Over six consecutive nights in October, independent bookstores scattered around the west welcomed five debut novelists to local bars for an evening of reading and revelry. The 2004 First Fiction Tour opened in Los Angeles, jetted up the coast to Portland, hopped over the Rockies to Denver, slipped south to Albuquerque then east to Austin, and landed finally in Tempe, its formative home.
Sending an author on the road is hardly an original idea. Debut novelists, however, rarely draw much of a crowd. In the first weeks after publication, few garner enough media attention to develop a sizeable following.
Cindy Dach of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe had an idea: What if five debut novelists appeared together? In a lively setting, with cheap drinks. (Always a realist, that Cindy.) Instead of hiding behind a table to sign books, the writers would circulate among the crowd. Imagine a cocktail party with five guests of honor, all reading a short passage from their work.
It worked. So well, in fact, that one event last year in Tempe grew into this fall's full tour. Here at Stop Two, Portland, Oregon, more than a hundred people gathered downtown at XV for an evening of music, prizes, fast-flowing drinks, and fiction.
Marc Acito describes How I Paid for College : A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater as "a loopy love letter to my nutty friends from high school, the theater geeks who dressed weird and sang show tunes in the halls." Already, film rights have been optioned by Columbia Pictures for producer Laura Ziskin.
In 1992, as an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, Lorraine Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for a story about civil rights violations by Texas law enforcement. Seven years later, the seeds of her first novel, Harbor, were planted while researching the arrest of an Algerian man caught with a trunk of explosives at the Canadian border north of Seattle.
As the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, Joshua Braff's debut, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, "may be the first book to use bar mitzvah thank-you notes as a literary device." (Several of those notes will have you laughing out loud.)
The big-hearted, blue-collar cast of Jason Headley's Small Town Odds, not to mention the novel's ample humor, has already drawn comparisons to a longtime Powell's favorite, Richard Russo.
Prior to publishing The Seas ("an odd and fabulous tale...a beautifully unconventional story," Library Journal raves), Samantha Hunt's work appeared in McSweeney's, Seed, and on This American Life.
Before the Portland event, our five touring novelists shared a table in the bar to discuss the varied paths that brought them together.
Dave: After working in various other forms, what brought you all to longer fiction, and what were some of the opportunities afforded to you by the novel?
Jason Headley: I used to write a bunch of exceptionally shitty short stories. I would start, then I would get tired, and I would finish that would be the end of the story. Eventually I realized, This probably isn't the way to write. Then when I got tired and stopped, I made sure to pick it up again. One of those stories became Chapter One of Small Town Odds, though later it got completely cut out.
Samantha Hunt: I did a similar thing. First I wrote this book as a collection of two-hundred-fifty-word stories. Two hundred of them. Then I put it aside and I had the bad idea to write it as a book of poems, which is around somewhere still. But I put it aside again, and when I went back to it I made it into The Seas. That's why the novel took four years.
Dave: And Harbor came out of a reporting experience, right?
Lorraine Adams: I was going to say I'd never written a short story, but that's not true. When I was in college, I took a lot of creative writing classes, and I did take one fiction class. I mostly wrote poetry. I never felt comfortable writing short stories. I don't understand how to make my brain work in a way that confines itself to that length.
In journalism, you're just cranking out copy. If you write anything that has any soulfulness or poetry it's immediately ridiculed. There's a lot of lip service paid to Oh, we want elegant writers, and there's praise for writers like Maureen Dowd who are true stylists, but when you're in a newspaper and you've got a deadline they just want you to write it as fast as you can and as clean as you can. That's all they care about.
I think for me the real pleasure came in being able to leave all of that aside and just let myself write my heart out, to say what I really wanted to say and not what some editor wanted me to say. It was the most liberating experience to be able to write what I felt and knew after mangling the language for twenty years.
Joshua Braff: I wrote short stories and studied the craft of short stories in my M.F.A. program. I took that with me into the process of writing a novel.
Each chapter has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like my short stories, not a great deal of time goes by in each individual chapter; my short stories took place in a day, in about twenty-four hours, and I found that was happening with the chapters I was writing. Then it became the process of stacking those to tell a bigger story.
I felt in the beginning that it was like a patchwork of small short stories. Originally, each had a title and there was a table of contents, much like a short story collection would have. My editor said to me, "You know, this is a novel. We're going to pull that out." I loved that page, where you could see the titles of each chapter, but she convinced me that it should be pulled.
Marc Acito: The only short form writing I've done is my column, which is fueled by righteous indignation. I can sustain anger for eight hundred words, but I can't sustain it for a hundred thousand words. I can wallow in self-pity for a hundred thousand words, so writing a novel allowed me to wallow in self pity.
Headley: It's good to know your strengths.
Dave: Regarding strengths and weaknesses, when Ann Patchett wrote Bel Canto, she knew she had taken a big step forward in terms of narrative structure. She said, "I've always wanted to write a book with a truly omniscient third person narrator, what I think of as a Russian third, the Anna Karenina-third, where it moves from person to person within a room during the course of a single conversation. I tried to do it with all three of the [previous] books, failed repeatedly, then each time went back to a narrative structure I could manage."
It's probably true that all books are full of little failures, experiments that didn't quite work. They might be invisible to a reader, but the author knows they're there. Can you point to some in the process of completing your new book?
Hunt: Oh, it's embarrassing. I had a whole part in the book full of references to Jane Eyre. It was unbearable. The whole ending rested on Jane Eyre. Ugh. It had to be cut.
Headley: I had two different Chapter Ones, neither of which is in the book.
In my novel, each chapter is one day, then each is followed by a flashback chapter. That structure started out as a crutch to help me understand what I needed to write. At one point, the book opened with a flashback, but that wasn't working, so I wrote another that I thought was very poignant and perfect until I realized that by Chapter Three you didn't know whether to shit or wind your watch; you didn't know what was going on. It was back in time, forward, back again...
It seemed easier to start with a one full day and a structure that allowed steady progress.
Acito: I had to tone down the sex.
I based the sex lives of the characters on the sex lives of me and my friends from high school, which we thought was normal at the time. As it turns out, it wasn't.
I've actually had a couple of reviews that have taken me to task saying that these teenagers are overly sexually active. My friends from high school think this is very funny because I had to tone it down. People didn't think it was plausible. There were a few moments that just went over the ick factor, too.
Braff: In a previous novel I wrote, I hardly did any cutting. I figured, If it's there, it was meant to be there. I think this, in the end, was the problem.
I did so much cutting this time that I would take weeks to concentrate on a certain scene or chapter. The book evolved as I was writing. I'd realize in the process that this was not going to be the chapter that made the final cut, but the process of writing that cut chapter allowed me to write the one that would ultimately be there.
Hemingway called it "killing your babies," I think. You've got some beautiful paragraph or sentence that's sitting there and you'll do anything to keep it, even to the extent that you're writing around it. But it's blocking you. Trusting that you can cut something beautiful and replace it with something equally beautiful is scary, but I think it's crucial to the process of getting a manuscript into shape.
Acito: Don't you wish they had a DVD Director's cut of a novel?
Braff: You're supposed to hold on to all that stuff.
Acito: I have a scene that was too extraneous, but I loved it so much. It was around five thousand words. If the novel were a DVD, that would be the scene at the end.
Adams: I had kind of the opposite problem. Not that I had to cut a lot, but I had not written enough. My prose was astringent and my chapters were all short. My editor said, "You know, you need to tell me more."
I would have dialogue where I wouldn't name the people talking. I just wanted the dialogue. I didn't care who was talking. My editor said, "You have to hold the reader's hand more."
I finally capitulated. I wrote a different way for a certain part of the book, and my agent came back and said, "You ruined it." At that point I had to go back and really listen to that indefinable bullshit detector in your head that says, I know this is right and I don't care what other people say. What emerged finally was something that both my editor and my agent felt was what it should be.
Dave: Describe your experiences working with an editor. How did that relationship affect the finished product?
Headley: I had a great experience with my editor. I make my living writing in advertising, where you write something, you show it to people, then they come back and say, "This is great. We just think you should change this, this, and this." To which you reply, "Okay, but here's the reason I did that." And invariably they tell you, "Awesome, just go ahead and change it."
What happened with Small Town Odds was that my editor would come to me with suggestions. I really stewed on them. When someone has criticisms, my first reaction is generally, They're full of shit. They don't know anything. Then I sit on it and think about it. I would come back sometimes having taken the advice, but other times I'd come back and say, "You know, I really thought about this and I don't want to change it for this reason." And he'd say, "Okay."
I was like, "No, no. This is when you say, 'Go ahead and change it.'" So that was great.
Another funny little story was that my agent had an idea of something to do with the next-to-last chapter. I didn't want to do it. Then later my editor had the exact same idea. I was like, "Alright, fine. I'll try it." I tried it, and it was miles better than what I'd had, so much more emotionally fulfilling. I had to eat crow and go back to my agent and say, "By the way, you were right."
Braff: It's frightening to have a person come in and say, "You know, this piece here that you love so much, we either have to move it or take it out." But when you really sleep on it...
You need a certain amount of trust. That doesn't mean everybody has a great editor or that editors always make the right decision, but I felt like I was in good hands.
Like Jason also said, there were times when she said this was Amy Gash at Algonquin when she said, "You can talk me out of it, but what do you think?" I thought, You're going to leave that up to me? Really? But we could have that kind of discussion and I'd end up keeping things. I had a good experience.
Acito: Like Lorraine, my book got longer in the editing process. Since mine's a farce, it's all about set-ups and payoffs. My editor said to me, "I'm going to work on your book the way I work on mysteries and just make sure that all the pipe has been laid." Most of the time, it was him asking me to clarify and lay more pipe so that when the payoffs came and the reveals happened everything had been established.
And we agreed to disagree about turning nouns into verbs. I'm a big fan of inventing verbs.
Headley: We need more.
Acito: We do. I turned Peter Pan into a verb and jackrabbit into a verb. My editor said that the nuns in his head from his Catholic school education were really on his case about it. We split the difference. That's how we finally decided to handle that one: He said, "You can keep half of them," and I got to choose which half.
Dave: Jason mentioned working in advertising, and Lorraine was a reporter for a long time. I'm wondering what opportunities, outside of these novels, writing has afforded you.
Headley: Writing got me out of English in college. That was nice. I tested out.
I studied Environmental Science and Political Science, so I wrote purely for the joy of it until I moved to San Francisco and started a band. I took a job in a mail room and just pestered the creative directors until they gave me a job. I've made my living getting carpal tunnel. It's been good.
Hunt: I always kept my writing a secret from my coworkers. For that reason, I took on a lot of jobs that I probably wouldn't have otherwise because I always had this secret career. I had a lot of strange jobs. I worked in a raptor center for a while. I worked doing quality control in a factory.
Acito: But you also want to know what we've gotten to do because we're writers?
Dave: Well, Jason probably wouldn't have worked in advertising, for instance.
Headley: I'd still be sorting people's mail.
Adams: What journalism has afforded me is this opportunity to invade people's privacy and to so immerse myself in other people's lives. I've covered some amazingly strange stories. One time I decided I wanted to follow a nursing aid around for three months. When she wiped the shit off someone's ass, I was there. I didn't wipe the shit off his ass, but still. I did a lot of that kind of reporting. I interviewed people like Jack Kent Cooke, the billionaire owner of the Washington Redskins; he wept about how his wife was unfaithful to him. He's now dead, God bless his soul.
It's that getting outside of just writing about what goes on inside for you. I felt like if I had gotten an M.F.A. I would not have enough life experience and known enough about the world to be able to write the kind of fiction I've done here. I can't write about myself. I don't like to, I don't want to, it just makes me queasy.
I think journalism was the perfect thing for me to do. It was really useful to have twenty years of only learning about the world. Now I have this big backlog of all kinds of experiences to draw on to write fiction about.
Braff: I was interviewed by a writer in Oakland, a fireman named Zach Unger. He went to Brown. His siblings did not end up being firemen. He was sitting at a bus stop and he saw an ad; that's how he became a fireman.
Headley: Advertising: it'll drag you into a burning building.
Braff: Right. And the reason I bring it up is that he said to me, "How do you get inspired to write?" Zach was taking his experiences as a fireman the overdoses and fires and car crashes and putting that into his writing. He wondered, "If you're not out there and your hands aren't in it, then what are you drawing from?"
On this project, I drew from truth then created fiction from that; I'm drawing from the well that is the human condition. It's about relationships. You can do mother-daughter or brothers or that husband who's having a midlife crisis he goes and makes his decision, and where does that leave the woman who's been with him for so long? For me, that's my art.
Dave: Writers will often describe a reading experience that made them want to put the book down and go start writing immediately. What authors have inspired you in that way?
Headley: For me, it's Richard Russo. When I first read his stuff, it was like someone had said, "I'm going to write Jason Headley a book." It's perfectly the scale of what I like, what I find amusing, what I find touching. All of that.
Hunt: W.G. Sebald. I have his four novels and I read them in a constant rotation. I've read them probably ten times that way. They do make me start writing as soon as I put the book down.
The fact that he was a living writer in my lifetime always gave me so much hope. Then he had a car accident. He was only fifty-seven years old. I can't get over that still, that he had all those books inside of him that I can't read.
Adams: I've read so much for so long that it's really hard for me to answer that. And I read so widely: philosophy, history, criticism, art history... But there really isn't anything that inspires me because I think it's so good. I think what happens to me is that I get inspired because I see how lousy some things are and how people claim that it's good. I think to myself, I can do so much better than that.
I read short fiction. It's the craft of the human condition. Nobody's attempting to sell; they're not trying to write a blockbuster. That kind of intimacy is beautiful.
Acito: I'll add to that by saying that I write what I'd love to read. I don't feel like there's enough of it. When I read Bridget Jones's Diary, I thought, I have to write something like this. There aren't enough of these books. There are only two! Now what do I read? There are a handful of comic novelists, but it's hard to find, as a genre.
Also, getting back to what writing affords you to do, I have to say that I totally agree with Lorraine: writing justifies my natural nosiness. I get to ask anybody anything, and they tell me.
One of my least favorite expressions in the entire world is "too much information." I'm thinking, Come sit by me.
As a pseudo-journalist, I get to justify all sorts of things as research, keep the receipts, and write them off. I watched a porn movie and then got paid to write about it. What's better than that?
Braff: Research, research, research.
Research was my best friend in this process. It's a creative team of one, an office of one. You can overuse it and use it improperly, but when it's there and you see something beautiful and you can take from it... I love research. I get a little euphoric in the library, deep in some Paris Review article that's going to matter to my piece. It's weird.
Hunt: And doesn't it seem like when you're working on a piece something happens where all of a sudden everything you see applies to what you're writing? Especially in the research. Maybe you'll have a book from the thirteenth century alongside a contemporary book and you're like, Yes! Here it is. These two books are saying the same thing to me. I'm meant to be writing about this.
Acito: As Lorraine says, it's like falling in love. I totally identify with that.
Adams: Last night we were asked about our habits of writing. Do you write five hundred words? Do you write standing up on a lectern from two to five? I said, "When I wrote Harbor I didn't have any male companionship, so at night I came home to this thing and it was like a lover, something you want to be with and you think about all day. A wonderful thing."
Dave: Tell me about something in your book, a favorite character, a line, a scene, something you're really proud of.
Hunt: Oh, no.
Headley: There's this one scene, and I don't know why I like it so much, but it's the start of one of my chapters, the start of a day. The main character, Eric, is walking his daughter Tess to school. They're walking along. It's cold outside. She moves her hand up to wipe her nose, but then she wipes it on his hand. All he says is, "Hey, use your other hand for that." He's not admonishing wiping your nose on your hand; it's just Don't use mine. The next time, she uses her other hand. It's just a reveal on the character and on their relationship and the kind of father he is. I like that one little moment.
Braff: I never wanted to ask the reader to feel for this boy. I never wanted them to feel like I was saying, "Feel sorry for him. Have feelings for him." If the reader is ever feeling manipulated by the writer, that's a big problem. I never like feeling that. The dance for me was to have it happen organically.
Now that people are reading the book I'm learning that I've achieved that. That was the climb of the process; I feel like I went and I earned that. I'm proud that it matters to people and it connects with individuals' own histories. It's a powerful thing to have strangers touched by what you've done.
Acito: My career path has been so misbegotten. I've gone down so many blind alleys with artistic pursuits. I've made so many detours that to sit down and write the book that I wanted to write has been so gratifying. There are certain things in the book that are especially pleasing to me, but what's most pleasing is the whole gestalt.
I saw an interview with Rob Marshall, who directed Chicago. He was talking about how he made the movie he wanted to make: it turned out exactly the way he wanted it to turn out. That happens so rarely as an artist.
It doesn't really matter whether it's the target anyone else wanted you to hit. You set your own task and you meet it. It's been so satisfying to me to write what I set out to write. It turned out the way I wanted it to.
Hunt: There's one thing I just thought of that reflects back to the conversation we had about research and how I felt like things would come together almost magically. It was when I found this quiz to join the Church of Scientology. Its questions were so bizarre. Does a quaking house make you scared? Things like that. It seemed to play so well into this idea of science that my character has she keeps thinking she's a scientist and also this idea of language at sea somehow. When the quiz came in at a really important scene where she's perhaps drowning herself, or maybe not, I was like, Yes!
That's probably not a scene that any reader would glom onto as being anything beautiful but because of the way it came to happen in my head, these different things pulling together, I love it. It's like a hard crystal now for me because I know how it came together.
Adams: I guess the thing I'm most proud about is that Harbor looks at people who are by and large invisible, people who are also part of what is certainly now a fairly despised population: Muslim-Arab young men in their twenties. To bring them to life, to make them human, to get inside their heads, to have it be that people who would never think of them have an opportunity to know them, that to me is the thing I like the best about what I did.
Powell's hosted the second stop of the 2004 First Fiction tour on October 18, 2004, at XV in downtown Portland.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State