth Leiknes

Elizabeth Leiknes grew up in rural Iowa. She received her bachelor's degree from the University of Iowa and her master's degree from the University of Nevada, Reno. Leiknes teaches seventh and eighth grade English in California, where she lives with her husband and two sons near Lake Tahoe.

What was your inspiration to write The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns?

When I was pregnant with my first son, it occurred to me that with motherhood drawing near, I had a small window of time in which to realize a lifelong dream of writing a novel. I wrote throughout my pregnancy, and completed the novel while on maternity leave.

The actual idea for the novel came from a short story I wrote in graduate school. In "The Furnace," a woman named Lucy Burns works as a Faustian henchwoman who escorts very bad people to her basement furnace, and ultimately, their death. My husband played a large role in creating the premise.

But when I decided to expand the story into a full-length novel, I wanted Lucy to have a solid reason, one rooted in goodness, for doing what she does, so I developed her back story and tempered it all with a healthy dose of Midwestern guilt.

Elizabeth Leiknes

The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns
Bancroft Press, 2009, 167 pages.

What is your writing process—especially since you have to write and teach?

Even though I tell my students that this is probably a bad idea, I often come up with my novel titles first, and then find a protagonist that fits into the story line. The protagonist's major conflict comes next, and then the protagonist's goal.

Since I teach middle school during the day, a lot of my writing ends up on napkins in my purse, and I sometimes find myself jotting down bits of dialogue and detail while sitting at stoplights. (Not a great practice, mind you, yet an efficient use of time!) Because I'm so busy as a mother and a teacher, I have to get my ideas on paper quickly or they disappear into life's chaos.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating this book?

That I could do it! And mostly, that the creative process is forgiving. You don't need to have a special office, with the perfect view, and lengthy stretches of time to complete a novel. I didn't have the luxury of having lots of whole days (without interruption) for writing, so I learned to write in small chunks, sometimes as little as fifteen-minute blocks.

This took some getting used to, but it was possible, and I was surprised that I could maintain the creative thread that holds a novel together.

Does teaching others about writing inspire or challenge you about your own writing?

It definitely inspires me to teach the craft of writing, and to help others with their writing. The process of writing is horribly self-involved, and it is a great perspective change to think about someone else's characters and dilemmas.

And inspiring my own students to write makes me feel like I'm part of the bigger picture—behind every writer is at least one person (often a teacher) who gave them the confidence to tell their story.

Has your involvement with the writing project influenced your writing in any way?

Yes, and it's influenced me more as a teacher than a writer. Through writing the article "Writing Spaces: Expanding the One Story House" I realized the one nugget that I wanted to instill in every one of my students: there are stories all around us. Even when we think they're not there, or when we think they are insignificant, they are there, and they generally serve a purpose on our journey of understanding ourselves, and the world around us.

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