In January of this year, eight months before its release date, the buzz was already starting to build for Bill Clegg's Did You Ever Have a Family
. Bookseller colleagues were passing around the few advance reader copies we could get a hold of and telling each other, "You have to read this!" Four major review sites — Kirkus
, Publishers Weekly
, Library Journal
, and Booklist
— all gave it a starred review, and recently the Man Booker Prize committee longlisted it for the 2015 award.
Did You Ever Have a Family is Clegg's debut novel, but the author is no stranger to the publishing world. He has worked for years as a literary agent and written two bestselling memoirs, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days, both of which won wide acclaim for their candidness about addiction.
A heartbreakingly beautiful story filled with hope, loss, and redemption, Did You Ever Have a Family follows several characters as they try to piece their lives back together in the aftermath of a devastating accident. Michael Cunningham raves, "The force, range, and scope of Bill Clegg's Did You Ever Have a Family will grab you with its opening lines, and won't let go until its final one. I can't recall another novel that so effortlessly weds a nuanced, lyrical voice to an unflinching vision of just how badly things can go for people." Darin Strauss adds, "You hold in your hands a great book of kindness — every restrained, exquisite sentence comes loaded for bear. It's been a lot of years since a novel has so moved me. Number Bill Clegg among that endangered species: major American writer." We couldn't agree more, which is why we're thrilled to have chosen it for Volume 55 of Indiespensable.
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Shawn Donley: Your first two books were bestselling memoirs. Why did you decide to transition to fiction for this new book?
Bill Clegg: The transition wasn't as clean as it might appear from the outside. I had actually begun writing the novel in fits and starts, sort of in and around writing both memoirs.
At the time it was just getting ideas out of my head and down in a file, which is not unusual. The unusual part was that it kept on growing. Then, after I had written the books, there was just something about it that had a center of gravity. And I kept on coming back to it until it was finished.
Shawn: Is the process of writing fiction different for you?
Clegg: The experience is different. It's much more joyful. There's more curiosity; there's less known insight. There's that crackle of surprise and wonder connected to it. Whereas with a memoir, it's a transcription with noted ends. It has different satisfactions, pleasures, and meaning.
With fiction, it has this very alive, unfolding feeling when I'm writing. It's a different dynamic.
Shawn: What authors have had the biggest influence on your style as a novelist?
Clegg: Gosh, I don't know in terms of style. In terms of method, one of the earliest novels I represented was a novel called The Story of a Million Years by David Huddle. It bloomed out of a short story he wrote for Story magazine, which no longer exists.
That book depicts the aftereffects of a relationship that this woman has when she's a teenager. It traces the ripple effects through all the relationships in her later life, and how this teenage relationship is still sort of alive in the relationships that she has with her husband and her friends and other people. It moved through a variety of different perspectives and is pretty nimble in its chronology. That had a deep impact on me.
So I think in terms of how I approached this novel, that has been on my mind for a long time: the idea that a chorus of voices is getting closer and closer to a kind of truth — or further away, as in my piece.
I think probably every book I've read has something to do with how I write. That is the one that comes to mind today. If you ask me tomorrow, I might have a different experience.
Shawn: Your book is structured in alternating chapters told from the point of view of different characters. The stories of the three main protagonists — June, Lydia, and Silas — are told in the third person, while for everyone else you use a first-person point of view. Why did you choose this unique approach?
Clegg: Well, it was a choice that happened later. I actually wrote Lydia's chapters in the first person. Somehow it just sprung to life in the first person. Then later, after I'd written more of the book, I would go back and it sort of rang off to me. It sounded more like me and less like her.
It didn't sound authentic, but it was as close as I could get to how I imagined she would sound and what she would say. But then when I moved into third person, I was pleased because I think I got a closer intimacy with her than by speaking in the first person.
The book began seven years ago with just three words: "She will go." I knew those were the first three words of the book. Eventually it then became the first three words of the second chapter.
It was clear that these were the three characters I was interested in the most. The book centered on the three of them and their connection to one another. And then around them, these voices would tell the story of who they were, the places that they lived, and the communities they were involved in.
Shawn: Seven years is a long time to spend with these characters. Were there ones you felt a particular affinity with?
Clegg: It depended on when. The one who moved me the most was a character who doesn't even have a section of his own — Will. I became very interested in him and his impact on the people in and around Moclips, and his relationship to Cissy.
Some characters were tougher than others, without a doubt. There were challenges with each of them. Also, because I didn't write this in one streak or in one discrete period of time, I would go away from the writing and come back to it. There would oftentimes be several chapters still unfinished that were going at once.
So, depending on which way the wind blew, I would end up back with Cissy for a while, and then I would work on June. It depended on what mood I was in and what ideas were rattling around in my head at the time and who connected most to them.
Shawn: The book begins with an accident, which is emotionally devastating for several of the characters. How did the story come about?
Clegg: The story turned out initially because I was interested in writing about a town similar to the one I grew up in. I think in writing the memoirs and reoccupying that place, which is a place I hadn't lived in for 25 years, there were parts of those memories that led to thinking about where I'm from.
It was a small town in rural Connecticut. It has a full time population and a weekend population and a summer population. There's a fair bit of tension and friction between those communities. They live in the same place, but they're absolutely not coming from the same place.
A lot of times these communities are really in no small part supported by the population that comes and buys the nice houses and has their lawns mowed and houses cleaned. They build garages and pools and throw dinner parties.
There's all sorts of service that goes in and around the projects of having a country house. That's how I was employed through high school and college and after college, doing landscaping and gardening and that kind of work. I pulled a lot of weeds, clipped a lot of hedges, and cleared brush and chopped wood. Anything that those people needed.
Shawn: A bit like the character Silas in the book?
Clegg: Yeah [laughs]. His experience is one that I was writing from my own.
Shawn: As you mentioned, much of the story takes place in this fictitious town in Connecticut, but a lot of it also takes place here in the Pacific Northwest in a little motel on the coast. It's a place June's daughter calls "the edge of the world." You did a great job of capturing the essence of this part of the country. Did you spend much time here?
Clegg: I haven't spent that much time in the area. I spent a little time in and around Portland. I've been to Seattle a fair bit. But never for any great length.
But at one point, some friends and I drove from Portland to Astoria. It had an impact on me. It's just a very particular place. It reminded me a little bit of New England, but different, very different. And distinctly western and moody. Those beaches are so broad and empty and foggy and melancholy. And when I thought of where June would end up, that was instantly what occurred to me. I remember picturing that before I wrote anything about it.
Shawn: The book's title, Did You Ever Have a Family, comes from a line in the poem "Song and Dance" by Alan Shapiro. Was this the working title all along, or did it come later in the writing process?
Clegg: I had that title for a long time. And for many, many years when I first read that poem, it was because a writer I represented, Haven Kimmel, had used it as an epigraph to her book. The novel was Something Rising (Light and Swift). It's a great novel.
When she chose that line for her epigraph, I read the poem and I was gobsmacked by it. I felt like it was a punch to the gut. I identified with it. I was moved by it. And I thought about it a lot after. I was convinced it was the greatest title for a novel.
In fact, before I even started writing this, I had at various times suggested it to writers that I work with. They'd finish their novel and they wouldn't have a title. Or there would be a title that got rejected by the publisher, and we'd suddenly have to scramble and figure out what the right one was.
So I would haul this one out every once in a while. It's a title that could fit a lot of novels, I think. And nobody would take it. Thank God.
Although I do have a friend who at one point was describing a novel he was working on, and I told him it sounded like a line from an Alan Shapiro poem. He was like, "Oh my God. That's it. That's the title of my novel. Can I use it?" And I said yes.
The next day, I actually felt sick about giving it to him. I called him a couple days later and I said that I'd been thinking about the title. And he was like, "My publisher loved it! I'm so excited."
Then, I think, eight months later, I was having lunch with his editor and she was bragging about his book. I said "Yes, he has the best title in the world." I sort of said it spitefully. And she was like, "What are you talking about?"
I said, "Did You Ever Have a Family." She said, "Oh, actually the president of the company really didn't support that title, and just in the last few weeks we changed it."
I called my friend and asked, "Is it true? Is it true?" And I took that title back. It was like a puppy I'd given away and I clutched it to my chest: I'll never give you away again.
It commenced the period of time where I actually worked more seriously and intensely on the book. There were many times along the way where I thought, Oh, I'll probably never finish this, or I'd get busy with other things. But somehow when I got the title back, that was when I took the book seriously and made the commitment to myself to finish it.
Shawn: You've worked in the book industry for many years as a literary agent. It's an occupation that has a certain mystery and glamour to it. Is the public perception of this job very different from what the job actually entails?
Clegg: I have no idea how people think of literary agents. Truthfully I don't think they think of them very often. If there is a misconception, it might be the illusion that the literary agent has the power to determine what the publishers will buy, or what they'll get behind, or how much they'll pay.
I can only speak from my own experience. I know what I react to and get excited about, and sometimes other editors and publishers will get excited. And sometimes I'll have a very difficult time finding a kindred spirit. I expect I'll have a difficult time when I approach the selling of each book, because to have the opposite expectation is just too devastating.
So I just deal with it and don't presume that other people will necessarily see it or understand it. And I do my best to translate. It's really such a subjective thing. The alchemy between a book and a person is really... that's what's so mysterious about the job. It's very hard to explain why one book becomes successful and another doesn't. Or why one book demands a great advance or a meager advance, or is published by an illustrious house or one that is less known.
The truth is just as mysterious to me, even though I'm inside the process. There are times when I'll send a manuscript to an editor, and I'll think it is the most likely project I've ever sent them. And they might call me the next morning and say they couldn't tolerate it.
That happens so frequently that I've given up any expectation of knowing what anybody's going to like. I just have to follow my own instincts, and try and stay close to work that interests and excites and challenges me. Because, otherwise, the job just becomes... I might as well be a banker.
Shawn: Has your work as an agent informed the writing of any of your books?
Clegg: If what I said earlier is true, that every book I've ever read influences how I write, then sure, of course. But in terms of the experience of it, all the knowledge in the world, or experience in the world as an agent, won't make you less vulnerable to criticism. You become just like everyone else. You've worked on something that matters to you, and it makes you vulnerable.
Shawn: Peter Mendelsund, a well-known book cover designer, has said how difficult it was to design the cover of his own book, What We See When We Read. Did you serve as your own agent for this book, or did you have someone else take on that role?
Clegg: I have an agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. And I believe in agents. There's a lot that goes into the publication of a book. And I'm very grateful to have somebody as formidable as she is, and supportive.
Shawn: Was it difficult for you to step back and let go?
Clegg: No, it was a relief, without a doubt. In fact, it's a luxury. If those are the things that I do for my job every day, then to have somebody else do them for me is an anomaly, and is well received.
Shawn: Your first two books dealt with your struggles with addiction. Do you ever regret being so open in discussing your personal life?
Clegg: No. I certainly had anxiety about it, as I was doing it and before the books got published. Most of the people who I hear from still, with regard to those two books, have some connection to the issues involved — whether they are related to an addict or an alcoholic or whether they themselves are struggling with alcohol or drugs or are in recovery. When I get emails or Facebook messages or letters describing some type of identification with the story or some way in which it was useful, then any fears or regrets I had just vanish.
No, I don't regret it at all. I'm grateful that I didn't blink and give in to the fears I had about doing it.
Shawn: Does writing play an ongoing role in your recovery?
Clegg: No, writing is possible because I'm in recovery. But writing is not really in service or in support of my recovery. Recovery is an ongoing project that is really discrete from everything else in my life.
It allows me to be an agent, allows me to write, allows me to be married, allows me to be part of a family. The writing is not a support beam of recovery, but a happy consequence of it.
Shawn: As an agent, I'm sure you're usually busy reading manuscripts of books not yet published, but do you have any favorite books that have come out in the last year or so?
Clegg: I'm rereading Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation. I love it, and she's just a magician. Line by line and paragraph by paragraph, it's mesmerizing and so intricately plotted and so nimble. I think she's great.
I spend a lot of time reading my clients' work because they're writers who I would read on my own and buy their books. Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies is a great novel that's coming out in September. I'm excited about that.
Shawn: We're excited about it, too.
Clegg: Ottessa Moshfegh is another client whose novel, Eileen, I'm still kind of in awe of. I'm excited by everything she does, whether it's a short story or a novel or an essay. Have you read her?
Shawn: I haven't.
Clegg: Oh, God. Go right away. Get a galley or I'll send you one. It's great. It's really unusual. It's about a woman remembering the last weeks of her life in this town outside Boston.
She lives with her alcoholic father who's a cop that has been forced out of his job because he's a drunk. She works as a secretary in a juvenile correctional facility for boys. She ends up getting embroiled in a kind of kidnapping with a colleague.
It's all through this lens, this kind of long-ago memory of her flight from the town that she was trapped in. But it's hilarious and dark and fierce. She's a very exciting writer. She's had a lot of stories published in the Paris Review. Each one is a miracle.