It’s only June and 2014 is already an awesome year for literature. In the first half of the year, we’ve seen new books from heavy hitters like Gary Shteyngart, Chang-rae Lee, Lorrie Moore, Ben Marcus, Karen Russell, and many more. But 2014 isn’t just great for established writers; there is a wealth of interesting debut novels already out or coming out soon. We reached out to four authors of astonishing debuts to talk about the tricky process of pitching books, non-literary writing influences, and how to navigate the literary world.
Alena Graedon, author of The Word Exchange (Doubleday)
Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles (Henry Holt)
Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth (St. Martin’s Press)
D. Foy, author of Made to Break (Two Dollar Radio)
Probably the most annoying thing a writer ever has to do is “the elevator pitch.” Naturally, I thought I’d start off asking you all to summarize your novels. But I’m also interested in knowing how your “pitch” changed. Is your summary the same as it was when you pitched to agents and editors? Or to when you started the project?
Scott Cheshire: First of all, I can’t think of the last time I was in an elevator and spoke with someone else. It’s usually a quiet awkward affair. Or maybe that’s just me. And yes it’s annoying, but also, as you imply, unavoidable. It’s a crass way to put what is actually a welcome and understandable request: So, what’s your book about? Tell me. Please. But also don’t take up too much of my time… For some people, I imagine, hearing what someone’s novel is about is up there with hearing about a “crazy” dream, or hearing a joke from someone who is just not good at telling jokes. So I think it’s a good thing, really, to figure out how to tell people about your book, in a way that respects their time and relative interest.
All of that said, I used to make the typical attempts, torturously condensed plot summaries, or ridiculous “comparison title” mash-ups (if Cormac McCarthy’s The Road made love to The Moviegoer, while Creedence Clearwater played on the jukebox, my book would be that baby), but then one day someone wisely said to me: don’t worry about plot, what’s the book about for you? My response was something like this: It’s 1980, in Queens, New York, and a 12-year-old boy preacher named Josiah is about to deliver his first sermon to thousands of people. During the sermon he has “a vision”: The world will end in the year 2000. Fast forward to 2007, and Josiah, now a grown man, is having a terrible year — his mother has died, his wife has left him, his business is failing, and his father is losing his mind. In other words, the world is fine, but Josiah’s world has gone to shit.
Alena Graedon: My novel, The Word Exchange, starts on the night that a dictionary editor goes missing, leaving behind an unsettling clue — the name Alice. Shortly before he disappeared, he told his daughter that if anything were to happen to him, he’d use this name to communicate with her. After he vanishes, her search for him takes her down a proverbial rabbit hole, and it soon leads her to another mystery, which is in some ways even more frightening than her father’s disappearance: a virulent computer virus that has the power to destroy digital language, and that seems alarmingly similar to a real virus infecting people with a life-threatening “word flu.”
That summary took a long time to evolve, and my editor helped. Despite the fact that I used to write descriptions of other people’s books for a living (I was once an editorial assistant), putting together a synopsis of my own novel was very hard for me. For years, if anyone asked what I was writing about, I’d just mumble something about dictionaries. It’s lucky that I didn’t really try to pitch it in the early days. I don’t think I would have gotten far.
Julia Fierro: Oh, the “elevator pitch”; this one is still tough for me. When I finished the book, after revising and revising, I still didn’t have the distance to confidently “pitch” the book. I knew Cutting Teeth was a book full of characters who were parents, but that it wasn’t a book necessarily about parents, and it was too dark to be the kind of book I’d heard people call a “mommy novel.”
In short, I was pretty clueless. I searched for novels that were good comparisons and came up with Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. I queried Tom’s agent, Maria Massie, and struck gold. She led me to Elizabeth Beier, Perrotta’s editor, and these two women were the best thing that could’ve happened to this book. I know that another agent and another editor would’ve urged me to make the book less dark and edgy, the characters more likable, a novel that might be easier to pitch. But they saw the novel as literary, but also warm and entertaining. I hope I don’t sound like a pretentious twit, but I do believe that they saw the novel accurately because I am, personally, all of those traits they assigned to the book’s ideal reader. I am the smart literary reader looking for a page-turner — a book that can’t be put down — and that’s how I knew they were marketing the book in an authentic way.
D. Foy: Loosely: “Made to Break tells the story of five vicious friends trapped in a remote cabin and forced to confront themselves and each other in ways they couldn’t have seen.”
This, however, isn’t what I used to pitch the book either to agents or editors, mostly because I placed the book myself with Two Dollar Radio before I got an agent. I would have used it, though, had I had it then, and I use it all the time now when speaking publicly about the book. As boring as it sounds to my ear at this point, it’s remarkably concise and, by and large, somehow effective. But it wasn’t until I started touring the book that I finally stumbled on this version. My book is like a Zen koan, sort of, in that all sorts of stuff happens in the midst of nothing at all. The plot is the pitch, actually. I mean, that’s it. Of course before I came up with this version, I circled all around the damned thing, trying to describe characters and histories and motivations, and, by the time I’d finished, sounded more like a king-sized dork than anything else. So now at my events, I say, ‘The elevator pitch is this,’ then follow that up with, ‘And the extended, directors-cut version is this,’ whereon I dole out some more details, along with enough background to orient the scene I’ll read.
What would you like to do differently for your next novel?
DF: Well, my position is a little unique in that I’d written a few books before Made to Break in the summer of 1998, and have written a few more since, each of which is different from the rest. What I’ll do more of in my next book, though, I think, is plot. I don’t believe I’ve ever plotted anything before — not at least in the big sense, say, working on a grand scale with multiple characters, chronologies, and systems. Mostly I’ve been concerned with psychologies and what I call “the plot of a day.” I still have this obsession. It’s just that my next book will feature a bit more of the whodunit/MacGuffin stuff, moments, that is, in given systems from which distinct and inexorable consequences obtain.
JF: I really enjoyed writing Cutting Teeth. I almost wish the experience of writing my next novel could come with a little brown bottle of amnesia-inducing potion, so I could recreate the purity of the experience I had when writing Cutting Teeth. It really did feel, at times, like I was writing to write. Of course, in the back of my mind, I was hoping the book would be published, but I had very little confidence in that dream coming true.
There’s a lot that has been said about the “sophomore novel” and I can see how much if it is true — that the writing of another novel so soon after the highs and lows of publication can be a struggle. That said, I am miserable when I’m not writing, and my new novel feels like a sweet retreat right now, when I find the time to venture there.
SC: Well, at least in my experience, the first novel as “the book about you” rings true. It’s not about “me,” of course, but a lot of “me” is in there. This next novel, which I’m already deeply into, is definitely not about “me.” Which is totally freeing and thrilling. But of course the great secret is: It’s still me. No matter what I do it’s me, on some level. It’s all I know, all any of us knows. And I know that sounds a bit narcissistic, but I really do mean it to sound the opposite. I’m trying to write out of all this “me.”
I’d also like to take less time to make the thing. The first time around is overwhelmingly oppressive. It feels like you’re trying to lift a tremendous weight over your head and keep it balanced, so it doesn’t fall over, and break, and yet weight keeps on getting added, and somehow you’re the one doing all the adding (research; complicated plot twists; unnecessary, illogical, unbelievable action; more, and yet more research; dense, boring prose). The ankles wobble. But then all of a sudden, one day, it becomes manageable. You’re steady. It actually feels lighter. It feels right, and so you set the thing down, and walk away. I don’t know how else to put it. My goal, this next time around, is to not add any more weight than I need. Just make, lift, and balance the thing.
AG: Well, first, I’d like to take fewer than six years to finish it. But I’d also like to map out the plot less. With this one, I was a little intimidated to start just trying to write a novel without a pretty clear plan for where I was headed. But plans can be constraining, and I ended up throwing out a lot of them with each draft. I’d like to try writing with a less determined trajectory — to let the characters lead more. I know now that I’ll probably trash the first draft anyway, so letting things happen more organically seems less daunting than it once did.
Before I really started writing, I was shocked when I heard authors say they spent five or six or ten years on novel. I imagined tearing my own hair out as I typed and then tore up pages day after day. Now I realize those years are spent having jobs, dropping the project to try a new novel, picking it back up again, moving to Spain to hunt down your evil doppelganger, starting the book from scratch, and so on. What was the process like for you? How long did it take from inspiration to finished draft? Were their other books you started and put aside during that time?
JF: I spent many years not writing. Probably about six years. Sometimes writers gasp when I tell them that, but I have to tell the truth! When my first novel was rejected by practically every editor in NYC in 2002, I stopped writing for at least a year. Then I wrote here and there — resulting in about three half-novels over the course of five years. I was terribly unkind to myself and probably called myself a failure 100 times. I wish I had been nicer to myself, and more patient. I had a dozen one-night stands with brilliant novel ideas, staying up all night writing, only to wake up in the morning and realize the ideas were nowhere as hot as I’d imagined they were. I’ve always been a fast writer, so I can churn out thousands of words a day, which means my revision process is probably longer than most novelists, but I was producing pages and pages of writing all those years, but none of it “stuck.”
In 2011, when my second child turned 2, I told myself I’d give one more try at “being a writer.” I was going to write a damn novel or quit beating myself up for not writing a novel. I doubled my babysitting hours (nothing like paying a sitter to recharge your motivation), rejoined the Writer’s Space, and gave myself one goal — finish a book, any book. I wrote Cutting Teeth in nine months and realized I’d actually been busy “being a writer” for the previous 10 years, and that didn’t always mean writing every day, but thinking, observing and teaching, always with a writer’s perspective. I revised the novel at least five times over the following six months and then sent it out to agents.
I did do a lot of note-taking and outlining in the early stages, and I also created a document for every character with lists of their habits, flaws, secrets, fears, desires, memories — each was at least 20 pages long by the time I finished the book. The 10 years I spent teaching many writing workshops before writing Cutting Teeth was essential in allowing me to write the book so quickly, especially the years of novel-writing workshops I taught, and the many novels (my students’) I edited.
AG: I can really relate. I used to not quite believe writers who claimed to have taken so long to finish a book. I thought that they were just trying to make themselves sound serious or something, and I was determined not to let that happen to me. That’s why I plotted my book so carefully — I thought it would keep me on track.
But for a lot of my novel’s gestation period, I was hardly even working on it. I’d get a new job, which happened a couple of times, and I’d be so swamped in the beginning, working 60 or 70 hours a week, that months might pass when I’d be lucky to write for 15 or 20 minutes a day. A few times, I was able to save up a little money and take some time away from full-time work, and I got a lot more done during those periods. For the first of these, I put all my stuff in storage and left Brooklyn for Asheville, N.C., where I wrote in almost total seclusion for nearly eight months. I was convinced that I’d finish the book. I was very, very wrong. But I did finish the first draft.
In the end, I did four big drafts, each of which took about six months, but spread out over several years. I got feedback from different trusted readers after each iteration. I kept hoping they’d say it was done. That never really happened. But there came a point when I knew that if I didn’t just go ahead and send it out to some agents, I never would.
DF: The publication history of Made to Break is somewhat atypical because it took 16 years to see print. I wrote the first draft in a fury, in the summer after my first year of grad school, in 1998. For reasons I won’t get into here, I encountered an obstacle in the following autumn that prevented my working on it further, so I put the book aside and returned to the collections of stories and poems I’d been working on in the spring before Made to Break. After grad school, I set into another novel and finished it, and then into another project after that. In the worthlessness and despair I’m usually hounded by when I complete something big, I brought out the manuscript for Made to Break and hacked at it some until I found the inspiration for another project. This pattern has repeated until I sold the book at the end of 2012. It wasn’t really until Two Dollar Radio had acquired the work, and I realized that it would shortly be in the world, that I really set into it with any sustained attention. So if I had to say how much time I’ve put into the thing, all told, it would probably amount to something like nine months to a year.
SC: I am not one of those people with a novel in the drawer. I have such great respect for them because that takes not only determination but also a mature sense of the world and one’s own ambition. From the beginning, this novel felt like all I had to offer, only this, just this. Sometimes it seemed, while writing, like there was a gun to my head. I had to make this work, wrestle it down to the ground, or fail. It was not a rational act, and all of it took about six years (high-five, Alena), during which I tended bar, went to a writing program, got a respectable job in publishing, got married, and convinced my generous wife to let me quit that job and finish the book.
Writers always get asked about their literary influences, but can I ask you what other things (films, paintings, conversation you overheard in a bar, whatever) influenced the novel?
JF: I love this question. You are so right — we hear so much about literary influences, but so little about others. The internet, and the way in which we use it to create relationships that can feel simultaneously intimate and distant, was a big influence on Cutting Teeth from the very beginning. My characters are just as lonely as the next person, despite the fact that they are often surrounded by friends, family, and their children. Their actions are driven by the secrets they feel compelled to hide from each other, even from their loved ones and closest friends, and so they turn to the anonymous chat forums and message boards to release their fears, and to fulfill their needs. If you’d have told me 10 (or even five) years ago, that I’d write a novel that included a variety of forms of the internet in its pages, including message boards, texts, fertility site forum chats, emails, and more, I’d have laughed. But when I started writing Cutting Teeth, I knew the novel had to reflect the hyper-real consciousness of its characters and it would be inauthentic not to have that reality include the internet.
As a novelist (and an insomniac who spends much of each night watching TV and knitting), I’ve been influenced by television series, especially in terms of structure. I’ve learned so much about the architecture of novels from watching many episodes of a series back to back, particularly technical choices such as order of information, using a timeframe, revelation of a situation, the “arc” of a conflict. Some of my favorites are The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Shield, Battlestar Galactica, and pretty much every British cop show on Netflix. Although those shows have little (maybe nothing?) in common with my novel, they were incredible tools in learning how to craft a long narrative.
SC: This is a great question, and an important one, as far as I’m concerned. I think of writing as a conversation between me and something, or someone else. It’s an occasion for call and response. For High as the Horses’ Bridles it was lots of things: What is it about certain sentences or even word choices from, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Don DeLillo, Elizabeth Bishop, or Revelation, that I respond to so strongly? What is it within the mournful woodsy waltzes of The Dirty Three, or the abstract guitar soundscapes of Nels Cline and Devin Sarno that take me elsewhere, outside myself? How do they work? I spend a lot of time considering the physical character of the landscape I’m writing about. What might the different trees of Queens, Southern California, or Woodford, Kentucky, suggest about the respective people who live there among them? Place is important. I try and let it guide me as much as possible, both the places I’m writing about and where I’m actually writing. It’s my way of acknowledging the sanctity of the corporeal world. Now that I think about it, the whole book’s pretty much about that.
DF: Oh, man, that’s a tough one, because I wrote the book so long ago. I think at the time I was watching a lot of Fellini, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, and, among some others, this very, very cool cat Tarantino has ripped off so blatantly it’s hard to believe he can step out the door with a straight face, Seijun Suzuki, who did these truly gobsmacking flicks about the yakuza, Youth of the Beast and Branded to Kill in particular being my favorites. There were others, definitely, but those are the ones that stand out now. Music pervades Made to Break, too — its working title was for a long time Mud Song, and I’d conceived of it from the start as a score in prose. There are nearly 60 songs or references to songs and dances and bands in the book, most of which I’d say were in some form or other influences at the time. It wasn’t just stuff I was actively listening to, but all of the stuff in the air about me, including, for instance, soundtrack stuff from the films I was into. But they range from, say, Soundgarden, whose album Superunknown is the book’s aural nerve center, to Iggy Pop to Jelly Roll Morton to James Brown, Johnny Cash, and Fellini’s principal composer, Nino Rota. As for painters and painting, I didn’t know much about it back then, but since one of the characters in the book is a painter manqué, the narrator refers to guys like Winslow Homer and Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley. I do appreciate their stuff, but I wasn’t dropping my pants for them. As I recall, I was into Edward Hopper at the time — I still am — but also a lot of the surrealists and Dadaists and German Expressionists — Duchamp and Max Beckman and Otto Dix and them — and then too, midcentury guys like Rothko and Twombly, and pop artists such as Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein and even Warhol, whom, I have to say, I’ve since solemnly renounced. These are the painters that were in my head back then, the ones I’d spend the most time in front of at the museum. But now that I think about it, actually, I have to admit that these guys were a lot more influential on me than I knew, not overtly, but surreptitiously. The way they approached their respective subject matter, their compositional perspectives and moods, things like this, I can say, have over time deeply impacted my own views and work.
AG: I thought about the book for so long that I gathered a whole messy, sparkling nest of influences. Beijing internet cafes. The charred remains of my books and laptop after the house I lived in during my last year of college burned down. Lots of print and digital dictionaries, and visits to the OED’s Oxford and New York offices. Learning how to break a board with my bare foot when I was 12, inspired by my mom, who’s a black belt in karate. Late nights in grotty bars, including a few near Port Authority. Things I heard friends say — a lot of the dialogue comes from life. Reading and scribbling things at the Mercantile Library on 47th Street. Buster Keaton movies. Tavi Gevinson’s fashion sensibilities. Neil Young. The Avengers and The Only Ones. The haunting classical music piece “Spiegel im Spiegel.” The art of Gerhard Richter, Vija Celmins, Kiki Smith, Ed Ruscha. Every technological device that I could get my hands on. The internet. New developments in artificial intelligence, machine-human interfaces, and biological computing. Scramble with Friends. And candy. So much candy. Even Good & Plenties.
How has your engagement with the “literary world” (defined however you want) helped or hindered your writing?
AG: I’ve had a lot of literary jobs (or “jobs” — several were without pay). And I think it really helped in a lot of ways. For one thing, I knew exactly what to expect at every stage, and I understood the significance of everything that happened (or didn’t) along the way. It’s occasionally been sort of difficult for the same reasons. Knowing how sausage is made, even if you’re trying to make sausage, can sometimes be alienating.
But by far the most wonderful thing about being connected to a literary community is the same thing that’s great about being part of any community: the cheap Chardonnay. Also the people. Nearly everyone who’s part of this small, maybe moribund world, is pretty amazing: passionate, brilliant, a little crazy. (You can sort of assume that they’re doing what they’re doing for interesting reasons, because they’re definitely not in it for the money.)
All the incredible writers and readers I know have made my own writing, and my life, so much better, and richer in a different kind of way. They’ve offered encouragement and critique by turns, depending on what’s needed, sometimes let me sleep on their sofas, and most of all, they’ve helped me stay inspired, by making their own work, and living the lives they lead.
DF: For the longest time after I left school I was a stubborn lone wolf. I learned all manner of things in school, but generally speaking I have to say I didn’t care for the ways different forces tried to manipulate me, so I defected, as it were, from the scenes I was in. But years went by and nothing happened, until in the spring of 2012 I had a revelation whose gist was that if I didn’t stop what I was doing — immediately — I’d fail. I’ve always used the interwebs extensively, but somehow till then I really disdained social media, and that was the crux of my repentance. In short, I ditched my reservations and judgments and went online full force. I set up a website and used that as a platform for these essays I wanted to write, the best thing I could ever have done, because a bunch of them were published almost immediately. I got on Facebook too and on Tumblr and Twitter, and before the year was out I’d sold my book. That no doubt opened other doors. The sale basically gave me the right to enter the room, so to speak, which I did. And now, surprisingly, to me at any rate, I have a pretty darn big community of writers. For instance, though I hadn’t known Alena till now — hi Alena! — I’m friends with both Julia and Scott, and they’re just of few of the huge bunch of people I engage pretty much on a daily basis. While it’s nothing much like the communities I once had, it’s certainly a community I’m deeply grateful for, because more than anything else, it’s a community that offers to its members strong mutual support. I can’t stress enough how important it was to’ve decided to turn around that summer. In a very fundamental sense, it changed everything in the best possible way.
SC: I go back and forth on what I understand the literary world to be. There are the launches, the book parties, and the readings, and without those I wouldn’t have made a lot of the good friends I have now, or probably ever get to see them otherwise. It feels like one vast and amorphous moveable feast (lame book pun), and I’m happy to have a place at the table. But I’m especially happy that it’s so open and welcoming to everyone, and is not at all the “cool kids party” I used to imagine. If you love books, there are endless events, and all of them bursting with people excited to have you there. That said, if you spend too much time feasting, you’re not spending enough time reading or writing. Plus there are the hangovers. Because, my lord, book people can drink.
On the other hand, the “literary world” is also the long days I spend at The Housing Works Bookstore Café, reading, and taking notes, or writing, and finding myself in quiet lovely conversations with the interesting people who flit in and out of there. Or it’s the late nights I spend at the amazing Brazenhead bookstore where its proprietor, and legendary bookseller, Michael, holds court, telling stories of old New York, while smoking and sipping on whiskey. Or it’s bitching on the phone with my buddy Alex, a super writer, about trivial stuff, just so we can avoid doing any real work. You have to be balanced. It all helps. It all hinders.
JF: I agree wholeheartedly with Alena — it’s the collective “craziness” (a harmless enough form of insanity) that has been a source of support and inspiration for me in the past 10 years. It takes a big dose of delusional motivation to convince yourself you can create an imaginary world, populated by imaginary characters, and deliver it in a seamless way so that a reader — a stranger — buys it all as REAL. When you are surrounded by people who not only love this delusion, but don’t even see it as implausible, it reminds you that anything is possible. If it — the story, novel, scene, epiphany — works, it works.
Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction of which Jonathan Lethem is a contributor. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.
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