Alumna discusses new fiction book

Elisa Albert ’96 spoke of her adolescent years at Harvard-Westlake and the travails of a fiction writer last Friday while addressing the Chronicle staff. Albert, a former features editor of the Chronicle staff who joked about her column entitled “Phat Albert,” recently published her first novel “The Book of Dahlia.” She published a book of short stories in 2006 called “How This Night is Different.”

“I was definitely an underachiever at Harvard-Westlake and things still worked out,” Albert said.
She attended Brandeis, where she “lucked upon a great writing program.”

After college, Albert moved to New York to work at a literary agency as a gofer and witnessed the inner workings and business aspects of the literary world. She subsequently earned a master’s degree in writing at Columbia and began the search for an agent who represented like-minded writers.

“Getting an M.F.A. helps you gain credibility in the literary world, and you’re able to immerse yourself in a community of writers,” Albert said.

Albert received a book deal at the completion of graduate school. As she proceeded to work on her novel, she found the process daunting yet enjoyable.

She joined a writers’ co-op in Brooklyn as a way to maintain schedule and “to feel as if you’re going to work everyday.” Nonetheless, “the idea for the book took a while to marinate,” she said.
She drew from inspiration by authors such as Lorrie Moore and Philip Roth and sought to develop her tone as a writer.

“The prospect of being an author seemed outlandish at times, but I always loved books and loved reading,” Albert said.

“And with fiction, you’re allowed to let the story take you somewhere, you’re writing to find out what you know.”

With “The Book of Dahlia,” Albert used topics she was familiar with in a fiction novel. The novel is about a privileged 29-year-old Jewish girl living in Los Angeles who is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. The book’s heroine, Dahlia, attends the fictional Westwood School for Girls.

“The high pressure in the book was definitely inspired by Harvard-Westlake,” Albert said.

“The book is not autobiographical,” she continued, “but it’s drawn from things that I know about.”
Albert’s older brother died of a brain tumor when she was 20 years old. She learned how to balance autobiographical information while maintaining her privacy.

Albert remained tight-lipped about ideas for future novels, but made it evident that ideas were indeed brewing.

“The daily work is what it’s all about,” she said. “If you’re not invested in the work, you lose what it’s about as a writer.”