Is it really right that I’m name-checking a failed Ben Stiller vehicle by way of introducing the restrained elegance of Polly Dugan’s debut story collection, So Much a Part of You?
No, of course it’s not right.
But Polly Dugan does things that are not right and I know this first-hand because I once sat in the audience as she read a piece filled with wrenching and graphic sexual material, whilst her two young sons sat in the row in front of me. They did not squirm. I did.
That, friends, is the manner in which Polly Dugan rolls.
She’s completely unashamed of her material, which is the often-shame-inducing terrain of family and its discontents and its malcontents. And her new book of stories—which could be a novel, but isn’t, thank God—goes about laying bare the secrets of one family, and therefore every family.
I taught Polly at Tin House one year. Or maybe she taught me.
Before I get all weepy, let’s go to the tape…
The Rumpus: Please think back to our time together in class. At what point did it dawn on you that I knew more about writing than any other human being in the history of mankind?
Polly Dugan: [Laughs, but in sad way] Having met you the summer before our workshop, I already suspected this about you, and my suspicions were largely confirmed by the end of our first hour together. [Laughs again, inexplicably] What I remember most vividly was our class discussion about writing sex, because the stories we looked at had a lot of sex. You emphasized writing about sex as it actually exists, when the participants are their most vulnerable, not porn clichés. There’s so much abysmal sex writing out there, some of us feel responsible to try and balance the scales.
Rumpus: Amen, mama! But what struck me about the stories in So Much a Part of You is how finely wrought they are, how controlled. How do they take shape in your mind? Do you begin with an idea, a character, a moment?
Dugan: Thanks. When I sit down to write, and revise especially, job one is to avoid throat-clearing like the plague, and I hope these stories have benefitted from my self-imposed rule to write like a Navy SEAL: get in and get out. I write a lot in my head before I ever sit down and approach the page, and in general I’d say most of these stories developed with a combination of all three aspects you mentioned, but the answer also depends on the story; for some I had a very clear starting point.
“Masquerades” was born out of a moment, an unexpected revelation at a Halloween party, which disrupts a new and unblemished and passionate romance. For “Legacies,” the story I workshopped in our class, I began with two characters: Joan—I knew exactly who she was and what she was going to do in the story. The other character was Peter; there’s a lot at stake for him, but the real stakes and the ones he’s worried about aren’t the same. The two of them drove the story start to finish. In “Handfuls” I started with the image—an idea, or maybe it’s a moment—of the character’s wedding ring fitting over his premature twin daughters’ hands, and also the idea that his wife would be completely undone in the wake of tremendous loss.
Rumpus: Not to be crass, but I smell another Rumpus T-shirt slogan! Write like a Navy SEAL! But before we make our fortune on that, talk a little about how you came to writing, and what it feels like to publish your debut book at age 29.
Dugan: Indeed. It would seem that the writing I did when I was 29 benefitted from simmering for a couple decades. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life. Books were rewards when I was a very young child; I got Golden Books for good behavior at the grocery store and bravery at the dentist. At some point, as a teenager maybe, I developed the notion, or secret aspiration, that becoming a writer—giving other people what the authors and books I read gave me—was something I wanted to do. But I never wrote fiction until my senior year in college when I took creative writing with Bob Olmstead for two semesters and produced some decent work. Two stories in the collection are significantly renovated versions of stories I wrote in Bob’s class. After graduation, in my early twenties, I wrote numerous and very earnest stories with heartbreak and railing about heartbreak at the center of them all. MFA programs were as popular then as now, but as much as I loved school, I was tired of being a student and wanted to get out in the world and live on my own. So for years I did just that, often keeping a journal, and did pretty much everything I wanted to do professionally and personally until I started writing again in 2006, when my sons were ages three and one. By then I had more material, better ideas, increased confidence and an ability to focus on something beyond mere complaint. I started submitting stories to journals and magazines and in 2010, attended my first Tin House Writers Workshop, and did every subsequent summer through 2013.
By the end of 2011, I had a collection of nine stories and started submitting to book length contests: The Bakeless Prize, The Flannery O’Connor Award, several others. It wasn’t until after the Tin House Workshop in 2012, following my mentorship with Meg Storey, a Tin House editor, that I began sending out queries. In early March 2013 I signed on with my amazing agent, Wendy Sherman, and by the end of that month she had negotiated a two-book deal with Little, Brown. My team there, comprised of smart and talented women, takes such good care of my work and me and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Publishing my debut book feels like I’ve won the lottery, and I pretty much feel like I’m 29 all the time anyway.
Rumpus: Given the overlapping characters in the book, were you pressured, or did you pressure yourself, to turn So Much a Part of You into a “novel in stories”?
Dugan: I wish I had a distinct memory about deciding to make the book a linked collection, but no, for sure there was never any kind of pressure from anywhere and really, the development came from the stories themselves. When I started writing again in 2006, the first story I wrote was “Masquerades;” I wasn’t even thinking about writing a book, just one story. That seemed like a manageable and attainable goal. I finished that one and started another until they started to add up. Now in hindsight, I recognize that “Masquerades,” became, and is, the backbone of the collection—it is the story in which the book’s three main characters appear together for the first time. After a dear friend, one of my early readers, read it she told me she thought it was the beginning of a novel. I thanked her for her tremendous feedback, but rejected the idea—which seemed neither manageable nor attainable. Yet, I agreed with her that “Masquerades” demanded a subsequent story, a sequel if you will, so I wrote that, but not until 2010, early 2011. I wrote other stories in between. At some point, I must have seen how the stories, including the two resurrected ones—and the people in them—could emanate both forward and backward from that first, central one. Structuring them as connected parts of a greater whole, I had a deeper investment in each story and the plights of the people in them, so that seemed like the way to go. And after throwing all these characters together, exposing their pliable moral compasses and playing with multiple points of view felt like elements that reinforced the linked format.
Rumpus: I have yet to shake the memory of you reading that incredibly intense, graphic scene in front of your kids. How does that work?
Dugan: I remember how the other readers whose work contained any “adult content” panicked once they knew my kids were there. But my husband and sons have always come to my readings—they’re my biggest supporters—and back then, in 2011, the boys were 8 and 6. They are (hopefully) well-behaved and polite members of the audience, and historically don’t listen to a word I say, so I had no concerns about them registering anything about my reading. That’s exactly what happened.
As a parent yourself, I’m sure you know one of the most phenomenal aspects of having kids is seeing the ways they change. Needless to say, things have changed. Almost exactly a year ago, because profanity was coming down the pike from wherever—school, movies, books—I sat them down and went through the whole list (save for two) and their definitions. I really wanted to demystify the allure; they’ll be swearing soon enough, whether I know it or not, but it was a good talk to have and a good time to have it. Of course one definition, as you might expect, led to an impromptu, very macro sex education lesson which I think in and of itself presented a natural deterrent to swearing; once we got to that stage, I think they regretted any interest in or experimental usage of profanity. So now, at ages 11 and 9, even though they both still often don’t ‘hear’ me, or simply ignore much of what I say the first time, they hear every syllable of profanity my husband or I may utter. If I find ants in the pantry and whisper, “Oh hell,” they’ll respond, even from a block away, I swear, “I heard that!”
We’ve talked about the context of profanity and bad language, and that they’ll encounter it in books—including mine, which are meant for adults—and movies, and from their friends but that doesn’t mean they have to use such words; they can choose. Dealing with the topic has been very funny: On the one hand, when I did a reading last summer, I forewarned that there were bad words in the excerpt. When I finished, our 10-year-old said, “Mom you said there were going to be bad words, but there was only one,” to which our eight-year-old said, “I didn’t hear it! What was it?” This is the same child who now, when I read aloud to them nightly from James Herriot’s “All Creatures Great and Small,” has asked that I censor bad language because he finds it offensive. So although I never would have in my wildest dreams imagined, as I’m reading Herriott’s tales about life and livestock and scrappy farmers in the Dales, I’m saying “heck” instead of “hell” and “darn” in lieu of “damn,” for which my son thanks me. God knows what’s going to happen from here on out.
Rumpus: I stand in awe and disbelief. Heck. Darn. What’s next?
Dugan: In March, after working for a year solid, I finished my novel, The Sweetheart Deal, which will be published Spring 2015, and I’m now in the editing stages. The book is about a confirmed bachelor and serial monogamist who is compelled to honor his promise, made twelve years earlier during a drunken New Year’s Eve on Y2K, to marry his best friend’s wife if he dies. I spent so much time with the characters and worked on it so closely that by the time it was complete, not only did I feel like a polygamist with two families, it was also very hard to ‘let it go’ out into the world.
One of my favorite things about the book is that two characters from the story collection—completely unrelated in that book—reappear in the novel. I was really fond of them both and was glad I found a way to spend more time with both of them. And I’m juggling ideas for the next book.
Featured image of Polly Dugan © by Jamie Bosworth.