Widower. Education: Princeton University, B.A., 1965; Pembroke College, Cambridge, B.A., 1967.
Legacies: Stories (short stories), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
Montenegro (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1997.
The Lightning Keeper (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.
Starling Lawrence has distinguished himself as both an editor and author of fiction. He was already editor-in-chief at the prestigious Norton publishing house when his books Legacies: Stories, a volume of short stories, and Montenegro, a novel, were published in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Both were highly praised by reviewers. Lawrence told John F. Baker, a writer for Publishers Weekly, that his motto is "nothing in haste," an assertion supported by the fact that he wrote for over ten years before attempting to have any of his writings published.
As a young man, Lawrence had considered becoming a journalist or magazine writer, but instead followed the advice of family friend Brendan Gill, who advised him that such a career should only be pursued if following the strongest inner urges. Subsequently, Lawrence taught English in Cameroon with the Peace Corps, and later he was introduced to Norton editor Evan Thomas. He was offered a job as a reader and gradually moved up to editor-in-chief. Some of his most notable discoveries as editor include Michael Lewis (Liar's Poker), Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm), and Patrick O'Brian, a writer of maritime historical novels.
Lawrence's deliberate approach to writing is illustrated by his attitude toward Legacies, the collection of short stories that was his first published work. "The stories in Legacies were like five-finger exercises to teach myself how to write fiction," he told Baker. Reviewers, however, saw nothing untutored about the eight tales, which probe the lives of affluent New Englanders. A Sewanee Review contributor stated: "Mr. Lawrence … possesses such abundant talent that … he must write better than most of the authors he is dealing with." Los Angeles Times reviewer Susan Reynolds wrote: "The stories are artfully constructed…. They lodge in the marrow, these stories, as good as winter."
For his second published work, Lawrence made the leap from the familiar landscape of his childhood to turn-of-the-century Montenegro, and from short fiction to the novel. His historical adventure Montenegro is the story of a British man sent to the Balkans to covertly assess the political climate as Turkish, Austrian, and Serbian factions fight for control. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted the novel's resonance with the modern conflict in Bosnia and described the author's writing as "exquisitely calibrated to its period and filled with superb evocations of landscape, tender penetration of personality and unflinching scenes of sex and violence." Barbara Hoffert, writing in Library Journal, praised Lawrence's "excellent work," stating: "At first we are seduced by the wonderful storytelling, but eventually we are humbled by the story's moral dimensions."
Lawrence's second novel, The Lightning Keeper, was published nearly ten years after Montenegro, further demonstrating the author's unhurried approach to his writing. The Lightning Keeper is set in Connecticut during the early years of the twentieth century, and its central character is Toma Pekocevic, whom readers first encounter in Montenegro. Toma briefly meets Harriet Bigelow, the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist, in Montenegro. At that point, she is fourteen and vacationing in Naples; he is sixteen and a refugee. The Lightning Keeper is set six years later. Toma is now a penniless immigrant in Connecticut. Harriet is a businesswoman who is helping her father manage his interests, as he experiences problems with his mental and physical health.
Toma has a brilliant mind when it comes to machinery, and he uses the theories of Nikola Tesla to create a huge new turbine that will provide abundant power and, he hopes, make it possible for him to marry Harriet. As World War I develops, Bigelow lands a huge military contract he badly needs to save his business, but he will not be able to fulfill his contract without Pekocevic's power source. Things go horribly awry in a variety of ways; there is a fatal accident, and other business interests sabotage the success of Pekocevic's invention. The Lightning Keeper tells many stories, according to a Booklist reviewer. It is about a family and its business, about the struggles of immigrants, and about war, business, and technology and the ways they affect each other. It is "a very American saga." Another reviewer, Joy Humphrey in Library Journal, commented: "Lawrence blends science and romance into an immensely readable stew," one that includes descriptions of machinery and experiments that are "as exciting as they are beautiful." A Publishers Weekly writer concluded: "Skillfully intertwining fact and fiction, Lawrence generates an electric history of ideas, kindled by the flames of capital and passion."
Lawrence once told CA: "My answer to the question ‘why do you write?’ used to be ‘to keep myself sane,’ but I'm not sure that process is working so well. In order to write fiction one has to keep company with some very odd characters and examine in intimate detail some pretty unhealthy situations. My answer now would probably be ‘so that I know what I think about things and the relationships between people.’ I feel that I only really know something through writing about it.
"I get up as early as I can in the morning—every morning—and write as much as I can, or until I think I'll be fired if I don't get into the office. The output might be as little as a hundred words, or as much as a thousand. I try not to force the issue or make myself write, because I'm more likely to throw such stuff away the day after, a demoralizing task.
"I wrote on the subjects in my books because that's what I know best. The short stories were pretty close to home, in every sense. In the case of my novel, Montene-gro, there was a great deal of research involved, but I lived with that material for a long time before I tried to write, and when I got to the writing stage, it seemed almost as familiar as my own life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August, 1997, Nancy Pearl, review of Montenegro, p. 1879; February 15, 2006, Elizabeth Dickie, review of The Lightning Keeper, p. 45.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2006, review of The Lightning Keeper, p. 104.
Library Journal, May 15, 1997, Barbara Hoffert, review of Montenegro, p. 102; January 1, 2006, Joy Humphrey, review of The Lightning Keeper, p. 98.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 12, 1996, Susan Reynolds, review of Legacies: Stories, p. 10.
New York Times Book Review, April 21, 1996, Margot Livesey, review of Legacies, p. 36; April 30, 2006, Gregory Cowles, review of The Lightning Keeper.
People, May 22, 2006, review of The Lightning Keeper, p. 53.
Publishers Weekly, June 2, 1997, review of Montenegro, p. 47; December 12, 2005, review of The Lightning Keeper, p. 35.
Sewanee Review, summer, 1996, review of Legacies, p. 50.