Jennifer Acker is one of my dearest friends, so I was thrilled to have the chance to interview her about her debut novel, The Limits of the World. Acker and I have been exchanging writing since our mid-20s, so I come to this interview having read multiple drafts of her book, a multi-generational story centered on Urmila and Premchand Chandaria, emigrants from the Indian-enclave of Nairobi. Like many immigrant parents, they are confused by the choices of their American son, Sunil, who has become, of all things, a PhD candidate in philosophy. They also don’t approve of his girlfriend, Amy, who, unbeknownst to them, is actually his wife. Multiple family secrets come to light over the course of Acker’s novel, which also tells the story of the Chandaria family’s ancestral migration from India to East Africa.
Acker began writing the novel in graduate school, and then spent several years revising it. While working on her novel, she founded the literary magazine The Common, which is now a publication of Amherst College, and which Acker edits, full-time, working with student interns. Although both the magazine and her novel have been met with acclaim, there have been a lot of bumps in the road. Her novel was almost accepted for publication a number of times, an experience which, if you’ve ever been through it, can feel more devastating than an open-and-shut rejection. Acker has also spent the past few years dealing with a chronic illness, ME/CFS, sometimes known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which can leave her exhausted for weeks, and sometimes months. But through focused, efficient efforts, she has continued to edit The Common, and to find time for her own writing projects.
Acker lives in Montague, a small town in Western Massachusetts that is close to Amherst College. She visits New York City often, and travels whenever she can. When I spoke to her over the phone, she was on vacation in Arizona, soaking up some sun before a busy spring of book promotion.
The Millions: I’d like to start with the story of how your book came to be published. Because I know, as your friend, that you had a lot of near-misses, and I think for Millions readers, it would be a really interesting story—and I personally need the refresh, because I can’t even remember some of the twists and turns.
Jennifer Acker: I knew you were interested in this question, so I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s made me a little nervous. Telling a long and convoluted publication story or one in which your book is not snapped up right away is kind of embarrassing. But I do think it’s important for people to be honest talking about these processes, because it’s often more complicated that you would think. I also wanted to refresh for myself what the story was, because it was over a period of several years and I wasn’t even sure if I was remembering it correctly.
So this morning I was going back through my emails, because I wanted to reconstruct things. In any case, I think, I first signed with Duvall [Osteen, Acker’s literary agent] in the fall of 2014. I loved her enthusiasm and smarts from the beginning. I did do some revising for her, which I think is typical, or at least not that uncommon. So I revised with her in 2014, we went out with the book for the first time in January 2015, and I remember that timing pretty well because I was on vacation in Puerto Rico and I was trying to grab cell signals in various places all over the island. About a week or so after I sent the book out, there was a lot of excitement and a lot of editors were interested, and it was just so exciting. I was on vacation, the sun was shining, we were at the beach, and it just felt kind of miraculous.
Basically there were several editors at big houses who were interested, and I had a few phone conversations when I got home. And then out of that group, there were two editors who were really interested in the book but wanted to see structural changes. And they weren’t willing to buy the book and then work on it, they wanted to see the changes first. So that was my first experience with the revise-and-resubmit process. I even met with both of these editors in person, and I tried to coalesce each of their comments into a direction that they would each be happy with.
TM: You were trying to make revisions to please both editors?
JA: Yes, it wasn’t an exclusive revise-and-resubmit. They were both interested in similar revisions, so I was working on a new version for both. And I kind of killed myself on the revision—which is partially metaphorical, but as you know, I got sick that spring. It was an incredibly busy time for me, because not only was I running the magazine, but also teaching a seminar that semester—which was enjoyable, but quite intense. I was traveling a lot, I was going to New York every month, I was planning the Common in the City Party for that spring, and I was trying to squeeze in those revisions on nights and weekends. I was working all the time, late at night. At the time I remember thinking, I have never been so busy as this in my life. I had a friend who said, why are you doing this so fast? Why not just wait and tackle it in the summer? But I had this feeling that I had to take advantage of the momentum before I sort of lost my place.
I finished a pretty significant overhaul of the book and we sent it back to those two editors and they didn’t take it. I didn’t fully understand what it was that they didn’t like. At that point it gets kind of vague in terms of the feedback that you get. It was a pretty crushing disappointment. We had The Common in the City party, and I was very tired for that, but I wasn’t sick yet. But then I had first really clear early signs of my illness in June. That period was pretty devastating. I felt that summer that I was in stasis in pretty much every way. I didn’t know what was wrong with me physically; I didn’t know what was wrong with my book. I wasn’t sure how I was going to crawl my way out of either of those situations.
Over the next year basically, I was pretty sick and mostly not doing much, but just trying to keep up with things where I could. But I had this book in my mind and I didn’t want to let it go. So then—I’m actually looking at my notes right now, because it’s really hard to remember—I didn’t do much on the book until the following spring. Then I tried to address another round of revisions with the idea of sending it out a second time. What I sort of remember about that process was that I was scaling back on a lot of things, I was cutting a lot of things, I was trying to make the book really streamlined. My impression at the time was that the book was overstuffed, so I cut out the backstory and character development. But I think it was kind of a skeletal version of the book, because when it went out again, that was the least successful response.
One good thing that did come out of that submission was that another editor at a big house wanted to see revisions. This editor wanted an exclusive revise-and-resubmit. I was wary of it, feeling like it hadn’t gone so well the first time, but when I had a conversation and learned what the edits were, they made a lot of sense to me and were in the direction I wanted to go anyway. So that whole process took kind of a long time, getting a first conversation with that editor, and then many months later, getting those notes, and then taking the following winter, January through March 2017 to do my revisions. It definitely felt more promising, I was adding things back into the book, things I had been reluctant to cut. It felt like the book was regaining its shape. And then—I don’t know how frequent this is, but I haven’t heard of it happening to anyone else—once we sent back the revisions, we never got a response from this editor. There were a few email communications, but in the end we never heard either yes or no, which is crazy and crazy-making. Someone who had been so invested in seeing a new version, wouldn’t even say no? It was totally baffling. There was just this complete breakdown in communications—and it was a process that had taken about a year and a half. But I did then have a version that I felt good about. I felt like the editor had done the book some good so it wasn’t totally wasted effort or time.
Then the book went out again in Fall 2017, for the third time—and the third time was the charm. That’s when we connected with Delphinium. I remember we finalized the contract on the day of the National Books Awards and I was going to the ceremony that night and I was telling everyone. I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, these other people are getting prizes and are amazing authors, but I sold my book! It was tremendously exciting. Of course I did even more revisions with my editor. At that point we were really tightening the narrative. He was really instrumental in helping me to see how to connect the dots and how to build narrative tension.
TM: Now that you’ve gone through this marathon revision process on this one project, how do you think you’re going to approach revision in the future on your own work? Has it changed for you?
JA: I think that one thing I’m going to try is to be more conscious of narrative events from the beginning. I think I’m going to try—if not to outline exactly—but to think more about cascading events, one event leading to another event, from the beginning. When I started this project, it was really about figuring out characters, creating a family, and it was this complicated, multi-voiced structure, and I had this idea about narrative tension that it meant that everything had to be at a fevered pitch, and that narrative tension was making people upset with each other in every scene, so there was lots of arguing and lots of yelling, but there wasn’t a lot of connection between events. Also, I just read a craft book, The Kite and the String, by Alice Mattison—she’s one of my Bennington teachers, who is this narrative master, we call her the novel doctor. I read it recently and I was underlining everything she said about creating narrative, and manufacturing concrete events and making one event lead to another.
TM: Has this process changed the way you edit other people’s work?
JA: I think the funny thing is, I was much better at this at editing other people, when it comes to the narrative connections.
TM: Considering that this went on for years, revising and waiting on responses to your book, how did you stick with it? What kept you going?
JA: I think it just felt like so much a part of me, I just couldn’t bear the idea of abandoning it. And every once and a while I would get some encouragement from people who really loved it. I also knew that it was a story and a subject matter that wasn’t very well known and would be interesting to people eventually. Lots of different editors had different views about how the story should be told. I felt like they liked the story that was there. It was frustrating, I was bouncing back and forth between people’s individual views about how the story should be told. I just needed to find the person whose vision aligned with my own.
The hardest is when you’re on your own. Once I had Duvall as my agent, she was unwavering in a remarkable way. I don’t know how she was able to keep her confidence up. Maybe she wasn’t confident and she was just telling me that she was! But I just believed her, I just let her convince me. I could not have kept going without her being willing to keep reading, keep sending it. And then I also, after I got sick, I didn’t have any ideas, I didn’t have any energy to create anything new. So this was my one chance, because I didn’t have the faintest idea of what a new book would like.
TM: Can you talk about how your process has changed because of your illness? I know, for example, you use voice recognition software.
JA: Actually, I first switched to speech recognition software because it was hard to sit at the computer for a long time. I had a lot of neck pain and back pain and I would get tired and achey from looking at screens, so I began to use the speech recognition software. Now it seems like a very natural part of my writing life. I was telling someone recently who was just shocked that I wasn’t typing those things, I was speaking them out loud. There is a certain amount of embarrassment that you have to get over when you’re dictating. The software also likes you to speak in complete sentences, so I would have to speak a little bit more at length—I couldn’t just add a word or change a word. I think it did lead me to produce these very voluminous drafts.
If I had the physical stamina I would be one of those people who write longhand. The other thing I’ve been doing for a long time, but more so recently, when I’m even less tolerant of screens, is printing things out at every stage, so I’m looking at things on paper. I’ve been trying to get myself to do the Lauren Groff method, where you write a first draft and then forget about it and then write it again, which strikes me as a really good way to do things but is emotionally so difficult.
TM: Tell me both why you think it’s a good way to do things and why you think it’s emotionally difficult.
JA: I think it’s a good way to do things because I think your mind retains some of the strongest narrative elements, and so, when you write a first draft and then you don’t look at it again, I think when you’re trying to reconstruct the second draft, I think what sticks are some of the most singular aspects of the characters or some of the most important narrative moments. I think it helps you retain some of the most important elements at an earlier stage, instead of falling in love with a description or a paragraph. You don’t keep things in because it sounds nice—but I think it’s emotionally devastating, because you invest all these time and energy into something you’re not using. And that anxiety about throwing out things that might be good.
TM: Are there other strategies you’ve come up with in terms of organizing your time? Or in deciding what to work on?
JA: I do have to write differently now, I used to be able to go to a writing residency and take a week off and write for seven or eight hours a day. But I don’t have that stamina anymore. I only have a few hours a day. But I also have a hard time doing both my job and writing something new simultaneously. I think a lot of people have that difficulty, but it’s become even clearer to me that I need to focus on one thing in any given day, or any given period. I’ve been moving toward this residency model where I only focus on one thing at a time—either I’m working on The Common or I’m working on my own writing. Because everything I do is slower, I need the mornings to do whatever thinking work I have, whether that’s editing or doing some strategic thinking for the magazine, and then the afternoon is sort of catch as catch can. I’ll schedule calls or listen to music to give my mind a break. I’m trying to give myself a little more down time in between the writing. I don’t know if it means I’ll be more efficient. But my thought is that I’ll do more thinking and less drafting. Less free writing and more thinking—like what I was saying about being more thoughtful about creating a narrative.
I’m also writing a lot more personal essays than I was before. That comes out of my own experience being so large in front of me, and there’s something that I may be learning about storytelling that has come out of writing personal essays as well.
TM: What do you mean by your own experience being large in front of you?
JA: I don’t feel well most of the time and I spend a lot of time dealing with that. So my own physicality is so present and often kind of distracting. And then I think about writing about those experiences, because I’m a writer, and that’s how I process things. If I’m having a hard time, I’ll think about what is this hard time and how is that impacting my life, and what can I learn from other people who have had similar experiences?
TM: Now would be a good time for me to ask you about the kindle single you’ve been working on about chronic illness . . .
JA: Why, thank you for asking! Yes, I’m on the homestretch of that. After that first terrible year when my book didn’t sell and I got sick, at the very end of that year, I published an essay in The Washington Post about Nishi [Shah, Acker’s husband] reading to me. And that was the first thing I wrote about my illness. And then, because I wasn’t sure what was happening with the novel, I ended up writing a lot about that and how I was living this small life that was very domestic, and the people I was seeing the most were my family, and particularly Nishi. And then he developed his own physical ailments, maybe six months into mine, and it was just extraordinary and terrible confluence and we had to figure out how to take care of each other. So that was really the genesis of that essay: I found I was writing not just about my experience but about our experience—how we were coping psychologically and logistically on a day-to-day basis. I had written several different pieces that I ended up combing into one longer piece, which is going to come out sometime next year.
TM: Getting back to your novel: earlier you were talking about how each editor had a different idea of how to tell the story, and I was wondering how you settled on the current structure, which has multiple points of view?
JA: I originally was interested in the mother’s story because of this particular situation of her an immigrant and being an unconventional character. I knew she was going to be sort of a thorny, intense, difficult character, and it was a challenge to think about how to write her. Then I thought I wanted it to be mother-son story. So I added a second point of view, and then it was a challenge to myself to write the father, because he was the most remote to me, because he was a man, not of my generation, who also was an immigrant. And also, since the mother and son were emotionally intense characters, I thought I would need someone who was a little more balanced, to weigh on the actions of the mother and the son in a way that would be helpful to the reader. And then, the grandfather’s point of view was crucial from the beginning, because that was the point of view that would tell the migration story of this family, the move from Kenya to India, and give the back story of how there came to be this Indian community in East Africa, which is surprising to most people. Once you know it has to do with British Empire, you can understand it a bit more. So I had to tell that story and figure out how to do it.
TM: When did you first become interested in the migration story of Indians in Kenya?
JA: I first became aware of an Indian community in Kenya, when I first took my year off before college. From living in Kenya I was fascinated that this community existed. I didn’t know, really, how they got there, I just knew that they existed and they were a pretty robust presence. There were certain foods—like we would drink chai with my host families—so I was noticing these influences but didn’t have another opportunity to think about it or dig into it until I met Nishi, whose family history this was. What really gave me an opportunity to think about it concretely was visiting his family in Nairobi, in 2007. I had first been in Kenya in 1995 and then in 2007 I went back with my dad. I wanted to visit my Kenyan host family, and Nishi’s parents were also going to be traveling to Nairobi, and I wanted the chance to meet his extended family.
TM: And how do you feel about the book now, if the seed of it started in 2007, if not before that? Do you still feel close to it? Or do you feel it’s in your past?
JA: It still feels very much a part of me. I think what’s exciting about it being published, and being out in the world, is that it’s going to be a public part of me, when for so long it was a private part of me, and a secret and at times it was a shameful secret, and now that it’s something that I can openly talk about and be proud of. It doesn’t yet feel distant to me, and in part because I’ve been talking about it a lot recently. But I think it will always feel very personal.