A Decade in the Literary Wilderness: A Conversation

September 27, 2016 | 7 books mentioned 16 min read


Emily Barton, Alexander Chee, and I all published new novels this year: The Book of Esther, The Queen of the Night, and The Good Lieutenant, respectively. None of us had published anything in 10 years or more. Working so long on a book is a scary proposition in the supposedly “fast-paced” media culture of the 21st century. But it happens more often than one might think. The three of us sat down to share strategies and retrace our steps in the hope that our experiences might provide a practical map  —  or at least give some hope  —  to other writers engaged in a long work. Here are our notes on a decade in the literary wilderness.

Whitney Terrell

Whitney Terrell: What was the moment when you came closest to giving up on your book? Why didn’t you?

coverEmily Barton: I sent my agent an early, complete draft of the book to read in the summer of 2011, and he said he had some comments. So one morning in Brooklyn, on alternate-side-of-the-street-parking day, I took my phone, a notebook, and a pen into the car. I called him up and sat by the side of Prospect Place for an hour, listening to his thoughts. As always, he was an astute and generous reader; but it was an early draft and it had raised many questions for him. I understood his questions, yet at the time I didn’t know how to answer them or forestall them for other readers. So I took a break to think about what to do. As it turned out, that break ended up lasting quite a while. One day after 13 or 14 months of thinking, I at last had a good enough idea about how to address those questions. I felt confident I could sit down and work on the book. It did seem like a long fallow period, though. I never thought I had given up on the book, but it was a long stretch of quiet.

coverWT:  It’s interesting to me that Emily describes the 13 or 14 months she took off after talking to her agent as quiet. I finished a complete draft in the spring of 2011, turned it in to the publisher of my first two books, and they passed. The period after that was, for me, exactly the opposite of quiet, at least inside my head. I went into a sort of manic recovery mode. There were five or six or seven different “plans” for fixing the book over the next year  —  each was, in retrospect, fairly desperate and ill-considered, sort of like a play that I was drawing up in the dirt. I remember long, long, long phone calls with very patient friends just jabbering on and on about how I was going to fix the book. Or how I wouldn’t and was doomed. When I wasn’t talking to friends, this dialogue would be internal. It felt like I had a television playing inside my head and I couldn’t figure out how to get quiet. It seems obvious now that these were panic attacks.

But I didn’t know that at the time. Or that one shouldn’t be having panic attacks all day while you write. I wanted to quit the book on a daily basis during this period, because when you’re having a panic attack, you’ll do anything to get it to stop.

coverAlexander Chee: As the years went by at first I was calm. Having studied with writers like Marilynne Robinson, James Alan McPherson, Frank Conroy, who had taken over a decade each with some of their books, I thought I was fine. But they had tenure. In my case I had chosen a visiting writer life and I was very aware every year that I didn’t finish the book how it affected my ability to get a new job, get a grant, etc. I had this feeling, whether or not it was real, that every year was a decline. The darkest part of the writing of the novel was 2012, in the winter, when I was in Leipzig and it seemed like my mom’s health was in trouble, and that she was starting to lose her memory.

It was also just a lonely dark winter in Germany, the darkest winter in their recorded history. The sun came out in Berlin at one point, my friends there said, and people screamed because it had been so long. I really enjoyed being at Leipzig in a lot of ways, but I was having this feeling of just failing the novel, failing myself, failing my family, failing my partner who was tired of feeling a widow to the book. Every month I wasn’t done seemed like a sort of horrible affirmation of my own failures as a person and as a writer. And then every problem in the manuscript became a problem with my life. The feeling of total failure drove me into kind of excessive work on it that was not to its benefit. I was working on it all of my free time. And it was making my partner feel crazy that he had this person who was both in his life and not in his life. And so I did imagine that winter what it would be like to be free of it. To just stop and write something easier.

WT: I had a period like that. It was also the summer that I had to start using glasses for the first time because I just burned my eyes out, reading stuff obsessively, not a healthy way of working. I wasn’t really making any progress either.

EB: Is the fact that I don’t do that a gender difference? I am really unable. I’m the mom of two little kids who need me so badly. No matter how deep I am in work, I just have to turn off at 4:30. Except for this magical two weeks when I went to Yaddo, when my older son was about two and a half — and I did spend the first two days crying because I missed him so much — which allowed me to finish the first draft of this novel. Other than that, I go get the kids and I cook them dinner and I’m their mother for the rest of the day; I’m their mother until their lunches are packed and their teeth are brushed and they’ve been taken to their school and daycare in the morning. I envy that feeling of total concentration, and at the same time I feel that I get to hold on to this little piece of my sanity because I don’t have it. I am always aware that there’s another option besides obsessive work. Writing my first book when I was young and single, I could disappear into my apartment for two weeks, and who even knew where I was? That’s not the case anymore.

AC: That makes sense. I’m thinking of my friend Sabina Murray who is in a similar situation as a working writer and professor and a mom who, she just writes whenever she has time and is completely un-neurotic about it and has been incredibly productive that way. I’ve been allowed this kind of neurotic obsession essentially because I’m a man, because I don’t have kids. And I don’t think it is even to my benefit.

WT: That’s an interesting question. Like Emily, the day ends for me when the kids come home from school and then there’s dinner and screwing around and then putting them to bed. But I just felt like I wasn’t present for those moments even if I was physically there. I was kind of like mentally sick, thinking about the book all the time instead. Even if I was with them, I wasn’t about to detach in a helpful way. It sounds like you were able to do that.

EB: I walk away. I put it to bed. And at the end of the day, I leave myself notes in brackets for whatever I’m working on: plans for what I’ll do the next day. If I don’t do that, when I come back in the morning, I have no memory at all of what I was thinking I’d do. I’ve gone to another world, which is the real world.

WT: I would like to have that ability. I think that sounds like a nice ability to have.

Were there changes in your life  —  in terms of time, work, personal life, writing itself  — that made the work on this book different than previous books?

AC: The first big change was that when my first novel appeared, I was an untested nobody, a debut author. The first novel took two years to find someone to buy it. Queen of the Night sold in nine days as a partial in 2005, so I wrote it with advance money as well as two grants, the Whiting and the NEA, and many residencies, so it was really different in just about every respect. I also had the anxiety of failing to live up to readers and critics in a new way. It is why that second novel can be so hard to write. You get all of these people in your head.

And the second change was when I partnered with Dustin. When he and I got together, I had to stop being that person who just woke up and wrote and was home all day alone. Suddenly someone was there. Luckily Dustin doesn’t like to talk in the morning. And he’ll also sleep in later than me. That sort of works to my advantage in that sense. But definitely, even though I was still really obsessive, I was still making space for a person in this way that was entirely new to my life and my writing life. And I don’t think I would have made it without his love and support.

EB: So much changed during those years. I got married. We moved five times. We had two children; both difficult pregnancies, and then of course once that period ends, if you are fortunate you have a child: infancy, nursing, sleep deprivation, daycare (or lack thereof), school, activities, challenges. I’ve also been working as a fancy adjunct during this time period. This means I’ve been fortunate to be teaching at good programs, but always on contingent contracts, with no job security. So during the 10 years since my last book appeared, I’ve taught at six schools. The farthest was a four-and-a-half-hour drive from my house; for five years, I drove two-and-a-half hours each way once or twice a week. Sometimes I’ve taught at three schools concurrently: managed those commutes (and non-intersecting academic calendars; and overlapping service responsibilities at all the institutions) while managing the kids and/or a difficult pregnancy; and then also scrounging up time to write. To me, the wonder is that I managed to write any book at all under these circumstances. I require stretches of uninterrupted time to manage the arc of character and story. What’s changed is that it’s become more difficult to find the time to fulfill those kinds of ambitions.

coverWT: My wife and I had our first child just a few months before I published my last novel The King of Kings County, in August of 2005. I’d say for the next three or four years after he was born, I wasn’t really serious about writing. I was enjoying having a child. I’d also been really chained to Kansas City during those first two books. I’d been really broke most of the time. But I had a slightly better job then and my wife had an actual legitimate job, with health care, as a professor. We spent a summer in New York. I was accepted for a fellowship. We met new people, made new friends. I was no longer “alone” as a writer. Now I was part of a group of three, and then a group of four, when our second son was born in 2010.

But in the end, finally, the only way I finished the book out was to resort to obsessive, isolating work habits that were extremely difficult for both my wife and my kids. In other words, people get in the way of writing, dang it.

AC: If only we could just be brains in a jar of fluid with electricity shooting through it.

What was the greatest benefit to spending 10 years writing a book?

WT: For me, there really wasn’t a benefit. I mean, I don’t really see how things wouldn’t have been better if I’d just written the book more quickly. That said, the friendships I relied on when I was really in trouble and worried are the best thing to come out of this period. I’d always imagined that if I admitted that I was having trouble with a book, other writers would turn away and avert their gaze. They’d be embarrassed for me. They might feel sorry for me. But they would also (so I feared) sort of edge me out of the circle of writers. Not consciously or maliciously. But simply because any real writer wouldn’t be having trouble like this. I’d be marked as unfit in some way.

coverBut instead, many writers I talked to  —  once I started being honest about how much I was struggling with my book  — told me that they, too, had had exactly the same experience. For instance, Margot Livesey. She’d been my professor back in graduate school in 1993. At the time, she’d seemed to me so . . . collected. Powerful. In control. But she told me that actually, at that time, she’d been working on a book that would eventually become Eva Moves the Furniture. And she’d been at a loss over how to write that book and would not in fact publish it until 2001, having worked on it for some 12 years. It was also helpful to know that, despite this long gestation, it turned out to be a stunning book.

And she is just one example. This isn’t something that you hear discussed or praised much these days, but other writers do support each other. Their community is real and valuable. I wouldn’t have made it through this book without them.

AC: I remember my agent said something like, “Maybe we’ll be able to fix publishing by the time your second book comes.” [general laughter] I know, right? For me the only benefit was that I had built up this online presence, a social media presence, that I think helped in the selling and promotion of the novel — by which I mean a dedicated and supportive audience on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, Instagram — all those things that I was doing, starting circa 2004 and on, things that people assured me we’re just a waste of time. I never really believed them despite much ambivalence. It’s true, it wasn’t the same as only working on a novel, but it definitely helped create an infrastructure for the novel to appear inside of. That eventually meant  I had an audience that had been following me along the way in the writing of the novel, and I’m very grateful to those readers.

Otherwise I would say, in just about every other respect, I started saying about a year ago that it wasn’t worth it to spend that much time on the novel — that it would never be worth it. All the ruined family vacations, all the missed time with my mother and my partner, my nieces and nephews who grew up with me essentially a silent figure in the family’s background. But I am thinking that way less now.

EB:  I didn’t spend 10 years on this book, exactly. Four of those years, I was working on a different book. About six years ago, I “took a break” from it to write this one. So in some ways it feels to me as if I spent a perfectly normal amount of time writing the book, even though I’m aware it may not look that way to other people.

coverThe benefit to having 10 years between Brookland and The Book of Esther — and I agree with you, Whit, that things might have been better in many ways if I’d written it more quickly — is my increased maturity as a writer and as human being. The book as I’ve written it now reflects a kind of nuance that it couldn’t have 10 years ago. Also, I’ve been teaching all that time, which means I’ve worked with many and diverse young writers. I’ve come to understand their ambitions, collaborated with them to find solutions to problems that arise . . . and those aims, and the difficulties those writers face, can differ from my own. So my students have broadened my perspective, given me more tools for my toolkit, raised questions I myself might never have asked.

WT: A number of technological milestones occurred during, or just before, the time we spent writing these books: in 2004 Google went public and Facebook was launched, in 2006 Twitter was created, in 2007 the first iPhone went on sale. Now that we’ve all released our books, how did technology change the process of introducing them to the public? What’s different between this time and the last time that you had a book out?

EB: One thing that’s different is the decline of the newspaper as a regional news source. When each of us had a last book published, there were more numerous vibrant, powerful regional news sources; and now that Clear Channel has corporatized radio, there are fewer local talk shows on the radio. Ten years ago, when you were touring, the local paper would write a piece about your book, and you’d talk to the local radio host to gather interest for your event. I’m lucky to live in a place where we have great local news and talk radio, yet these have become more the exception than the norm.

AC: The first thing I thought of was of how, in the cover approval process, the cover has to look good as a thumbnail and so does your author photo. I think we’re in a really funny place with e-books where, I don’t know if e-books have supplanted anyone’s books, it seems to me readers are a very specific kind: the people who read paperbacks don’t usually buy hardbacks and vice versa and I feel like e-books brought in, actually, new readers who only wanted to read e-books — so often men would say this to me during the days the Kindle was blowing up: “I had stopped reading but it is so easy with e-books.” I don’t think that’s necessarily all people with e-readers, but I think for many, the convenience made a difference and brought them back.

WT: We kind of went through a cycle where e-books looked like they were going to take over and now actually print has been making a comeback over the last year or two and sales have been rising in print and flattening for e-books.

AC: My students hate e-books, they don’t want to read them. I was teaching at NYU in Florence this summer and there was a snafu and all of the books had to be e-books and the students were really upset. No one was like “Woo, e-books!”

EB: That’s funny to me. I’m a device agnostic reader. I buy hardcovers, I buy paperbacks, I check books out at the library, I’ll read them on my Kobo or my phone. It’s all good. I like to read.

AC: More is more, for me too.

EB: More is more!

AC: Even though there has been a decline in local radio stations, as Emily noted, there is something I’ve noticed with independent bookstores in these different regions. They sort of function the way those local papers did. They’re community centers and the social media presences for those local bookstores, if they have them, are quite robust. So, for example, when I’m scheduling bookstore events, it’s a plus if a bookstore has a big social media following because it makes the footprint of the event bigger. It reaches more readers than an event with no social presence at all.

WT: I noticed that too. It was neat to come into a town when you’re going to read and see that the bookstore has been tweeting about the fact that you’re going to read. That’s a completely new thing and that’s fun and cool.

EB: And the rise of great literary blogs — Maud Newton, and Ron Hogan of GalleyCat were pioneers — has helped foster community too.

AC: I wondered, Emily, this is your first year on Twitter. Are you having a reasonable good literary experience with this book?

EB: I’m having a really great literary experience with Twitter. It’s a total pleasure to be in communication with the broader community of writers on this platform. My experience with readers on it has been positive too; people tweet about my book, or tweet me questions, and I’ve been glad to engage in conversation. Also I’m entranced with the “catching up with old friends” part of it. That’s part of Facebook too, but Facebook has at a certain level devolved into various competing screeds in a way that Twitter has not.

WT: Really? I thought everyone saw Twitter as the sewer and Facebook as the friendly place.

AC: I think it all depends on your Twitter community and I do think that literary Twitter is pretty decent as a place to be. Facebook in general to me can feel like a wedding that has gone on too long. Everyone is drunk and making speeches and interrupting each other and fights are breaking out.

WT: Could you ever imagine working on something for this long again? What was the biggest discovery you made while writing the book and what was the biggest mistake?

AC: I can’t imagine spending this much time on another book. I will be 65 if I do that. I would really like to write a lot more things by the time I’m 65 than this. I have four distinct novel ideas that I would like to get accomplished by 65.

The biggest change was probably that I realized that the Franco-Prussian War had to matter as did the Paris Commune, and the Siege. There wasn’t any way around it and so the novel had to engage very seriously with war in a way I had not anticipated and I think, in my mind it changed from being a 250 page novel about opera and romances into something much bigger. The biggest surprise? That was probably the discovery of Pauline Viardot-Garcia as a character and her relationship with Ivan Turgenev and her husband Louis Viardot and the sort of odd three-way relationship they had which was very much centered on her and her genius as an artist and a teacher.

The biggest mistake I made was that at one point I did an edit that took out all the chronological jumps, I made it a chronologically direct novel and it was a huge and redundant bore.

One last fun question: did you have a favorite method of procrastination? Something you would do when you felt really anxious about the writing or needed a break from it.

WT: I’ll give you mine, which is that I have a backyard that is filled with weeds, constantly, and we don’t spray it or anything and so I sat in that yard and by hand weeded little odd bits of not-grass out of it for thousands of hours while writing this book. For some reason that was a mindless, soothing thing I could do when I was most stressed or stuck. And it’s something I’ll always associate with this book.

coverEB:  I like to tidy up my office especially, but I will, if pressed, tidy all kinds of things. In her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo espouses a particular method for folding clothes and organizing them in drawers. If I feel stressed I will go do this — I start with my own drawers, but really I’d happily do anyone’s. I could do yours. I did both of my kids’ the other day. They’re little, and they, you know, fling things at the drawers, yank them out haphazardly and shove them back in. So, I went in and folded all the pajamas and took away ones that didn’t fit anymore, put seasonally appropriate pajamas in the front and others in the back, and it was so satisfying. Also, they were both happy to see their socks in pairs, that kind of thing. I’m sure you don’t have to look too hard for the psychology of what we’re doing here. When the novel is unruly — when it exemplifies the universe’s movement toward entropy — you know that there is one form of order that you can restore things to, which is a state of weedlessness or of folded pajamas.

AC: Or make elaborate breakfasts. That’s what I did. Kimchee fried rice, with fried eggs on top. There wouldn’t be just kimchee in the fried rice there’d be bacon or hot dogs or seaweed or sweet potatoes or kale. Breakfast that took at least an hour, hour and a half to prepare start to finish.

EB: I don’t know about you guys, but my breakfast is often a triple espresso and the crusts of sandwiches children have abandoned. So Alex, I feel that that act of self-care could have great benefits for your writing day.

AC: I also make breakfast for Dustin. He likes these yogurt and oatmeal and fruit parfaits. We make them in Mason jars in advance and I’ll make him like four in advance and he’ll go through them when I’m not around. That way, if I’m busy writing and he wakes up and wants to eat. He’s terrible at making himself breakfast, so it’s a little like folding pajamas for somebody.

I often spend a lot of the day in terror of writing and needing to calm down and then I return to a place where the terror abates enough for me to do the writing, that’s why those gestures happen first.

WT: I was drinking so much coffee in the mornings and also having panic attacks that by lunchtime I would be a complete wreck. So I’d start off very optimistically and by noon I’d be like, I gotta burn everything and this is all a disaster and I’d have to go out and weed for two hours to calm down. I figured out that maybe drinking a little less coffee would be helpful.

EB: I had a moment in graduate school when I couldn’t stop shaking one day and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Then I realized I had drunk 16 cups of coffee. That was what was wrong with me.

Pressure is low late in the afternoon. If you can get all your errands done and do all the things you have to do, and if you have one hour left before you have to get the kids, you can say, “Whatever, I’ll do what I can do in an hour.”

AC: You can do so much in an hour.

EB:  You can do SO much in an hour. There’s something to that. Your time is up, so you do what you can and let go.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Emily Barton is the author of three novels: The Book of Esther (2016); Brookland (2006), which was a New York Times Notable Book; and The Testament of Yves Gundron (2000), which won the Bard Fiction Prize. Her writing has appeared in such publications as the New York Times Book Review, the Massachusetts Review, and Bookforum. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA, and she teaches at NYU. Alexander Chee is the author of The Queen of the Night (2016) and Edinburgh (2001), which won the Whiting Award. He is a contributing editor at the New Republic and his writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, and on NPR. His is a recipient of an NEA fellowship in fiction and residencies from MacDowell Colony, Ledig House, and Civitella Ranieri. He teaches at Dartmouth College. Whitney Terrell is the author of The Good Lieutenant (2016), which is long-listed for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction; The King of Kings County (2005); and The Huntsman (2001), a New York Times notable book. He was an embedded reporter in Iraq and covered the war for the Washington Post, Slate, and NPR. He’s the recipient of a Hodder Fellowship and teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.