Melissa Duclos: When People Ask Me If My Novel is True

I wrote a novel about a breakup. I tell people it’s a book about Shanghai, and I suppose in some ways it is. But, really, it’s about a relationship that ends and a woman who is desperate to understand why.

I started Besotted in the fall of 2004, a few months after returning to the U.S. from a six-month stay in Shanghai. I found an apartment in Brooklyn with a friend from college who was also a writer. She gave me deadlines, read my earliest drafts. A few months after I started the book, I fell in love with Jamie, another writer. We met for happy hours and I would tell him about my characters as though they were real people whose lives we were intimately entwined with.

It took me two years to write the first draft. I started graduate school and Jamie and I moved in together. I submitted it to agents and collected rejections, workshopped the novel in my MFA program, wrote and rewrote it: I changed first person to third, present tense to past. Jamie and I got engaged. There was a version of my novel where my character went missing. A version where she runs a natural skincare business. I finished my coursework and Jamie and I got married. We packed a station wagon full of our belongings and moved to Portland, Oregon, a city we’d never been to. We swore we’d be back in a year.

I submitted an incomplete draft of the novel for my thesis. In their feedback, my readers suggested I “retype” the book—that I print out the story and use it as a reference point for something new. Different words, they wanted. I was six months pregnant. It was good advice and I followed it, but it took me a long time. Jamie and I had our first child, then our second. We saved our money and bought a house in Portland, our promises to return East long broken.

I don’t know how many versions of the novel I wrote over the years, how many agents I sent it to. I called the book done and gave it to my book club to read, hearing for the first time my work discussed by readers accepting what it was rather than writers trying to fix it. I hired a writer whose work I deeply admired to give me feedback. I revised again and sent the book out to more agents, sometimes the same agents who’d read earlier drafts. When the feedback I received made sense to me, I took it. Eventually the feedback stopped making sense. Or the novel did.

In 2015, I broke up with Besotted. Long-term relationships are hard work, I know, but sometimes you have to walk away. I didn’t give up easily, but I’d lost faith. I’d sent it to so many agents, had received so many rejections, that I couldn’t see the book as anything but a failure.

I approached the ending thoughtfully: Wrote an essay, got my closure. I put the book away and started other projects. A year later—12 years after I first conceived of a character who didn’t understand why her relationship had ended—my marriage ended abruptly, and I didn’t understand why.

2016 was a long year. I made bonfires and bad dating decisions, drank too much whiskey and learned to kickbox. I talked about my marriage and its ending to anyone who would listen. I wrote about it: The only way I could think of to make sense of it.

Now I had a failed book and a failed marriage.

I had two years’ perspective on the novel, though. I had a new view of breakups, and more importantly, a new view of what I was capable of. At the urging of a friend, I sent the book out to small presses. Two months later, Besotted was accepted for publication.

It needed work though. With notes from my editor and a new writing group, I finally figured out how to fix it. I could see what had eluded me before: I’d been too easy on my main character. I didn’t understand what the sudden and inexplicable end to her relationship would’ve done to her; I had written her as intellectually curious about what had happened. But I knew as I went back to revise that she would be gutted, her heartbreak a palpable and all-consuming thing.

Until my divorce, I didn’t know what it felt like to be someone else’s mistake. I finally understood that I had to break my character, so she would be able to put herself back together again.

People often ask me if my novel is true. I was a young American living in Shanghai and working at an international school, so they want to know if I had a girlfriend while I was there. They want to know what she did to me. It’s a common impulse among readers of literary fiction to search for the line between fiction and reality, to want to believe they’ve been given a glimpse of a real life. I don’t know what to tell them. I have in my life been callous with someone else’s heart and I’ve had someone be callous with mine. I have sorted through the detritus of my relationship, attempting through hindsight to trace a straight line from the afternoon in 2004 when Jamie gave me a book on our first date to the night in 2016 when I lay sobbing on my kitchen floor, understanding that my marriage was over. I’ve never been able to find that straight line, and I’ve finally come to accept that I never will.

Does that make Besotted true? It’s true to my heart, which isn’t nothing.

Melissa Duclos’s debut novel BESOTTED is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in March 2019. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, Salon, Bustle, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Electric Literature, among other venues.

She received her MFA from Columbia University and lives in Portland, Oregon with her two children, small cat, and even smaller dog. She is the founder of Magnify: Small Presses, Bigger, a monthly newsletter celebrating small press books, and is at work on her second novel and a collection of humorous journals.

Twitter: @MelissaDuclos



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