I was invited recently to be interviewed by Anna Leigh Clark for her site Isak, a terrific site devoted to all things artistic and literary, where I lurk from time to time as a reader. Here’s a taste, and you can read the full interview at Isak.
AC: One of the most surprising aspects of Stiltsville is that it is sustained, over the span of decades, by the first-person voice of Frances — who is the sort of quiet character that I rarely see centered like this. Was it a struggle to craft this inward voice into fuel for an expansive novel?
SD: For me as a reader, a narrator’s resume makes almost no difference in comparison to that narrator’s lens, which determines what is called into focus and what is expanded and contracted in a narrative. Frances has a keen, unrelenting gaze and uses it to illuminate the world around her, both in terms of what is beautiful as well as what is unnerving or discordant. I think there are plenty of novels from the point of view of a quiet male character — James Hynes’ wonderful NEXTcomes to mind, as well as almost anything by Charles Baxter — but fewer from the point of view of a woman who is, on paper at least, not all that different from many women of my mother’s generation, and even of mine.
It’s been almost two weeks since STILTSVILLE went on sale, and in that time I’ve had 120+ of my friends and family to my house for a launch party, I’ve given two readings (with a dozen more to come in the next few months), and I’ve Googled myself approximately five thousand times. I’ve gotten truly stellar reviews in national publications, and one downright ugly review in the hometown rag. I’ve done one radio interview, another three newspaper interviews, and am booked at four upcoming book festivals. I’m grateful for all of it.
I’ve also, over the past two weeks, survived nasty temperatures with a broken A/C, cleaned up three separate instances of dog vomit, taken my car for an oil change, battled my toddler at nap time, and written exactly zero words of fiction.
I noticed a Facebook post the other day, from another author whose book came out when mine did. It read something along the lines of: “On the schedule for today: a launch party and book signing, and a trip to the dentist.” Yep, I thought.
People ask me how sales are going, and I tell them I have no idea. And the truth is: I don’t much care. For so long, I waited for it, and now it’s here. Certainly, I feel no small measure of pride and joy. But also — and I hope this isn’t unseemly to admit — I feel a little uneasy.
My friend, the writer Jeremy Jackson, wrote me to compliment the book and tell me that “there’s nothing like the debut.” I’ve compared it to the time leading up to your wedding. For weeks, I have been Bookzilla, no doubt about it, complete with the parties thrown in my honor (what a treat, to have that more than once while still living!) and the irrational thinking and unfounded anxiety and complete inability to see the big picture. Because who even knows what the big picture is?
After my real wedding, my husband, John, and I drove down to the Keys in a rented convertible — we didn’t plan to honeymoon at all until much later, but we’d been married in Miami and decided on-the-fly to keep the car for a few extra days and do a little relaxing before heading home. We travel great together, my husband and I; this has been true since the very first time we traveled together, in 2002, a car trip to Colorado to stay in a fantastically cheesy motel and ski at Copper Mountain. At night, we made gin-and-tonics and sat chatting and kissing in the motel’s fantastically cheesy hot tub. Even dull was kind of exciting.
The question I return to is this: is my first novel more a wedding or a marriage? What kind of life will my novel have? Short, long, medium? What role do I have in keeping my novel healthy and robust? I have no idea. I have an agent, an editor, and a publicist, and they are all excellent at their jobs. But still, I don’t think there’s anyone I can ask — except maybe a crystal ball.
Slowly, it’s dawning on me, however, that at some point, whether the book’s life extends or not, I might want to consider some version of divorce.
It’s not that I don’t love my book. I do! It’s not the book — it’s me. With the fanfare on the wane and the publicity tour chugging along, there’s going to be a point when I have to start thinking of my future — mine, not ours. It’s like the point in the 1970s marriage when the wife drops the vacuum and enrolls at the community college.
To misquote: Though it might be Mecca in some sense, there’s no there here, in Publicationland. There’s only a there in Writingland, and that’s where I want to live. If I stop here in Publicationland, I will stagnate. It’s like that fantastically cheesy motel — it was great because we were newly in love and content with gin-and-tonics in the [questionably clean] hot tub, and honestly we’d probably enjoy it again if we returned, but it can’t compare with rainy nights in Yosemite, or riding bikes down a volcano in Maui, or touring Italy on a motorcycle. Onward, spouse. What next?
Don’t get me wrong — I’m thrilled to speak at festivals and other events, and I will do that as long as I’m invited. And I hope that’s a long time. But between gigs, I’m going to have to focus more on the meat of the writing life, and less on the champagne of it — just my workhorse of a computer, my large messy desk, my somewhat uncomfortable office chair, and me. Rolling the ball uphill yet again, not knowing if I’ll make it to the top, and not knowing what will be waiting for me if I do.
The weeks leading up to the release of one’s first book, I’m finding, is very much like the time leading up to one’s wedding — it’s pretty much the only thing on my plate, crowding out most everything else. In addition to all the worrying — and, me being me, there’s a lot — I’m also planning a great big launch party.
I’m doing this because, as I’ve said before, I was told again and again by writer friends that for the Big Day, which for me feels pretty much on par with other big days in my life, like the day I married my husband and the day my only son was born, a person really should make her own celebration.
My husband and I aren’t the type to do things quietly — so this party is shaping up to be significantly larger than only other really big party we’ve thrown together. Except this one is at our house. Which is not anywhere near as large as the grounds of the historic site where we were betrothed.
There are other similarities: I’m not sleeping well (evidenced by the bleary 4:30am blog post), I’m disproportionately concerned about what I plan to wear, and I’ve become an insufferable bore who can only think and talk about one thing. I am working through a to-do list like my life depends on it; today I toted my toddler on a total of eight errands. (He was a trooper, despite that fact that his mother was, and continues to be, a bit of a madwoman.)
In the flurry of something like a wedding or a book launch, it’s likely — especially for scatter-brained me — that I will forget to acknowledge publicly some of the people who were instrumental in making the day happen.
Like all my in-laws, who are experts in logistics and planning and execution — not to mention terrifically supportive — and without whom neither the book nor the party could happen. And especially my sister-in-law who is handling part of the food, who is infinitely more capable of doing so than I, and my mother-in-law, who has taken on the act of worrying about logistics right along with me.
And my husband, who when I said, tentatively, “Maybe we should have a little party,” replied with enthusiasm, “We should have a BIG party!” And who matches every minor detail I relate during this phase of Bridezilla-like one-track-mindedness with seemingly bottomless interest and camaraderie. (Sometimes I think that’s a big chunk of what makes a marriage — can your partner match your obsession over minutiae? If so, then put a ring on it!)
And my friends, close and semi-close and even could-be-close-if-only-we-saw-each-other-more, who have been so unbelievably supportive that I want to give each of them a hand-made gift and make them a three-course-meal.
Special note here for my friends Jen and Ashley, who sent me the sweetest package this morning, ahead of my party — which they can’t attend because we all live ridiculously far away from each other — and who have been the bridesmaids to my bridezilla, responding to every little book-related communication with unflagging glee or consternation. Another note for Heather, who is pregnant with her second and is flying in from Canada (with only an hour to pack after getting home from a different trip) for one night, to help with the party. I know that I’m not nearly as generous, committed, or energetic — but you inspire me to try to be!
As excited as I am for the party and the launch in general, I’m also looking ahead, to that quieter time afterward, when the party is over and the book is out there and my long marriage to it — and I hope it’s long! — is underway. And I’m looking ahead to a time when I can really shift my focus to Number 2, which right now is being sorely neglected, like a well-liked acquaintance who didn’t make the cut when the guest list was settled.
For now, I hope I can remember — and I’m not sure I completely succeeded in this at that other big celebration, my wedding — to really enjoy it while it’s happening.
I don’t know if I’ve ever answered the question “How long did it take you to write your novel?” the same way twice. I don’t mean to lie — it’s just that it’s a loaded question, to say the least.
This week, I answered the question at length for Slate. Please check it out.
I’m getting the feeling, already, that I’m not alone. What a wonderful thing to know.
So here’s my experience of receiving one hardcover copy of STILTSVILLE (and only the one I’ve received so far — my editor sent it out hot off the presses, and my contract copies will follow at a later date):
The package arrived. I opened it. Then I put the book high up on a shelf, and ignored it for twenty-four hours.
I can’t say why, exactly. After twenty-four hours, I started circling it like a buzzard, stealing sideways glances. Finally, I picked it up. I looked again at my weird author photo. I read the acknowledgments, tentatively.
On my next circle around, I picked it up again and read one paragraph from the middle of the book. OK, that wasn’t too painful. I actually kind of enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll read another . . .
Another twenty-four hours later, I’d read roughly fifty paragraphs, all chosen at random, and all while standing next to the bookshelf, ready to drop the book back into the shelf at any moment.
But, hey, this isn’t so bad! I thought. I actually like a few of these sentences. I’m not cringing at every turn of phrase — I actually think some of this reads pretty well! Sure, I’d change this word if I had another go at it, and I’d maybe drop this sentence, and maybe add something here to clarify meaning . . . But again, I’m not having tremors or running screaming from the book.
To my surprise, I was actually kind of enjoying the experience of reading random chunks of my novel.
Twenty-four hours later, I sat down on my living room sofa, the book in hand. My toddler son was shooting hoops on the back porch, my husband was making dinner. I opened the book at the very beginning, on the dedication page.
I read the title page, the blank pages, and the first page of the first chapter. Still not so bad. I sipped from my lemonade. I relaxed.
Then, my stomach dropped. There it was. What I’d been dreading, and what I knew — though I hoped against hope — I would eventually find.
A typo. And not deep into the novel, around page 200 or so, where it might be swept up into the momentum of the narrative. No, this typo is on page 9.
Let me say that I pride myself on being a pretty clean writer. Even my first drafts are pretty clean, though not perfect, of course. I have training as an editor, and still read with that eye for mistakes. But what I didn’t realize before going through the publishing process is that most of the typos in a book — and there are always typos in a book — are not made by the author, because the author’s mistakes are fixed early on by the slew of editors, proofreaders, and copyeditors who work on the manuscript when it’s at its roughest.
That’s not to place blame elsewhere, but rather to highlight how many times a book is read — and improved — before it’s published, and how many times fixes are made. And we all know what happens when we mark up a manuscript and then input our corrections — a few new little typos are made. And then those are fixed and a [much smaller] number of even newer typos are made. And then those are corrected, and so on.
The book must be get out the door sometime, after all.
I understand how it happens, and I am certain that the people who worked on it did much, much, much more good than harm. But still, I had to put the book down. I will probably pick it up again when that feeling that makes my stomach turn and my shoulders tighten and my face flush fades a little.
And really, it’s wonderful to finally have the finished product, even if it’s just going to sit on a shelf. It’s wonderful to put it in my toddler son’s lap and watch him point to the jacket photo and say, “Mama!”
“That’s right,” I tell him. “Mama’s book.” Mama’s book. My book. And, truly, I couldn’t be more thrilled.