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An hour-long chat with actress, singer-songwriter, dancer, voice-over artist and writer Lisa Foiles, former cast member of Nickelodeon’s All That, author of the new middle-grade novel Ash Ridley and the Phoenix.
Lisa Foiles is best known as a four-year series regular on the Nickelodeon sketch comedy show All That. Other TV appearances include Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle, Disney’s Even Steven, TNT’s Leverage and Nickelodeon’s Game Shakers. Lisa is the host of UFC.com’s UFC Minute and Screw Attack’s Desk of Death Battle. Her voiceover credits include multiple national radio campaigns, as well as the lead voice in the X Box One videogame Lococycle.
Lisa is also an accomplished singer, as well as tap, jazz, and ballet dancer, with more than twenty years of professional training, and now she is the author of the middle-grade fantasy novel Ash Ridley and the Phoenix (Permuted Press).
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Lisa.
Hi, Edward. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
It’s my pleasure. I was watching the video about your book, and it just looks like a lot of fun. So I’m really happy that your publicist got in touch and asked if I wanted to talk to you, because it looks like this should be a fun conversation.
Yeah, it’s…you know, it’s kind of a new venture for me. I definitely didn’t start out as an author. I’ve gone in many different career paths, and somehow I’ve ended up here and I’m having a great time.
Well, let’s talk about that a little bit. I always start by taking my guests…it’s become a cliché on here, “back into the mists of time”—I wish I had reverb I could add in at that point—to find out…well, first of all, I know from your video that you have on your Web site talking about the book, that you were a big reader as a kid, even if you weren’t thinking of writing at the time. So, is that kind of where this writing all started, was reading as a kid? And when did the acting come into it?
Yes, a big reader, but very specific reader. I pretty much only picked up books that were fantasy, that were middle-grade works of fantasy about kids with dragons and going on grand adventures in vast countries and, you know, fictional worlds. That’s really what I loved. You know, I was good at school, but I didn’t really enjoy it, and reading any other type of book was really a chore. And even to this day, I’m the longest reader of all time. It takes me so long to read anything. So, I like really have to pick and choose what I’m going to read. “All right. This is what I’m going to be writing for the next year.” But, yeah, when I was a kid, I would just sit in the bookstore, and they say don’t judge a book by its cover, but 14-year-olds don’t understand that, you know, 12-year-olds don’t care. And I was very young, and I would just pick out books based on the cover. Does it have a unicorn? Does it have a dragon? Does it have a, you know, whatever mythical creature or a princess or a fairy? That’s what I gravitated toward. And yeah, I mean, I just could not get enough of these types of books and kind of pulling inspiration from each one, the ones that really stuck with me. Just through the years, I kind of started crafting my own story, never intending on releasing it. It was just kind of a fun daydream for me to escape into, you know, during school, you know, during the day.
And so…I mean, were you kind of starting to craft a story way back then? Did you do any—
So it did start very early then.
Yes. This story, in particular, it really was inspired by all of these different works of fiction. So, the first book and movie that kind of went along with it was The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.
Oh, I love that one, yeah.
And there was something about that book…I mean, that was really my introduction into fiction. And it’s so stuck with me, and it so affected me, just greatly, that I just couldn’t get enough. I mean, I remember we used to go to Blockbuster and rent that movie over and over and over. My parents were always like, “Do you want to rent something else?” And I’m like, “No, I do not, I want this one, again and again and again and again.” And especially the beginning. And I’ve had…I think I’ve only had three people figure out the comparison between my book and The Last Unicorn. But the whole….say first, maybe two chapters…is kind of like a love story to The Last Unicorn. It’s like a love letter to The Last Unicorn, because I was so inspired by Mommy Fortuna and her Carnival of Beasts. And in the book, they really don’t dive into it, it’s just kind of like, it happens, then they kind of move on. But I’m like, wait, wait. Like, go back to that. That is so fascinating, that you have this travelling circus of creatures. And that’s exactly how my book starts. I imagined, as a kid myself, working as a stablehand in this travelling circus of mythical, magical creatures. And that’s where Ash, my main character, starts. And obviously, the journey from that has nothing to do with The Last Unicorn, it’s, you know, really completely different. But that is kind of my homage to that piece of work that changed my life.
And I remember the movie very well. I think I have it RCA videodisc, which was the video that actually played like a record. It’s a movie on a vinyl disc inside a sleeve, and you stick it in there. That was quickly superseded once laserdiscs came along. But it was really cool there for a while. And I think I have The Last Unicorn. That was one of the ones I made a point of buying.
I don’t even remember what year it came out.
Yeah. ‘70s, I would think.
Yeah, that sounds right.
Yeah. So, going back to childhood days, where did you grow up, anyway?
I grew up in a town called Spokane, Washington. Everybody knows Seattle, Washington, but this is on the other side of the state, kind of near Idaho.
Well, actually, the World Science Fiction Convention was there two, three years ago.
Oh. In Spokane?
Yeah. So I was in Spokane.
Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah, so that’s kind of where…all my family’s from the Pacific Northwest. I was born in Portland but quickly went to Spokane, and that was where my whole childhood was. And, yeah, my parents just kind of saw this creative streak in me really early and put me in dance, singing, and theatre, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. I was very quickly homeschooled because all of my time was taken up with dance, singing, and acting and…you just kind of…at a very, very young age, I’m so thankful that I figured out what I want to do with my life, ‘cause I know, you know, so many people struggle. They get into their 20s and 30s and 40s, and they’re still just like, “What am I meant to do with my life?” Well, I knew when I was three. So, that’s been very helpful, to like, know exactly what path I need to go down. And after a while, my parents were like, “OK, she’s too talented to live in Spokane, Washington.” In fact, I was pressured by some of the judges of dance competitions. I was just winning first place every year, every competition, I was sweeping, every single time. And there were a couple of judges that went up to my parents, they were like, “Why do you guys live in Spokane, Washington?” “Just…our family…” And they’re like, “No. You need to take her to Los Angeles. Like, go put her in the entertainment industry.” And thank God they did. We literally packed up everything and just headed for California.
Oh, that’s a huge leap of faith!
Oh, yeah. Oh yeah, I’m so grateful for my parents that they took that risk. And, I mean, it definitely paid off, because a year after living there is when I booked the Nickelodeon series, All That, and that kind of boosted my entire life and career.
Were you still thinking about this story during that time? Was it always kind in the back of your head?
Yeah. In fact, that’s kind of how I…I kind of link them together. I remember…I truly believe that these fantasy books that I read when I was little are the reason I became an actor, because they sparked that creativity inside of me, that imaginative playfulness that you need to be an actor. And so, you know, I would read these fantasy books and pretend I was these characters and watch the Disney movies and pretend I was the princess, you know, everything, but it really goes back to those fiction stories. And I even, I vividly remember sketching scenes from this book in my head, this story in my head, while sitting in the dressing room at Nickelodeon. So, you know, I’m telling you, through all these years, I’ve just had this story kind of buzzing around in my brain, and I’ve developed different portions of it as I’ve gotten older. And kind of…you know, when you’re a kid, it’s just kind of this fantasy world you can escape into, but as I got older, I’m like, “I can actually create a hero’s journey out of this mess in my head,” and create a story that, you know, “Hey, if this is what I dreamed about when I was a little girl, I want to share this with other little girls. I have to share this. I have to get this out of me, so it doesn’t drive me crazy.”
Now, looking at your website, you know, you’re continuing to do acting, and you’re a singer and you’re a dancer and all those good things. I think I mentioned to you off the top that that always intrigues me because I do some stage acting—mostly just for fun, but I’ve done professional…mostly musicals, actually. Not that I can dance. No, I can’t dance. I can barely manage stage choreography if given enough time, if the choreographer yells at me enough. But my daughter started dance at age three and sings and went into…we have a company, a youth company here called Do with Class Young People’s Theatre, whose most famous alumni…alumnus…alumna, actually…is Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black fame.
And I always like to mention that because it gives me a chance to do my showbiz joke, which is that…see, I actually directed Tatiana in a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves when she was eleven years old.
Wow. Lucky you!
All the dwarves were paid by little girls with beards. And my joke ever since Orphan Black has been that, if I’d only known then what I know now, she could have played all seven dwarves! I didn’t need all those other dwarves.
Anyway, so that side of things, on a much lesser scale than what you’ve done, is something that’s very familiar to me. And I like to ask: it seems to me that acting and creating characters when you’re writing are very closely linked, because acting is, of course, putting yourself into the mind of somebody you are not, and making that person seem real, and that’s exactly what we do when we create characters. Do you find that they feed together like that for you?
No, absolutely. I’ve performed every scene of dialogue in my book out loud. And I did it many times. And, in fact, when I was first thinking about putting this story on paper, I’m like, “Is this a screenplay? That’s certainly what I’m most familiar with.” You know, I’ve been…I went to school for writing, and screenwriting was a big part of that. And obviously, I’ve been…I’ve read more scripts in my life than I have books. I’ve read so many. I understand the format. It takes me…you know, I could write a scene in five minutes. Definitely not as familiar with writing a novel. I mean, my joke is that I honestly went to Google, and I went, “How to write a novel,” like, “How to write a book. How to write book.” And just, you know, that’s how I started.
But yeah, no, back to your question, I completely believe they’re related. And, you know, I developed all of these characters so much more than I probably needed to, because as an actor, I’m like, everybody needs this crazy backstory of these scenes that previously happened. Like, I need to dream up lives for every single one of these characters, even the small ones. And, I mean, I’m happy with how it turned out. I feel close to these characters. In fact, I got to narrate the audiobook for Ash Ridley, which is so cool. So I really did end up getting to perform my book. I did it right here in my studio, in my home studio, and I was sweating by the end of these chapters because my arms were flailing, and I was doing voices and accents and just going over the top and redoing lines that I thought I could do better. And, in fact, at the very end, there is a scene that I genuinely started crying while I was recording it because I got so into the character and how she was feeling, and, you know, everything is going dark and being sad and scary, and I genuinely started crying. So, there you go. Acting and writing. It’s all the same. Come on.
And if you do your own audiobook, you really cannot complain about the narrator. Actually, you probably can, because you listen to yourself and go, “Oh, maybe I could’ve done that better.”
I do not want to listen to it back. I’m happy with how I performed it, and my husband, who worked in radio, and he’s an editor and producer and everything, he did all the producing for it. He didn’t end up editing it. We sent that to Recorded Books, and they took care of that, but he was there to tell me, you know, like, “Oh, redo that line,” like, redo that. So I’m happy with my performance, but I do not want to listen to it back because I’m sure that I will just pick it apart and be like, “Oh, I need to do that line differently. I would have said it differently…” So, I really don’t want to hear it again.
Are you like that with your film and TV performances?
Crazy perfectionist. Yeah. I mean, I put my all into it when I’m on set, when I’m in front of the camera, and then I just dread watching it, you know, because then it’s in the hands of somebody else. When you’re performing and your in front of the camera, it’s like, you have that control of what you say and what you do, but the director is still, you know, has his hand in it. But then, once it’s all filmed, I mean, that’s all post-production, that’s in the hands of other people. So, I get so nervous about the ending product, you know, watching it on TV, I just…you know, I get butterflies in my stomach when my scene’s about to pop up. I’m like, all right, here we go.
Yeah, that’s the big difference between doing stage and doing…I’ve done a modicum of film and video work, just little things. But it is a very different process and a very different feeling as a performer. I was in a music video with somebody (Ed. – Here’s the YouTube link), and she’d only done film and I’d only done stage to that point, and she said she didn’t like doing stage work because the audience threw her off. She wasn’t used to getting the laughter and the applause and everything.
Oh, that’s interesting. Just on that note, I was actually very blessed that the show that I was on, All That, it was sketch comedy, and much of it was filmed in front of a live audience. And so, it was this perfect marriage of theatre and TV acting and film acting because, you know, if we messed up, we could do it again, but at the same time, we had that instant feedback from the audience. I mean, it was an audience full of kids, which does not give pity laughter. I mean, if your joke does not land, that place is silent. You don’t have adults going, you know, pretending. So that was such a great experience. And I’m so happy that you are allowing your daughter to go into that world of dance and being on stage. And it’s so cool that you do that and you’ve done that in your life. I think that’s so important. I’ve said it for years, that anybody that can dance and compete on stage or do theatre on stage in front of a crowd, can pretty much do anything, because that feeling of going on stage, you know, seconds before you go out there and you have to nail it, you get one shot…I mean, there’s not a lot of moments in life that are equal to that. And if you can handle that and get through it and nail it and be happy with your performance. I mean, you can do anything. Life’s easy after that.
Well, going back to…you said that you studied writing at university…well, first of all, where was that? And was that just screenwriting, or was there some other forms of writing?
So my college experience is a little…interesting. So, I had just gotten done with All That. I was on the show for four years, and then I spent a couple more years, I think, like, one or two, in LA, doing some other roles and continuing to act. And I just needed a break. I was seeing a lot of young child actors around me that were kind of falling into that horrible LA lifestyle. And…I mean, you know, there’s a million of those child actors, you know, downfall stories out there. And that was happening around me. Like, there’s people I knew that were going into that world of, like, partying and drugs and alcohol and all of that. And I so just did not want that to be part of me at all. And I was in LA working…I mean, this was around the time of being 17, 18. And that’s when you are…you’re already as a person just trying to figure out who you are, and being in the public eye while I was trying to figure that out was really difficult. And my parents supported that I wanted to step away for a little bit. And my…my parents’ college and my parents’ parents’ college, my whole family, cousins, aunts, uncles, everybody went to the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. I had been going there my whole life to go to football games. You know, the whole thing. I mean, it’s just that family college.
And I actually got a scholarship to the U of I for acting, like musical theatre acting, or whatever it was. But I started going to the classes, and I was so unhappy with how quickly they were progressing because I had just stepped off a national TV show in LA and then suddenly I felt like I was in Acting 101, with all these people who…God bless them, like, I know that they’re going to college to learn these things, but they’ve never done anything, like never done, you know, film acting or anything. And that’s fine. That’s totally fine. That’s why you go to college, is to learn. But in my selfish little 18-year-old brain, I’m just like, I can’t do this. I can’t spend four years at this college. Like, I was looking at the curriculum to come and what they wanted me to do, and I was like, I’m past it, like, I already know all this. So I was just very frustrated with that. And looking back, I probably should have just done it anyway. I’m sure there’s so much I could have learned, and the teachers could have showed me so many different aspects of acting that I was not familiar with. You know, for example, like, I’ve never really done Shakespeare. I don’t really know that much about that world, and I’ve always kind of wanted to.
So I left that college almost immediately, like, I honestly only went to U of I for like, maybe a month, maybe less? And I’m like, “I gotta get out of here, this is not what I wanted to.” And I found an amazing online college called Taylor University, and they had an entire writing program. It was like a writing certification program, kind of like an associate’s degree, like a two-year program. And it was just as much writing as you could do, everything from screenwriting to technical writing, expository writing, fiction writing, nonfiction writing. I mean, you name it. I mean, they actually had me, like, writing articles and submitting them and pitching them to newspapers and magazines during this course. So, it was very real-life. And that’s what I loved. And, yeah, so that was kind of where I kind of got that bug of, like, “I need to write more. Like, I really have a passion for this.” I remember my favourite lesson…I really wish I remember the teacher’s name…because I never met them, you know, everything was online, so I don’t really have a face with the name, so I can’t remember his name…but my favourite exercise he ever had me do was, he’d have me write…he’d give me, like, a topic and then have me write an entire paragraph about it. And then I’d, you know, I’d read it, and I’d edit it, and I’d be like, “Oh, man, this is awesome.” And I’d submit it. And then he’d be like, “Cool, cut it in half, but have it say the same message, same everything.” And I’m like, “Oh, OK.” And I go back, and I’d try to edit it down and say what I had to say, but you know, shorter but still with the same pizzazz. And I’d submit and be like, “OK, there you go.” And he’d be, like, “Cool, cut it in half again.” And I’m like, are you kidding me? And just that…
I like this guy!
It was amazing! But that taught me editing, you know, to like, say what you need to say shorter, to the point, like, get the listener’s, the reader’s attention, and be done. I’ll never forget that lesson, and I still practice what he taught to this day.
Now, we’ve talked a little bit about the book, obviously, already, but let’s so go in and focus on that now as an example of your creative process when it comes to writing. First of all, you have sort of talked a little bit about it, but let’s have a synopsis. Without giving away, you know, whatever you don’t want to give away.
Yes, of course. So, my main character is Ash Ridley, and she’s this…it’s all set in a fantasy world called Cascadia. And I actually named it that… there are so many little Easter eggs in this book that if you know me, you know where it came from. And there is this beautiful place in Oregon where there were these, like, these waterfalls and this lake, and it was like the most magic place I could escape to, and it was called Cascadia. And I always thought that was the most beautiful word ever. And that just described this magical place I got to visit. And I’m like, you know what? It would be so cool if I named my fantasy world after someplace like that that, like, you could actually go visit, like, I could go visit and be like, “Oh, this is my fantasy room.” But back to synopsis, sorr.
So, Ash Ridley is this peasant girl living in Cascadia, and she is a stable hand to this horrible woman in a travelling circus of mythical beasts. And they go from town to town, and they put on little shows, and they try to earn money and, you know, Ash does this away from her father for months and months at a time because her father is very poor and it’s what she can do to help him with money. You know, obviously, he hates having his daughter going out there and working but, you know, they’ve got to make ends meet some way, and she’s happy to do it for her father because she loves him so much. And, yeah, they just go from town to town putting on these shows. And one of the creatures in the circus is a very elderly Phoenix. And she just, she loves this bird so much. She loves all the animals, whereas the, you know, the woman running the show, they’re just money to her. And one night, this elderly Phoenix, which she names Flynn, starts coughing and wheezing and moulting and losing, you know, just the sparkle in his eyes, and he eventually, as the Phoenix does, bursts into flames and just becomes this pile of dust.
And, you know, many adults know the story of the Phoenix, but I don’t know if a lot of kids do. And that was exciting to me, that maybe this story was the first introduction to the legend of the Phoenix that little kids would ever have. And Ash, of course, doesn’t know the legend. I mean, nobody in Cascadia has seen a Phoenix in however many hundreds of years, I think I said, like, five hundred years or something like that. And so, she thinks that he’s dead. You know, he is trapped in this circus as all the other animals, and just like she is, and they’re all just shells of their former self and, you know…but a couple of minutes later, you know, a little foot pops out of the pile of ashes and this baby bird, this baby Phoenix bird, emerges. And that’s the start of our buddy comedy right there. Ash and Flynn become best friends, and she has to, you know, navigate this new life, being bonded to this magical creature.
What did your…you know, you’ve talked about your thinking about it for a long time, but when it came down to time to write it, what did your outlining or synopsizing…how did you approach it? Did you do an outline? Did you just start writing? How did that work for you?
Yes, I took six months to plan out the book, I believe. Could have been longer. This…my story is really this melting pot of every magical creature that you’ve ever heard of. And I know that a lot of fantasy authors are good at coming up with their own fantasy creatures. You know, J.K. Rowling’s obviously amazing at that. But I had so many of them in my book that I wanted them to all come from actual folklore and legends from all over the world. So, it took me a very long time to research all of these creatures, you know, the Manticore and the Hydra and, you know, all these different creatures. I wanted them…I wanted kids to be able to read the name of a fictional…of a magical creature in my book and be able to Google it and see what it looked like. That was important to me. Part of my book is that Ash and Flynn are then swept away to a school, an academy that trains kids who are bonded to magical animals. So, it’s a little bit like Pokémon, where every kid has their animal, and they train them, and they teach, you know, they…as time goes by, they get a little bit of the magic themselves, you know, kind of transferred to them, and you create this amazing bond with your animal. But obviously, they’re scary, crazy, dangerous creatures that the school’s like, “We’re gonna teach you how to not die,” you know? So, you know, obviously, like, every kid has a different animal, and I wanted them to all be from actual folklore from all over the world, you know, everything from Irish folklore, Scottish, to Norse. You name it, I borrow a little bit from everything. And, yeah, so that took many months to learn about all of those creatures, put them all together and outline it. Yeah, it took a long time. Goodness.
How detailed an outline did you do?
Very detailed. In fact, the one document that saved my life was…I think it ended up being like a seven-page, single-spaced document that was just descriptions of every character, biographies for every character and descriptions of what everybody looked like, everybody’s backstory was, and what all the creatures looked like, what their powers were, what their strengths were, and how they would fight against other creatures…again, that Pokémon aspect of like, you know, water type versus fire type versus earth type…and trying to figure out how all of them would work together. And that’s the document that helped me more than anything. I mean, I just had that document up on my computer the whole time I was writing. I could refer to it, but yeah, I would say that…I don’t know if everybody outlines—again, like, this is my first novel, I don’t—I just did it the way I thought was going to be the easiest for me. And, yeah, I think outlining is absolutely crucial. I mean, it’s such a great roadmap. Once you start writing, you don’t have that scary feeling of, “Oh my gosh, what’s going to come next?” You just have to get from point A to point B, not from A to Z.
Well, one of the reasons I do this podcast is to find out how everybody does it. And you find it’s all over the map. There are the extreme outliners. There’s a fellow named Peter V. Brett, who wrote a bestselling series called The Demon Cycle, and he writes 150-page outlines before he writes an actual story.
Oh, my goodness. Wow.
I mean, longer books than yours, obviously. That’s at the one extreme. And then there’s Kendare Blake, who’s a bestselling YA author, and she just kind of has the general idea and she just starts writing.
I fall somewhere in the middle myself. So, with the outline in hand, what did your actual physical writing process look like. How did you write? Did you take a quill pen and sit under a pine tree somewhere?
I should email you a picture of the laptop that I wrote this thing because it is the most broken, busted old Macbook you can imagine. The screen is cracked…in fact, the whole screen had fallen off at one point, so the screen is like taped on, the camera doesn’t work, some of the keys stick….I mean, it’s so horrible. But that was my little writing machine, you know? It’s like…I sat on the couch, and I’m one of those people that, like, once I get in the creative mode, I can sit for six or more hours and just write. Like, I don’t even need a break. I will just go and go and go and go. And that’s why a lot of people keep asking me, “Are you going to write a sequel?” And I’m like, “Well, I wrote this book before I had two little kids, so I had the luxury of sitting and having creative time to myself all day, every day. And now that I have these two kids, I barely have time to write one email every day because I’m staying at home watching them.” So, I have no idea how I’m going to write the sequel. I’m going to have to seriously, like, buy a plane ticket to like some foreign country. It’ll be like, “Don’t bother me for two months, I’m writing.”
Kids do get older, and eventually, they get a little easier…
That’s true, throw them in school…
Speaking from experience.
Yeah. Hey, don’t tell me that, I don’t want them to get bigger.
Mine’s 19, or about to turn 19.
Mine are one and three.
So I’m still in the, you know, teething mode right now.
Yeah, and you’ve got two of them. I only have the one to worry about.
So, how long did it take you to write that first draft?
I want to say the whole process took about a year and a half, I think. I think it took me a year from start to finish to, like, really get it to a place that I was ready to submit it. So, I don’t know how long it took me to write the first draft. I just know that I got to a place where I thought it was clean, and, you know, I wasn’t terrified to let somebody else read it. After about a year and a half, I think so.
So how did you work? Did you write a complete first draft and then go back to the beginning and revise or did you kind of do a rolling revision as you went along or how did that work for you?
I wrote the first draft, just anything that came to my mind. I didn’t really worry about editing. I’m just, you know…I always worry about, you know, too much dialogue, Because as an actor, like, I cared more about the dialogue than I did the, you know, describing things which…that was a huge note with my editor, once I got to, you know, once I got my book deal. She was like, “You need to describe things more. Describe there’s more. Go more into that.” But my dialogue was always awesome. Like, as an actor, it’s like, I know how people talk. I know the back and forth and, you know, one-upmanship between two characters—is that the word? One-upsmanship? But yeah, it took me a while because I wasn’t in a rush. I was doing other things. I was, you know, acting and hosting, and, you know, I was focused on that side of my career. This was kind of just like when I have time, I’m gonna I’m going to work on this.
How long is it? I’ve only seen the ebooks. How many pages did it end up being…? It’s a middle-grade book. So it’s…
Yes. It’s… OK, so I planned it to be the exact length as the first Harry Potter book, if that helps anybody out there?
Well, it helps me, I have that, so I know what it looks like.
I think it ended up being maybe, like, one chapter longer than the first Harry Potter book? But that’s that was my roadmap, because I’m like, if I’m gonna write a book similar to the first Harry Potter book, I’m, you know, a book like that, I want to reference the best one out there. And I mean, that’s…people might debate whether it’s the best middle-grade book ever, whatever. I mean, that’s what people like. It’s the most famous one. So I’m like, hey, I’m going to use that as, like, my roadmap. I remember I would…I counted out all the chapter lengths, and, you know, I kind of use, “OK. So her chapters are about this long, so I want my chapters to be that long. And so, I like, really kind of used that to help me write it. So I’m sure it sounds very amateur. Like, again, this is my first novel. You’re, like, a total pro, I’m sure you’re just like, “You’ll learn, newbie.”
No, I mean, it’s the same…I mean, I’m very old, but back when I started writing, and I got my first computer…it was a Commodore 64, and the word processor was called Paperclip, and you could only put 499 lines of text into one file on the Commodore 64, which made chapters about ten pages long. And I’ve kind of been writing the same length chapters ever since just because that was my first computer.
Well, that’s what you know, yeah.
I’ve only recently kind of broken out of that, but for a long time, it was almost like clockwork. OK, I’m getting close, and here’s a chapter break. So, yeah, everybody…
Oh, that’s funny.
We all start in different places. But you’ve done a ton of writing. And one thing I always tell people who…I teach some writing, and I’ve just finished a gig as writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library for the last nine months, working with new writers. And that’s what I say, is that the way you learn to write is to write. So it sounds like that writing course you took was ideal for getting you up to speed.
It was. I mean, I was yeah, I was writing way before that. I wrote my first screenplay when I was 13 years old, and I showed it to a director friend of mine who had directed a pilot, my very first pilot that I ever booked. And God bless him, I’m so happy he did this…I was so mad at the time because I was 13, and I had it in my brain that I was this prodigy because I was 13, and I wrote a screenplay, and here it is and let’s go to the Disney Channel, we’re making this right now. And my director friend tore it up, and I’m so glad he did. He sat there with me, and he went line by line, and he’s like, “Typo, typo. Can’t say that, blah blah blah. Don’t give camera direction, blah blah blah. And I just sat there just like, “Oh, my gosh. Like, why is he just not praising me for being this amazing child actor who can do anything?” And I will never forget the things he said, not taking it easy on me, about my first screenplay, which is buried somewhere in my files, somewhere in my garage that no one will ever see. Like, no one will ever see this screenplay. But those lessons he gave me were so, so valuable. And his name is Greg Atkins. If somehow this, if ever you know, if he ever stumbles upon this, Greg Atkins, “Thank you so much for not take it easy on me.”
And then after that, I wrote, you know, a couple of other TV shows. I wrote…I mean, nothing that made it because I was, you know, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. And I just kept anything that entered my head. I would just write it. And then, I wrote my first novel that I never did anything with when I was around 14 or 15. And yeah, just a ton of half-written books are on my computer throughout the years, which I’m sure a lot of writers have that. But yeah, I just never stopped writing. And I kept a diary every single day as well. I thought it was really important at the end of the day, to just write what was never on my mind.
So, you’re friendly with words, in other words.
And I think that having somebody like that who takes it, I mean, takes it seriously. When you’re 13…my story is similar that I when I was 11 years old, I wrote my first complete short story, it was a rainy day activity with a friend. It was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” because you could see where my mind was. And my grade…I was 11, but I was in grade eight because I skipped a grade. And anyway, my grade eight English teacher, Toni Tunbridge took it, and he didn’t just say, “Oh, you wrote a short story. That’s really good.” He went through it line by line and said, “OK, well, I don’t understand why your characters do this and all this stuff.” And ever since I’ve credited that because it was that taking it seriously enough to properly critique it.
That made me think, OK, the next thing I write is going to be better than that.
For sure, absolutely.
.That’s kind of the attitude you have to have going forward as a writer is you’re always the next thing is going to be even better than the last thing.
Yeah, I was one of those people that everything, like everything I wrote…I mean, I’m sure, I say one of those people, but I’m sure that’s just all creatives. But like, the thing that I was working on at the time, I was like, this is it. This is the thing. I’m going to put my whole life into this one thing. Chips in, like, I’m all in. This is the one I’m gonna make. This is the movie I’m going to make. This is the TV show that’s going to get picked up. And obviously, none of them ever were. But to this day, almost every project that I write has references, like all of them, you know, you remember old characters, you remember old scenes. I was just thinking the other day how funny it would be to just, like, sit at a dinner table with all of my past main characters and just have a conversation. Like, you know, this one over here in the half-written books. You know who did such and such?
They might not be very happy with you.
Oh, totally. And, you know, I think, like, the end of that little fun story would be like, you know, the one character that does get picked up, does get published. You know, it’s just like a silly thing. But, you know, all the failures just helped me so much. And that’s why it’s just like, keep writing. Just write, write, write, write, write. Whatever it is, just keep writing. Because, you know, there were times when I would get that writer’s block in the middle of writing this novel, and I’d be like, “Oh, my God, I’ve got that scene from that book I wrote, like, ten years ago. That would be perfect in this scenario.” And I could borrow that. And then, all of a sudden, it was…it had already been played out in my mind years ago. I was very familiar with it. And boom. So, yeah.
Going back to this book, I also wanted to ask you about the characters. You talked about how you did backstory for all of them. My daughter’s big anime fan. So backstory is something we always talk about in anime, but…how did you decide what characters you needed? I mean, how did you develop these characters in your head?
Yeah, I mean, Ash was always there, she was always…
And before you say that, is Ash a deliberate choice because of the Phoenix rising from the ashes?
Well, her name is Ashton, which is a name I always liked. And yeah, I did like that it was, you know, that you could compare that kind of, you know, the ash and ash. Yeah, I did. I did really like that. And I’ve always thought Ashton was like a beautiful girl’s name. And the one thing that was very important to me about Ashton Ridley was that she was not special. That always kind of was something I thought about growing up is, many of the books that I was reading, you know, the main character, the kid, was always, like, the Chosen One. Or, like, their mom happened to be the queen of this planet, and so they were the prince or princess, you know, like, you know, Harry Potter had that crazy stuff happened, and then, like, Percy Jackson, like, you know, his dad, like every character I felt like had something already going for him before they were born, that then, you know, they fulfilled their destiny. It was very important to me that Ash did not have a destiny, that she was not special, that her mom had passed away, that her dad was poor. She had no friends, she was working for this horrible woman, you know, nothing, nothing going for her. I mean, this was like, this was going to be her life until Flynn came along. And still, as the book goes on, one of the big themes is that Flynn is the special one, not her. And so, she’s, you know, she’s going to this school full of rich children who are all very privileged, and she’s not, she’s the only poor child among all of these rich, privileged kids. And everybody’s so fascinated with Ash and Flynn’s presence at the school, but they’re fascinated with Flynn. So, she still feels like she has to prove herself during this whole journey. So while it. Yeah.
So while Flynn is this special, amazing, rare, powerful creature, you know, Ash is just a normal girl and she’s got to, like any normal, got to, you know, pick herself up and make something out of her life and fulfill this journey she’s on.
There’s a very good book by Patrick Ness called The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which is a young adult novel, told from the point of view of the ordinary kids who are in a high school where you’ve got the Buffy types and all these other things going on. And there’s like there’s some sort of apocalypse going on, but they’re just trying to get through algebra class.
That’s so brilliant. See, I love stuff like that. I absolutely love stuff like that. In fact, there is…one of my half-written books, years ago, was sort of a comedy about people who had X-Men powers, but like bad powers, you know what I mean? Like, the X-Men, obviously, I mean, it was a totally different thing, it wasn’t related to the X-Men, but like a similar concept about, like, you had all these superheroes with all these amazing powers, but then, like, you had this misfit group that, like, “Oh, my power’s that I can, you know, I can make bananas mushy just by looking at them.” You know, like a really terrible power.” And like, how do they, you know, save the world or whatever.
One of the special kids in that book is The King of Cats (Ed. – Actually, the god!). So, everywhere he goes, cats congregate around him and look at him adoringly.
That’s amazing. Yeah, I mean it was just so important to me that that Ash was really relatable because, you know, it’s like, if I’m reading, you know, Percy Jackson, it’d be like, “OK, well, I’m, you know, I feel like I’m like Percy, but I didn’t…my father isn’t, you know…who is his father? The guy from the, you know…everybody listening, “yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Yeah, no, I can’t get the word out of my mouth either.
The god of…well, whatever, you know.
Yeah…Neptune is the Roman version…Poseidon. There we go.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. There you go. Thank you. Thank you. That would have really driven records for the rest of the day. Yeah. This is like, OK, well, you know, I want to accomplish cool things, but my dad isn’t Poseidon, so what do I do? So it’s very important to me that Ash was really relatable for just girls who were like me growing up.
Now, once you did have it ready to submit, and you obviously found a publisher, you had the editing process, and you mentioned one thing that the editor came back and said was, “You need more description.” Were there some other things that you had to work on that maybe surprised you?
Yes. So, worldbuilding was my biggest one. I mean, there were things that I…I do really enjoy describing things, so sometimes I would go into, like, too much detail, like describing like what this flower looked, it was like, too much. But worldbuilding was a big thing. My editor is Natasha Simons, and she’s brilliant and she’s funny and I love her, and you should follow her on Twitter because she is one of the best Twitter accounts. But, yeah, she was so kind with me and so patient and gave me such wonderful notes about how to build out this world and make it really feel like a real place. And she really didn’t do too much to it, honestly, like we didn’t have any crazy big edits to the story, just…all the suggestions that she had for me to add things were wonderful. I mean, I didn’t…there’s a flashback chapter with Ash and her father that wasn’t originally in the book, and now it’s maybe my favourite chapter. So, I’m really glad that she suggested to add that in there. And yeah, thankfully, she understood a lot of my quirky comedy. Because I come from the comedy world, it was important to me to have the book be really funny. And I was always worried about that, like how I hope my editor has a sense of humour because a lot of things in here are super silly. And she went along right with me. So, yeah.
So any challenge…when you’re riding for young people and doing humour it’s easy to do humour that you don’t actually get. I’ve been guilty about a few times, I think. Do you feel comfortable with that?
Yeah. I mean, I came from a kids’ show. I was on a kid show for four years.
Oh, good point, yeah.
Yeah. I was very familiar with, like, what jokes resonate and what don’t. And that’s kind of why I always wanted to write kids’ TV, because I really did feel like I had, you know, I was just good at picking up on what was going to land and what wasn’t. And maybe one or two jokes in the book are like jokes that only adults would get. I think at one point before a battle, like a, you know, they’re having the two kids, like, do a little, like, practice battle or something, but she says, like, “Protect yourself at all times.” Obviously, that’s a reference to UFC, which I worked at for the longest time. Like, no kid is going to know, like that’s what, you know, protect yourself at all.
But, you know, there’s a couple of little things in there, like, you know, the book was dedicated to my late father, and one of our favourite movies that we sat and watched was Napoleon Dynamite. Like, we were obsessed with that movie, and we’d quote it all the time. And that’s literally the only reason why I added a liger to the book. At the very beginning, a liger is referenced a couple of times, and I think one of the teachers, maybe the teacher has…yeah, the teacher has a liger, I think. But the only reason that the liger is even in the book is because in Napoleon Dynamite, he’s like, “It’s a liger, known for its skills in magic.” So, that’s the reason…you know, that’s the only reason that’s in there. Yeah.
No, I didn’t have a problem with writing jokes that I think kids will get, you know, that…I think that so far that the best part of this whole process is getting kid feedback. I so appreciate all the adult feedback I’ve been getting from my friends and fans and everybody, like, I so appreciate it. I can’t even understand why someone would read something I wrote. I’m so humbled by all of it. But it’s the feedback I’m getting from the young readers that makes me genuinely emotional because I wrote it for them, and the fact that it’s resonating and they feel inspired by it, and they’re enjoying it, just…it completely warms my heart.
Have you had an opportunity to do a school reading or anything like that?
I had a whole bunch lined up, and then good old coronavirus came along and cancelled all my appearances.
A few of mine, too.
It’s so frustrating, right? I mean, it’s so funny, it’s my first novel, and I was getting advice from a couple of other people who had published. And I’m like, OK, so like what? Like, what do I do? How do I do this thing? And they’re like, you know, “The number one thing that helped us is appearances signings, like, do as many appearances as you can, that’s going to make or break your book launch.” And I’m like, “OK, cool.” So I had a whole bunch lined up, and they all got cancelled. So I’m like, oh my God. Like, my book is going to debut in the middle of this pandemic. I can’t go out and promote it. I literally only have social media. So I…I just tried to utilize Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram as much as I could, and thankfully it’s been great. Everybody’s been so supportive.
One other thing I wanted to ask you about the acting and writing side of things. As I said, I’ve done stage work, and I’ve also directed a few stage plays. And I always feel when I read some people’s stuff that they don’t keep a clear picture in their mind of where people are in relationship to each other. And it seems to me that the acting side of things, you always kind of have that mental image of,” OK, so-and-so’s over here, so-and-so is over there.” The kind of blocking of the scene, I guess. Do you find that some of your background has helped you in that sort of thing, as if you’re almost, like, you’re directing?
Absolutely, I don’t have a problem with that, with losing track of that or, you know, I play out every scene in my mind like a movie, and I even sometimes stand up and I act out the scene. It’s so dorky. I’m telling you, thank God I got to actually do it for the audiobook. So, you know, I had a reason to be silly and act up these scenes, but when I was writing it, I would straight up just stand up and like act out the scene and walk over here and talk to a lamp, and that was the other character, just to get a feel for the room. And yeah, absolutely. I credit that to my acting, but yeah, I didn’t have any notes about that kind of stuff from the editor, so I must have been good at that, I don’t know.
Well, we’re getting kind of closer to the end here, so we’ll as, you probably touched on it a little bit, but this is the other cliché part of the podcast, where I say, “and now the big philosophical questions,” which is basically why? Why write? Why tell stories? Why tell this particular kind of story? Why do you do it, and why do you think any of us do this whole storytelling thing?
Well, the coolest experiences for me over the course of my whole life are when I’ve gotten to tell stories so many different ways and see how they all affect people. I mean, even sketches on All That are stories. They’re just short little stories. They’re funny and they’re silly and they’re over the top and there’s usually slime, but at the end of the day, it’s a story, and we’re telling it to the kids. And I get to see their reaction, you know, as they watch me do it. And I’m also a singer and a songwriter, and a lot of the songs that I’ve written are based on literature, and they tell a story from beginning to end. So that’s a completely different way of telling a story. And I get to see the, you know, the reaction to people who listen to my songs and how that affects them.
And like I said, I write screenplays and I write TV shows, their pilots, and that’s also a story, I mean, in a different way. And then this book has been a completely different way of telling a story. So, I mean, so many creatives, that’s really what motivates us is that we just have these stories that we need to get out there. We are these bards of the world that, you know, we have all of these collective experiences in our brains that we want to share in either a comedic way or a dramatic way. You know, everybody’s experiences are so different as they navigate life. And, you know, that’s where all of our stories come from, are just things we’ve experienced. You know, it’s like every character in my book, I know where they came from. I know what inspired them. You know, there’s a character inspired by Star Trek, there’s a character inspired by the Sherlock TV show, like there’s, you know, just every little thing, even if it’s a side character on some show nobody’s ever heard of, it affected me enough to put it in this book.
And that’s everybody’s screenplay, everybody’s novel, it comes from their experience and what affected them deeply. And so, everyone’s going to have a different story to tell because of their life experiences. And sharing that with each other, I think, is just so important to life, and just, you know, seeing what other people have experienced and being inspired by other people and inspiring other people. You know, like I said before, the only reason I became an actor is because my creativity was sparked by these young adult fiction novels. So, it’s only right that I take that creativity that it sparked and turn it into a fiction novel to then inspire other kids who are just like me. I can’t think of any better way to pay it forward.
Maybe in 20 years, it’ll be somebody writing a novel that was inspired by reading this one.
That is absolutely the dream, honestly. Like, you know, my whole career of acting has been just so much fun and so fulfilling, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. And I’m so glad that I discovered my talents and goals because of these types of books. So, I’m so thankful for these authors. You know, like Anne McCaffrey was a really big one. And, you know, thank goodness that they decided to sit down and write these books because that’s the reason for my career. So, yeah, I mean, I can’t think of anything better than helping other people discover that passion, you know, their passions. Maybe it’s acting, maybe it’s singing, whatever it is. You know, if I have even the smallest ability to inspire somebody, it’s…I mean, I got to do it.
And what creative things are you working on right now besides raising two small children?
Yeah, I have a big one I can’t talk about right now, but it’s definitely related to acting and writing, which is super cool. I have another…I have a TV show project that I’ve been kind of working on with another former cast member of All That.
Her name is Alyssa Rayas, and she and I kind of collaborated and came up with a really fun pilot idea. So, we’ve been fleshing that out and getting some writers on board to help us kind of develop that. And I really hope that goes forward because it’d be so hilarious. But aside from those two projects, obviously I’m still, you know, pushing the book. The audiobook is out there, and I’m just trying to…oh, and I now sell autographed copies through Premier Collectibles. And that’s…they just got a whole new shipment of those. So, those are now available. They all sold out day one, but now there’s more available. So, selling autographed copies and selling the audiobook and just trying to get the word out there in a world where I can’t go outside. If I could take a megaphone and just walk around everybody and shout in their face that I have a book available, then I would, but I can’t leave my house right now, so I’m just gonna do my best with the Internet.
And speaking of the Internet, where can people find you online?
Yeah. My website is lisafoiles.com. And I’m pretty easy to find on every social channel, everything is, you know, Twitter.com’s actually Lisa Foiles, Instagram is Lisa Foiles. The only one that’s different is Facebook.com/LisaFoilesOfficial. So, I’m everywhere, and whichever one that you frequent the most, you know, hit me up on there I’d love to hear from you. I love chatting with fans. I really try to make a point to respond to people.
All right. Well, thank you so much for this. It’s been a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it half as much as I did.
I did. Thank you, Edward, so much for having me. I very much appreciate it.
And I’m looking forward to finishing reading the book. I do have it. And it’s on my finish this up because it sounds great list, so…
I got to tell you, I’m already shocked that people have finished my book because, like I said, I’m the slowest reader on the planet. It would take me months and months to read my own book. So I have no judgment for anyone who’s taken a long time. I’m the same way.
I just haven’t gotten to it yet out of everything else. But I’m looking forward to it, especially after talking to you today, so, thanks so much.
You too. Thank you.