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.