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.