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The Writer I Was: Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels

By posted at 6:00 am on September 29, 2015 8

As a writer who is still working on her debut novel manuscript, I can’t resist the temptation to feel as though every author who has her name splashed across a cover in a bookstore is the happiest writer who has ever written. She is, after all, published; after working hard, her best work is polished and released, and out for the world to consume.

Despite, as writers, knowing how easily and often our relationship with our own work fluctuates, we can sometimes silently impose an expectation on published authors that they should retain a permanently positive relationship with their books once they’re in print. Perhaps it’s ungrateful if they don’t. They could, after all, still be struggling like so many of us.

Is it actually that easy, though? Does a writer love all of his published works as much as the day they were released — or as much as we on the outside expect him to? Or does he actually want to burn every copy each time he sees an open flame? I asked six writers to look back on their debut novels, released as many as 25 years ago, and talk about how their relationships with their books have evolved with time and distance.

1. Colum McCann on Songdogs (1995)
coverMy first novel, Songdogs, was actually my second book, after a collection of stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River. I was in my mid-20s when I wrote it. I recall my agent saying that the first draft felt like it had been “preserved in aspic.” Basically, he was saying that it was god-awful. He was right, too. I got a second chance and wrote and rewrote and rewrote. I have a bit of a contradictory relationship with that book, which is now about 25 years old. I think I’m correct in saying that it’s a young man’s novel, flawed and flaring. I would never read it again — why spend my time with my own work when I can read someone else’s? — but there are parts of it that still rattle my tired memory.

Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House) is forthcoming on October 13.

2. Alexander Chee on Edinburgh (2001)
coverI’m probably more proud of [Edinburgh now] than I was at the time it appeared. At the time, the struggle to publish it had consumed me — it took 24 rejections and two and a half years to find a publisher. I think I somehow internalized all those rejections. And so the eventual celebration when it appeared at last got a somewhat chilled embrace from me, even once it went better than I had expected. People kept saying to me, “Aren’t you happy?” And I couldn’t quickly answer. I was thinking, “Well…I don’t know.” A sort of anhedonia had set in. That feeling puzzled me for a long time. I understand it now, though — I was braced for something bad to happen, one last disaster. But it didn’t happen, and now I can celebrate it wholeheartedly.

The Queen of the Night (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is forthcoming on February 2.

3. Jami Attenberg on Instant Love (2007)
coverI actually have a real fondness for my first book, Instant Love. I wasn’t in an MFA program, and it had been more than a decade since I’d studied writing as an undergrad, so the book was constructed mainly on passion and voice and life experience rather than anything strategic or structural or academic. I just really stumbled my way through the writing of it, had no expectations, and was just happy it sold. Now that book feels as pure to me as anything I’ve ever written. When people tell me that they’ve read it, I get a little choked up thinking about that time in my life. I’m serious! I definitely think of that book as my first love.

4. Emily St. John Mandel on Last Night in Montreal (2009)
coverMy first three novels were recently reissued, and I had the opportunity to read through them and make minor changes and corrections prior to publication. It was interesting to revisit them after all these years, especially my first novel, Last Night in Montreal. I think that novel’s by far the weakest of my books. I’m mystified that it gets more attention than my second and third novels, and if I were to write that story now I would go about it in a completely different way, but I was reassured to find upon rereading that I didn’t dislike it. Looking at it again was like opening a time capsule: there was a sense of “Oh, this is how I wrote in my early-to-mid-20s, when my sensibility was almost completely different.”

5. Justin Taylor on The Gospel of Anarchy (2012)
coverGospel was brutally reviewed upon publication, for reasons that I felt — and still feel — were largely unfair, and only tangentially related to its contents. A lot of people wanted it to be pure punk rock slapstick, and so decided in advance that it probably would be, and so were more than a little bit put off by what turned out to be a dense, recursive, intermittently X-rated meditation on theology. The book’s great crime, in the critical consensus, was in taking its own central question seriously, namely: Is there a vantage point from which Christianity and anarchism appear (or are revealed) to be, one and the same thing? This is not to say I posed this as elegantly as I could have, or that anyone other than me is obliged to agree with my answer or even care what the possible answers are — it may not be a great novel, who knows? — but many critics seemed to be offended that I had asked the question in the first place. It was the refusal to engage, and the smug self-satisfaction of the unengaged, that hurt me far more than the negativity itself.

I started this paragraph planning to say that I’m no longer as upset by this as I was then, but it’s obviously not true. I’m still upset — maybe not in a day-to-day “Arya Stark’s revenge list” way, but still. I hate the part of American culture that prides itself on its shallowness, the cold and at least honest “fuck you” reduced even further to the squirrelly and smirking “WTF,” and I hate that we — literary culture — have allowed the infection to cross our borders. One does try to be a good literary citizen, and most of the time it’s a decent country to be citizen of, but other times it feels like you’re wading to middle school through a waist-deep river of shit. So, let me end on a positive — and sane — note by mentioning my single favorite response to The Gospel of Anarchy, which came in the form of a nine-panel comic by Horn! Reviews, which is the project of Kevin Thomas. He just understood exactly what I was after, met me where I was, produced art in response to art. All of which reassured me, at a time when I needed to hear it, that I wasn’t completely nuts to have gone about things the way I did. If Gospel ever gets reissued, his comic is going on the cover. In fact, there won’t be anything else on the cover. The whole cover will just be it.”

6. Anthony Marra on A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013)
coverI still do get a jolt of pride whenever I see Constellation in a bookstore, but now it’s more a nod across the room to an old friend. The greatest change has been the realization that when you publish a book, it stops being yours and begins belonging to whoever reads it. At an event a couple months back, a woman asked a question about the specifics of a particular plot point. I haven’t read Constellation since I finished writing it four years ago, and to my embarrassment, I’d forgotten the exact details of the scene in question. A couple other people in the crowd immediately jumped in with their own interpretations and I silently stood at the podium, relieved to listen to readers tell me what my book is about.

The Tsar of Love and Techno (Hogarth) is forthcoming on October 13.





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8 Responses to “The Writer I Was: Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels”

  1. Jack M
    at 7:27 am on September 29, 2015

    I love the phrase “flawed and flaring.”

  2. Tom B.
    at 9:15 am on September 29, 2015

    RE: Justin Taylor; it does feel as if a writer becomes a target when he/she chooses subject matter outside a certain range — “relatable” to a certain type of reviewer or reader — or who takes an unconventional approach toward that material, especially if that approach ISN’T rollicking satire.

  3. Edward Champion
    at 11:13 am on September 29, 2015

    Justin Taylor is right on the money. Today’s readers — and, by this, we should zero in on the imperious and easily outraged 140 character thought police who fancy themselves barons and tastemakers; readers outside New York tend to be more adult and adventurous — seem to be more offended when an author pushes her way out of the amniotic fluid of safe comforting storytelling with easily recognizable archetypes, provoking the reader with even the most rudimentary of intellectual or philosophical questions. Iris Murdoch, William Gaddis, Gilbert Sorrentino, Marguerite Young, and Samuel Delaney could never get their start today. The dreaded anti-intellectual notions of “eating your cultural vegetables” and “likeable characters” has so rooted its way into our culture that unbridled escapism is now the operative mode, with any vaguely offensive sentence used to impugn the art. Oddly enough, television seems to be taking more risks. This is a pernicious climate to be a “good literary citizen.” It frankly isn’t worth the effort, especially when you meet people who read outside the so-called country who are starved for narratives that are actually about something and wonder why their stories aren’t being told. I don’t blame Taylor for being angry. Good on him for trying to be a literary citizen and I hope these realities don’t deter him from taking bigger risks in a future volume.

  4. Cheeeze
    at 4:13 pm on September 29, 2015

    I read the NYT and LAT reviews of Gospel of Anarchy and found no evidence of Taylor’s “brutality”. The reviews were mixed, sure, but contained none of his paranoid “they wanted it to be so simple and funny and it turned out to be too deep and complex” b.s. It sounds like the book is simply about half as good as Taylor believes it to be.

    I realize how culturally stupid we’ve become, but if nobody finds your book to be a “dense, recursive, intermittently X-rated meditation on theology”, maybe the problem is with the writer, not the reader/critics. Or else you’re a genius light years ahead of your time, which, let’s just say Taylor is no Bill Gaddis.

  5. butt
    at 8:08 pm on September 29, 2015

    @Edward Champion

    Why say “today’s readers” if you mean a small literary elite? And what’s more elitist than an author railing about bad reviews, calling them evidence of shallowness, and marking as his favourite review one that does not lift so much as a critical pinkie finger against it? It’s fine to take risks but that’s merely the beginning of writing, and the difference between, say, Taylor and Nell Zink, where we are reminded that when a writer takes risks they are not actually risking anything save perhaps a pan from Michiko Kakutani.

  6. Edward Champion
    at 10:29 am on September 30, 2015

    Those are all fair points, @butt, and I agree with you. The author needs to work well outside the influence of reviews if she is to create anything original or artistic. But increasingly the role of the author demands the kind of “good literary citizenship” that Taylor is complaining about and very often the top-tier peanut gallery confuses the work with the author.

    And now that I’ve looked at the GOSPEL OF ANARCHY reviews, I have to agree with @Cheeeze that te reviews aren’t all that brutal. Indeed, this one even considers the philosophical precursors. http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2011/03/the-gospel-of-anarchy-by-justin-taylor.html

  7. David Biddle
    at 8:50 am on October 1, 2015

    Justin Taylor, you say it so well” “I hate the part of American culture that prides itself on its shallowness, the cold and at least honest “fuck you” reduced even further to the squirrelly and smirking “WTF,” and I hate that we — literary culture — have allowed the infection to cross our borders.”

    This is not just a problem for literary culture or the arts, of course. It’s everywhere. Somehow people have come to believe their first task in confronting entities in the public venue is to judge with a thumbs up or thumbs down. I used to wonder why English class in high school was deemed so important. About ten years ago I finally figured out that the the goal in studying good, meaningful fiction was to try to understand it and through that understanding maybe (maybe!) understand life a little better.

    That’s all evaporating now. We write books these days at our own peril. If you go outside expectations, you will be stoned. Shoot, maybe it’s always been that way and people are just better at it now.

  8. Cheeeze
    at 9:43 am on October 1, 2015

    I think y’all are overstating this a bit…our culture has always preferred commercialized, mass-appeal fiction over deep, probing, avant-garde. Look at bestseller lists from the 50s, 20s, etc.

    David, give me an example of a writer getting “stoned” for going outside expectations. I just don’t see it. More realistic is an author being ignored for

    One thing that has changed, I think, is the cultural capital assigned to novelists has diminished. The days of Mailer and Vidal going at it on TV are long gone. But on the flip side, there are more vehicles for publishing now than there perhaps ever been. The proliferation of indie presses, for example, gives experimental authors another avenue if/when they are rejected by the big houses. Now, these books barely register a pulse in the overall literary landscape, but I don’t think it’s true to say Beloved Writer X wouldn’t get published today. Mark Danielwski is published a 27 volume work, for goodness sake. Josh Cohen published an 800-page “Jewish Ulysses”. Marilynne Robinson publishes spiritual fiction in a time where spirituality has less influence than it ever has in American history.

    Maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m just an optimist, but I still believe if your book is good enough, someone will publish it.

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