“Amid all the dreams and anxieties”: A Debut Novelist Roundtable, Pt. 2

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Our Debut Novelist Roundtable, much like the new Justice League film released today, is a powerhouse collaboration between a handful of superheroes that will be enjoyed by tens of millions of people around the world. That's the goal anyway. The second and final installment of this conversation focuses more on the nitty-gritty details of writing a book, getting it published, and staying committed to the project as the months and years go by. If that's not super heroics, I don't know what is. Enjoy!

Ted Wheeler: How long did it take you guys to write your novels? Did they come out basically fully formed or, like mine, did it take a few shots to figure out how the book should be written? How many pages did you write to come up with the end product?

Devin Murphy: The Boat Runner had many names and incarnations before it found its final shape. All told I worked on it for about eight years, though it took me about twenty if you factor in all that time I spent studying and learning how to write fiction. I have no idea how many pages had to be written to get to the final version but I do remember having to cut the first 101 pages of an advanced draft because the story started on page 102. That hurt. I also remember UNL Professor Jonis Agee reading a draft and saying, “I like this ending, and this one, and this one.” I’d overdone it so had to trim away again.

SJ Sindu: It took eight years from the conception of the novel to when it came out (Devin and I started around the same time, in the same class at UNL, and our novels were published within months of each other). But the bulk of the writing took six years. Mine, too, like Devin's, went through many names and incarnations before something clicked. I don't know how many pages I wrote ultimately, but I ended up throwing away the entire first draft and starting over, so that was at least 250 pages that I cut. And then I ended up throwing a lot more away with each draft and writing new scenes, so I think in the end, the deleted pages are somewhere around 300.

TW: There are so many cautionary tales out there meant to ward off what can be a disappointing and relationship-straining experience for probably most debut novelists, as all that cutting speaks to. But, going the other way, what about the process was heartening? What's been the most pleasantly-surprising aspect of the publishing process?

DM: Discovering how many wildly talented people get involved in the lifespan of a book has been wonderful. My agent and editor poured their great creative energy into the book. The art department read the book and came up with amazing images to try to capture the essence of the story I wrote. There are people behind the scenes in publishing that do miracles for sales, marketing, and publicity all for the love of books. Then there are people who still love and are hungry to read new novels. To have people read my book is still a shocking and exciting experience.

SJS: I'll second Devin that it's been amazing to see the creative energies that everyone brought to this book, especially my editor and cover artist. It's also been so heartening to see that, contrary to my fears, many people do care about this book. The amount of support I've gotten from friends, my writing community, and complete strangers is so, so cool. Plus, it's always pretty cool when your friends text you pictures of your book in the wild.

TW: That’s so true. Amid all the publishing dreams and anxieties, I kind of forgot that normal everyday people would be picking up my book in a store or on a Kindle and reading it. Like, people who haven’t ever heard of AWP or royalty structures.

DM: What mindset are you in now that your first book is out of your hands? Do you use your efforts to push this one along or do you try to shift gears toward a new project?

SJS: As soon as this book went on submission over three years ago, I started writing my next one. So in the time that it took for the publication process, I've been working on the next novel and many short pieces, and at this point, I'm very much in the mode of trying to finish up the second novel. But I'm still devoting some time to pushing this one. I'm not a very good multi-tasker, but having my book come out has forced me to juggle my projects.

TW: I was pretty lucky in that I had a draft of my next novel finished before my first even came out. A couple years ago I wrote most of a literary crime novel while on a summer-long fellowship in Germany. That being said, it’s been so hard to get into revision because I’ve been busy with promotion. Two different minds are required to write a book and then talk about it’s theme and context. Switching between the two is difficult, and trying to hold on to the voice of the new one has been difficult. 

SJS: What are some hard-earned pieces of advice that you'd give to writers who are trying to write their first novels? What were things you wish you'd known before starting the process?

DM: I would say that life never offers up uncontested time slots for drafting novels. You always have to make the effort to braid that time into your daily existence. I’d also say be prepared for false summits. A time will come when you think you’re done, only to realize you are far from it. This is okay. This is part of the process. You have to fight for more time to keep going. I wish I was kinder to myself when I was immersed in this process. Next time I will be.

TW: The false summits advice is good. My advice is always similar, to take your time and plan on writing the book several times before it’s really done. Giving a story or a book “drawer time” is so cliche, but so true as well, as I think we all need some help to see through the tricks we’re trying to get away with but aren’t. Beyond that, celebrate your successes as they come (both on the page and on your CV) and use them as an occasion to push yourself harder and do something more significant. Chuck Palahniuk told me that after my first short story was published and it’s something I’ve tried to remember. Not the most profound advice, but it’s simple and vague, so it works.

Devin Murphy’s book, The Boat Runner, is about a Dutch family trying to weather the morally complex realities of WWII and the idea of redemption in the wake of such a disaster. He’s been working on it steadily since he left Prairie Schooner, but also took a post as a Creative Writing Professor at Bradley University and had three children, so busy, busy, busy.

SJ Sindu’s novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is about a Sri-Lankan American lesbian who is in a marriage of convenience with a gay man so that they can present a heterosexual facade to their conservative families. It's her late-in-life coming out story, dealing with issues of family dysfunction, immigration, racism, and homophobia. Since Prairie Schooner (when she was getting my BA and then MA), Sindu has gotten a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University, and is now a faculty member at Ringling College of Art & Design.

Theodore Wheeler’s novel, Kings of Broken Things, follows a group of young immigrants in Omaha during World War I and is set around the true events of a race riot and lynching, with the initiation of the main characters into the criminal underworld of Omaha braided with the history of the city from that time. In the five years since he left PS, Wheeler received an MFA from Creighton University and also published a collection of short fiction called Bad Faith. He’s also worked as a journalist for ten years and recently began teaching creative writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Nick White’s novel How to Survive a Summer centers around a young man from the American South who must come to terms with a summer he spent at a gay-to-straight conversion camp in Mississippi. When the novel opens, he is living in the Midwest and has tried to suppress the trauma of that time in his life, only to have it resurface when he learns that a slasher flick based on his experiences at that camp is being released in theaters. I worked on Prairie Schooner as a senior fiction reader during my years as a Ph.D. student. I now teach creative writing at The Ohio State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing.