1999-2013: The Short, Sad Life of an Unsuccessful Novelist

  

By Margaret Verble

I noticed my first symptom in 1999. A tingling in my fingertips. An odd feeling, like they were trying to grasp what they couldn’t reach, or, maybe, trying to run away. Definitely doing something they shouldn’t be doing. I, however, was doing exactly what I thought I should be doing: running a consulting business, playing tennis, vacationing in places that suited my self-image. Still, the tingling persisted. There was something wrong with me.

When I wasn’t on the road working, I began hibernating. My basement den is nice. Equipped with a computer, exercise equipment, and TV. The exercise equipment and TV didn’t alleviate the tingling. The computer keys, though, had a soothing effect. That’s what those fingers had been wanting to do. Tap, tap, tap, and so on.

And on. I spent every spare moment I had from 1999 through 2007 in my basement den at that computer. That’s nine full years. I decided early on that I could run a business and write fiction. But I didn’t have time to run a business, write fiction, and talk about writing fiction. The only person I discussed my writing with was my husband. He was also a consultant; but, when we’d fallen in love, he’d been the Poet in Residence for the Metro Nashville School System. David had once had a fine mind for literature. I’d had a fairly good one. But, you see, we’d chosen, instead, to earn a living.

To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

By 2007, I’d produced a couple of novels. And had tried to get agents for them. But I had no success at that. I began having other symptoms. A sinking feeling. A tenderness. Maybe, a perpetual pout. I decided I couldn’t get a novel published alone. I needed help. I used the handy computer and looked on the Internet. To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

I picked my first workshop on the basis of dubious criteria. 1. It had to be near New York, as even down in a basement in Kentucky it had come to me that the action is up there in the City. 2. It had to be near enough to drive to, as I fly too much for a living. 3. It had to offer critique sessions, because I had to know if I’d been wasting my time. 4. It needed nonfiction offerings, so I could entice my college roommate to go with me.

We picked The Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, and I was assigned Roxana Robinson as my instructor. I read a couple of Roxana’s books, as I wanted to be sure she could write. (She sure can.) I took the books with me, as you can’t expect anyone to take an interest in you if you don’t take an interest in them. Roxana critiqued my manuscript. After I left our session, I read what she’d inscribed on the title page of her novel, Sweetwater, “For Margaret, Already a good writer.” That’s what nine years in a basement will do for you. You have to write to be a writer. And write. And write. And so on.

You also need a mentor, because nobody, I mean nobody, is successful alone. Roxana was kind enough to try to find me an agent. But agents are running businesses and have agendas of their own. None of the ones we tried wanted to take me on. I was discouraged. Kept writing. By then, not really by choice. By addiction. In July of 2008, I wrote in a journal, “I thought I’d found an agent for my fiction. But I’ve just opened a letter that says I’m wrong about that. Likes the writing. Doesn’t know where to sell it. He’s not the first. I’ve failed at this so much that disappointment feels like destiny calling. Hard work isn’t enough. I need that confluence of forces called Luck.”

Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night.

In October of 2009, I wrote, “If I were inclined toward discouragement, that rock would be rolling me down a hill. Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night. I still haven’t found an agent. I may have lost sight of the line between perseverance and futility.”

In February of 2010, Roxana came to Lexington for a book appearance. On that trip, she suggested I try writing short stories to build some credentials. I’m a novelist at heart; I didn’t want to do that. And I was busy. I had a contract with the NHS in the U.K., and a new British partner who was going through treatment for cancer. I was also exhausted and frightened. I didn’t take up Roxana’s advice until the next year.

In January of 2011, I wrote my first short story, “The Teller,” and sent it off to the Arkansas Review. I didn’t hear anything for months. I finally followed up with the editor, Janelle Collins. She told me the story was in the “Maybe” pile. But on August 13, she e-mailed me to say she’d accepted it. The news gave me validation and hope. It justified all those years down the stairs.

I got a few more short stories published after that. But I still didn’t have an agent. And I still hadn’t given up being a novelist. By the fall of 2013, I’d finished a new novel, Maud’s Allotment; but by then, I knew I had cancer. Informed by the pathology report after surgery for something else. My cancer surgery had to be delayed until I’d healed enough to be cut open again. I went on to Scotland to work because I had a commitment there, and because, when you’re in business, if you’re not actually dead, you have to show up. While I was in Edinburgh, I had a bad meal alone, and a short story rejected by e-mail. You get the picture here: cancer, rejection, bad food, and half an island away from my partner. I e-mailed Roxana. Mentioned only the bad food, rejection, and novel. She e-mailed me back. Said her agent was taking new clients. To send her, Lynn Nesbit, a hard copy.

When I got back to the U.S., I had two days before surgery, but I mailed that manuscript off. When Lynn sent a request for an electronic copy, I was somewhere in the bowels of the University of Kentucky Medical Center, too ill to sit up. My best friend brought my computer to me, moved me up in the bed, and helped me hit the right keys. When luck comes knocking, you have to answer immediately, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how many pain meds you’re on.

Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see.

I was two days out of the hospital, still heavily doped, and sitting next to a bag of urine hooked over a drawer when Lynn called. She said she thought my book was “About 85% there,” and, before she tried to sell it, she wanted me to send it to an editor she would pick. I tried to sound coherent, and Lynn said she’d call back with a name. When we hung up, I looked at the bag of pee. Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see. Cancer puts things in perspective.

But the sailing has been smooth seas from there. The editor, Adrienne Brodeur, had good judgment and was helpful. I slowly regained my health. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought the book, and, Lauren Wein, my editor there, has been lovely to work with. Maud’s Line (the title was changed in New York) has a Pulitzer Finalist badge on the paperback cover, and is selling. I have a new manuscript with Lynn right now.

Fifteen years isn’t really a long time to learn a complicated task like novel writing. It really isn’t. It’s not painting by numbers. That unsuccessful novelist is dead and buried. For now. I am alive and healthy. Again, for now. My fingers still tingle. But I’ve gotten used to that.

* * * * *

This essay is reprinted from The Authors Guild Bulletin, Winter 2017.

Margaret Verble is a successful businesswoman and novelist. Her consulting work has taken her to most states and to several foreign countries. Upon the publication of her debut novel, Maud’s Line, Margaret whittled her consulting practice down to one group of clients, organ procurement organizations, tissue banks, and eye banks, to devote the rest of her time to writing. Maud’s Line was a Finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is available in hardback, audio, and paperback.

The Pulitzer Prize committee praised Maud’s Line as “[a] novel whose humble prose seems well-suited to the remote American milieu it so engagingly evokes: the Indian allotments of 1920s Oklahoma.” Kirkus Reviews said, “Verble, herself a member of the Cherokee Nation, tells a compelling story peopled with flawed yet sympathetic characters, sharing insights into Cherokee society on the parcels of land allotted to them after the Trail of Tears.”

 

WAYS TO DISAPPEAR uses the contradictions of modern Brazil to explore the ways we translate everything in our lives

Idra Novey -- Ways to Disappear

Ways to Disappear

By Idra Novey

Back Bay Books: Jan. 17, 2017

$15.99, 272 pages

This review was originally posted on May 23, 2016 and is being re-posted because the book has recently been issued in paperback. And because I think you should read it.


Ways to Disappear, poet and translator Idra Novey’s debut novel, is an absorbing exploration of the dichotomy between the perception and reality of a writer’s life. Novey’s protagonist, Emma Neufeld, translates the novels of the critically acclaimed Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda. But Emma is more than just professionally engaged in Yagoda’s work; she is obsessed with her writing and intrigued by her personal life.

When she learns that Yagoda has disappeared, she is convinced she knows what makes Yagoda tick in a way no one else does and can help find her. She flies from Pittsburgh to Brazil to help Yagoda’s suspicious daughter, Raquel, and charming son, Marcus, search for her and discover why she went into hiding. But, as you might expect, young and naive Emma encounters an even greater mystery in Brazil itself and ultimately learns that there is both more and less to Yagoda’s work than she could have imagined.

Emma’s well-intentioned belief that she is uniquely qualified to serve as a private investigator leads her on an unpredictable search through Yagoda’s personal and creative life that exposes her to Brazil’s hard brown underbelly. She faces off against a loan shark named Flamenguinho seeking to recover a debt owed by the writer. Yagoda’s publisher, Roberto Rocha, offers eccentric suggestions and financial support, once he learns that Yagoda may have a work in progress for him to publish.

Raquel plays antagonist to Emma’s meddling, while Marcus is more receptive to her interest in his mother and, before long, him. Together and apart, they chase down clues that lead them to the city of Salvador on the central coast.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are transcripts of reports from Radio Globo, desperate emails from Emma’s fiance back in Pittsburgh, and witty dictionary entries of words and phrases that shed light on Emma’s adventures (including sample sentences referencing Emma’s fraught circumstances). These additional voices add perspective to the careening narrative, as Emma searches for Beatriz, copes with Raquel, falls for Marcus, and negotiates with both Flamenguinho and Rocha.

Novey, who translates works in Portuguese and Spanish (including the work of Clarice Lispector), has concocted a savory Brazilian dish that puts literary traditions as diverse as noir, magical realism, and romance to use in clever and surprising ways.

Ways to Disappear is as complex and enchanting as modern Brazil itself, alternately breezy with fish-out-of-water humor and manic plotting, and humid with portent and mystery. Novey knows how to spin a multi-faceted tale with a love of language and literature at its heart. Like Emma, we are all engaged in the act of translating an author’s work to suit our own needs, completing the writer’s work through reading. Novey’s auspicious debut marks the arrival of a writer worth meeting halfway.

Update: Ways to Disappear won the 2016 Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize for Fiction and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover” selection. NPR named it one of the Best Books of 2016 and it was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. The book is currently a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in First Fiction, which will be awarded at the Times’ Festival of Books on April 21.

THE GIRLS mostly lives up to its hype, but in unexpected ways

The Girls

The Girls

By Emma Cline

Random House, June 2016

355 pages


The Girls was one of 2016’s most anticipated novels, and it fulfilled those expectations by becoming a big-time buzz book and a bestseller. Despite hearing that Cline was an outstanding young writer, I avoided her book because I had absolutely no interest in its premise of a 14-year-old girl getting enmeshed in a group of older girls who belonged to a commune that was clearly based on the Manson family.

My interest was eventually piqued by the raves for Cline’s prose-poetry, a style of writing about which I am always curious. And, to my surprise, I liked The Girls a great deal, despite finishing it with reservations about several aspects of the book.

The Girls is in some ways not what it was represented as: it’s a coming-of-age character study set against the socio-cultural turmoil of 1969, rather than a plot-driven, page-turning tale of evil (although it makes an appearance, as expected, late in the story). The first hundred pages are among the most piercingly accurate depictions of yearning, confused adolescence I have ever read, thanks to Cline’s insight and her memorable prose.

Set in Petaluma, a nondescript town an hour north of San Francisco, The Girls introduces us to Evie Boyd through that uniquely intimate relationship one shares with one’s best friend in the fraught years of early adolescence. Evie is disoriented by her parents’ divorce and struggling to find her place in relation to her parents and her few friends in the emotionally overheated transition from junior high to high school. Summer has already become boring, and she and Connie are at odds with each other, in part because Evie has a fierce crush on Connie’s older brother, Peter. Cline perfectly captures the inchoate desire of young girls:

“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.”

And a few pages later: “That was our mistake, I think. One of our many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.”

Set adrift after things become too complicated with both Connie and her New Age-y mother, a lonely Evie encounters a trio of feral young women at the local park and becomes smitten with the leader, Suzanne. Before long, she catches a ride with them back to the isolated, run-down ranch where they are living with the darkly charismatic musician-prophet Russell.

The bulk of The Girls concerns Evie’s slow introduction to the life of these wayward girls and their wastrel cult leader, and her dawning awareness that she was both fascinated and frightened by the thought of joining their commune. Events in Evie’s life and that of the girls slowly begin to spin out of control when the family’s wealthy rock star benefactor fails to deliver the long-promised lucrative record deal.

The last third of the book brought to mind the seemingly prescient words of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Evie’s lack of conviction saves her from drowning in “the blood-dimmed tide” about to be unleashed. Yet she doesn’t seem significantly altered by her experiences, as one would expect in a coming-of-age novel. Only through the framing device of a middle-aged Evie still unmoored from her own life do we get a partial glimpse of the impact that summer had on her.

The evocative quality of Cline’s writing consistently impressed me, as did her insight into the lost girls so drawn to Russell despite his constant manipulation and evident madness, which they viewed as a form of hypnotic and sensual charisma. When Evie first talks with Russell, she is entranced. But her attraction to him seems little different than her earlier interest in 17-year-old Peter.

“It all started making sense, what Russell was saying, in the drippy way things could make sense. How drugs patchworked simple, banal thoughts into phrases that seemed filled with importance. My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for causalities, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius.”

And, despite the slow-moving plot, the sense of foreboding one brings to the reading of The Girls is managed to powerful effect by Cline. While not quite a page-turner, the brooding intensity of Cline’s writing turns the screw steadily until it snaps off at the expected climax. The Girls is a haunting depiction of a young girl’s initiation into the incomprehensible contradictions of the adult world.

Three years and five drafts: Stephanie Gangi on the writing of THE NEXT

stephanie-gangi-sidesmile_tr-002  the-next


In a recent conversation, this blog’s proprietor, Bill, asked me a question about my debut novel, The Next (St. Martin’s Press): “How do you combine a fast and complicated plot with character study and writing that is ‘literary fiction’?”

That gave me pause. Did I do that?

Don’t get me wrong, I like the question. Because I wanted to write what I love to read, Bill’s classification of The Next as literary fiction is gratifying. To hear from a reader (and Bill is a voracious reader) that my novel delivers a complex story at a good clip about human beings of depth, with lyrical prose … that’s thrilling. That’s what I was going for!

But I have to stop and think. How, exactly, did I make it happen?

Let me count the ways. I bought a dozen craft books. I made an outline, a timeline, noted my key themes, embarked on character studies, defined plot points and subplots, made and hit my word count goals, created a climax and then another climax, and knew the ending in my bones before I even began. I workshopped, I recruited beta readers, I integrated feedback, I wrote and re-wrote my ideal “review” as a kind of mission statement. I had notebooks full of, well, notes, and titles, character names, playlists, chapter descriptions, on and on. I wrote and re-wrote two, three, four drafts.

Two years after I began, I felt finished. I had a draft I was happy with, and serious “interest” from a renowned literary agency. I handed The Next over and waited in a state of high anxiety while four professionals read it. An email was received, a meeting was set, and I turned up nearly giddy with hope. With readers’ reports and notes in hand, the agents said, in the kindest way possible, You’re not there yet. Try again.

Try again. Try again? I’d decimated my social life, neglected my real job, spent money I didn’t have on classes and readers and craft books, forgotten to return calls and pay bills – all to get to this point. I’d given it my all and my best, my very, very “good student” best! I had followed the advice and experience of real writers; I had been committed, meticulous, thorough. I thought I had cracked the novel-writing code, and yet: Try again. Now I was exhausted, sick of the whole enterprise. I sunk into a funk. After weeks of wallowing, I went back to the craft books for wisdom, for encouragement, for a solution. It was unanimous: Step away.

Ever the good student, I set the manuscript aside (literally, as I can write on screen with no problem but cannot for the life of me revise and edit on anything but paper) for three long months. When anyone asked me how it was going, I went stony, I shrugged, I shut down all conversation. (Pro-tip: Tell as few people as possible anything about anything if you are writing your first novel. Resist all urges. Shhh!) I busied myself. I binged on Netflix and endless “Law & Order” reruns. I concentrated at work, I went out with friends, I threw a couple of parties.

One evening, I poured myself a glass of red wine and sat in my favorite blue chair with The New Yorker in hand. I was unable to focus. All I can say is, I was called back. Something compelled me to physically set aside that wine glass and toss the magazine and reach the high shelf where I’d exiled my manuscript.

Okay, I didn’t really set aside the wine. I drank and I read and at some point, I got a pen and I started marking up the pages. A lot of pages. All the pages. The story seemed new to me, and rife with challenges and obstacles, but as those appeared, so did ideas to solve them or navigate around them. For the first time, I grasped the mechanics, the tactics, the behind-the-scenes of my own novel. It was a puzzle! It had taken me four drafts to create all the pieces, and I hadn’t realized there was more to do: fitting them in place.

When I sat back down after the long break, I was a different writer. I ignored outlines and timelines and reports and feedback. I started again. Draft five, page one.

With distance, I’d gained the confidence to rely on my own critical eye and ear. I got out of the way and let my characters live through dialogue and action rather than back story. I read out loud and listened closely for the rhythms of “my style” and then I applied my beat to sections that felt flat or expositional. I didn’t shy away from writing about sentimental things or angry things or pain or grief. I meditated (yep) and tuned in to the way my body responded to what I was writing. When I got teary, or raced along, or felt bored, I realized it was time to ramp up or tone down or create a conflict to maintain my own interest. Many, many times, I closed my eyes and typed like a madwoman, typos be damned. When I’d “come to,” I would be disoriented and shocked at how time had flown. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being high while not actually being under any influences.

Here’s Bill’s question again: How do you combine a fast and complicated plot with character study and writing that is “literary fiction” level?

Here’s what I think I did:

  • I learned as much craft as I could.
  • I applied my new craft knowledge to building the world of The Next.
  • I failed to make that world come alive.
  • I walked away in disgust.
  • I rested.
  • I couldn’t stay away.
  • I had an epiphany – it was all part of the process.
  • I recognized my own particular style and applied it to enhance the story.
  • I discovered my rhythm. Dare I say my breath, my heartbeat? Dare I say the “literary” aspect of my fiction? And I let it beat strong and consistent under plot and character.

Quite simply, I screwed up and tried again. I learned to trust myself. I would not quit. It is only now, in the writing of this piece, that I realize that is exactly what my characters go through, too. That is a major theme of The Next.

Damned good question, Bill.


STEPHANIE GANGI lives and works in New York City. She was born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, and raised her own kids in Tribeca, Rockland County and on the Upper West Side.

Gangi’s first publishing credit, many years ago, was a children’s book, Lumpy: A Baseball Fable, co-written with New York Mets pitching great Tug McGraw. She ghostwrote a tell-all about Liberace in 1984 but left the only copy in a taxicab. She has written jacket copy, pitch letters, business plans, speeches, mortgage checks, absence excuse notes, letters to editors, hundreds of poems, dozens of story starts, dating profiles, countless emails, texts, sexts, and random tweets. She once chalked a love note on the wall of a Paris alley in the rain.

Her poem, “Four,” was a 2014 award winner and appears in the anthology for The Hippocrates Society of Poetry and Medicine. The poem “Talking to My Dead Mother About Dogs” appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of the New Ohio Review.

The Next is her debut. She is working on her second novel.

HERE COMES THE SUN probes Jamaican “paradise” to explore the lives of women struggling against the cultural current

Here Comes the Sun

Here Comes the Sun

By Nicole Dennis-Benn

Liveright Publishing (W.W. Norton Co.): July 5, 2016

$26.95, 349 pages


Here Comes the Sun was one of the summer’s “buzz books” that, unfortunately, took me a while to get around to reading. That was a mistake because Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel is an impressive debut that marks her as a writer to watch. Here Comes the Sun succeeds both as a page-turner of a story and a fearless character study of four women struggling to make sense of their lives in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Dennis-Benn takes us behind the sun, sand, and sea to explore the lives of the people who live in the real Montego Bay but work in the fantasy world that tourists inhabit for their brief stay in Jamaica. The protagonist, Margot, works in one of the resorts owned by an aristocratic white family. Strikingly beautiful and willfully charming, Margot is a workaholic determined to save enough money to send her younger sister, Thandi, to a good private school and then on to college and medical school so that she will not have to spend her life working in Montego Bay.

But Margot’s regular job is not sufficient for her purposes. So she engages in late night rendezvous with wealthy hotel guests, doing her best to keep this knowledge from her co-workers. She is willing to sacrifice part of her soul to save Thandi from menial labor and from their mother, Delores, a taskmaster at home and a tenacious vendor at the swap meet favored by tourists with money to burn. It’s clear that Margot is broken but not why. What has led her to pay this high price to facilitate Thandi’s escape?

Margot has more than one secret, though. She is also, contrary to Jamaican culture’s fierce opposition, in love with another woman. And 16-year-old Thandi, though a dedicated student who wants to please her big sister and mother by becoming a doctor, eventually discovers that she too has dreams and desires. Margot’s love interest has her own story as well, fraught with sacrifice and loss in the face of omnipresent disapproval.

All four women dream of a better life for themselves and those they love, and they are willing to do nearly anything to make their dreams a reality. Margot, Thandi, and Verdene simply wish to be allowed the freedom to follow their heart and love whom they choose.

Dennis-Benn captures the sights and sounds of Montego Bay through both major and minor characters, many of whom speak the island patois. Margot’s internal conflict is reflected in her code switching from standard English to Jamaican Creole as needed, sometimes in the same conversation and even the same sentence.

Here Comes the Sun weaves a complex series of personal and cultural conflicts into a coherent whole that makes for absorbing reading. Everyone has a secret, or a secret self, and these secrets are tested by the challenges of a changing economy in the face of climate change and corporate greed, personal circumstances and actions that shock the unsuspecting, and two characters’ newfound determination to embrace their sexual orientation despite living in a culture that treats any divergence from the heterosexual norm as a sign of Satanic possession.

Dennis-Benn has created an unforgettable character in Margot and a powerfully personal story of women seeking self-fulfillment at nearly any cost. After reading Here Comes the Sun, you will never view Jamaica the same way.

2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS charms with 3-pronged narrative and Philly setting

marie_helene_bertino

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

By Marie-Helene Bertino

Crown Publishers, Aug. 2014 (hardcover)

Broadway Books, Oct. 2015 (softcover)

288 pages, $15.00

 

Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, was a real sleeper. I’d purchased a copy when it was published in August 2014 but somehow never got around to reading it (too many books means some of them occasionally get lost in the crowd). That’s a shame because it is a terrific book that I enjoyed from start to finish.

As with classics like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and recent novels like Anne Korkeakivi’s An Unexpected Guest and Maya Lang’s The Sixteenth of June, Bertino’s story takes place in a single day, this time Christmas Eve eve. (And like Lang’s book, it is also set in Philadelphia.) It is primarily the story of nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari, whose mother has recently succumbed to cancer and whose father is so depressed he can’t get out of bed.

But feisty little Madeleine has not been left entirely to her own devices; neighbors in her inner-city neighborhood who loved her mother are keeping an eye on her in various ways. Elderly Rose Santiago of Santiago’s Cafe feeds and fusses over her, a surrogate grandmother. Vince Sherry, owner of Beauty Land salon, and his hair stylists are an alternate family of cool characters (and cut Madeleine’s hair). And Sarina Greene, her young teacher at Saint Anthony of the Immaculate Heart, has taken a special interest in her “orphaned” charge.

Madeleine has been raised on the record collection of her jazz-obsessed father and deeply influenced by her mother’s local singing career. She is an old soul who listens to and sings the songs of Billie Holiday and Blossom Dearie and wants more than anything to be a jazz singer herself.

Bertino’s story also follows the recently divorced Miss Greene, who has returned to Philly and been invited to join some old school friends for a dinner party by an old friend she bumps into that morning at Santiago’s Cafe. Her old boyfriend, Ben, will be there. And over in gritty Fishtown, Jack Francis Lorca is in danger of losing his legendary but seedy jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas, unless he can come up with $30,000 to pay off a mountain of city fines for every violation one can imagine.

The narrative bounces among these three characters through short, vibrant chapters filled with humor and heart. The dialogue is snappy and distinctly “Philly,” the characters are rough-edged but endearing (but not caricatures), and the plotting cleverly weaves everyone and everything together, leading up to a memorable late night finale at the Cat’s Pajamas.

Bertino manages to both pull on your heartstrings and make you laugh your head off. Cat’s Pajamas was the perfect follow-up to the intensity and heartbreak of Nayomi Munaweera’s brilliant What Lies Beneath, a palate cleanser of the best kind. I genuinely liked and cared about these characters, and I find myself still wondering what they are up to and how they are doing.

I wouldn’t be upset if Bertino decided to write a sequel. She has a winning combination of characters and setting here, with a compelling narrative voice that brings it all to life.

How connecting with early readers through my “Reader Feedback and Serialization Project” helped me improve and publish my first novel

Charmed Particles  Headshot

When I finished writing my novel, Charmed Particles, and was ready to begin the search for an agent to represent it, I wasn’t new to the agent-hunting business: a few years earlier I’d tried and failed to find an agent for the first novel I’d written; I heard over and over again “There’s some lovely writing here, but I don’t think I can sell this.”

In retrospect, I’m glad that first book never made it out into the world. In all sorts of ways, it wasn’t ready—I was still learning how to write a novel. But when I put that book aside (a painful and difficult decision at the time) and began work on a new novel project, I knew I wanted to do something different when the time came to take the book out into the world in search of an agent and then a publisher.

I wanted to know what the experience of reading the book would be like for readers, and I knew this would be especially important given the subject matter for this new novel: particle physics.

Charmed Particles tells the story of the events surrounding the U.S. government’s attempts to build a scientific tool—a particle accelerator–called the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) during the late 1980s. Communities under consideration as locations for this facility were wary of it—a giant circular tunnel system built under their homes, schools, and farmland. They worried about whether it was safe to be living on top of such a thing. The project was begun in Waxahachie, Texas, but ultimately abandoned to the great frustration of the particle physics community. Many scientists argue that had the project gone forward, confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson (often referred to as the God particle) would have occurred much earlier and on American soil instead of in Switzerland at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

But that description of the book is perhaps deceptive, because while those events inform the novel, the story is really about the people—two families in particular, who find themselves grappling with ambition, curiosity, and uncertainty against the backdrop of this controversy as it unfolds in their town.

So I knew that I had a previous failed attempt at publishing my first novel, and now I had this second novel on a challenging topic. What to do to give this strange little book a fighting chance out there? Well, I thought back to the issue of salability. To the challenge of getting books into the hands of readers who will care about them. To the importance of writing books that will resonate with readers, not just with other writers.

At the time, I was teaching a course on the history of book publishing, and we were studying the way many of Dickens’ books originally went out into the world as chapter-by-chapter serializations published in periodicals. I was also thinking about something I often tell my beginning creative writing students: that what matters isn’t what you intended to do with the piece, but rather what the reader’s experience of it is.

So here’s what I came up with: The Feedback and Serialization Project

Here’s the initial pitch I made, via Facebook, word of mouth, and sign-up sheets I circulated at a few works-in-progress readings I gave:

You’re invited to participate in the Feedback and Serialization Project

What is it?

A weekly e-mail that will include between one and three short chapters of Charmed Particles, my novel-in-progress, for you to read and respond to. The goal of the project is to

  • Provide an innovative opportunity for community involvement with and participation in the arts
  • Provide an opportunity for me to connect with a community of readers and to learn from the feedback these readers offer as I revise the manuscript.

Why?

The writing life can be lonely, especially while in the midst of a large, several-years-long project, and writers often get feedback on our work only from other writers.  For me, the project is an experiment in avoiding the pitfalls of being a writer who writes only for other writers and an opportunity to connect with a large and diverse audience. I especially look forward to feedback from those participants who identify as readers but not as writers.

How will it work?

I will share the novel in weekly chapter installments, giving readers time to respond to the work via e-mail. I’ll then be incorporating feedback and suggestions from participants into a revision of the novel in preparation for submitting it to literary agents and publishers.

What kind of feedback should I give you?

Anything. From “Hey, you forgot a comma here” to “I forgot who this character is–you might need to remind readers” to “Oh, man this book is a snooze-fest!” For those of you who haven’t before critiqued a manuscript, this may feel strange and perhaps a bit uncomfortable, but writers are used to hearing feedback (often negative) on our work, and it’s what helps us make our work better. And it’s helpful, too, for us to hear about what is working or what’s almost working. So have at it!

Want to know what the book’s about before you sign on?

Set in a fictional prairie town in which the two overarching industries are a colonial American living history facility and a laboratory for experiments in high-energy particle physics, Charmed Particles tells the intertwined stories of two families.

Abhijat is a theoretical physicist from India now working at the National Accelerator Research Laboratory. His wife, Sarala, home with their young daughter, Meena, focuses her energies on assimilating to their new American culture.

Meena’s best friend at school is Lily, a precocious child prodigy whose father self-identifies as “the last great gentleman explorer” and whose mother, a local politician, becomes entangled in efforts to stop the National Accelerator Research Laboratory’s plans to build a new Superconducting Super Collider.

The conflict over the collider fractures the community and creates deep divides within the families of the novel.

Interested in participating?

If you’d like to be part of this experimental project, you can sign up by e-mailing me or contacting me via Facebook with the e-mail address you’d like me to use.  And thank you!

So, that was it! People kindly signed up, started reading, and offered lots of good feedback as the project went on!

Why feedback from readers as opposed to writers?

Writers spend an awful lot of time talking to one another, showing one another work, and giving one another feedback. While this is immensely helpful (not to mention generous on the part of other writers, who often don’t have a lot of spare time on their hands to do this sort of thing), it struck me that it might also be a little insular. That by doing this, I might only be getting a sense of what the book was like for other writers, but not for readers. I work in academia, and because we spend so much time talking to and working with specialists, we sometimes find it challenging to translate our work to a general audience. (Incidentally, this communication challenge also ends up being one of the central themes of the book.) I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen here. As a writer, I care about writing books that challenge readers, but that also invite them in and engage them.

Who participated?

By the time the project began in the summer of 2011, my volunteers included members of our small town’s Kiwanis club; several former high school classmates; former students (who got a kick out of having the tables turned and getting to critique their professor’s work!); a local banker; the woman who used to own the house my family and I now live in; our university librarian; colleagues from across campus, in English, chemistry, biology, and political science; former coworkers; former college classmates; a high school student; and some of the physicists I’d interviewed during my research for the novel.

What kind of advice did you get?

All sorts! Little things like “I’m finding this sentence challenging as written” to “this chapter felt slow,” but what was especially cool (and unexpected on my part!) was that everyone brought their own areas of expertise to the project. One reader, Nancy, is a soils scientist, so she caught an obscure agricultural error I’d made. A former high school classmate, who’d had some run-ins with mean-girl types pointed out that initially, she wasn’t sure whether she or the character Sarala should trust another character–Carol’s– intentions. This helped me realize that while I knew that Carol genuinely cared about Sarala, the reader needed a few more clues about that along the way.

Were there any other unintended challenges or benefits?

Writing the “Want to know about the book?” section for the project description helped me practice the pitch for the book I’d use in my query letter to agents–that horrible moment when you have to take a 300-page thing you wrote and boil it down to a pithy two-minute elevator pitch!

I also mentioned the Feedback and Serialization Project in these query letters to agents, hoping it might pique their interest and help the book stand out from the rest of the submissions they received.

But by far, the most important benefit for me was that the project built an engaged and supportive community around the book. As any writer knows, the process of writing a book and looking for an agent and then a publisher can be a long, lonely, and discouraging process. But this project meant that I had a team of readers who were invested in and rooting for the book, who were hoping–right along with me–that it would find its way to an agent who believed in it and a publisher that did, too. (And it did! Hooray for Eleanor Jackson and Dzanc Books!

Every weekend when I stopped in to our small town’s lone grocery store to do the week’s shopping, there was Tom, calling out from behind the butcher’s counter, “Hey Chrissy! You found a publisher for your book yet?” On campus, as I taught and graded, friends and colleagues checked in to see how things were going with this other part of my work life.

And when, at long last, the book came out in November 2015, there was a crowd of people who were excited right along with me (and perhaps also a bit nervous, as I was!) to see how the book would do out in the world as the publicity team worked to help Charmed Particles find its way to readers and reviewers.

The participants in the project were from all over—Washington, DC; Wisconsin; Illinois; Alaska; and Texas—but the largest number of participants came from the small rural town where I live and work. Because of this, in many ways it felt especially like the whole town of Morris, Minnesota, was as excited about the book as I was. When the book finally came out, the local paper ran a huge story about it. (Link: http://www.morrissuntribune.com/news/3877628-family-and-physics-part-debut-novel-morris-author). The local library ordered 10 copies and hosted a series of book group events around it.

Morris Public Library Book Club event

The high school creative writing teacher invited me in to her classroom to talk with her students.

pic from Morris high school gig 1  pic from Morris high school gig 2

pic from Morris high school gig 3

My dentist’s office sent me a congratulations card signed by every person in the office, from the dental hygienists to the receptionists!

card from Morris Dental clinic

I’m hugely grateful to all of the participants in this strange experiment! You’ll find them listed by name on the book’s Acknowledgments page. In all sorts of big and little ways, they helped to make this a better book.

Would you do this again?

Absolutely!

Chrissy Kolaya is a poet and fiction writer. Her debut novel, Charmed Particles, was published by Dzanc Books in November 2015. Her work has been included in the anthologies New Sudden Fiction (Norton),  Fiction on a Stick (Milkweed Editions), and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems, as well as in a number of literary journals.

She has received a Norman Mailer Writers Colony summer scholarship, an Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies fellowship, a Loft Mentor Series Award in Poetry, and grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Lake Region Arts Council, and the University of Minnesota. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota Morris, where she’s one of the co-founders of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival.

Author Photo: Nina Francine Photography