Why My Second Book Took 20 Years to Complete


I am sitting in Massachusetts General Hospital. My sister has just emerged from surgery for a very rare vulvar sarcoma. I’m due to stay overnight as support. A text arrives from my husband informing me he’s just seen the preview for a movie based on the same subject as my novel-in-progress. The movie, Augustine, is a French film about the young hysteric Augustine Gleizes and her relationship with renowned French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. I’d been praying that no one would tell this incredible but little-known story before I did. I immediately enter a tailspin, exacerbated by the bad timing: my sister’s undergone a successful operation, and here I am, having a meltdown. I can’t pull myself out of the spiral: I’m too late—I’ve missed my chance to produce the first work of art about Augustine and Charcot. My debut collection, Hangings: Three Novellas, was published eight years earlier. Why has it taken me so long to complete this novel? I post on Facebook; friends try to calm me; my sister is incredibly gracious; and I feel guilty for requiring comfort rather than giving it.

It will be another nine years until the novel is finished.
In my undergraduate Women’s History class, I read The Female Malady by Elaine Showalter. The book contains the first pictures I’ve ever seen of Augustine and the first reference to the brilliant source text Invention de l’hysterie, or Invention of Hysteria, by Georges Didi-Huberman. I’m instantly fascinated by the chiaroscuro images of the young woman in the throes of an attack. In one photograph that dates to 1878, she raises her hands in the classic attitude of prayer, but the caption suggests a much more lurid interpretation: “Supplication amoureuse,” amorous supplication. In “Éxtase,” she sits up in bed, crosses one leg over the other, and holds up both hands as if praising a figure whom only she can see manifested in the air above her. There is something infernal in her expression. I find my gaze returning again and again to her face, Augustine.

That year, I experience sudden onsets of breathlessness at least once or twice a day. I’ve started sleeping with a halogen light on to try to soothe the fearful ruminations about death that accompany darkness. When I turn over in bed, shifting the covers, a penny that has become caught in the bedclothes falls onto my bare leg. I have the vivid sensory impression that a dead body is lying next to me, touching my leg. I’ve never experienced such a convincing mental and physical misperception before. I think of Augustine, struck by the realization that I would have been diagnosed as a hysteric had I lived during her era. A connection forms that leads me to imagine her existence more deeply, to viscerally understand how medical beliefs and treatments are distorted by the attitudes of one’s era.

I begin writing fragments, phrases, and images that will later evolve into what I dub “my hysteria novel.”
I am living in Queens and working at a highly dysfunctional used bookstore. A year or so prior, the owner had jumped from a high floor of the Gramercy Hotel. The store is going through turmoil as the intestate estate works its way through the court. The manager is a clinically depressed Vietnam vet whose gout flares up repeatedly from his drinking. He comes to work drunk; he goes to the bar during lunch breaks. His favorite employee is a beautiful anorexic girl with a dented nose; she tells me that she hit herself in the face with a hammer to spite her mother and “ruin her looks.” I am hired to build the store’s first website. I sit in a messy backroom, surrounded by towers of books, the space infested by roaches and mice. One morning a dead mouse is found floating in the toilet bowl. We stop using the water cooler after we learn cockroaches are giving birth in the base. As the store unravels toward its inevitable dissolution, I feel as if I have stepped into some sort of purgatory, or perhaps an asylum.

I order a copy of Didi-Huberman’s book from France since it isn’t available in English. I spend my days-off attempting to translate the text, equipped with barely more than high-school-level French skills and my mother’s tattered old Larousse dictionary. Didi-Huberman is an art historian and a philosophical thinker; his treatise is incredibly dense, circuitous, quirky, and difficult. The book is organized by juxtaposition of symbol and image rather than chronology, something I initially hope to emulate in my hysteria novel.
It is May. I’m seated in a studio built in a barn that once belonged to Edna St. Vincent Millay. The walls are covered with xeroxed photographs of Augustine standing, seizing, stretched rigid across two chairs. The current hysteria manuscript is cut into small strips and taped to large cardboard panels. My writing process involves amassing numerous fragments that are only later arranged in sequence. By now, I have developed a feel for who “my” Charcot and “my” Augustine will be, but the manuscript is still in its infancy.

During the final week of residency, the colonists present their work to one another. I am the youngest there and so shy that I’ve hardly been able to speak up at the dinner table. Since I can’t bring myself to volunteer, I read last, and within a few sentences my voice shakes like a sheep bleating. I barely finish the excerpt, and the papers tremble in my hands. But my writing earns the other colonists’ respect. One of them, a brash painter who always wears  an elaborately beaded Tibetan hat, confides that she didn’t know I was actually talented until now. Someone compares my writing to Flaubert’s Salammbo. I finally feel like I deserve to be in the poet’s house.
I begin graduate school at Syracuse University. During my first semester, my mother is hit by a car while riding her bike and must be hospitalized. The summer before my second year, a horse tramples my sister nearly to death during a riding lesson. She is intubated and placed in a medically induced coma. I return to Massachusetts for the summer, visiting my sister daily as she heals in the hospital. At night, I watch the televised murder-trial of a former high school classmate’s father. In between, I try to work. In the fall, I am scheduled to teach for the first time. I start taking anti-anxiety medication to handle the stress. Toward the end of my third year, my father is diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma and must have his leg amputated.

Somehow I complete my thesis, but I produce very little new material during my MFA. The visiting writer who teaches my third-year workshop admires the hysteria piece but doesn’t believe it can possibly be a novel. I am crushed. I’d been determined to turn the project into a full-length book, but I fear that my teacher is right.

That semester, a piece of my fiction is published in a nationally distributed magazine for the first time. The next year, my collection wins the Starcherone Books Fiction Prize and is accepted for publication in 2005. I hope that the universe is preparing me for a string of good luck.
The summer before graduation, I start dating the man who will become my husband. He applies for a Ph.D. in creative writing. In order to keep my options open, I apply as well. We are both accepted into the fiction program at Denver University. But school has been so stressful and I have been obsessively immersed in academia for so long that I want to take some time to “live the life of a published author” and see what happens). I reason that more academic work might delay my chances to complete the novel (spoiler: it won’t be published for 18 more years), so I forfeit my spot in the program (a decision I still question to this day). My husband accepts his offer, and we relocate to Denver.

For a while, I am happy with my choice. Excerpts from the hysteria novel-in-progress meet with enthusiasm and garner publication. One selection is anthologized in a literary journal’s “best of” collection. I am named twice as a finalist for the George E. Bennet Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy based on selections from the book. I even learn that Hangings has “fans” in Denver. I attend AWP to promote the book and read with fellow Starcherone authors. Perhaps I am pursuing “a writer’s life.”
I spend a lot of time chasing down freelance work to supplement my part-time job, while allowing myriad family dramas to sideline me. My tendency to anticipate and prepare for constant crises has affected my experience of time. The intervals between terrible events seem to collapse, and it becomes incredibly difficult to absorb the progression of years. Any stretch of calm becomes something I am reluctant to disturb by entering the intense and stressful headspace of writing. The life of the hysterics in Charcot’s asylum is hardly light material. And although I typically relish excavating the beauty that can be found in even the darkest subject matter, I now find myself avoidant and wary of exploring the depths. Instead, I consider publishing my translation of Didi-Huberman, only to discover that someone else did so three years earlier.

In 2008, I get married. I make every decoration for the wedding—tissue paper flowers, hanging bird garlands, copperplate calligraphy, a hand-stitched bouquet ribbon—leading me to rediscover my love of crafting and embroidery. I begin to allow the anxiety-reducing activity of needlework to supplant my desire to write. In 2009, I open an Etsy shop, which further sidetracks my creative energy. I enter into a long period of avoidance in which years pass and my confidence as a writer begins to plummet.
In the summer of 2012, Ig Press publishes my husband’s novel, Jonah Man. I accompany him on one leg of his book tour. I notice that I feel self-conscious introducing myself as a writer, and I have the gut-turning realization that seven years have passed since Hangings’ publication. All that lost time seems to accumulate almost instantaneously, leaving me with the vertiginous sense that I have fallen off the proverbial literary map. I have considered myself a writer since childhood. But am I anymore?

I recommit to the novel. For several weeks that summer, family friends allow my sister and I to use their home as a “writer’s retreat.” Since college, my sister has been indispensable to my writing process: she is my ideal editor. I lug boxes of material to Massachusetts, and we attempt to structure the book, which has now grown to 1200 distinct fragments. We spread hundreds of scraps of paper, some only containing a sentence or a phrase, across a large wooden table. It takes the entire stay to compile the manuscript’s first eleven pages. I reach out to my former SU professor Arthur Flowers for help, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material.

In March 2013, Arthur invites published SU graduates to return to campus and discuss “the writing life” with students enrolled in his course, Literary Success and the Art of Significance. I am the only alum invited who doesn’t teach at a college; I feel like an imposter. But I learn from the event that many of my fellow graduates are also struggling with their writing. While in Syracuse, I meet with Arthur to discuss the manuscript. He nicknames my project “The Hissies,” which instantly makes it feel more manageable and enjoyable. I use the appellation from that day forward.

I spend the next three years trying to flesh out the second half of the book, to determine a novelistic arc (something I’ve never done before), and to streamline the narrative. The decision to work exclusively on the novel leaves me with a dearth of material to publish. The gaps in my resume and publication history grow wider. So much time has elapsed that people around me now know me as an fiber artist rather than as a writer.

In 2015, Starcherone closes its doors and Hangings goes out of print. The loss of the press is heartbreaking, and I begin to feel even more obsolete. I try to channel my frustrations into the character of Charcot—to empathize with the pressure he felt toward the end of his career as he struggled and failed to unravel the mysteries of hysteria. Through him, I explore the nagging fear that every creator likely experiences, regardless of age—that they will die before their project’s completion. And slowly, very slowly, the arc begins to fall into place.
I email Arthur for the first time in three years. I write, “It’s been so long since I’ve published, but I wanted to let you (and myself) know that I haven’t given up or failed to make progress.” 16 months later, I complete a full draft. The novel now has a title, Asylum; it is 53,188 words long. I have passed the novella mark.
Starting in January, I begin to send the manuscript out into the world. First, I try a small cadre of agents—mostly those who work with experimental authors. Although I was unable to secure representation for Hangings, I hope a full-length novel might be a game-changer. I receive two rejections and a bite from a big agent. She passes me along to a reader at the agency who is well-versed in the topic of hysteria. Unfortunately, the reader suggests changes that I feel compromise the intent of the novel. She wants me to add backstory and biographical details that I purposefully omitted. After much deliberating, I decide to decline representation—a choice that is painful and difficult.

I write to the agent: “I started writing experimental fiction because I was drawn to the compression of time/space/character/language and the atmosphere it creates, and because writing traditional versions of characters and plot tended not to be where my passions lay.… As described, I think the manuscript would end up too close to more traditional explorations like Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (which I did enjoy and appreciate, but which is far from the manuscript that I imagine publishing). I hate to turn down such a fantastic opportunity and such a dedicated reader as you have proven to be, but I think I will have to go down the more experimental/smaller press route to keep my vision of the novel intact.”

The agent search takes about six monthsto complete. Soon after, I learn that most of the presses I’m interested in submitting to have closed their reading window for the year. I decide that the vibes for the book aren’t strong, and that I will wait until the new year to submit. In August, Arthur suggests cutting the novel by half, which throws me into new crisis. Then he revises his estimate downward. I respond, “I’m in a place where I don’t want to do a single other thing to the manuscript, because working on it gets me so frustrated and down… But I promise I am turning all of these bits of advice over in my brain and trying to get back to a place where I can get it done.”

In November, I apply for the Dzanc Books Fiction prize. The novel makes the longlist but doesn’t win. Still, the editor’s response is encouraging, and I ask if I might be able to resubmit if I make future edits.
March arrives. The manuscript is out with several presses and contests. I have long planned to submit the novel to a literary press with a particular medical/scientific focus. Their open reading period is about to begin when Covid starts to spread. They indefinitely postpone their submission window. In April, I hear back from a second press whose contest I did not win. They are still considering publishing the manuscript. I am thrilled, but the opportunity doesn’t pan out, leaving me despondent. In October, a friend who runs a small press that I greatly admire turns down the manuscript. Moving forward, the pandemic continues to throw all thoughts of publication into disarray. I fear that many small presses and literary journals will not survive. Thankfully, most do.

I start working on new writing for the first time in ages, starting with flash fiction pieces partly inspired by the pandemic and what feels like the imminent death of the planet. I send a few of the pieces to journals and contests and garner my first new publication in seven years. I resubmit to the Dzanc Fiction contest. In January, I learn that the novel has won first prize. The Hissies will be published. It will find a place out in the world.
The road to publication is more complicated than with my first book, partly because of disruptions caused by the pandemic, partly because of changes in the industry. I agonize over every decision, often to find them taken out of my hands in the end. Supply chain disruptions radically condense the schedule for submitting galleys to the printer. I must scramble to get blurbs, line up reviews, and pursue publicity. Unaware of the suggested six-to nine-month lead time required, I begin these efforts about three months before publication. I am distraught by the idea that the book could slip below the radar, rendering 20 years of work nearly invisible. I fear that I have failed the book before it has even entered the world.

I redouble my efforts, trying to maximize the novel’s chance of success. I gird myself for the daunting prospect of giving readings and interviews. So much time has elapsed since I’ve had to talk coherently about my work that my confidence in my intellectual and verbal acuity has radically decreased. A friend suggests beta blockers, and I get a prescription.

Maud Casey’s City of Incurable Women is released mere months before my publication date. I again curse the years of avoidance while digesting the ironic timing of events. Gradually, I realize that it’s good that our books are appearing in close succession, that we might be able to team up, act as allies. That all of the “missed opportunities” along the way may have helped build an audience interested in the hysterics at the Salpêtrière. It takes a great deal of self-talk and reassurance to reach this conclusion. But I embrace the idea.

I write this essay one month out from publication. I hustle. I fret. And I wait. Nervously. With excitement. With fingers crossed.