There were so many books that I meant to read this year. I bought them, full of good intentions, and I still feel halfway accomplished as I look at them right now, lined up on my shelf, spines unbroken. This was also the year of books half-read, which is unusual for me. I’m usually such a completist that I will not only read every book I start from cover to cover, I will also read every book in a series immediately. Somehow, though, I managed to stop at the first Elena Ferrante book and the first book of The Magicians trilogy, though I really enjoyed both.
Maybe it’s part of getting older and realizing that your time on Earth is finite. Or maybe it’s just because this was a strange year — my novel, The Wangs vs. the World, came out this fall and it feels like I’ve been (happily!) promoting it all year. A lot of the books that I didn’t finish were by people that I was on panels with at various book festivals — you start off with the best of intentions, thinking that you’ll read every book, and then you realize that some of your co-panelists aren’t even entirely clear on the title of your book. Rather than being insulted, I was relieved — less reading guilt for me!
Here are a few of my favorites (or favorites-to-be!) from 2016:
Most Entertaining Co-Panelist Whose Book I Can’t Wait to Read: Tara Clancy is an inimitable force of nature. I have to admit, when she first came up and said hi at Book Riot Live where we were on a panel together, I thought she was doing a bit, like maybe she was pretending to be Joe Pesci or something. But that old New York accent is all hers, and she is incredibly honest and funny and has the ability to connect in a heart-to-heart way that doesn’t feel at all forced. The Clancys of Queens is top of my list.
Best (and Only) Book of Poetry That I Read in 2016 (But Now I Want to Read More!): Last year, I read Saeed Jones’s sharp, vulnerable essay, “Self-Portrait of the Artist as an Ungrateful Black Writer,” and admired it along with everyone else. I bought his book of poetry back then, but never read it. When Barnes & Noble asked him to be in conversation with me for the NYC launch of The Wangs vs. the World, I was thrilled — and he was sunny and generous and as brilliant as I expected. And then, finally, I started reading Saeed’s poems and even though I hate similes, I can’t stop myself from saying that reading his words feels like having a mouthful of blackberry hard candies, rich and uncomfortable and complex in all the best of ways. Read it!
Best Recommendation From A Co-Worker: Until this spring, I worked at Goodreads, where I helped run the newsletters and got to do fun things like the April Fools jokes. (I still think this and this should exist!) Every time I went up to San Francisco, Patrick Brown (best known, of course, for being married to Millions editor Edan Lepucki) had the same book on his desk: The Girls from Corona del Mar. Its cover might lead you to expect a lighthearted beach read, but it’s actually a beautiful, disturbing book that I have a hard time describing. I think its central question might be: What is cruelty? Mary Gaitskill meets…Paint It Black?
Book I Thought I Knew but Totally Didn’t: I spent much of the past five years watching this book be written — its author, Margaret Wappler, and I got together two or three times a week to work on our novels. I read Neon Green in an earlier state a couple of years ago and loved it then, but I just reread when it came out in July on Unnamed Press and was completely floored. It’s taken on a kind of curiosity and exploration of belief that I find really exciting while still retaining the beautiful strangeness that it’s had from the beginning.
Favorite Book by Someone Who Blurbed My Book: Anyone who was kind enough to blurb my book has obviously written one of my favorite books, but technically the only one I read in 2016 was Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth and I loved it. Caitlin Moran called it “Withnail with girls,” which is somewhat true, but it’s more visceral, more like a filthy poke in the heart while also being a sort of poetry. It also made me think of one of my favorite TV shows of 2016, Fleabag.
Book on a Topic That I Wanted to Write About (But Now Don’t Have To!): While I was working on The Wangs, which goes deep into the art world, news broke of an art forgery scandal involving an elderly Chinese painter in Queens who was expertly recreating paintings by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, and other Modernist masters that were eventually sold for about $80 million. I was riveted. Wendy Lee’s The Art of Confidence was inspired by the case and I really admire her layered and unexpected take on the story.
Best Cover (And Best Title) of 2016: Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. The cover makes me want to take to the streets and protest under its banner, and the title feels like a distillation of something I didn’t realize that I’ve been trying to say. The insides of this book totally live up to the package. It’s no surprise that Colum McCann was Sunil Yapa’s teacher — I love the way that Heart tells the stories of so many different people and calls on sympathies we should all develop.
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I’ve been waiting for Rumaan Alam’s first novel since 1999. That year, I was a freshman at Oberlin College, and Alam was a senior who existed in a rarefied upperclassman orbit that I could only glimpse from a distance. He worked at The Feve, the town’s cool restaurant (and, at the time, its only real bar), he hung out with creative writing professor Dan Chaon (in my mind they are smoking cigarettes together, like, Hey, we’re real writers, scram, you runt), and he gave a senior reading at Fairchild Chapel, which is all stone walls and stained glass windows, ascetic and elegant. I don’t remember the specifics of what Alam read that evening — there was something about a painting, and rich people, maybe? — but I remember being enthralled by both the subject matter and the prose, which was graceful and authoritative. It seemed too good to have been written by a college student. I had this feeling that Alam would be a famous writer. I imagine this is what agents and editors experience when they read something they love: a buzz in the body, a hunch that you have found greatness.
I had to wait a few years, but my hunch has turned out to be correct: Rumaan Alam’s first novel, Rich and Pretty, is being published by Ecco Press, and many people already love it. Including me. Set in New York City, Rich and Pretty is about two women, Lauren and Sarah, who have been friends since their adolescence. The novel follows them through their 30s and asks essential questions about what keeps us connected to the friends we made in our youth, before romantic relationships (or lack thereof), ambition (or lack thereof), and competing worldviews got in the way. These are two quite different women, and Alam depicts them with such effortless wit that you almost don’t notice how poignant the story is. The passage of time is brutal and beautiful, and like the best narratives, Alam’s captures that movement perfectly. We aren’t who we used to be — and yet we are.
I had the pleasure of emailing with Alam about his book. What follows is our conversation.
The Millions: Early readers of Rich and Pretty have remarked how well you, a MAN (gasp!), capture these two female characters and their long-term friendship. I concur; the accuracy here is one of the novel’s great pleasures. Here is a terrific example: “At a certain point in her youth, back when it wasn’t inconceivable as it is now that she’d be out late, Lauren had decided that if it was after 11:30 she would, by default, take a taxi. She couldn’t afford a taxi, but neither could she afford to be raped or vomited on on the subway.” One, I love the sad-horror joke of not being able to “afford to be raped,” the nonchalant, inconvenienced language set against the gruesomeness and violence of the literal action. Two, you gracefully weave the everyday negotiation of being a woman, in a woman’s body, into the narrative, and in this way the reader’s understanding of the character deepens. That’s what feels true. Can you talk a little bit about inhabiting these women’s minds and bodies? Did it come naturally?
Rumaan Alam: Let me begin by saying this is my absolute favorite feedback to hear from readers who are also women; that I have successfully captured an experience that’s theirs but not mine. The line you isolate is, now that I look at it in this context, a rape joke. The least funny subject, addressed with humor. To me, this just sounds like something a certain kind of woman would think to herself or say to a friend she trusted. It sounds like something you would say, Edan. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote this line; I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote most of the book. It’s told in this very close third person that shifts between Sarah and Lauren; the authorial voice is much less me than it is the two protagonists. I would just…go into a weird trance state and write. I do know this: I found it easier to inhabit Lauren than Sarah. This is odd and unexpected. The book as baby metaphor never works for me (babies can’t be controlled; books can be) but these two are like my kids. I couldn’t choose a favorite but I can’t deny a kinship. Lauren’s particular self-awareness, her defensive reliance on humor, her pessimism (she’d say realism) are familiar to me. The irony here, without getting into any spoiler alerts, is that my life aligns more closely with the life that Sarah makes for herself. Minus the millions of dollars, alas.
TM: I like to write about a place I know well — Los Angeles — but with totally made-up scenarios and people and premises. My life is boring, fiction should not be. Do you come from that same school of thought? Can you talk about why you didn’t write a more autobiographical first novel? Do people ask you this more than they might ask it of another writer because you’re a gay person of color — as in, why are you not writing about “your people,” sir?!
RA: I didn’t know this was a school of thought, but my life is boring too. But I do have a philosophical answer about writing an autobiographical novel. When you are brown, as I am, there is a convention for how that autobiography is meant to work. There is a template. It is the literature of the immigrant, the literature of the first generation immigrant in my case. I simply could not see myself writing that book, bringing anything to that literature. You could say that my refusal to do so is a profound failure of the imagination; you could say that my refusal to do so is an act of rebellion. Naturally, I prefer the latter, but I realize that’s a little self-serving. I do at least have an Indian character in the mix in this book! She’s very much a supporting player, but she’s there. And gayness is a subject I think I avoid altogether in the book? To live this way — as gay, as brown — is neither gift nor curse; it’s simply fact. To have to write this way, though, strikes me as something of a curse. Representation is a terrible burden. Black and brown artists are constantly asked to stand for all black or brown people. White artists simply get to create.
TM: Another element I loved in this novel was its contemporary gaze. You are so good at writing about the delights and frivolities of our current world, and your gaze is sharp as a knife. For instance, at one point, Sarah, who is engaged to be married, glances at a pile of wedding magazines whose pages she’s dog-eared “for reasons she can’t recall. It just felt like what she should be doing — folding down pages and mentally filing away: mason jars for cocktails, Polaroid cameras left with the centerpieces, a basket of flip flops by the dance floor.” These are three perfect details for a just-so, cool wedding circa 2016. Can we credit your magazine writing experience for this sharp-eyed cultural perspective? For me, the best writing is detailed and specific. What is your writing process like, for coming up with these delicious, specific lists?
RA: Process is such a weird, opaque thing. By the end of the long haul of writing and revising, I just knew these women. They were as real to me as anyone in my life; crazily, and eerily, they no longer are. But I used to think about them all the time, I used to think as them, I used to speak their dialogue aloud. It was a very odd thing. During the revision process, I borrowed a friend’s Manhattan pied-à-terre (I’ve always wanted to say that) and I went out one afternoon to Whole Foods and considered buying the expensive cut-up pineapple and I felt as though I had been…possessed. I was Sarah? I never, ever buy cut fruit in grocery stores. It’s a ridiculous waste of money! An entire pineapple is cheaper than a little plastic container of pineapple. Anyway. It’s not spiritual or anything. It’s more like psychosis, frankly. Somehow it was just clear to me that Sarah was the sort of woman who would plan a wedding in this manner, and that she would find the notion of a basket of flip flops by the dance floor alluring.
TM: I asked Dana Spiotta this question when I interviewed her for Innocents and Others, which is also about a friendship between two women who meet when they’re younger: Why do you think there’s been this surge of narratives about women friendships in the last few years, from the beloved “Galentine’s Day” episode of Parks and Recreation, to Ferrante fever, to The Girls of Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe, to HBO’s Girls? Do you have a sense of why we’re so hungry for these stories? Were there any friendship narratives that inspired Lauren and Sarah’s?
RA: I like to tell myself that this work was accidentally zeitgeisty. I started it in 2009, and I very much live in a weird cultural vacuum. Like, I am still not totally clear on who Taylor Swift is. But to be sure I was aware of these things in the culture, and honestly, I assiduously avoided them. I had never seen Girls until HBO finally unveiled that cheaper version of HBO for cheapskates like me. I absolutely love it, but am sure as hell glad I didn’t have it in my brain when I was writing this book (though obviously it’s quite different). I’d counter that narratives of intimacy between women have always been very common; it’s a theme in much of Alice Munro, it’s in Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?.(I have such empathy for the undergraduate writing teachers of the late-1990s whose students had all mainlined Lorrie Moore, as I did.) Many of my favorite works — Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret — are concerned with this particular question of the bond between women. I don’t know the Bible at all, but don’t Ruth and Naomi meet this criteria? When you write about friends, you can take the sex out of the equation, even if there is some lingering eroticism, which is nice. And with friends there’s volition; it’s different than writing about family, where the bond is a question of context, and more of a given. I have no great answer. Here’s a funny story: a long time ago I was at dinner with my husband and there were two men seated near us. Somehow by context we knew they weren’t lovers, or brothers, or colleagues. And my husband said, “I just don’t understand why one man would be friends with another man.” I still think this is the funniest story. Obviously, he’s kidding, but he’s onto something; the intimacy between men is a lot harder to untangle, at least for me.
TM: I really loved the structure of your book because it surprised me. I didn’t expect it to cover as much time as it does. Most of it takes place in the span of a few months, and then it covers more time in the final third so that we are moved farther into the future than I expected. It reminded me that novels can do whatever they want, formally. Was this structure clear to you from the get-go? Can you talk a little bit about the drafting of the novel and how it came to be what it is today?
RA: I began writing this work as a screenplay. I think you can see that in its reliance on dialogue. There was something, in my mind anyway, cinematic about this treatment. There’s a tight focus on this sustained period of a few months, and then two big leaps in time. I knew I wanted the book to end quite far from where it had begun, and the last thing I wanted was to write a 900-page novel, so this structure was also the easiest way to get there. The finished book is at once quite close and quite far from the original draft. There were structural changes, mostly having to do with shuffling the work so we bounce between perspectives more quickly, say every 25 pages instead of every 50. Revising this was by far my least favorite part of this entire process, and the day that I finished I bought myself a really expensive pair of shoes. But you’re right; novels can do whatever the writer asks them to. It may not work, but you can always ask.
TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you: What’s the last best book you read?
RA: I have been reading so much lately. Part of it is a consequence on transitioning from the business of book writing to the business of book publishing. Suddenly, I have colleagues! I think writers with books coming out — especially writers making their debut, as I am — kind of organize themselves into loose coalitions. It’s lovely. And that there are so many good goddamn books coming out this year makes me feel not competitive but…reassured. It really does. I was riveted by Jung Yun’s Shelter; Lindsay Hatton’s Monterey Bay is both evocative and lovely and quietly chilling and unsettling; Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls is a disarming portrait of a young marriage; Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun is a showstopper that takes on big themes in a most human way; Lynn Steger Strong’s Hold Still is this complex story about family that’s so honest as to be disturbing. What a great time to be a reader.
This was the year I lived in a log cabin in the redwoods and then — suddenly, crudely — I didn’t.
This year I moved back to San Francisco after moving away just a year earlier, just for a minute, a break, just for some air, and when I returned I found I didn’t love you anymore, SF.
This was the year I found wrinkles around my mouth and eyes, the year of three more tattoos because fuck it, I mean we’re all going to die/become climate chaos refugees anyway, I mean did you notice how crazy the weather was this year?
2015: It was the year of cooking more. Of jazz. It was the year of bupropion, the year of boot camps, the year I sold my first nonfiction book and didn’t finish my first novel. The year my friends all bought houses and I didn’t. A year of trying to be more like an adult, and a year of understanding how I never will be.
In the cabin, books felt realer. The woodstove replaced the TV. I started doing things like baking cookies and hanging bird feeders and sleeping all night. My partner and I stopped going out much, and when we did it was always to a dive bar and always for hamburgers. But we were lonely. We missed our friends. And so I read with friendship in mind, searching for female companionship in a way that I haven’t since junior high school. Most of the novels I read and loved this year were also books I was revisiting. I loved these books because they are at heart about women, about “little” lives, and about what it means to become oneself.
I re-read Colette’s Claudine at School; Colette was a self-mythologizer of Greek proportions, and all us lady writers today could learn a thing or two from her swagger.
I binge-read every E.M. Forster novel, and realized how key turns in each book hinge on women; characters who may be small in deed or acknowledgment but whose impact looms large. (In my head, I call them Forster’s Girls, as though they’re some sort of Pink Lady-like posse, which is probably a terrible thing to think?) Cousin Charlotte in A Room with a View; idealist Helen Schlagel in Howards End; terrified, terrible Adele Quested in A Passage to India. These women fuck shit up, for good or bad, in part because they cannot help but yield to their true selves.
For the first time, I read Department of Speculation (Jenny Offill) and The Folded Clock (Heidi Julavits) and Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng) — books with small interiors but tremendous landscapes, each about women struggling in some way with what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, domestication.
On the wilder side of the spectrum, I read Get In Trouble over and over again and I still have no idea how the fuck Kelly Link does it.
I got to know some new heroes a bit better in sequels — Sarah McCarry’s About a Girl and Katie Coyle’s Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle — and I felt grateful for women younger than I being stronger than I am. Then I invited over The Girls from Corona del Mar (Rufi Thorpe) and the Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, girls who maybe aren’t heroes but maybe I like them better that way.
Finally, I read Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, and I remembered how the best stories are edged with grief.
In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle writes in defense of sentimentality: “Nostalgia, which evokes sentimentality, belongs exclusively to culture. Because it belongs to the idea of progress and change and the idea of accumulation, accretion and storage.”
When I moved back to San Francisco this year, I did so for the fifth time in two decades. This time, though, there is a new sentimentality attached to my interactions with the city. It’s neither pure regret nor Vaseline-lensed nostalgia; more like a backwards-facing gaze, a constant awareness of what Ruefle might call the city’s “accumulation.” When I walk around this town, I can’t see it clearly, I’m so clouded with visions of lives I have lived here, things I did or didn’t do, and — most urgently — what isn’t here anymore. When I look at San Francisco now, my eye’s camera loops a constant montage of how it used to be. Jobs and apartments, lovers and friendships and grocery stores, the behavior of the clouds. How we used to be, it and me inside it. Every intersection stores a memory, and every time I cross one I have the surprising feeling that I don’t belong to this place anymore. It’s surprising mainly because I hadn’t realized I felt like I belonged.
Along with my nostalgia, I’ve been regressing into analog entertainments, to coloring books and piano lessons and young adult classics I haven’t enjoyed since girlhood. These diversions comfort me because they still feel like me. Undisrupted me. Who I was in all the thens and who I am now are not the same, as my city is not the same, but we are still ourselves.
I’m told this is a pretty typical sensation for a person to have in her 40th year of life. I’m told San Francisco is changing, has changed, will always be a city of change, so get over it. I’m in the midst of reading Ada Calhoun’s St. Mark’s Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street and so I’m thinking about how yes, cities change. Culture proceeds. Sentiments accumulate. However, not all change is good change. That there are cycles of boom and bust on a particular parcel of land doesn’t render irrelevant the wrongs done in service of those cycles. The disappearance of my San Francisco is a big deal, to me.
4. Those Who Leave
Like everyone else, I mainlined Elena Ferrante this year, reading all four books in her epic and important Neapolitan series. After I finished The Story of the Lost Child, I was at a loss. What could I possibly read next, what act could follow Ferrante’s? I loved her so much, so unironically. I wanted to stay close to her characters, Elena and Lina. I had an inspiration: I would re-read Little Women, the novel that, in My Brilliant Friend, inspires the girls to become readers and writers, to push beyond the usual boundaries of their neighborhood and their gender.
Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869; it follows the four daughters of the March family, each of whom embodies a neat archetype. The Marches are poor, or at least Gentlewomen In Classic Literature Poor — the girls all have jobs as teenagers, but the family still has a maid. And they are literate and progressive and loving; they do all right for themselves.
I read Little Women obsessively as a girl. I even had the book-on-tape (an actual cassette). This time around, it was a bit harder for me to roll with all the moralism. Each escapade of each sister always ends in a tidy lesson, usually summarized by their wise, perfect Marmee and immediately grokked by all the girls. Despite such antiquated conventions, Alcott’s writing shines through. Little Women is a YA page-turner, each short chapter leading addictively to the next, tears and all. Ferrante and Alcott have that in common, as well as the driving principle behind their work: I can sense in both these authors’ bracing rhapsodies an assertion of value, a celebration of the delicate plainness of la vie quotidien.
I was a Jo, I was always a Jo. Most American girls were, I think (and “most” includes Louisa May Alcott herself). Jo March is rebellious and defiant of gender norms, passionate and tortured in her writing; she is smarter and more useful than the people she loves, but still devoted to them. Mostly, she incapable of being anyone but herself.
But upon this re-read, the first in probably 25 years, it’s Amy March who is a revelation to me. Amy is the baby, the blonde, the sibling antagonist to Jo’s heroine. Amy is not as good and pure as pitiful, one-note Beth, nor as docile as Meg. She wants to be an artist, a genius artist, although she would also settle for having enough money to devote herself to just working really hard at her art, genius or no. When I was a girl, Amy struck me as a snob, shallow and insipid. Her destruction of Jo’s book manuscript (spoilers!) seemed unforgiveable — oddly, far more so than a similar act in Ferrante’s epic.
Now, however, Amy’s character has stretched and grown with age. There is something about a woman who, deep inside the drab gray of Civil War-era New England, desires elegance and then goes out and acquires it. Not the false elegance of fancy clothes and leisurely French carriage rides (although Amy gets those, too) but the elegance of good character. Throughout the book, Amy is trying to be — to become — a better person. She fails a lot and gets lucky a lot, but at least she tries. At the end, Amy gets the boy — the boy who as a girl I furiously wanted for Jo. But Amy gets the boy only because she demands the boy be worthy of her, something none of her sisters ever bothered to do.
Unlike her sisters, Amy has experience with and exists within the larger world as well as within her family. As she wishes and wills and learns and, yes, works herself into intelligence and grace, Amy stands increasingly apart from her family. She is the only character in Little Women who actually evolves.
I wonder if Elena Greco, Ferrante’s main character/cipher, imagined herself to be Jo. She’s not; she’s Amy, the one at a slight remove from all the rest, the one who leaves the swaddle of family and habit for the bigger life she knows exists out there. Elena struggles to choose art over home. Like Amy, she is always strong-willed but never too brutally so (well, mostly never). If Elena is Ferrante’s Amy, then Lina must be her Jo. Like Jo, Lina stays even when she could go. She is hot-headed enough to destroy her own chances for transformation; as Jo did, Lina chooses her community over her own brilliance, her art. And, like Jo, she is impeccably, immovably, tragically herself. Elena wears masks, she code switches, she travels between two worlds and learns to speak fluently the languages of her different existences. But Lina, although she may be at times swayed by men or money or work or tragedy, is incapable of camouflage. She does not become; she is.
When you leave and then come back, you get new eyes. In San Francisco this time, I’ve uncovered a type of grief that I do not perhaps yet fully understand. A place becomes a home without you realizing it; when it stops being so, it’s sometimes equally difficult to know. Over the course of decades, people become themselves, without note. It’s only when we look back that we see the shape we’ve taken, see its shadows and imprints. In returning to the stories that have shaped us, we see too how we have been mis-formed, which parts of us have been cast in coppery truths and which have failed to adhere.
And so to the tidy moral: My reading list this year was about growing up, I guess; about how, be we little or epic, we become.
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As Edan Lepucki pointed out, writers are a self-flagellating bunch: difficult to satisfy, prone to swinging wildly between absurd faith and intense self-criticism. (Or is that just me?) So you can hardly blame us for wanting to hold tight to our darlings — the favored image, the pet sentence — when we finally get them on paper. And yet, and yet — writers from Anton Chekov to Stephen King agree that one’s most precious writing often has to be cut, either because of the fact of its preciousness or because it doesn’t serve the larger work.
Having killed more than a few darlings myself—including an entire novel—I asked five contemporary writers about the most painful time they cut a piece of writing. The truth is that the kill-your-darlings phenomenon is a little bit like a lust-driven love affair: no matter how painful it is to say goodbye, I’ve heard few people say that it wasn’t the right choice, or even that they truly miss their darling once it’s gone. But I keep a graveyard document on my computer just in case. You never know when a dead darling will be called upon and brought to life again.
1. Judith Claire Mitchell, author of A Reunion of Ghosts
I’ve had to kill plenty of darlings over the years, but though the deletions may come with fleeting twinges of pain, I’ve mostly taken pleasure in making my work leaner. This is what professional writers do, after all: they edit, they revise, they trim. Once, though, I had to cut a simile from a story I was working on, and the fact that I still remember those four little excised words — my despondent protagonist described herself as “negligible as an eyelash” — reveals how much it hurt to give them up. But before I’d finished my own story, I read a newly published story by a writer I admired, and there in one of her perfect paragraphs was my simile, word for word. She’d not only come up with the same exact metaphor, she’d come up with and published it first.
I tried to convince myself we could both use the simile. It wasn’t as if I’d stolen it from this other writer, not even subconsciously. And the chances that anyone in the world (where literary short fiction is not exactly giving Harry Potter a run for his money) would read both our stories, much less read them in such temporal proximity and so darned carefully they’d notice we used the same simile was…well, as negligible as an eyelash. In the end, though, I knew I’d lost the race, and I did the right thing, erasing the four words from my story. I have been churlish and bitter about it ever since.
2. Rebecca Dinerstein, author of The Sunlit Night
The first draft of my novel went heavy on Norse mythology. Even though my male protagonist Yasha was a 17-year-old Russian boy, I thought of him as a version of Thor. I wanted Yasha’s father, Vassily, to resemble Thor’s father, Odin, the All-Father of the Norse universe who famously rides an eight-legged horse and walks around with a raven on each shoulder. I hoped to connect the fabulous, exotic heroes of those myths to my humble, bewildered characters. But I wound up with a total mess. I had hammers and horses all over the place and I couldn’t say why. It started to feel like scaffolding, or a gimmick, that my book needed to shed. In my second draft, I let Yasha be Yasha and cut back on the Thor. But I strengthened Yasha with Thor’s sensibility: I kept that mightiness, that inspiration in mind as I steered Yasha through his dilemmas and into moments of bravery. And happily, the Norse gods did make it into one climactic scene: a midnight funeral at a Viking museum.
3. Tanwi Nandini Islam, author of Bright Lines
When it came time for me to revise my novel, I killed all the darlings in Part II, 150 pages worth. Instead of reckoning with my characters’ loss and the aftermath of an intense family trip, I had flashed forward a decade, absolving myself of the inner work that was necessary for telling this story. My editor saw the heart of Bright Lines: a triad of POVs that connects the experience of two daughters, one adopted, one biological, and a father confronting his weakness. I cut some of the more dramatic turns in the novel — characters killed, lecherous uncles, good-for-nothing dads — these were shorn. The rough-hewn forms of these ideas took shape, and what resulted was a process of fine-tuning, excavating, and exploring my characters’ inner desires in the span of one year. During this time, I was in acting classes, too. I suppose this was a respite from writing as well as a way to strengthen my storytelling. In class, we’d ask: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? And as I finishing revising my novel, the choice to kill my darlings led me to write a fully-realized story that looks to a historical past, with an unspoken destination that comes decades later.
4. Rufi Thorpe, author of The Girls from Corona del Mar
For me, the hardest darling to kill was in my first novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar. In it, one of the characters is hit over the head with a gnome statue, enters a coma, and upon awakening is obsessed with the genocide of the American Indian. In the original version of the book, there was an entire 40-page section that followed that character into her coma where she went on a kind of guided vision quest regarding the nature of cruelty. It was supposed to be both a historical recap of the less clean parts of American history, as well as a meditation on those wrongs we commit that cannot be taken back or set right, even as there is a moral imperative to at least try.
My agent insisted it must be cut, I argued it could be trimmed, but in the end, I agreed with her and cut the whole thing. Still, it completed the book thematically and symbolically in a way that was painful to lose. Don’t even talk to my husband about it. “It was a tragedy!” he shouts whenever it comes up. “That was the best part of the book!” And even though it wasn’t the best part of the book, I love him dearly for saying so.
5. Marian Palaia, author of The Given World
When I was first asked if I might write a short piece on having had, at some point, to jettison a favorite character (to kill off one of my darlings, in the parlance), I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head, but figured I could come up with something. Then I sent an early draft of my new novel to my agent. Ha! The joke is on me. The universe aligns, and it is looking as though I am needing to cut, from a so-far 175-page manuscript, about 1/3, in the form of Cam. He is not only a main character, but “Cam” is the first word in the book; he is the first person we meet, aside from the narrator, who introduces him to us. The reason he needs to go, or to at least not be a main character anymore, is because he is — not to put too fine a point on it — one tragic figure too many, in a book already full (enough) of tragic figures. And he is Haitian, meaning he has an accent, and he suffers from PTSD and (probably) Gulf War Syndrome (from our first adventure there), and then there is the matter of the earthquake occurring in the course of the book’s time frame, and the fact that he is Haitian in Missoula, Mont., and, well, maybe you can see where this thing could go completely off the rails and he could become somewhat cartoonish, which would just add more tragedy to the whole affair.
The thing is, I knew he was risky when I first began to write him, but there he was, and he was pretty insistent on being there, shy guy that he is, and he is a real person, in an alternate sphere, and his story is so compelling it won’t leave me, but it is for another time, I think. For another place. Or maybe it is his story alone — compelling in the way real life can be, and not transferable to fiction — and I have no business sharing it. We’ll see. And I will miss him. Unless he moves to San Francisco and meets up with my protagonist there, and is not such a fish out of water, but there will still be the same issues, so we will just have to see. Meantime, I am going in. And changing the first word of my book. I will find out what sort of cascading effect that has. I have just arrived in Montana, the place I seem to want every morning to get up and write, and have all summer, unless we catch on fire, to finish this draft. Better get started.
Image Credit: Flickr/Maarten Van Damme.