It’s no wonder that Lian Dolan, author of Elizabeth the First Wife (Prospect Park Books, May) has infused her romantic comedy novel with Shakespearean themes: she’s been reading and seeing Shakespeare’s plays since the second grade in Fairfield, Conn.; took field trips with her middle school class to watch “Shakespeare in the Park” in New York; and was deeply inspired by the one-year Shakespeare course she took at Pomona College that included student performances of the Bard’s work.
Elizabeth the First Wife focuses on the very single Elizabeth Lancaster, who lives and teaches Shakespeare in Pasadena, Calif., and whose ex-husband is a famous movie star. She comes from a wealthy and sometimes meddlesome family that’s the crux of her social life; her mother and sisters think they know what’s best for Elizabeth, including everything from her job to her home decorating style and taste in men. The arc in Dolan’s second novel (the first, Helen of Pasadena, was a 2010 Los Angeles Times bestseller) finds Elizabeth free of her complicated family when her ex asks for help with his performances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The youngest of eight children, Dolan, who lives with her family in Pasadena, created the nationally syndicated radio show The Satellite Sisters with her four real sisters in 2001. She worked at the American Film Institute and produced promotional videos for Nike before that, and her radio show, which at its peak had one million listeners, led to columns in both O and Working Mothers magazines. “I didn’t write about family in Helen of Pasadena, but it’s a profound part of the story in Elizabeth,” Dolan says. “How do you define yourself in terms of family? This is an important question to me, coming from a big and very close family. I decided to explore it in Elizabeth.” The book almost didn’t get finished when both her mother and father died within three months of each other this year. “Even in the midst of the hard stuff, though, I found time to finish Elizabeth,” Dolan says. “It was very therapeutic for me. ”
Dolan, who compares her writing to that of Gigi Levange Grazer and Maria Semple, always envisioned a three-book series when she began writing fiction. “I wanted to write about contemporary women with complex lives framed in a historical context,” she says, “and with lots of humor. Elizabeth is a Shakespeare professor who also reads US magazine. My character Helen was inspired by Helen of Troy.” The Middle Ages and a queen from that period will underscore Dolan’s as yet unnamed third novel.
“I Googled ‘Shakespeare and relationships’ when I was researching Elizabeth,” Dolan says, laughing, “and couldn’t find any contemporary stories. After that I started writing the book.” The novel is interspersed with chapter dividers that are snippets of All’s Fair, the relationship book Elizabeth talks about writing in Elizabeth the First Wife. These include facetious quizzes, and dating and matchmaking tips based on Shakespeare’s works and characters. One is titled “Which Shakespearean Bad Boy Is for You?”
Lian Dolan signs today at Table 21 in the Autographing Area at 2:30 p.m.