Is it me or does it seem like debut novelists get asked the same questions over and over? Not that there’s anything wrong with that—but I thought I’d mix it up and ask some of our own Grub Street/Novel Incubator stars (and a surprise guest!) to answer a few typical but oddly-phrased questions about their debut novels. A gracious bunch, they obliged. So I’m pleased to tell you (in not-quite alphabetical order) about the wisdom gathered from:
Jenna Blum (JB) Those Who Save Us (2005). In Minnesota, a middle-aged daughter explores her secretive German mother’s wartime past. Followed by The Storm Chasers (2011) and The Lost Family (Spring, 2018) http://jennablum.com/
Stephanie Gayle (SG) My Summer of Southern Discomfort (2007) A liberal New York lawyer transplanted to Macon, Georgia, has to prove her mettle in and out the courtroom. Followed by the Thomas Lynch series, Idyll Threats (2015) and Idyll Fears, launched in September, 2017. http://stephaniegayle.com/
E.B. Moore (EBM) An Unseemly Wife (2014). In 1867, a formidable Amish woman and her family leave their community to travel westward to Idaho. Followed by Stones In the Road (2015). http://ebmoore.net/index.html
Emily Ross (ER) Half in Love With Death (2016) A YA thriller set in 1960s Arizona, inspired by a true story. http://www.emilyrosswrites.com/
Jennie Wood (JW) A Boy Like Me (2014) A transgender teen must stand up for himself or lose the woman he loves. Preceded and followed by a graphic novel series, Flutter, Volumes 1-3. http://jenniewood.com/
And, for fun (and gender balance) I reached out to Pulitzer-Kafka-PEN Faulkner-Man Booker prize winner, perennial Nobel Prize bridesmaid and Grubbie wannabe, Philip Roth.(PR). (Can you spot him in his prom pic?) Phil’s first novel, Goodbye, Columbus appeared in 1959. Fifty three years later, he announced he had written his last novel because he didn’t want to “struggle” anymore. (Please. As if making something up that total strangers are willing to pay to read is so hard.)
THE SURVEY QUESTIONS
1.So, from blinking cursor on a blank screen to final edits, how long did it take to write your debut novel? (Please deduct time for pointless web-surfing and periods of deep self-loathing.)
JB: Three years, ten if you count research.
SG: About three years.
EM: Since pointless surfing and self-loathing are an integral part of writing…I have to include it. So altogether from linked poems to prose—ten years.
ER: Seven years from start to finish. But I averaged about 8 hours a week, so in actual time, one year.
JW: Four years from research to publication.
PR: [No response] But—but—here are his stats: from 1959 to 2010, thirty one novels. So 51/31=1.645 novels per year. Clearly, there’s a big advantage growing up in Newark. Huge.
2. Do you agree that some Darlings refuse to die, even when you thought you drove a stake through their gorgeous, seductive hearts? Did they turn up poorly disguised in your next manuscript?
JB: Novel ideas refuse to die. See my website where they appear as Director’s Cuts.
SG: My darlings stay dead. I’m the Van Helsing of manuscript darlings.
EM: I have to trick them and tell them I’m finding them another home…see my orphan file.
ER: You may strike them down but they rise again… because they are deeply connected to your subconscious…Like many killers, I felt nothing.
JW: I can’t seem to write anything that doesn’t include Cheerwine, musicians and basketball. And I’m OK with that.
PR: [No answer.] But Phil did tell an interviewer that he grew weary of writing five [!] pages and having to throw them out the next day. Poor fella.
3. In the arthouse hit/blockbuster motion picture adaptation of your debut novel, which actor, living or dead should play the lead? C’mon you know you’ve thought of someone. (Note: I’ve already claimed Julianne Moore, so she’s unavailable—sorry.)
JB: For debut (15 years ago) Alec Baldwin. For The Lost Family (Spring,2018) Jon Hamm.
SG: Billy Eichner. I’m not casting a dead actor! Talk about flat affect.
EM: Meryl Streep, though I gather that having a book turned into a movie isn’t the constant bliss we all imagine. This is comforting since movie producers aren’t pounding down my door.
ER: Shipka Kieran (Sally Draper from Mad Men). She really rocked those sixties fashions.
JW: I would love a transgender actor to be cast in the title role.
PR: [No response]. Um, Phil is possibly being modest here, though some would say that’s unlikely. His debut was made into a movie with Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw. If you haven’t seen it, watch for the decapitation of the chopped liver swan.
4. The most memorable comment made by a relative about your novel when it was far too late?
JB: “I just remembered where your dad wanted to be scattered.” That doesn’t pertain to my novels, but it was certainly memorable. And too late.
SG: My Dad astutely observed that he thought the next door neighbor in my first novel was going to die, and I gasped because the neighbor had died, in earlier drafts.
EM: The comment I liked best came from stranger who picked up my book thinking it was part of the Amish genre of sexless romances. She returned it to the publisher saying, “Ruth (my Amish protagonist) enjoyed sex too much.” This book was based on my grandmother’s life so this was no Fifty Shades of Gray description.
ER: A certain relative suggested it would be interesting if my novel ended with an aerial view of bones being dug up in the desert. I actually really liked this suggestion but it was too late, the novel was already in copy edit phase.
PR: [Only crickets from Phil, alas] However, he did once recount that just before his debut’s launch, he took his parents out for lunch in Manhattan and told them to be prepared, that he and the book were going to get a lot of attention. His mother sobbed all the way home and told her husband that their son was delusional.
5. Is there any rarely-given but highly practical advice you can offer to those still awaiting their debut? Like—sunscreen/no sunscreen?
JB: “Never give in. Never give in. Never give in.”—Winston Churchill. Also—get off social media until you’ve written. Your Book Before Facebook.
SG: Read tons of books, both within and outside your literary tidal pool.
EB: If you write outdoors, definitely use sunscreen, you want to live to see your book come out. Other than that, just keep at it, you never know when your lucky day will hit, and there’s a lot of luck involved.
ER: If you are writing something and think you can’t go there, that often mean that is exactly where you have to go. Push your characters to go into dark alleys that frighten you. Make things hard for your characters and then make them harder.
JW: Celebrate ALL of the milestones—big and small. Mark every occasion, every draft revision you complete, every round of submissions, of hitting send to agents and/or editors. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive, but it’s so important to mark each milestone.
PR: [Reader, I think we can all agree that the Grubbies above answered these questions with heart, humor and succinct sagacity. But Phil really cut loose here, went on and on, page after page. Nevertheless, the tyrannical editors (beasts!) of this blog insisted I take a machete to it, so below is what remains.]
Well, since you brought it up, and I’m out of the fiction racket, who the hell am I saving this for? Those withholding clowns in Stockholm? I don’t think so. So, OK. I’m only saying this once. For the last fifty years, every morning, I faithfully put on sunscreen, exactly fifteen minutes before I entered my studio. (SPF 30—no more than that, trust me, unless you want to write like Nicholas Sparks.) Don’t skimp and get every goddamn nook and cranny, understand? Then you want to re-apply every ten thousand words or so. I think of it as my Special Sauce, an insider tip I picked up from Joyce Carol Oates—interesting, right? Ed Doctorow swore by it, too, used it as coffee whitener. Yeah, I know, Crazy Eddie. But I’m telling you, that Pulitzer? The Franz Kafka prize? Got the magic goo all over them.
Now can I have that Grub Street tote bag you promised?