Photo by Ron Athey
In The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook, under the section titled “How To Escape From a Mountain Lion,” there is the plaintive advice: “Try to make yourself appear bigger by opening your coat wide!”
Which is, I imagine, a writer’s natural response to the writer Lisa Teasley.
A person who writes beautifully, speaks beautifully, paints beautifully, and is physically beautiful, Teasley is the person you might put on mascara to meet. If she lived in Salem in 1692, she would certainly be on the wrong end of a burning stake. Add the reaction to her debut novel, Dive (Norman Mailer sent her poetry, magazines like Glamour photographed her, The New York Times called her writing “superimposing”) and her life takes on the aspect of a modern-day Cinderella story — without the entire beginning part.
Teasley was raised in Baldwin Hills, schooled in Bel Air, encouraged by her teachers from a young age to write fiction, offered a scholarship to Otis Art institute. It seems impossible that one person could have so much talent and luck.
She gets fan mail.
Her father loves her.
Her feet are big and she doesn’t care.
Lisa Teasley has a lovely young daughter, a sexy, quiet boyfriend who resembles Jesus Christ, a house in the Hollywood Hills and a yard with actual mature trees. She has a Web site, apparently 10 million interesting friends, many of whose Teasley-painted portraits line Lisa’s entryway. She has an ex-husband. They are “best friends now.” They “talk every day.”
And yet this same person has a deep understanding of the underdog in her work — an intuitive love of human frailty and flaw — the drifter, the lone wolf, the physically incapacitated all feature prominently and with rare compassion. A sapiens who has been given everything, she yet empathizes with those who struggle through life. She empathizes and she skateboards. She cooks. She loves dogs. She smiles approximately twice a second. Unlike most writers, she leaves you with a desire to sleep with her. Unlike most good writers, she isn’t drab, male, balding, bitter.
But, I digress. I have to.
It’s no fun to be with a saint, but it’s fun to be with Lisa Teasley. Gamely she teaches me to chew tobacco — a “writing” tool she used for 12 years. Illustrating with her hands how the habit goes — chew, click, click, click, spit, chew, you can’t help but fall a little in love with her spazziness. Most writers do something to ritualize their time — smoke, drink coffee, pace — but chewing tobacco (she no longer chews, because she “doesn’t like being addicted”) is, at least, an original one.
Chewing tobacco tastes like stale maple syrup, mixed with old feet and sweat. Spitting is gross and fun and numbs one’s jaw. Teasley is fun but not gross, not wired or druggy or cold. She talks calmly of people being afraid to be seen “leaking” — that is, being themselves. She talks about feeling unsophisticated. But she took only six months to write Dive — sophistication in and of itself. She took only 41 years to be exactly what she was meant to be.
So, forget fawning and perfection, forget gritted teeth. Let’s get back to the hardcore. The grit, the grime. What makes an artist tick?
What jobs has Ms. Teasley had before being a commissioned painter, before being a successful novelist? Oh, she worked as a fashion intern at the L.A. Times, she worked at Forbes magazine; she was a librarian, a script reader.
Has she had any jobs that weren’t glamorous?
“Oh,” she says, smiling. “Are those jobs glamorous?”
Yes. We must form a way to hate her.
No. It’s impossible. We just can’t.
And let’s just drop the royal “we.” Let’s stop trying to open our coat to seem a little bigger and better. Let’s just admit we’d all like to strangle her. In my mind, right now, while she expresses unphony interest in my writing, while her beautiful boyfriend comes out with a tray of beautiful fresh strawberries, Teasley’s pretty neck is wrapped around a noose. But then I look and there she is, still alive and so cool and so interested.
Not a noose, I think. Not a noose.
“Yes! Absolutely! Strawberries!” I say.
True empathy is rare in a human. It’s said, empathy is what sets us apart from the lower animals. It is also said that our ability to make art is what sets us apart. Lisa writes better in the morning, now that she’s a mother. The afternoon is for her daughter, her loved ones. No hermit, no typical writerly misanthrope, she.
A child’s banana-seat bike, a child’s poignant mess, decorates her front patio. This is not a person concerned with fame, image. This is a person with unaccountable empathy — with a smile that shows a lot of sensual gum. A lot of love. A lot of fierce intelligence. This is a lover and a fighter.
This is a person who hangs silly acorn collages side by side with fine art, a person who, when asked, is believable when she says “people endlessly fascinate me.”
In The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook, under the section titled “How To Escape From a Mountain Lion,” there is more advice: “Back away slowly.” The illustration looks pretty dire.
But you can’t back away.
Face it: How many geniuses are truly interested in you?
Face it: You are the kind of person who buys The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook.
But you can admit this to Lisa Teasley. She will laugh. She will write. It’s okay.
It’s all, in the end, okay.
DIVE | By LISA TEASLEY | Bloomsbury | 281 pages
Joy Nicholson is the author of The Tribes of Palos Verdes. Her new novel, The Road to Esmeralda, comes out next fall from St. Martin’s Press.