on writing and publishing an "experimental" novel

Felix The Cat

What Rilke said: Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. ― Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

I didn’t find my voice until I was 37. I’d been writing for as long as I could remember, and in my first poem–a haiku, was published in my elementary school annual–I likened my mother’s voice to thunder. I was in second grade. Throughout my childhood I was routinely called into the guidance counselor’s office, a copy of a story I’d written in her hands–is something wrong at home? Always whispered, always asked in that measured voice people use when speaking to someone for whom English is not their first language. Because who writes stories about sad girls who hang themselves from trees? How is it possible to be a child and filled with rage? Of course something was wrong at home. Something was always wrong at home and out of it.

No, nothing’s wrong, I’d say. And I’d keep writing my stories and continue to lose writing contests because what kind of PTA would award a story to a girl who wrote about death so comfortably? So I lost out to happy endings.

You are dark, was everyone’s refrain, always. A few words mumbled like a record skipping. People seemed to be afraid of the words I’d arranged on paper, and in turn, they seemed anxious around me, the small child who’d created them. A child who seemed unnaturally comfortable with sitting in the dark. A child who didn’t speak much and read a lot, who didn’t understand the petty politics of living in Long Island–a seemingly foreign country to which I’d emigrated. And trust me, if you’ve been to Long Island and Brooklyn in the late 80s, you’ll understand the two might as well have been continents.

In college I set aside my stories and studied accounting, futures and options, mergers and acquisitions, and corporate finance. I memorized ratios (quick: current assets/current liabilities), navigated the fine art of the abbreviation (EBITDA, FIFO, LIFO), and considered Wall Street and American Psycho with interest. I was so finance that when I submitted a story I’d written for the college literary magazine, the editor came up to me with my story in his hands and asked if I’d really written it. Because a woman who calculates debt and drinks an unusual amount of alcohol could never write about growing up in a home that felt like a prison.

When I received a call from Judy Budnitz that I’d been admitted into the Columbia writing program, I kept her on the phone for an hour trying to convince me that this wasn’t some sort of prank. I’d written a very early (and very messy) draft of my first book and what fancy school would accept that? When I left a job at Morgan Stanley to pursue my MFA at Columbia, everyone thought I was getting a masters in financial accounting (this doesn’t exist). When I said I wanted to write, my boss said, genuinely confused: why would you want to do that?

Columbia was a wonderful, terrible nightmare. Everyone seemed to have majored in creative writing and English in college while I didn’t even understand the rudimentary elements of formatting a short story. (What is 3rd person? What is omniscient?) I was 24 and I routinely left workshops sobbing. Imagine being on an operating table, wide awake, enduring a dissection without anesthesia–that’s workshop. I left after a semester because I had a drug problem and when I returned in 2002 I was further tormented because everyone went “experimental.” The line was tantamount, and if you didn’t write like Joy Williams, Ben Marcus, Christine Schutt (I took a workshop with her and she was lovely), or Lydia Davis, you might as well not.

Family stories are done, a girl with blank eyes said to me as we were discussing a short story I’d written–characters who would find their way into my second novel, albeit in a different form, nearly a decade later. After workshop? You guessed it. Sobbing.

I finally got a backbone but still didn’t have a voice. I read voraciously. I experimented. I copied and embarrassed myself. I knew what I was writing–the style, the content–bored me, but I didn’t know anything else. Until I started editing my first book when I told my editor that presenting the story in a linear way wouldn’t work. When I said that parts of the book had to be deliberately vague, out-of-focus, because that’s what writing about my life felt like. I started to play with short chapters, strange imagery and narrative devices–much of which my editor encouraged me to tone down because writing should never call attention to itself. And while I believe that to an extent, and while I revere my first editor, I felt a belt tightening around my neck.

I talk a lot about a job I took, hated, and left in 2013. For four years I didn’t write. And what I did write should probably be torched.

In 2013 I found myself in Biarritz during off-season. It was chilly, rainy, and I spent much of my time in this tiny town staring out at the ocean. I spent most of my days inspecting rocks. I came back to my hotel one night and the first chapter of what would be my second book came like a torrent. I’d written a story about a woman’s hair catching fire in a hotel room–revenge enacted by the daughter of a father having an affair while his wife lay dying. I wrote 18 pages in one sitting and referenced Ishiguro, The Shining, barnacles and Goya’s black paintings. After, I felt like the days when I’d wake from a hangover, inspecting my receipts to see where I’d been, what I’d done.

This story, in form and content, felt like nothing I’d ever written and I liked it. That summer was one of the worst I’ve known, and there was no other way to make sense of it other than writing in a fragmented stutter.

First substantial revision, December 2013
First substantial revision, December 2013

It’s taken me nearly three years to write, edit and have my novel acquired. And the process felt like prolonged surgery, a bandaid slowly sawed off. The story didn’t reveal itself in the first draft, but rather the FOURTH. I restructured the book three times, deleted over 150 pages and wrote 170 new ones. I was attempting a project that had multiple points-of-view, moved between past/present tense, and battled with a narrative that was the antithesis of linear, and an unreliable, unlikeable main character. Over the past three weeks I’ve restructured the book, again, and added three new chapters–and I’m finally excited by the pacing (the story FINALLY moves) and how I’ve tidied up some of the plot elements I’d left dangling.

I started to read books and think, you’re like me. It’s less about stroking my ego but more the comfort of finding other strange people like me who can do what I do, only better (Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lydia Millet, Susan Minot’s latest novel). Even though writing and editing my novel was a painful, exhausting process, I’ve finally found my voice and style–elliptical, a hybrid of traditional/experimental fiction, dark, acerbic, comic, drawing on outside cultural references to complement/augment my story. In my novel, I’ve incorporated a barrage of cultural references, including: film (Psycho, Carnival of Souls), art (Goya, Marlene Dumas), writing/documentaries/cult figures (Don Delillo, Bret Easton Ellis, Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kira Henehan, friend + primary reader, Dante, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Jim Baker–just to name a few). By the by, listening to Ted Bundy for seven hours straight does things to you.

And all of this feels right.

My agent will likely shoot me for writing this but my road to publication was…challenging. While I received some critical, constructive feedback, most of the responses fell into two camps: editors who didn’t get the story and editors who got it but were afraid of it. The former is bound to happen because finding an editor is like getting married–two perfectly wonderful people who simply don’t connect for one reason or another. The second camp was a bit more frustrating. Editors found it too dark, the character of Kate unlikable, unrelatable (I wanted to gouge out my eyes when I heard either statement because is PAT BATEMAN likeable/relatable?). Many of the editors loved it (can we see more, does she have something else?) but felt it was too experimental to find a large audience (i.e. we won’t sell enough to warrant acquisition). And although I worked with my agent (he was an editor in a previous life) to make the narrative smoother and apply the feedback we thought would make for a stronger draft, I’m grateful that I have someone in my corner who didn’t ask me to compromise my style. Every revision focused on making the book better, clearer for what I was trying to do–rather than shaping it to a traditional, linear narrative, a place to which I refused to go.

Throughout the process I felt all the emotions–sad, bitter, angry, heartbroken. More so when author friends of mine chided me, assured me that SO MANY EXPERIMENTAL BOOKS ARE BEING PUBLISHED. See those ten titles over there by our friends? See the small circle of people continually ushering their strange work out into the world? I was angry not because the strange work was getting published (THANK GOD IT WAS/IS), but that some of my friends live under the illusion that publishing tough books amidst the sea of same is easy.

It’s not easy. I’ve worked in book publishing (marketing), published a successful online/print journal, wrote two books and lots of short stories, and it is never easy. What keeps me motivated is the fact that this is the only thing I love doing. And while I sometimes shy away from creative writing books and anything bordering on self-help, I felt much of what Elizabeth Gilbert says is spot-on. It’s fear that keeps us alive. It’s our love for the work that makes everything else, even the business of the work, easier to bear.

And then we found Jennifer Baumgardner + Clarissa Wong at The Feminist Press. The entire team got the book, and didn’t want me to “soften” Kate or change her in any way. (Kate is essentially the female Pat Bateman without the Cerruti suits and taste for carnage, with a little plot twist thrown in for good measure). The point was more about writing complicated characters instead of likeable ones. As I finalize my manuscript, I’m excited for the editorial feedback. More importantly, I’m glad my strange little book found a home with people who believe in me and Kate.

I’m actually sad that after after fifteen years of being with some of these characters (Columbia classmates might recognize Gillian, James and Emma–now Ellie–in a different form in my novel), I’m letting them go.

Now to find more strange people to fall in love with longer enough to stay interested in writing about them.

This post ended up being a little longer than I imagined! Haha! And while I’m by no means an expert, if you have any questions about writing, publishing, book recommendations for people who write strange fiction, leave a comment! I’m toying with the idea of video responses 🙂

book buff