Debut Novelist Interviews

Anjali Mitter Duva’s Debut Novel of Ancient India

At The Muse and the Marketplace writers’ conference earlier this month, I enjoyed an historical fiction panel featuring several authors, including debut novelist Anjali Mitter Duva. Bret Anthony Johnston, author most recently of the brilliant novel Remember Me Like This, offered these words about Anjali’s book: Faint Promise of Rain is a gorgeous book, a story that is at once spare and lush, wrenching and restoring. The characters are so fully realized, so keenly nuanced, that they linger with you long after the last page, like the sweet smell of a recent storm.”

VP: It was great meeting you at The Muse and Marketplace in Boston. I gather you’ve been involved with Grub Street for some time. What have you gained from being part of a writers’ organization? How has it helped you as a writer?

AMD: I owe so much to Grub Street. Honestly, the workshops, the instructors, the camaraderie I gained from that organization are what enabled me to take the leap and turn my writing into more than just a hobby. In 2007, I took my first workshop at Grub. It was Lisa Borders’ ten week Novel in Progress class. There were twelve of us, all writing our first novels, all doing so while juggling jobs, children, life. I was mid-way through my first draft, just starting to admit to myself I was writing a book. That summer was my first experience in showing my writing to perfect strangers, people knew nothing about me, and very little about the setting of my book, 16th century India. It was a tremendously validating experience. Of course my chapters needed work, but the class, and the instructor, genuinely enjoyed and admired many aspects of my writing, and provided tremendously helpful feedback. They made me believe I could do this.

When the class ended, I was afraid to lose the camaraderie and the feedback. It turned out I wasn’t the only one. I’d hit it off with another participant, Crystal King, writer of historical fiction set in Rome, and we decided to continue to meet, on our own. That was the start of a fabulous writing group that grew to include two more members, Jennifer Dupee and Kelly Robertson. We have been meeting every two weeks for seven years now, and we go on an annual writing retreat in June. These women have become dear friends, and have seen me, and supported me, through the entire writing and publishing journey. And I met them all through Grub Street classes.

Then there’s the annual conference, The Muse and the Marketplace. I met my agent there in 2010—in fact, that year I met two agents who both offered to represent me—and for the past two years I’ve been honored to be a presenter as well as an attendee. The conference is like a shot of writing adrenaline for me. I get to let go of all my other responsibilities, immerse myself with my “tribe” of literary folks, meet up with old friends, make new ones, learn from craft and business pros, and now, share some of my own learnings. I feel very fortunate to be writing in the Boston area, where there’s such a strong literary community.

PHOTO: Penny Lennox

PHOTO: Penny Lennox

VP: Your novel, Faint Promise of Rain, is set in Rajasthan in 1554. How did you decide to write a novel set in India?

AMD: I am half Indian, and grew up going regularly to India. In 1985 we lived there for a year, and traveled a lot. One of our destinations was Rajasthan, a desert state in the Northwest part of the country. It is a magical place, truly. Citadels and temples rise out of the sand, the sky is a searing blue, the textiles are jewel-toned, the history is colorful and full of legend. When I returned there with my husband in 2001, I felt that magic again, and I knew I needed to set a story there.

That year, I also began my study of kathak, one of the classical dance forms of India. Kathak is a storytelling art, and its history parallels that of India. With origins as a devotional dance practiced in Hindu temples, it was brought into Muslim courts and became an entertainment art under the Mughal Empire. It flourished, in part in courtesan circles, until the British outlawed it in the 1860s. After some decades underground, it resurfaced as India resurrected its national arts during its struggle for independence. Today, it’s a dynamic, mesmerizing art form performed on stages around the world.

What I learned through studying the dance and co-founding a non-profit dedicated to it led to a desire to write about it. And as a branch of this art form has roots in Rajasthan, there it was: the story I wanted to write had found me. I set Faint Promise of Rain during a time of transition in Rajasthan, at the start of Muslim rule in India, and am now working on Book 2, which takes place at the end of the Mughal Empire and the start of British rule.

VP: Was it very difficult to research such an early time period, or did you find it liberating to write a story set so long ago?

AMD: It was, as you suggest, rather liberating. I did a lot of research, of course, but there’s not very much written about that period of time in Jaisalmer, the town in which the story is set. I did a lot of reading about that time period in general, about the Mughal Empire, about the legends and myths relevant to that part of the world. Part of my research had already been done by the time I started writing: my visits to Jaisalmer. The images and impressions of the city were vivid in my mind, and the fact that it is a historic site and very protected means that not much has changed, physically, inside the citadel. No cars are allowed, very little construction is possible. If you remove the cell phones and power lines, the city looks much the way it did 500 years ago. Much of my research ended up being about the dance itself, including the kinetic experience of studying it, being on the dance floor, learning the movements. What was most difficult was ensuring that I had the fauna and flora right; that I didn’t use expressions or words that had not been coined at the time, that type of thing. But with access to so much via Internet, all this is feasible.

VP: You’ve done a great job of sharing your novel with a broader audience. Can you offer suggestions to writers at the beginning of their publishing journey?

AMD: Anyone who publishes a book these days undoubtedly learns a lot. My main advice to pass on to writers just beginning their journey is this:

“To thine own self be true,” as Polonius tells Laertes in Hamlet. Write the story you want to write, how you want to write it. Seek out the publishing experience that makes the most sense for you and for your personality, be it traditional, partner publishing, self-publishing. Don’t do things just because you feel pressure that you “should.” Focus on activities that give you energy, and try to avoid those that suck it away.

Think creatively. There are a lot of new opportunities out there, for publishing, for marketing. Those who get noticed, other than producing great work of course, are those who break the mold a bit, do things that people don’t expect.

Become a part of a literary community, and be a literary citizen—through classes, with a writing group, by attending literary events, by supporting other writers, by buying from bookstores. There is tremendous energy and inspiration to be gained through this, and in addition to benefiting the entire community, these activities help build a writer’s network. And as any newly published author will tell you, a network is key.

Kim Church Talks About Byrd

ByrdI've loved getting to know Kim Church, whose debut novel, Byrd, came out earlier this year from Dzanc Books. I've admired Dzanc for years and have enjoyed every book I've read from them, so I wasn't surprised to discover that Byrd is a beautifully written, honest story that follows the arc of a woman's life from the time she meets the cool guy in high school who winds up fathering her child, to when she's an older woman, looking back on her decision to put that child up for adoption. I was most struck by the subtle way Kim gets inside her characters' heads, especially her protagonist, Addie. I was eager to ask her some questions about how she wrote Byrd: VP: I’m so happy for you that Byrd has received such fine recognition. I wonder if you can share with us your path to writing this wonderful first novel and to its publication?

KC: Thanks, Ginny. Years ago a friend told me about a woman—an independent, single, capable woman—who had an unplanned pregnancy in her thirties and decided to give up her baby for adoption. I was fascinated. How had she made the decision; how did she live with it? I didn’t press my friend for details, but I couldn’t stop wondering: how would it feel, being mother to a child who would forever be absent from you, by your own choice? I’d never come across such a character in literature. So I wrote one.

It took me ten years, off and on, to write Addie’s story—five to write the first manuscript, five more after I realized I had to start over. It took several more years to find and agent and a publisher. Not a short project, this book. But writing it taught me how to write a novel. And I ended up with the right agent, and she found the right press.

VP: Byrd is set in North Carolina, where you live. I wonder if some elements of it are autobiographical, or if that was a concern of yours—to both write what you know while also creating afresh?

KC: I borrowed details from places I’ve lived or spent time, but I took extreme liberties. I invented and changed and rearranged details to suit the story. (Sort of like when my husband and I were in New York staying in a nondescript building in a neighborhood we weren’t familiar with. A movie was being filmed nearby, and on our first day, while we were out, the filmmaker changed all the street signs.)

One thing I love about writing fiction is how it teaches you to see even the most familiar places through fresh eyes. To pay attention to things you ordinarily take for granted.

VP: Your novel is written in short sections interspersed with letters and asides. I wonder if you can talk about the structure you chose to tell this story. It seems to fit your characters perfectly and I wonder if you were trying to capture something about memory and loss.

Kim Church, author of BYRDKC: The structure evolved from the story. My first draft was a linear first-person narrative from Addie’s point of view. When I began to revise, I realized first-person didn’t work: Addie doesn’t know enough to tell the whole story. So I—gulp—started over, writing from every point of view I could think of. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose the intimacy of first person; I wanted to keep Addie’s voice—which I did through her letters to Byrd, her absent son. The book ended up with a fairly intricate structure, but it worked, at least for me. It gave me access to the whole story. And, as you say, it also led me to think more about missed connections and missed opportunities and the slipperiness of memory and just how little people actually know about each other.

VP: In the months since Byrd came out, I’m sure you’ve been busy with social media and events, but I’m curious what you’re working on next?

KC: I’ve started a second novel set during the Gastonia textile strike of 1929, a defining and shameful episode in North Carolina labor history that never gets talked about. I grew up in this state; my paternal grandparents worked in cotton mills all their lives; yet I knew nothing of the Gastonia strike or the much larger general strike of 1934 until long after their deaths.

VP: Any last thoughts for aspiring writers? This is your chance to offer a pep talk or any unexpected tips.

KC: What I’d say to aspiring writers: read, write. Write and write and write until you know who you are as a writer, until you recognize what’s unique and authentic about your voice, until you’ve figured out how you work. Then trust yourself. Have a reader or two you can trust, too, because you can’t be right all the time.

The other thing I’d say is, things usually work out. Maybe not exactly when or how you’ve imagined, but if you keep at it, if you can figure out what’s yours to write and write it as well as you can and keep yourself open to possibility, something good will come.

Megan Mayhew Bergman

Birds of a Lesser Paradise made a splash when it came out in March, 2012. It’s not easy to be noticed for a debut novel, more of less for a short story collection which tend to have a smaller readership, so the positive reception by The New York Times and other reviewers was noteworthy. It didn’t hurt that the first story in the collection, which also happens to be one of my favorites, had been included in The Best American Short Stories 2011. Polly Rosenwaike in the Times explained why these pieces work brilliantly and are so memorable: “We want stories to stir our desires. We also want them to lead us to places we don’t recognize and build us a temporary residence there. Bergman provides alluring glimpses into the strangeness, the ruthlessness, of the animal kingdom.” And, I might add, of the human heart as well. I'm honored to be speaking alongside Megan at the James River Writers Conference on October 19-20 in Richmond, Virginia. In advance of that always-wonderful event, I wanted to get to know her better. I’m delighted to share here an interview with Megan about how Birds of a Lesser Paradise came to such rewarding fruition.

VP: Your debut book publication is a collection of short stories. I wonder what drew you to that form and if you’re still as intrigued by it now as you were when you first started writing?

MMB: Perhaps it’s my southern heritage—I grew up with the sound and length of a sermon in my head, a short narrative with a sucker-punch, a focus on sound and distillation. When I was a student, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty spoke to me from the page, and it was a language I knew. Plus, there was my dad spinning yarns at the dinner table. My inner framework for stories is short, and it’s often southern and sound-oriented.

I love what the short story can do. There’s a mix of freedom and constraint, a bigger burden on the line. For me, it’s all about getting to the heart of the matter, learning how to scour the reader’s soul in twelve pages or less. Hemingway’s first collection—In Our Time—does this for me. There’s a powerful mix of restraint, killer sentences, and brutal stay-with-you imagery.


Justin Torres wrote a phenomenal short novel, We the Animals, and when interviewed about it, he wrote: “I wanted the book to feel a little claustrophobic. I wanted the intensity of concentration. My parents used to buy canisters of frozen orange juice concentrate in bulk and my brothers and I would sometimes spoon the orange stuff into our mouths like ice-cream, not because it was delicious, it wasn't, but because it was intense.”

That intensity is what I love about a lot of short work—it often has characters, and the world for that matter, by the throat.

I think like a short story writer.  We tell short stories all the time:  at the dinner table, in a eulogy, in a song. There’s urgency there. Tell me what matters, tell me now, and make it count.

VP: Over how long a period did you work on Birds of a Lesser Paradise? At what stage did you realize you had a collection-in-the-making?

MMB: I worked on a lot of these stories in my head before they landed on paper. Most of these stories spilled out of me across three years, but the last few came at a very intense time in my life, a period of six weeks I call my Cosmic Bitch Slap. I gave birth to my first child, my husband graduated from veterinary school, his beloved mother died of cancer, and we sold our house in North Carolina and moved to Vermont. It was a period of radical change, and the birth-death continuum was right in front of my eyes. Things that had mattered before no longer mattered. I was thirty pounds overweight, my hair fell out, and I was depressed. I decided right then that I was going to pick myself up and become the kind of woman my daughter could look up to. Another daughter later and I’m still working on that, of course.

During the Cosmic Bitch Slap, material landed in my lap. It choked me. I had profound feelings, a sense of post-traumatic enlightenment as I was walking barefoot in circles around the pasture, cradling my colicky, screaming daughter, missing my own family and my mother-in-law.

As a mother, I saw the human-as-animal. No—I felt it. I saw primal beauty all around me, and I wanted to honor it. The last line of my first story, Housewifely Arts, captures everything I learned those six weeks, everything I wanted to put into my first book, everything I knew to be true.

VP: What was your path to book publication? Your stories had been published and received awards. I wonder if that helped you to find an agent and then a publishing house?

MBB: I do not suffer from visions of grandeur—quite the opposite. The hardest thing for me was (is?) giving myself permission to make art. I was listening to a doctor friend play guitar in his garage a few years back, and I thought—I like listening to him play and sing. He’s not playing because he thinks he’s Eric Clapton or Thom Yorke. He’s making music because he enjoys it, and we take pleasure in the sound. I told myself: MMB, just make art.  Make it as good as you can and don’t worry about who it’s for or how it will sell. There are worse things you could do with your time.

Making art is a gift, and even if we just practice it and don’t offer it up for commercial consumption, it helps us process the world, and helps us become better patrons of other artists.

After I had 4 or 5 good stories out in the world, the agenting inquiries started. I also had some generous mentors and MFA professors who helped me connect with good people.

My agent, Julie Barer, is a magnetic, brilliant, high-energy spirit, and she guided me through the publication process so well, and connected me with a team of editors at Scribner (Kara Watson and Sam Martin) that really understood Birds of a Lesser Paradise. I couldn’t have asked for a more generously-supported debut.

It’s important to find a team who gets you, who understands what you want for yourself and your art and helps you get there. I’m a southerner who lives in rural Vermont. I have goat poop stuck in the soles of my shoes and cat hair on my sweaters. I have kids I want to get home to when I’m on book tour. I get lost in big cities. My team knows all those things and plans accordingly, finds the ways to bring the right people to my book. I’m still lost in a sea of gratitude about all that.

VP: You’ve sold your next book, a novel, to your same editor. I’m curious how you decided to write a novel instead of stories?

MMB: I like challenges, and I have three or four ideas for novels that I’m dying to put out into the world. Of course there’s a learning curve for me structurally, but I’m up for it. I need to write these stories; that’s all I usually need to know to give myself permission to pursue a project. If I don’t get them down on paper, they’ll drive me crazy in my imagination. Writing these books will be a release!

It’s the same for stories, really, and I am always writing short stories, and I imagine I always will be.

VP: Can you offer any advice for aspiring writers who hope to publish a book?

You’re never as brave as you are with your first book. When I wrote my early stories, I never thought many people would read them. I was a little reckless. And sometimes that recklessness gives itself over to a more authentic-sounding voice or narrative, instead of an overly-precious, overly-contrived, taking-myself-seriously voice. Beginner’s enthusiasm is contagious on the page sometimes. There’s energy there. You’re excited to be doing what you’re doing.

The most important advice I have for aspiring writers is to be a good literary citizen. Read constantly. Buy most of your books from independent bookstores. Support a few of the journals you want to publish your work—that’s only fair.

Consider giving your time to one of your favorite journals as a reader—many of them need volunteers, and it’s a great way to take the pulse of the slush pile. I’ve done this a few times, and man, the slush pile doesn’t lie. I formed so many writing philosophies reading the slush pile—you realize the sheer importance of first paragraphs, the danger of wind-up. The themes and character prototypes you think are tired you’ll see are REALLY tired, and you’ll never convince yourself you can get away with a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. You’ll also be inspired by how many good stories there are in the world, how many great writers. And that makes you work harder to distinguish yourself. It made me wonder, what do I have to offer the world? What makes my words worthy of a reader’s time? When you can answer those questions, you may have a book.


David Abrams: Debut Novelist and Literary Citizen Extraordinaire

David Abrams’ debut novel about the Iraq War, Fobbit, was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2012 and a Best Book of 2012 by Paste Magazine, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Barnes & Noble. It was also featured as part of B&N's Discover Great New Writers program and has received much well-deserved love and attention. But I first came to know David because he is such a kind and encouraging literary citizen. Before River of Dust was published, he invited me to contribute to his blog, The Quivering Pen. I wrote for his “My First Time” column in which writers describe their first experience with success, or failure, in writing and publishing. For someone who is relatively new to the world of publishing himself, David has a way of shepherding the less experienced along with him. Perhaps it's his military past that taught him to think about the whole and not just himself, or perhaps it's because he is a father who has raised three children he calls "the small apple orchard of my eye." But in any case, I'm grateful to him for his support and friendship, and I know that many other authors feel the same way. In this interview, I ask him about his experience before his fame with Fobbit. As you might expect, he encourages aspiring writers to "stick with it and believe in yourself." VP: Your readers know that you served in Iraq and that your wonderful novel, Fobbit, is set there. But, I’m curious about your background as an aspiring writer before and during that time.

DA: I like to tell people I was born a writer, not a soldier. Military aspirations were the farthest thing from my mind in the mid-1980s when I joined the Army. I was the proverbial 98-pound weakling, timid, preferred the solitude of books, that sort of thing. At the time, I had a bachelor’s degree in English, a rewarding (if stressful) job as a reporter for a newspaper in Montana, and a couple dozen poems and short stories published in literary magazines with microscopic readerships. I was convinced that, given enough time and circumstances, I could write the next Great American Novel. Such are the pathetic dreams of young, struggling writers. I had ambition, but I also had student loan debt, grocery bills, and a third child on the way. So I joined the Army and was soon indoctrinated into the world of straitjacketed writing for the military. For the first years, I had a lot of fun writing feature stories for the military base newspapers—writing which tapped into my creativity—but it wasn’t long before I was confined to drier writing for reports and technical journals. I compiled training plans and got really good at doing PowerPoint presentations. All this time, in my off-duty hours, I continued to work on my fiction—stories that were deeply influenced by Raymond Carver, John Updike and Flannery O’Connor. I got a lucky break when one of them was published in Esquire but that was about as big as it got back in those days. I earned my MFA from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks while I was working full-time in the Army, squeezing intense writing jags on my thesis between field training exercises in sub-zero weather. In a way, I always felt like my job in the Army was my “sideline” and that writing was my real career.  Such was the state of my life in 2005 when I deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division. I was, in a way, primed to write something like Fobbit.

 VP:  I saw in another interview that you had correspondence with your agent while over there. You sent him pieces of writing about your experience. For many writers, getting that first agent can be a huge challenge and a dream-come-true when it happens. We all want to have a literary partner and hope that our agent will become that person. It’s lovely to imagine you sending off your writing to your agent while in Iraq. Can you tell us how that came about? And how working with that person helped shape the book you came to write? 

DA: First of all, I need to send out a song of praise for Nat Sobel. As an agent, he had faith in me for nearly six years while I was working on Fobbit. It’s incredible to think he kept me as a client for all that time without having anything in hand to sell. It’s kind of a touching love story, actually. As soon as I arrived in the combat zone, I started keeping a journal. It was a creative record of everything I saw, heard, experienced—I just poured everything into it in a daily brain-dump. At one point, I sent a few of those journal entries to my friend (and now Dzanc Books publisher) Dan Wickett. He posted my Baghdad diary to his blog, Emerging Writers Network. Nat Sobel, legendary agent of Sobel-Weber, happened to read what I wrote and contacted Dan who then played match-maker. So, picture me there in that internet café on Camp Liberty after a long day at work, opening up my email, and seeing a message from Nat Sobel saying he was interested in my work. My head immediately inflated to the size of a hot-air balloon and I went around strutting like a cock-of-the-walk. I had a literary agent! Life was good, I immediately felt bullet-proof there in that combat zone. Surely no harm could come to me now that my writing career was finally on its way. Nat and I continued to correspond with each other that year. He was the one who planted the seed of Fobbit in my head. Early on, we both saw that writing a straight memoir about my time in Baghdad wouldn’t add much to an already-overpopulated field of Iraq War memoirs. Near the end of my tour, Nat wrote to me: “I've come to believe that only in fiction will this insane war finally reach an American reading public.” I went back to my trailer that night and started noodling around characters invented whole cloth out of my imagination, placing them in some real-life situations with which I was familiar. 

VP: So did you write Fobbit while there or when you returned? I’m curious when and how you had the time to work it and how long it took you to write? Would you say that yours was a straight path to publication or were there hairpin turns along the way?

DA: As I mentioned, Fobbit grew organically out of my journal—like a new green shoot sprouting out of a tree limb—so in one sense, the novel started the day I set foot on Iraqi soil. While other soldiers went back to their “hooches”—their trailers and tents—after work and played Xbox or cleaned their weapons or hung out with members of the opposite sex, I went back to my room and wrote for two to three hours. It was good therapy—that and reading a crapload of books that year—everyone from Elmore Leonard to Cervantes. I stole my writing time in snatches, little sips of time during the day and late at night. Fobbit the narrative didn’t really get going until the very end of my time in Iraq, and I really went to town on it once I returned stateside. Like most of my writing projects, it had its ebbs and flows, periods of time when it languished and I made sorry excuses for not sitting down at the keyboard on a daily basis. For the most part, though, I think Fobbit’s path to publication was pretty straight. Once Nat and I were happy with the final draft and he started shopping it around, it went pretty quickly, at least by my standards. Grove/Atlantic came back with an offer less than a month after Nat sent it out, which is pretty amazing to me.

VP: I can’t resist asking the question that must come at all writers who write about war: do you, like Hemingway, feel that people need to have major life experiences in order to have something to write about? Or, do you agree with Eudora Welty that, “a quiet life can be a daring life as well, for all serious daring starts from within?”

DA: Would I have written Fobbit if I hadn’t actually gone to Iraq and been immersed in the day-to-day reality of war? Probably, but it wouldn’t be the same book. It wouldn’t have that intensity of truth. I would have been guessing (and probably guessing wrong) at the things I actually experienced. That being said, I just spent 20 years working on a novel about a midget who gets a job as a stuntman in 1940s Hollywood. I’ve never been a midget, never lived in the 1940s, and only spent two days in Hollywood as a tourist—but somehow I was able to pull it off. On the whole, my life has been pretty boring, bland as a cardboard cutout—no running of bulls, no deep-sea fishing off the coast of Cuba, no hairy-chested Hemingway adventures—but I do have plenty of unexplored worlds in my head. That’s where I find an interesting life to write about.

VP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers who strive to have their debut novel published?

DA: It took me nearly 30 years to get a novel published, so I suppose saying “Stick with it and believe in yourself” might not be what most beginning writers want to hear. I can certainly understand the desire to have something published now and not decades from now. Lord knows that was my dream and frustration for 30 years. In all that time, though, I never stopped believing someone somewhere would be interested in my writing—it couldn’t be that bad, could it? You have to have faith in your work—especially in those dark, lonely days when it seems like no one else does. Eventually, if you keep writing and keep pushing against the tide of negativity and rejection, something will happen. And if it doesn’t, what’s the worst that will have happened? You’ll have brought some beautiful words into the world, even if they’re only beautiful to you.

Jennifer Spiegel: Two Books in One Year, Not Bad for a Beginner

Out of the blue, author Jennifer Spiegel wrote to me and said that she had pitched to interview with me to The Nervous Breakdown and they had agreed! What a great way to make a new friend. Jennifer was already doing something incredibly nice and generous in my direction, which turns out to be par for the course for her. When I mentioned what she had offered to do for me, author David Abrams said he wasn't a bit surprised: “Jennifer’s like that. She’s good people,” he said. And now that I've met her at the AWP Writers Conference in Boston I know more than ever that he’s right. We enjoyed a tasty lunch together in which we discovered that our paths to publication had been similiarly long and circuitous. But when Jennnifer finally broke through to book publication, she did so with gusto: she had two books of fiction, not one, come out in 2012!

She’s a terrific writer. I loved her novel Love Slave, the story of a young woman in New York City in the early 1990s. Music, dating, work-life, the bar scene, and a genuinely sympathetic heroine—it all rings true in this wonderful novel, and I should know because, like Jennifer, I lived in NYC at that time. The Freak Chronicles, which I am starting to read and enjoy now, is a collection of stories that explores the question of what makes a person a freak. These stories show that there’s a fine line between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

I liked Jennifer so much and would happily read her writing on any subject. But, in particular, I wanted her to share with us at 4 and 20  her interesting path to publication, and the surprising year of twin book launches!

VP: You have had a remarkable year with two books coming out within months of each other. Can you explain how you came to such an abundance?

Who knows how these things happen? I can tell you this right now: I’m no prodigy or someone who wrote a book on a whim and it turned out to be something magical. Rather, I wrote for a million years, took other jobs, got an MFA, had babies, even gave up briefly, and then lost Dzanc Book’s short story collection contest. Amazing, Dan Wickett of Dzanc called me to tell me, in 2009, that I lost their contest but they still wanted to publish The Freak 2012. If I were interested. I was.

So, I had to wait till 2012 for things to happen. In the meantime, Unbridled Books accepted Love Slave, my novel, for publication, and it came out less than four months after The Freak Chronicles. Basically, one book was published in June and the other was published in September 2012.

The delay—despite everything—was actually a good thing. The Freak Chronicles had the opportunity for some strong revision (as did Love Slave, really). I wrote three new stories, which were not included in the original manuscript, and I re-wrote two existing stories (one of them almost entirely). My children moved out of the baby stage, which helped a lot. And I had plenty of time to prepare for the wonders of publication. Plus, I have to admit that my philosophy and thoughts on writing and publishing had changed immensely from my first brush with success in my twenties to my eventual publication in my forties.

VP: So your first published book is The Freak Chronicles, but is it the first book you ever wrote? If you have previous manuscripts in a drawer, do you think you’ll be tempted to bring them back out again?

I wrote a novel called So I Slept With Mickey Rourke when I was twenty-five, and it got some attention from Random House. It morphed into “The Mickey Rourke Saga,” a story in Freak, which is about five million times better than that original manuscript (for more on this story, look at David Abrams’ The Quivering Pen author interview series). I have no desire whatsoever to see the original book ever again. Similarly, there was a short story collection that I sometimes forget all about too: The Size of Your Country. I can assure you that they both suck.

VP: How did you decide to keep persisting as a writer when you didn't have success immediately? Did taking on different types of jobs help you in your process, or do you think of those years away from writing as more of a distraction from your ultimate goal of getting a book published?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, I did give up a little. It probably wouldn’t have lasted, but there was a time—right after the birth of my first daughter—when I thought I’d stop trying to publish my work. I had met with multiple failures, rejections, bad agent experiences, more rejection. I also had some pretty complex and warped ideas on what it meant to be a woman and a mother. I felt guilty, in part, about my passion for writing—guilty for thinking of it as a vocation or calling, guilty for this competition I set up in my head between writing and motherhood. It was awful. I was now in my mid- to late-thirties. I was a first-time mother. I was depressed. I didn’t fit in with the other moms. My husband was supportive, but also at a loss for how to help.

Somehow or other, I must’ve entered my book in the Dzanc contest. No doubt my association with Kyle Minor helped. He had originally accepted “Goodbye, Madagascar” for publication in his now-defunct journal, Frostproof Review. He went on to remember me, and put me in touch with the folks at Dzanc Books.

When I lost—but kinda won too—I was, in many ways, pulled from the pits. Like a freakin’ Phoenix rising from the flames! I mean it! Not only did my writing life re-emerge, but also my children were inevitably benefited—as was my marriage, my sense of self, my understanding of what it meant to be a woman. [feel free to tweak grammar if necessary]

I don’t know if I really answered your question. I don’t see any of it as wasted time or distraction. In the final analysis, it was all good. I will say—and I don’t mean for this to sound cocky—I believe that writers who make it are confident in their abilities. They think they’re good. They have to believe this. If you’re going to make it, you have to think, I’m good and people should read me.

VP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers who hope to sell their first book?

Think about it as a life, a vocation, a calling. Ask yourself if you’re in it for the long haul. Ask yourself why you’re in it, for what reason? Try to think deeply about what you’re doing. I don’t know how it happens, but either way: you’ve got to live with yourself. I’m a bit of a nut. I hope that answer is okay.

Fantastic Debut Novelist Interview #1: Virginia’s Own Lydia Netzer

Did you happen to notice that of the fifty-three fiction and poetry books chosen as Notable in 2012 by The New York Times seven are debut novels? That seems like a pretty high percentage to me. Promising “new” writers are everywhere—which is great! But as I can attest, “new” writers often have long and interesting back stories behind that first book publication. I love those stories, which is why I plan to interview debut fiction writers over the coming months before my own debut novel, River of Dust, comes out in May, 2013. Here are the newbie novels chosen by The Times: Alfie The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson; Billy Lynn’s Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain; City of Bohane by Kevin Barry; Fobbit, by David Abrams; A Land More Kind Than Home, by Wiley Cash; The Starboard Sea, by Amber Dermont; and The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers.

And, don’t forget one more stellar debut novelist on that list: Virginia’s own, Lydia Netzer, author of the surprising and beautiful novel, Shine, Shine, Shine. The Wall Street Journal called it “decidedly weird and entirely winning” and The Boston Globe said it was “luminous” and “lyrical” and “lovely.” I’ve been out for a glass of wine with Lydia and I’d have to say the same is true of the author herself. She, like her novel, is a gem.

Shine Shine Shine

Virginia: Congratulations on your novel Shine, Shine, Shine making The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012! The success of this first novel is fantastic and so well deserved. It’s a brilliant book that I can’t recommend highly enough.

Because of my own complicated story leading up to book publication, I am curious about the path that got you here. How long did you work on Shine, Shine, Shine and what were the biggest bumps in the road you had to navigate?

Lydia: It took me 10 years of work to write Shine Shine Shine. That counts many months of pouting, thinking, many words thrown out, and other novels written and revised and thrown out and pouted about as well. The biggest bumps in the road were also bumps in my uterus—child #1, child #2, bless their little soul-sucking hearts. I wouldn't have been able to write the book without them, but often I was not able to write with them.

The death of my mother in 2004 was also a major bump, that ultimately got incorporated into the book. I couldn’t write about it with any level of control for about five years after it happened, but once I was able to manage it, and fit that piece into the puzzle, the book was done soon after.

Virginia: You are good friends with some super successful novelists whose acclaim came years before your own. Can you share with us how you used that circumstance not to throw in the towel, but to propel yourself forward?

Lydia: Oh, I threw in the towel multiple times. I wrote an essay once about how everyone I knew was catapulting themselves to glorious heights in writing and publishing and I was traipsing through my house picking up underpants and flushing toilets, in a stupor of dishwashing soap, toddler television, and elastic waist pants. After I had thrown in every towel I had, and somehow my novel kept stubbornly resurfacing, I realized that my circumstances were my own, my choices had been my own, and that self-pity and stagnation weren't really that attractive, as I got older.

Then there was the fact that my friends never gave up on me. I was very very lucky to have kind and generous friends who propelled me forward, and when I was finally done with the book and had something to show, they were very good at helping me get a leg up in the business.

Virginia: How different is it working your next book while also tending to the audience you have created with Shine, Shine, Shine? You’re active on Twitter and Facebook, and do events all the time, not to mention being a mother of young children. How’s the multi-tasking going?

Lydia: It’s been absolutely manic for a solid five months. I homeschool my kids, which makes it all even more insane. We did an enormous amount of school in August with the idea that in September and October I would be traveling a lot, and that I would also be finishing a draft of book #2. Somehow November also got eaten by travel and various projects. So in December, with the holiday madness in full swing, we have had to also get back on track with our full spectrum of school work, oh, and revise that book I finished in October. Which is going great—please tell my agent.

Twitter and Facebook, for me, often happen when I’m away from the computer. I’m always tucking things away to post on Twitter or Facebook later, so that when I have a bit of time to sit down, I already know what I’m going to say. Or I’ll Tweet or comment on something from my phone while I’m waiting for the kids at karate or in a violin lesson. That part of this job is a lot of fun for me. I love to be engaged online and interact with people via words.

Having my darkest fears, desires, and fiercest loves read about and scrutinized by strangers on Goodreads is new, forcing myself to be publicly neutral on politics is new, balancing time on sales with time on production is new, doing Q&As about writing, both online and in person at festivals and book clubs—that’s new! But the overprogrammed schedule? That’s how my husband and I have been living our whole lives. It’s why we work, together. I have always operated as close to maximum capacity as I can physically tolerate, so the multitasking is not a new experience for me.

I think, I hope, that I can do this. I know for a fact that I love this job.