Here is the interview in full:
- Did you add any scenes to the novel during the editing phase that you ended up loving?
There are many scenes that only exist because Ooligan editors pushed me to keep exploring more, keep developing characters more, and keep alert to underlying motivations in every interaction, in every scene.
One of my favorite added scenes is the very final one in the novel. After it was written and then edited a couple dozen times, I thought it was a good possibility for the end of a section late in the book, but I still wasn’t ready to settle on one thing if something else might present itself. I kept drafting various possible endings just to make sure. I liked a lot of what I came up with, but it was only opening up too many new details when the novel was already done. Cobi (Ooligan project manager) helped convince me that the ending was already there. So I polished it up and that final, inevitable sentence lands just right and brings the reader right back to the beginning again. The journey of two of the main characters culminates in that final line. It comes full circle. Without somebody else’s perspective, I think I would have missed it.
There are too many new scenes to count, really. I love one toward the middle of the manuscript that introduces a certain young woman (Emma) in a surprising moment with a character I thought had already made his grand exit from the book. But there he was showing up to speak like a proverbial Greek chorus, ushering in a shift in the narrative. It came out of left field, and it is so brief and yet so intimate and revealing. It came very late in the editing process. It is one of the most poignant and purposeful scenes in the whole novel for me.
To offer a little perspective, I recently did a file compare (using Notepad++) between the final document of the manuscript and the version I first submitted to Ooligan. After all the content we cut and all the stuff we added, I see that roughly 2/3 of this final version is completely new content. That’s pretty amazing to me. Some of the themes and characters are the same, but they are much more thoroughly realized.
- Did any minor characters become more important or major characters become less so?
Two minor female characters ended up becoming much richer and more complex and essential. Especially Emma. My original draft definitely would have failed the Mako Mori test. Emma was significant only in relation to the main male character. She was a kind of romantic reward for him after he grew the hell up. I was encouraged with each new draft to find out more about her. Now I think she inhabits the second half of the novel as a more fully realized character that has a journey of her own.
Early on, there was a lesbian couple that I thought for sure Oolie editors would want me to develop more, but we ended up removing those two characters when we saw that they were an unnecessary distraction in a section that was really about another character.
- What do you feel like you have grown most on as an author?
I’ve definitely grown in my ability to accept input from others into my writing. I had no idea how helpful and inspiring the influence of other voices would be. I’m better able to trust in the instincts of readers and editors. I have other minds to thank for pushing me to develop characters and scenes that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I thought I was done with the book many, many times in the last year-and-a-half or so. This may seem like pandering or preaching to the publishing choir, but I really mean it.
The largest take-away for me is a broader understanding of editing: different pairs of editing glasses to wear at different stages of a writing project. I am prone to editing mostly at the sentence level and get really hung up with inner criticism at the level of sentences and words. Turning off the editing mind to consciously develop or explore is often very difficult. Those editing muscles are working hard to reveal what needs improvement and what is falling flat. They are the muscles you build up in the university, so you can be very skilled as an editor and a critic and still have to keep learning to free yourself up to create something new that the editing process has suggested. Some people might be able to edit as they go and are very lucid and flexible that way. I have moments like that, but mostly I’m skilled at sabotaging forward progress in writing. Learning to be free is not a straightforward thing. You are never going to remove all the psychological and physical and economic obstacles in your path. And if you did, you might not have anything interesting to write about, anyway.
All that to say that I found it liberating to place myself in the hands of the editors and readers at Ooligan Press, giving myself a kind of permission to compose new content or develop existing content or adjust the tone of a section, knowing that a team of thoughtful, discerning editors were there to take at least some of the critical burden. They were a support rather than an obstacle or a threat. It ended up being a formative experience for me and essential to the novel. The process was akin to getting a Master of Arts degree in manuscript development and professional editing and marketing – but without adding more zeros to the end of my hefty student loan debt. Most things are better in the context of a community. It turns out that this book is definitely one of them.
- What was the greatest challenge you faced?
The choice to turn to the writing for 10 minutes here and there while also being prepared for interruptions from the people I love sometimes makes a creative existence seem impossible. It is one thing to prioritize responsibilities in your life in an abstract way, but to live them out is quite another. It is not easy to turn on a dime when there is the urgency of being emotionally available as a husband, a father, a brother, and an employee. There is so much to be attentive to, and I am not very good at being intellectually and emotionally present all the time. Sometimes, the writing had to suffer and not be all that I wanted it to be. I try to avoid neglecting the people I love over the work. My day job suffered at times, and that’s not good. It’s such a privilege to have a full-time job.
I might say that the greatest challenge during the re-development and editing of this novel was good old-fashioned physical weariness. Maybe that’s not a very interesting answer. Like if someone asks you about the hardest part of being in a marathon and you say: “The hardest part was all the running, when I would rather lay down and go to sleep instead.” So, I could say the greatest challenge I faced in writing this novel was the not-sleeping part of writing it. I did fall asleep a lot while writing, late at night. I’d get to the end of the day, and it was already late, but there was more writing to do, so I’d just stay conscious and writing until I wasn’t conscious anymore. There were some crazy sentences that took strange turns. I would jerk back awake and read what I had written in a semi-unconscious state and marvel at the turns of phrase. I should start keeping a list of those sentences, now that I think of it. Or maybe I should get more sleep. That’s an unhealthy way to end the day and I recommend it to no one. It’s less dangerous if you are writing on the couch or propped up in bed rather than sitting at a desk. That way you don’t have as far to fall. Oh, that’s terrible. Maybe you should edit out this part of the interview. Instead, just have me say: “There weren’t any challenges. I only write when I’m feeling inspired.”
- Which character went through the most development during the editing process?
The female characters, for sure. Marge, the prolific artist, grew from being a mere name into an important character with her own arc of development. Emma really came to life, with several new sections written from her unique third-person perspective. I think she was developed the most. I have Ooligan editors to thank for pushing me to bring her to life as a character, and how integrated she is into the narrative.
- Do you have any funny or enjoyable stories from the time you spent either working with your editors or on the manuscript?
There was some back-and-forth over a period of time between the team and I about a certain scene in which a certain young man meets a certain young woman, and I got stuck on wanting the introduction to play out in a way that I thought was funny and playful. It was essentially a trope from bad romantic comedies in which the clumsy love-struck guy meets the girl and makes a buffoon of himself, only my scene was having something like the opposite effect on the readers. It’s funny to me now. Maybe the editors don’t think so. I dialed back on the young man’s self-conscious, creepy interactions with the girl and turned it back in and heard back that pretty much everyone on the editing team hated the main character in that scene. So I dialed back more and resubmitted it. “No, we still hate him,” was essentially the answer. I’m glad that they persisted. It’s a much better section now, and there’s more depth to the humor, I think, now that the section is not trying so hard to be funny.
7. Which part of the novel are you most proud of now that it’s finished?
There is a section I really like that takes place around the Thanksgiving holiday. A couple of stories are woven together in that section in satisfying ways. There are two Thanksgiving meals happening at the same time and I love how they work back and forth to capture the how a holiday can play out in spite of everyone’s best intentions. There is that unique kind of intimacy and vulnerability around the holidays. In that section in the book, a handful of characters come to a potentially devastating crisis point. It had to get worse for them before it could get better. I really felt that section captured the crux where longing and disappointment could drive the narrative forward.
8. If you were to start a new novel today, what would you approach differently after this experience, if anything?
I’m glad for this question, because I’m working on another novel and I’m already finding myself digging some of the same pits that I dug and fell into the last time around. So it’s a good time to regroup and consider the possible answers to that question. I’m playing around with lots of characters who have their own stories and I can see that I am putting off some structural commitments and I’m also treating first drafts too much like late drafts. Too much messing with the rhythm of sentences and choosing specific, significant words when I don’t even know who the characters are or what makes them tick. I’m going to throw most of this work away before I figure out what this next novel really needs from me. And even then, I won’t know what it needs from readers or editors. I’d like to limit the amount of time I spend obsessing over every single sentence every single day. It’s so easy to get lost in the weeds and mistake it for doing the important, careful work of an artist. I’d like to be able to relax my critical standards a little more in the first drafts – pace myself knowing that first drafts don’t have to be polished early on at the sentence level with quite as much care as I’ve given them in the past. I know large chunks are going to be dropped altogether, and that’s harder to do if you’ve brought all your creative and critical faculties to bear on first drafts. If you are working with clay, you are going to have to be willing to throw away those first few ashtrays and warped bowls. Please throw them away. Anne Lamott said it much better in Bird by Bird: You’ve got to give yourself permission to write those “shitty first drafts“.
Going forward, I would also like to be more conscious of the bigger picture and purposefully set aside time to consider the work as a whole. I’d like to put the “whole-part-whole” idea into practice. But what would that look like? That might look like sketching rough outlines and adjusting as I go, throwing out the ones that aren’t working. Or moving 3×5 cards around on a big piece of carpet. I’ve got a long way to go. No doubt I’ll do things the hard way in endlessly creative new ways! Sometimes that is the path where there wouldn’t otherwise be one.
8. Is there any advice you would like to give to aspiring authors now that you’re almost published?
Run away! Take up photography instead! Watch Breaking Bad again! It’s a really complex, amazing show! Find out if you are really just interested in consuming entertainment. There are plenty of great TV shows to consume out there. And they keep coming, don’t they? When will they make the last good TV show and be done with making things that I don’t have time to enjoy? And now there’s a series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m eager to see it, but I’m even more interested in hearing anything and everything that Atwood has to say about it.
I’m only partly kidding about running away. The biggest thing for aspiring writers I would say is that writing is hard work. You can’t sustain the fantasy that it should somehow be otherwise for you because you are more special or more committed than other aspiring writers. You aren’t sitting down to be entertained by the gods or to entertain yourself. At times it can be a thrill and it feels more like play, but we are easily deceived by whatever pleasures or rewards writing can offer. Exhilarating work is still work. Is it work, or is it play? And the answer is “yes.” Does it sometimes feel like it comes easily or naturally? Yes. But did it really come easily? No. Writing doesn’t offer the rhythmic endorphin hit you get scrolling down the screen clicking on memes. Are you up for the work it is going to take to become successful as a writer? It is going to be harder than you think. You are submitting to forces and to a process that you can’t fully control. There is maybe a tiny bit more control if you self-publish, and there is no shame in doing that, but even that is going to introduce hard work. Probably harder than you think. If my next novel can’t find a home, I’m not above self-publishing it in some capacity and then moving on to the next project.
Another thing that comes to mind is the particular environment you are trying to learn and grow in. I’m finding my new work being nearly smothered by this post-2016 American landscape. If defiance toward the powers that be helps get you motivated, then great. Write something beautiful as an act of resistance. Make sense of who you are and what you have to say by writing. But that kind of defiant passion probably won’t sustain you in the long run. It’s going to be hard in the coming years to even hear yourself talk as an artist in America. The zeitgeist is like a big black hole of fear. Gravity is pulling people toward–or against–self-preservation. Words like “peace” and “safety” and “empathy” are becoming ham-fisted and politicized. Some things that need to be said take longer than anyone has time for. I find respite in stories that haven’t been overly appropriated. Fables and sacred texts and poetry and novels. Instead of being dragged around by the nose into whatever the CEO of the United States of America is saying today, I try to take sabbaticals from it. If I give the tyrant a half hour of my day every day, and a huge chunk of my emotional attention, I’ve become lost. Take 5 minutes every single day to sow other kinds of seeds. Read a poem a day. One of the best things you can do as a writer. Read a poem every day. Vote with your wallet, no matter how little money there is there. Buy a book of poetry.
As far as becoming a writer goes, Mark Twain’s advice to someone who wanted to know if they were a gifted writer or not was to go write for 5 years and then they would be closer to an answer. I wrote for more like 13 years before getting a novel-length work published, though I wasn’t writing that whole time. Actually, I wrote a couple hundred pages of a novel with a friend in Jr. High, so it’s actually been more like 30 years. So waiting a set period of time for an answer to whether you are going to be a talented writer or not is a bit dubious. Of course, Mark Twain was winking at us, as he often does. The truth is that there is no answer. There is only the work that is in front of you to do or not do. You find out what you really wanted to do in retrospect. “But I really want to write!” Be honest. Get help if you see that years of anguish are going by. Or let it go. No, really. Go help plant native vegetation along a suffering creek or river. Go build a tiny house. Learn to bake bread. Take William Stafford’s poem, You Reading this Be Ready, and make it your daily practice: “What can anyone give you greater than now, starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?”