I reviewed Elizabeth’s book ‘How to Climb the Eiffel Tower’ for Rosie Amber’s blog. The book follows the story of Lara as she undergoes treatment for cancer – I lost my mum to cancer so I was worried that I would find the book upsetting, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was surprised to feel so uplifted – this was a book that, while telling it like it is, wasn’t depressing or maudlin in any way. I’m delighted to have Elizabeth as a guest on the blog to find out more about her, her writing, and what inspired her to write.
Tell me a little about your writing history.
I was an avid reader long before I ever put pen to paper. As a kid, I spent my afternoons reading in my room. My parents tell me that I have been making up elaborate stories since I was a little girl. When I saw a person in the grocery store buying five gallons of vinegar and a box of trash bags, I would tell my mom an elaborate story about a lady who was pickling her giant vegetables while they were still on the vine. Thank goodness, my parents had the patience to let me rattle on all the time.
It wasn’t until after I had been diagnosed with cancer in 2002 that I started to start writing my stories down. My experiences with cancer treatment taught me that life is too short to waste time doing anything that is not your passion. Once I decided to write, I jumped headlong into learning as much as possible about the craft of writing. The stories were always there, the techniques needed to be practiced.
How did you come up with the title of your book?
I had a terrible time coming up with a name for my latest book. I brainstormed dozens of bad names that were too esoteric or plain old boring. When I sent the manuscript to Light Messages Publishing, I made it clear to my editor that I needed help with the name. She sent me several perfectly good possibilities before we agreed on How To Climb The Eiffel Tower. Once I heard that title, I knew it was the right one. The two main characters talk about climbing the Eiffel Tower in the first scenes of the book and the idea of travelling to Paris comes up several times in the novel. Also, like healing from a traumatic experience, climbing the Eiffel Tower is difficult, but worth it.
Who is your favourite/least favourite character in your book?
Although I love Lara and Jane, the two main characters in How To Climb The Eiffel Tower, my favourite character is Nurse Rosaria. She is a kind woman who is firm with Lara when she needs firm reassurance and soft with her when Lara is afraid. Rosaria only appears in a few scenes in the book, however I wrote pages and pages of backstory on her. She lived a fascinating life before she ever meets Lara. Only a few paragraphs of that life made it into the book, but I feel it was important to do all the pre-writing work of knowing Rosaria so well.
What was the hardest part of writing the novel?
I would have to say the hardest part of writing this book was the process of learning how to write a book. This book took me eight years to write because, not only did I have to develop the story and characters, I had to make all the usual mistakes a new writer makes. That took at least four years in and of itself. Also, it was difficult to separate my experiences as a cancer patient from Lara and Jane’s experiences. At one point, I had to put the manuscript aside and write another book. That book turned out to be Overlook, a fun book about a how a slightly unbalanced woman deals with her cheating husband. Starting fresh with different characters and different themes helped me regain my perspective on Lara and Jane. When I returned to How To Climb The Eiffel Tower, I could incorporate the humour and hope that I knew it needed.
What are you working on now?
My writing life is a bit scattered right now. I’m hoping to finish up the sequel to my first book, Overlook, so it can be released next fall. I am also working on a mystery series about two friends who travel the world, a historical novel revolving the concept of beauty, and another women’s fiction novel set on Cape Cod. I am not sure which piece will get to publication first.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Don’t give up. Keep showing up at the keyboard every day and you will eventually get results. Writing is not a pursuit for the faint of heart. An author spends years tapping out draft after draft of a novel, will invariably receive a multitude of rejections, and is at the mercy of a changeable publishing industry. It helps to have a stubborn streak.
Also, don’t go it alone. Find some writer friends, either in real life or on the internet, and work together. The road to publication can be a long rough ride, so bring snacks and a friend.
Which writer would you choose as a mentor?
Wow, this is a tough question. I admire many authors for so many different reasons. I guess if I had to choose just one, it would be Ruth Rendell. She has written in several different genres, yet still has a distinctive voice. She can plumb the deep dark places in her characters’ minds without making them caricatures of themselves, and she has continued to write excellent books over many decades.
What book are you reading at the moment?
I am always reading several books at a time. Right now for my craft book, I am reading Now Write! Mysteries edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson. It is a series of essays from successful mystery and thriller writers on different aspects of writing. I am also reading The Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable, The Stories We Tell by Patti Callahan Henry, and If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that you love about their work?
Right now, my favourite author is Mary Doria Russell. When I read her first book, The Sparrow, it changed the way I looked at speculative fiction. If you are not familiar with the book, it is the story of a group of Jesuits and civilians that travel to another planet and questions traditional concepts of right and wrong. Each of her books is different the last. She has written about the Middle East after WWI, Jews escaping through the mountains of Italy in WWII, and has lately been writing about the American West. I admire her writing style and her ability to write about different historical eras so well.
Tell me something unusual about yourself.
Before I decided to become an author, I ran a small drapery design business out of the storage room in my attic. I loved playing with fabric and solving my clients decorating problems. I specialized in making expensive looking drapes on a shoestring budget. Some of the knowledge I developed about colour theory and fabric shows up in my novels. Colour subtly effects how people think and feel. Colour is a theme that runs throughout How To Climb The Eiffel Tower.
Author Elizabeth Hein
Elizabeth Hein grew up in Massachusetts within an extended family of storytellers. In 2002, Elizabeth was diagnosed with cancer. During her extensive treatment, she met dozens of other cancer patients and developed close relationships with several of them. These friendships were the inspiration for How To Climb The Eiffel Tower. She learned that a cancer diagnosis is a life changing experience, yet it does not necessarily change a life for the worse. Prior to the new book’s publication, Elizabeth was invited to attend the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) conference.
Elizabeth Hein writes women’s fiction with a bit of an edge. Her novels explore the role of friendship in the lives of adult women and themes of identity. Her first novel, Overlook, spotlighted a housewife dealing with a cheating husband and the pressures of keeping up appearances. Elizabeth has published several short stories and is currently writing a novella and beginning to write a historical family saga about how love and identity effect four generations of women. She and her husband now live in Durham, North Carolina.
Connect with Elizabeth:
scribbling in the storage room
How to Climb the Eiffel Tower
Lara Blaine believes that she can hide from her past by clinging to a rigid routine of work and exercise. She endures her self-imposed isolation until a cancer diagnosis cracks her hard exterior. Lara’s journey through cancer treatment should be the worst year of her life. Instead, it is the year that she learns how to live. She befriends Jane, another cancer patient who teaches her how to be powerful even in the face of death. Accepting help from the people around her allows Lara to confront the past and discover that she is not alone in the world. With the support of her new friends, Lara gains the courage to love and embrace life. Like climbing the Eiffel Tower, the year Lara meets Jane is tough, painful, and totally worth it.
Ellery Cancer Center protruded from the hospital’s facade like a glass tumor. The night before, a Kafkaesque voicemail told me to report to the reception lobby by 7:00 for my 9:00 appointment. I left the house at 6:00 sharp even though the hospital was twenty minutes away. An appointment with some strange specialist wasn’t going to make me deviate from my routine.
My footsteps echoing through the brightly tiled lobby accented the nervous murmuring of the people waiting in line as I strode past them to the reception desk. The receptionist didn’t even look up when I said, “Blaine. Lara Blaine. I have a 9:00 with Dr. Lander.” She robotically found my file in the tall stack to her left, handed me the itinerary clipped to the front, and moved my file to the short stack to her right. My itinerary said to report to the red waiting room by 8:00.
I stood to the side of the room and watched people until I understood that the lines of multicolored tiles in the lobby’s floor were not decorative. They were paths to the color- coded areas of the Cancer Center. I followed the line of red tiles from the reception desk to the red waiting room. A clot of people sat on crimson and burgundy couches clutching their itineraries. I sat just inside the doorway and watched as people disappeared one by one through the slick red doors at the far end of the room. No one came back. An hour later, it was my turn. On the other side of the red doors, an old man with hairy knuckles checked my name against his orders then jabbed a needle in my arm. We didn’t say a word to each other. I liked that.
The next stop on my itinerary was the green waiting room. A line of green tiles in the floor led me back to the lobby and up two flights of stairs to another room with worry worn carpeting and faded couches sagging under the weight of their occupants’ despair, but all in green. I’d roamed the Ellery Cancer Center for nearly an hour and had yet to speak to a soul. I slipped into the crowded room, commandeered the pea green love seat in the corner, and opened my dog- eared copy of Great Expectations. I held the tattered pages in front of my face, yet couldn’t read. I watched the elderly couple across from me over the top of the book.
I don’t belong here. I’m not like these people. I’m young.
I crossed one leg over the other and clenched my thighs together. There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just a false positive. I’m fine.
The elderly man’s hand shook as he lifted a cup of tea to his wife’s lips. The limp paper label dangling over the edge of the foam cup taunted me. I should have been researching the effect of the recent earthquake in Northern China on the green tea crop for my boss’s presentation the following week, not sitting in that waiting room. This is such a waste of time. So what if I have weird periods? Doesn’t everyone?
I turned away from the old people and focused on the normal looking woman in a black suit slowly making her way down the corridor. I assumed she was a doctor or pharmaceutical salesperson until she stopped in the doorway to hack into a tissue. She saw me looking at her and lurched over. “May I sit with you?” I expected the woman’s voice to be as smooth as her grey silk blouse, but it sounded as scratchy as wool against bare skin. I moved my battered leather backpack to let her sit down.
“Lara Blaine,” I replied with a curt nod.
“I think you sprinted past me on the stairwell earlier,” Jane sighed. “I used to be able to run up stairs like that.”
“I’m good at stairs. I climb the Eiffel Tower every Tuesday.” Jane dabbed perspiration from her upper lip with a clean tissue and tucked it in her sleeve. “I climbed the Eiffel Tower once. What a view, huh?”
“I haven’t actually been to Paris,” I replied. “It’s a setting on the stair stepper at my gym.”
“That doesn’t sound nearly as fun.” Jane flipped her long silver-blonde hair over her shoulder. “And there wouldn’t be any croissants when you finished.”
Lara Is 29 and lives a solitary, friendless life, working, going to the gym and eating takeout every night. Then she is diagnosed with cervical cancer and her life is changed, but in surprisingly positive ways.
This book is harrowing at times, as Lara’s background story is revealed and the reasons for her fear of people become clear. But watching her finally make friends and finally live is really rewarding and a pleasure to read.
Her relationship with Jane is a stand out of the story and the kindness of Vanessa is heart-warming. But this book isn’t soppy or sentimental; neither is it preachy. It is simply a tale of a lost, lonely girl who learns to live when confronted by her mortality.
I didn’t particularly enjoy the recounting of Lara’s dreams, although I can see why they are included. This was my only issue with the book. Aside from this, this is definitely worth a read and I recommend it.
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