What does it take to write, and then publish, a first book?
Three first-time authors with books out this spring--John Dalton and Claire Tristram, both novelists, and Hannah Tinti, a short story writer--join "Off the Page" this week to talk about the struggles and joys of writing their first book.
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Dalton's novel, Heaven Lake, tells the story of a young Christian missionary in Taiwan who is forced to question his faith after an affair with a young girl.
Tristram delves into a foreign country as well, in a way--in her novel, After, a woman has an affair with a Muslim stranger a year after her husband was killed by Muslim extremists.
And the short stories in Tinti's collection, Animal Crackers, explore her characters' experiences with animals, and how they reflect the strange and mysterious relationships humans have with one another.
The three authors were online Thursday, May 6 at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about their books.
Read the transcript.
Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
For each of you: What was the hardest part about writing your first book, and then publishing it? (In other words, How many drafts? How many rejection letters?)
John Dalton, Hannah Tinti and Claire Tristram: Claire: I wrote the book very quickly, It's my first novel and I wrote it in four months. I already had an agent. He had contacted me after seeing a short story of mine. Nat Sobel, who is Richard Russo's agent. And he sold it in less than a week to Farrar Strauss. So I'm very happy about the whole process, and I hope it happens that way next time.
John: I think I had the exact opposite experience. I spent eight years writing HEAVEN LAKE. There no one single reason for that. I just didn't have the necessary level of craft or insight or maturity to write a novel when I started it. And all of those things just came day after day with a lot of struggling.
Carole: You don't think that sometimes it just takes eight years to write a novel?
John: Yes, and often writers will write one or two novels and sell their third. I did just one and I did countless drafts of it. The advantage is you'll work on a chapter and won't see it for several years, so then you'll add layers to it.
It took me eight months to get an agent to even read it. I probably sent it to about eighteen agents. The first agent to read it was Lisa Bankoff from ICM. After that it happened very quickly. She sold it in six days.
Hannah: I think I'm more in John's camp. It took me six years to write. One of the biggest struggles for me was time. I was holding down a fulltime job and writing at night or on the weekends, and that was definitely difficult. Also, because I was working on stories, and different ideas, it might have been a different process.
I'd worked in the industry for a period of time, at magazines and a literary agency for three years. So I knew the other side of the business. I did a lot of research into agents who had sold short story collections and sold them well. And my dream agent, Nicole Aragi, read the book and really enjoyed it.
What's the one "lesson learned" you would pass on to someone trying to get a first book published?
John Dalton, Hannah Tinti and Claire Tristram: John: I just wrote an essay called 'Done Yet' about spending eight years writing a novel.For a lot of the eight years I worked on HEAVEN LAKE, I had a lot of shame about being an unpublished writer. I think that's a waste of time and angst. If you're a writer and you're working hard every day, you're really doing your best to turn out the very best prose you can, then you're already a writer.
Claire: Very simply, successful writing is when you are listening to yourself very deeply and you have something to say. It's a very solitary quiet meditative process and you have to be patient enough to have that happen on the page. And trust that you have something to say.
Hannah: I think there are two things that helped me. One was I went to a writing colony, and got a chunk of time to get away and write for a period of time, and meet other writers. I went to Hedgebrook, off the coast of Seattle. I think of my life pre-Hedgebrook, and post-Hedgebrook. I'd suggest people investigate writing colonies.
And the second thing about the publishing side of things, is to somehow get involved int he literary community--volunteer at a literary magazine--to learn the other side of what it's like to have work coming into you, and learn the process, and what's out there: what other people are writing. Or working at a book store. I got a job interning at the Boston Review, and I read all the slush. It taught me how to write a story, it showed me what not to do, and how to present my own work.
Hannah: When did you realize that animals would play at least a small role in the short stories in Animal Crackers (i.e., how many stories did you write that featured animals before you thought, A-ha!) Why do you suppose they're there?
John Dalton, Hannah Tinti and Claire Tristram: Hannah: I think I'd probably written maybe five or six stories before I realized what was going on, and not all the stories end up making it into the final cut for the book. There's a bunch of reasons why they're there. One of them is I really like animals. But also I was interested in the animalistic side of human nature, and when and why humans or people cross over into doing very violent things. And another reason I think is because I was trying to use animals as a way of getting at readers' emotions. I think sometimes people open up their emotions to animals more easily than they do to other people. You see that with the way people get so obsessed with their pets. A big thing you see in New York is a person walking their dog with a diamond-stud collar, right past a homeless person. That interested me as well. The stories are about people, but I use animals as vehicles to get at the people. Sometimes they're major characters, sometimes they're minor characters.
College Park, Md.:
A few questions from an aspiring writer. How tough was it to write the first novel? have you started to write a second and has that been any easier? Thirdly, did you begin writing with a theme in mind and, if so, how tough was it to meld that theme with a storyline without having it sound contrived?
John Dalton, Hannah Tinti and Claire Tristram: Claire: I'm dealing very directly in my novel with a theme, and the theme is the psychological fallout of living in a post-9/11 world. And I chose the story very directly to illustrate my theme. I guess my story is something so completely on my mind, what it means to be an American right now, what's happening in the world and what's going to happen next, and that's probably one of the reasons I wrote it very quickly. I chose to characterize it with such an individual way. I have two main characters and focus on their experiences. The passion for the story came from wanting to write about the world today.
John: I don't write with a theme in mind. Everything comes out of character, and that usually suggests a scene. I very much like writing in scene, creating scenes. And then the themes suggest itself out of what comes out of character and theme. I really like theme a lot, too, but it often takes a great deal of time for me to understand what the scene is suggesting thematically.
John: In her blurb for your book, Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto, calls Heaven Lake "a sort of Divine Comedy in reverse: a young man's trek through hell to get away from God." What do you think?
John Dalton, Hannah Tinti and Claire Tristram: John: Those are one of those things that was great to hear as a writer, but I wasn't thinking of that as I wrote the book. The book spun out of an offer that was actually made to me when I was living in Taiwan in the 1980s. You were out to dinner one night with other foreign English teachers in Taiwan and we were approached by a Taiwanese businessman. We drank a lot of beer, and as it got late he had this proposition for us all. The previous summer he had gone to mainland China to open up a factory and had met a woman whom he descrbed as the most beautiful woman in China. He wanted to marry her, she wanted to marry him. But at the time there was no way politically for this to happen. So he made a standing offer to anyone at the table that he would pay $10,000 if one of us would go to China, find the woman, marry her, because as an American or Canadian we could marry someone from China, and then return the bride to him in Taiwan and then get a divorce.
So in truth this guy was flaky and drunk, but he gave me an idea that I knew right away I could build a novel around. So that's the set-up for the plot. Thematically it's about faith. The main character is a Christian volunteer who makes a big mistake and agrees to take on this journey across China. It's especially complex proposition for Vincent, because he's a Christian missionary from the Midwest and the situation forces him into complexities he had previously not even considered.
I'm curious about your relationships with your editors. I've never heard an author complain publicly about his editor, but everyone seems to agree the Maxwell Perkins days are gone forever. Thoughts?
John Dalton, Hannah Tinti and Claire Tristram: Hannah: I love my editor, actually! I think I really lucked out. I got Susan Kamil at Dial Press, and she's a very old-school style editor, in that she actually edits and gives me good feedback about my work, and at the same time she's incredibly enthusiastic, one of the most enthusiastic people I've met in my life. I think friends of mine have had trouble with their editors leaving after they bought their book, or right before the book is published. So when they're looking for an editor, I tell friends, try to find out if they're going to leave. Because you don't want your book orphaned. With Susan, she's the head of the press, so she's not going anywhere.
Claire: I think writers really do love their editors. They're the first best reader you have. They buy the book because they love it. My editor as FSG is John Glusman, and the first conversation I had with him, he explained my book to me. It was just the most lovely feeling to have someone tell me what I had hoped I had written. Then he made me work very hard. But all of the time I felt he was helping me write the book I wanted to write, rather than what he would want me to write. I think he's an uncommon editor, but i think editors go into the business because they love finding a book they want to acquire, so I think that's something every writer can look forward to when they get published.
John: I also have an extraordinary editor. Mine is Colin Harrison at Scribner. He read the novel five times. He line-edited it twice. It's a long book and it was a lot of work for him. Colin is also a well-regarded fiction writer in his own right, so a lot of the trials and difficulties I had he had already dealt with in his own work.
Claire: When your novel opens, your character says her grief has turned into desire--"Grocery boys aroused her," she thinks. Why do you suppose in your novel you've paired desire with grief?
John Dalton, Hannah Tinti and Claire Tristram: Claire: Desire in a general sense is a wish for something better, something that you don't have. My character doesn't have rest. She wants to be at peace with the world, so it felt very natural to me that she would look for that in a sexual way, and to connect to people through sex. In a way it's a more fundamental way of connecting with people, and it became my character's way of trying to reconnect with a world that has been destroyed around her.
Congratulations to each of the first-time published authors. Have any of you begun, or perhaps finished, your next project? If so, what may we look forward to seeing from each of you?
John Dalton, Hannah Tinti and Claire Tristram: John: I have begun a second book. I've only got a few chapters. It is not set in Asia. For me to write, I have to know a setting very well. The first setting was Taiwan and China, which I knew very well. This setting is a summer camp, which I also know very well. Beyond that, I don't write close to my own life. That is, I invent characters who have more interesting dilemmas than I have.
Hannah: I am working on a novel, which has already been bought by Dial Press. I'm about three-quarters of the way through. It's a historical novel about a gang of grave robbers. I'm having a lot of fun with it. It's very interesting to switch forms. This is my first time writing a novel. There's so much more space. There's so much more room to explore these side alleys and side stories that you just can't do with a short story. With a short story everything has to be on track with your goal. With a novel I can go off with a side character and tell their story. And I'm having a lot of fun doing that. I think it was Alice Munro who said that a novel is a house with many rooms, and if that's the case, I'd say a short story is a closet--with lots of interesting things in it, but still a closet.
Claire: I am almost finished the second novel that I may never send anywhere. The first novel is so explicit, and it really made me feel so exposed, because it's so close to my feelings about the world. Now, everyone knows what I think! I guess that's good, but it takes getting used to. So this second one has really been for me. I'll definitely send it to my agent, but I'm ready to move on.
I think that's my advice to first-time writers: Don't be afraid to throw things away.
John: I threw lots of stuff away, too, that's good advice.
Claire: Sometimes things are just for you, and that's okay too.
I an aspiring novelist and have found the whole writers culture (workshops, MFA programs, colonies, journals), so ponderous and self-aggrandizing, that I've avoided it for a while. My question is, how did, or did, this culture (which you all seems to have participated in based on your bios) help in the getting published process?
John Dalton, Hannah Tinti and Claire Tristram: Claire: I don't have an MFA, I've never gone to a colony, I don't know any other writers, I hadn't met my agent. You don't need to have contacts. You just need to write. The best way to learn how to write is to read, and then do it. I don't think it's bad to go to a colony or an MFA program, but I don't think it's necessary.
Hannah: I think there's lots of different ways to get published. Some people go through MFA programs, some people aren't involved in that culture at all. But all I can do is talk to my own experience, and getting involved in the literary community really helped me. It helped me write better, which is the most important thing. I'm the editor of One Story, a literary magazine that publishes one short story every three weeks. By doing that I've met great writers and made really good friends. I've learned a lot about writing. We've published writers from other countries, which has really opened up my eyes. I can certainly see how some people find it ponderous or clique-y. It can also be exciting or motivating.
John: I think there is a ponderousness and pretentiousness in the writing community, but you shouldn't be deterred by that. There's also a great deal of generosity. I've met so many fiction writers, poets, artists, who are very kind and generous people. I think it's perfectly OK to accept an open hand when it's offered out of generosity and integrity. That's a fine thing to do. And MFA programs and artist colonies--I just got back from MacDowell--they're wonderful because they allow you to have these wonderful friendships in your life that are important creatively and personally.
What are your thoughts on print v. web or electronic publishing? Everyone has predicted the demise of the book for so long -- but print still seems the medium with more gravitas than electronic.
John Dalton, Hannah Tinti and Claire Tristram: Hannah: Personally, I'm a fan of print, and using the Web in conjunction with it. With Web magazines, you can't read anything for too long because it strains the eye. Poetry works well, short-short fiction, but you can't read a novel online. Plus there's the tactile sense of having something you can carry with you. For One Story, it's a print magazine, and we use our Web site to post q-and-a's with authors, and it works very well for us.
What was that first moment when you realized you were going to be published like? What went through your mind?
John Dalton, Hannah Tinti and Claire Tristram: Claire: When I was writing it, I was prepared not to be published because of what I wanted to write. I didn't want to write a happy-ending book, and that would be easier getting published.
So for me it was a great happy feeling. A great publisher picked it up and I got a chance to be heard that way. I was at my mother-in-law's and she took a picture of me when I got off the phone with my agent, and I look very happy. It's very close to how I looked on my wedding day.
John: When you spend eight years writing a novel, you're taking a real gamble with your life. You're not doing what all your friends are doing, establishing themselves in a career, having kids. I feel like I survived the gamble by the skin of my teeth.
I was happy, but it was much more rewarding to me as I went through the publishing process. Moments like holding the book in your hands was more powerful than when I found out it was sold. I never really believe that anybody would read the book aside from my family, and I'm still finding it strange that someone I don't know and have no connection to is reading the book. And it's very pleasing, it's very satisfying.
Hannah: The very first time I was published was in a magazine. It sounds very strange, but since that was the first time everything pales in comparison. I came home from work and on my machine was a message from Lois Rosenthal, who was editor of Story Magazine. I still have the little answering machine tape with her message on it. It is a validation of a gamble that you take with your life. I had worked so hard and for so long on the book. And you make a lot of personal sacrifices in your life in order to be a writer. And so it was thrilling to think, I was right in making this choice.
Bearing those winsome thoughts in mind, we will close today's edition of "Off the Page." Thanks to Claire, Hannah and John for coming online today.
Join us in two weeks, when our guest is E.L. Doctorow, who will talk about his new book, SWEET LAND STORIES.
Remember, you can get regular news about "Off the Page" guests and schedules by signing up for our e-mail list. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.