Louie Cronin’s debut novel, Everyone Loves You Back, is a coming-of-middle-age novel that explores the comedy and tragedy that occur when competing economic classes collide in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her manuscript won the 2015 Molly Ivors Fiction Prize from Gorsky Press in LA, leading to the novel’s publication. Cronin is a native Cantabrigian. Her father owned the Harvard Square restaurant Cronin’s, founded by her grandfather in 1910.
Cronin’s fiction and essays have been published in Compass Rose, The Princeton Arts Review, Long Island Newsday, The Boston Globe Magazine, and on PRI.org. Her short stories were finalists for both Glimmer Train and New Millennium Writings awards. Cronin has been awarded residencies at the Ragdale Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Currently she works as a technical director for PRI’s The World and lives in Jamaica Plain with her husband, the sculptor James Wright.
Dead Darlings: Where did you learn to write fiction?
I started writing when I was living in New York, studied with the poet Ruth Danon, and was in her fiction workshop. I also took a lot of adult ed. writing courses in New York and Cambridge and then several courses at Harvard, before applying to grad school.
I was accepted to the University of Montana MFA program and went out to Missoula to find an apartment. But when I got there I felt the most profound sense of dislocation. The streets were too wide, the buildings too low, the hills too high, and the houses too close together. I called my sister and told her I made a huge mistake. “Well, click your heels, Dorothy,” she said, “and come back home!”
So, I came back to Cambridge, waited another two years, and went to Boston University. I got my MFA in my 40s. When it ended, I was so broke I had to go right back to work. I started freelancing at WBUR while I was in grad school and then stayed on full time in public radio for the next 15 years!
Dead Darlings: You were working full-time at NPR’s Car Talk while writing this novel. What are the pitfalls and benefits of working a day job while trying to write and get published?
Where do I start? So many pitfalls! I am not one of those people who can get up a 4 am and write before work. And I am too tired after work to get much done. So I survived by being in a wonderful writing group and going away to writers’ colonies. Every time I came back from a colony I’d beg the guys at Car Talk to let me work part time. Finally they gave in and let me take Fridays off and that’s how I wrote the novel.
The benefit to working full time, which honestly took me a long time to appreciate, is that it gave me so much material. I didn’t set out to write a novel about radio. I set out to write a novel about Cambridge, but I had to give the main character a job so I gave him what I knew, the world of radio.
Another pitfall to working full time in radio, which I really felt when I started working at The World, is that it’s so exciting, you want to throw yourself into it, be part of the team, put on a show. But the writer in you has to hold back. It’s a really hard balance to strike.
Dead Darlings: Okay, so we can’t resist…were Tom and Ray Magliozzi as funny and awesome to work with as we like to think? Is it true that you were known as Louie Cronin “The Barbarian,” and wrote the funny names and fake funding credits that ran at the end of each show?
Yes, Tom and Ray were just as funny as they sound, if not funnier, great to work with, and incredibly kind. Every time I saw them I started laughing. At first, I kept looking for their downsides. They seemed too good to be true. But they are who they seem to be. I love them both, although sadly Tom is now gone.
And yes, I wrote funny names and funding credits and other material for the show. My first week on the job I found Pikup Andropov (a listener sent in that suggestion) and I knew it would be all downhill from there! But I am also proud of the Payne-Diaz family — Sasha, Jaime, Royal, Bjorn A, Zbigniew. It goes on and on. We milked that joke for weeks.
Writing for Car Talk was fun, but also very demanding. At first, I couldn’t write my own fiction because it used all my creative juices to come up with those jokes. But I was there for 10 years and eventually had to figure out how to do both, because I need to write fiction to stay sane.
Dead Darlings: The voice of your main character, the grumpy night shift radio engineer who never sleeps, Bob Boland, carries us through the book. But the city of Cambridge itself is also a major character in the story. Which came to you first, Bob’s voice, the Cambridge setting, or the plot?
Bob’s voice came to me first, specifically in the rant that opens the book. But the rant is about Cambridge, so that was there from the beginning too. I discovered the plot as I wrote the book, and then re-imagined parts of it in the rewrite. I grew up in Cambridge, and then lived there for almost 20 years as an adult, so I had a lot of personal history, local anecdotes, and news stories to borrow from.
Dead Darlings: It took you five years to get your book published. What was that process like? What finally turned the tide for you? What advice do you have about pitching, writing query letters, and rejection?
The process was like death by a thousand cuts. After five years, I was so used to rejection that when I saw the initial email from my publisher, Gorsky Press, my heart sank. The subject line read, Re: your novel submission. I had gotten so many rejections that started exactly like that. It was a Sunday night and I debated whether or not to open it. I didn’t want to start my week that way.
I had gone the traditional route. I had a great agent, who submitted to all the major publishers, and then to smaller and smaller houses. Mostly I got positive feedback, especially from the big publishing houses, but their reasons for not taking the book were contradictory. It was too quiet, too humorous, not funny enough, not believable, too real, too commercial, too literary.
But I had some really good writer friends, especially from my writing group, who believed in the book and encouraged me to keep trying. I started submitting on my own, to small presses and contests, and after a lot more rejection, won the Molly Ivors Fiction Award from Gorsky Press, judged by those college students I mentioned above.
A writer friend commented recently that my manuscript must have changed a lot during those five long years, but truth is, it didn’t. It’s basically the exact same book, with a few tweaks and a different title!
So my advice is to have good writer friends and listen when they tell you not to give up.
Dead Darlings: You were over 50 when you published your debut novel. Does age matter? What advice do you have for those of us who might have come late to fiction, still plugging away in middle age at our first book?
My advice is this: there is no turning back time; you are only going to get older. So keep looking forward and get the book written. I mean the odds are against all of us, young or old, MFA-trained or well-connected Brooklynite, wealthy or broke, male or female. I used to worry that I was too old, that the people reading my submissions were 20-somethings who would never relate to middle-aged characters, but the readers who chose my manuscript were college students!
Dead Darlings: Are you working on your next novel? Can you tell us about it?
Yes, I am working on my second novel. I am a little superstitious about talking about it, but I can say this: it’s got a lot of workplace intrigue, ill-advised romance, and it’s told from several points of view, a style I always disliked, until I started doing it, and now I am having a lot of fun with it.