Lisa Roe is a mom and author who has been through the many tough stages of motherhood and now has two adult children. She proclaims herself the poster child of It’s-never-too-late, having rediscovered writing at fifty years of age. A graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, Roe is a prolific writer and rattles off at least three books in progress as easily as I would my grocery list. She loves her stories, defines them by the relationships they illustrate, and claims that when she’s rejected, she doesn’t get down because she is “pigheaded and stubborn.”
She believes it’s important to write the book of your heart, and knows firsthand that there is a lot of humor in parenting. Of her stories, she says, “It’s good to know there is a place for what I write in the world.”
Profiles editor Holly Rizzuto Palker met Roe a few years ago at a Women’s Fiction Writers Association regional meetup where they spoke about her manuscript, Welcome to the Neighborhood. Now that Roe’s dream has become a book, Palker caught up with her over Zoom to talk about her writing method, the people who inspire her, and giving birth to the subgenre “MomCom.” This conversation has been edited for content and clarity.
Holly Rizzuto Palker: When I spoke to Lainey Cameron, author of The Exit Strategy, at the Women’s Fiction Writers Association Conference, she said you wrote the first-ever book to be called MomCom. Tell me about how you earned that title.
Lisa Roe: That was sweet of Lainey to say, but I’m not the first MomCom. There are other books I cherish—by some of the authors of which gave me blurbs for Welcome to the Neighborhood—like Abbi Waxman’s Other People’s Houses, to name just one. And Julie Valerie’s The Peculiar Fate of Holly Banks. I wish I were the first, but let me tell you my story. I thought I made up the phrase “MomCom.” I was in a workshop where we would pitch our books to agents at the end of the weekend. As I sat there scribbling my blurb, I thought my book was kind of a “rom” because it’s got a little romance and hopefully, if I’d done what I’d set out to do, was also a “com.” Then “MomCom” jumped into my head, and I shouted it out to the class. My teacher laughed, “Oh! You’ve got to copyright that.” I thought, “Look at me, I invented MomCom!” And the next thing I know, I’m seeing it everywhere. Hmmm. So much for my big breakthrough. Still, it’s a fun category that I hope has a long life. USA Today did call my book one of the best RomComs of 2022, though!
HRP: With the elimination of the Women’s Fiction category from Publishers Marketplace, I think the term MomCom is a good label because it describes what the book is about.
LR: I like it too. And there are more great books coming out in the subgenre. It’s still new, and it’s a small category, but I think it’s catching on. The audience is gigantic for it because it doesn’t have to be moms of a certain age; it’s anybody who has experienced motherhood.
HRP: Like Literary Mama, it’s for anyone who identifies as a mother! That’s great. What inspired you to write this story?
LR: I have two inspirations. The first was that I wanted to write a mother-daughter love story and I wanted to explore that relationship through Ginny and Harri. The second was to explore the concept of being the new girl on the block. That’s something I’ve experienced many times in my life. When you move into a place with existing social circles, there’s a whole dynamic of what you are willing to go through to fit in. And how that doesn’t always go as planned.
HRP: How did you come up with Harri’s character? She was precocious, sweet, and vulnerable. Is she based on your real-life daughter? What about Ginny?
LR: Harri is loosely based on my experiences raising my own daughter. My daughter has a unique personality, is incredibly brilliant, and was a theater kid. She didn’t always fit into a mold, and she was conflicted about that. Little girls can be so mean. I drew on that, but nothing is real. None of what happened to Harri actually happened to my daughter. But the emotions are there. For Ginny, I drew on that feeling, as a mom, of being protective, worried, and concerned for our children. The feeling of wanting to guide my kids in the right direction, but not always knowing what the right direction was. Also, it was important to me to be honest and show the mistakes we make as mothers despite our best intentions. The whole concept of MomCom for me is that moms are not perfect. And Ginny certainly isn’t perfect.
HRP: Why do you think women enjoy reading MomCom?
LR: Because so many of them can relate to the concept of the not-so-perfect mom. When I was raising kids, we all had to be supermom, and we would never admit we couldn’t do it all. We were exhausted and drinking too much or whatever our vice was, but you couldn’t admit that you couldn’t handle it. Fortunately, I think moms have permission to be much more honest now. Certainly, at least from what I see on social media. I follow a lot of mom accounts, and they’re all admitting the things that I felt back in the day, but couldn’t talk about.
HRP: You grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey. I live close by. Tell me the truth: you wrote about a town in our area, right?
LR: Funny you say that. But, no. It’s fictitious. I had the same exact conversation at two book clubs last week. Everyone I speak to thinks that I wrote the book about their exact town. That’s because there is an Elderberry Lane in every state in this country.
HRP: Without giving away book spoilers, I’ll say you touch on serious issues such as sexual harassment, bullying, and abandonment. You address these themes in a genre that tends to be funny. How did you handle these situations and keep within the genre?
LR: It’s my voice. Every story I tell ends up coming out in my voice. If I’ve had a trauma, once I get past it, I, Lisa, would tell a story like that. Also, Rand (the harasser) is a ridiculous character. The reader can see him as a predator or a loser and think, How sad is that? This is his life, and this is how he behaves. I think it’s also a perception of the characters. I think humor is an important way to balance out tough subjects. It helps us absorb an important concept or topic in a way that softens the blow. And in Welcome to the Neighborhood, so much of the humor comes from Ginny’s view of the world, which in many ways is my view of the world—we use humor to disarm, to get us through difficult times and tough subjects.
HRP: Were there any issues you felt you should pull back from or not touch?
LR: I was told the dog could not die.
HRP: Because there are so many dog lovers?
LR: Because of my kids! They said if you kill a dog in any of your books, then we’re done with you. I took that threat very seriously.
HRP: What was your process? Plotter, pantser? Something in between?
LR: I am 100 percent a plotter. I just have too much anxiety to pants my way through anything. I worry that I’ll write myself into a corner, and then I’ll have to spend all that time backing myself out of it. So, I plot because I prefer to sleep at night.
When I started Welcome to the Neighborhood, I had the two main characters, Ginny and Harri, first, because as I said earlier, I wanted to write a mother/daughter love story about trying to fit in and learning to stand up for yourself. Then I built the situation, the cast of characters, and the fictional world around them.
Most of my stories start with one-on-one relationships between two people—I always want to tell a story about their relationship with each other and the world around them—and then I go from there. I work with a visual graphic I received while doing a workshop called The Fifth Semester with Ann Garvin. It’s a classic three-act story structure—I use it to create my story arc. It talks about the inciting incident, pinch points, midpoint, the things that must be in your story to create a successful and satisfying book. Then I use index cards, and I jot down every scene I think would be fun or worthwhile for the book, not in any kind of order. Afterward, I lay them on the floor and I build on the bones of my story arc and my nascent scenes, providing a 3D structure. I’m pretty organized, so I know my ending when I start. I like to know the story’s path, but I stay open-minded because so many things can change. In the book I’m revising, I had to cut out a character entwined with everything. I’m pulling [the story] apart and putting it back together. I think being structured but flexible saves me from tearing my hair out.
HRP: What did your path to publication look like?
LR: Welcome to the Neighborhood is my fourth manuscript but my first published novel. I queried each book and watched the rejections pile up—almost three hundred of them! That’s a lot of thick skin I had to build. The first book, Give Me Shelter, was a great idea that I still love, but the writing was just crap. I could have just rewritten it, but I was too impatient. So instead, I put it in a drawer and wrote another one. And another one. And another one.
When I was looking for an agent, I had a rule: after one hundred rejections the book went into a drawer, and I’d start sending out the next book. So I’m always writing the next novel, that’s the advice I give everyone: ABC, always be crafting. You are going to need a new book whatever happens. What’s most important is, you have to have patience and persistence. Personally, I’m also super stubborn and pigheaded, so maybe I just kept going longer than a sane person would. (laughs) I was up to rejection number 87 for Welcome to the Neighborhood, when I got an offer of representation.
And, like I often say, the road to publishing is a slow one, hence the patience. I queried for six months before I signed with my agent. Then we worked on revisions for another six months until the book was ready to go on submission. Three months later we got an offer. But, it was another eighteen months before the book came out!
HRP: Do you ever get sidetracked when another author is moving faster or receiving high accolades for their books?
LR: Who, me? Never! Truthfully, yes, of course. Not sidetracked per se, but stopped for a second. It’s hard not to spend a moment being jealous or experiencing FOMO when we see other authors’ new covers, great media coverage, or skyrocketing sales numbers. But I’m pretty sure it’s only that one-in-a-million author who has had a straight trajectory to the top. Most of us have had (and will continue to have) ups and downs, bad timing, bad luck, books that don’t make it, waiting that seems an eternity, and the universal emotion for all writers: impostor syndrome. So, while it’s natural to get a bit grumpy when you are scrolling Instagram and see that “next big book” and it isn’t yours, it’s important to move past it, and as quickly as you can.
HRP: What is next for you?
LR: I’m working on a new book about a suddenly and reluctantly divorced woman whose adult son moves back in, and she becomes torn between the comfort of an old role—being Mom again—and protecting her newfound independent identity.