In this special edition Rumpus interview, three novelists who once waited tables together at Bread Loaf reflect on their careers, how who they are changes how they write, and how it feels to finally publish the book you’ve worked so long to craft—a kind of “incomplete catharsis.” Carmiel Banasky talks about The Suicide of Claire Bishop, Alexandra Kleeman talks about You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, and Matthew Salesses talks about The Hundred-Year Flood.
As they ask one another questions about writing, ranging from how their characters evolved draft by draft to how they write about sex, these three writers touch on what it means to be a twenty-first-century writers at the beginning of long and promising careers.
Matthew Salesses: So we were all in the same “waiter” class at Bread Loaf, and I think we were all working on these books at the time? My daughter was tiny—this must have been in 2012? I remember I was halfway to giving up on The Hundred-Year Flood then. I remember a conversation about something like that with Carmie soon after the conference. And reading the first half of Alex’s book and then waiting for three years or so for the rest! How have your books changed since that time?
Carmiel Banasky: Tremendously! Of course. I’m sure I’ve excised and rewritten the first hundred pages of the book a dozen times since then. It has grown and shrunk and grown again. Two characters melded together into one. A new setting was introduced (probably linked to the time I spent on the West Coast). I just finished rereading my book, The Suicide of Claire Bishop, for the very last time—and I remember “darling” sentences I cut out long ago. It is so much tighter now (perhaps it could be tighter still!). I spoke with an agent at Bread Loaf who said I needed an “explosion” in the first few pages of my book. I resisted this; maybe felt I was above this piece of advice—I was writing a slow-building literary thing, no explosions for me, thank you. But after years of revisions, the explosion (the reveal of the painting) now occurs in the first few pages, instead of on page fifty or one hundred, where it had back then. You grow up, your writing grows up.
Alexandra Kleeman: It was so interesting to get to keep tabs on each others’ books in the years that passed. I remember reading an earlier version of the beginning of your novel, Carmie, and I can’t wait to read the final explosive version when it comes out in the fall. It’s like getting the director’s cut of the book, all the different ways a scene could play out. I’m not sure how different my book would seem to anyone who had read an earlier version, but the final book feels very different to me—after trying for years to revise some of the later chapters and ending up with minor variations on what I had written the first time, I feel like I was finally able to break through and introduce something that felt newer and whole and surprising to me. Maybe this was illusory movement—I think my psychological makeup changed about thirty to thirty-five percent over the course of writing the novel, so maybe the person I was at the end was just more easily pleased. But I prefer to think that I revised successfully.
Banasky: Yes, that thirty to thirty-five percent psychological shift. We talked about our books changing, but how have both of you changed since 2012—as writers and as human beings in the world?
Salesses: Change for me now seems much easier to track in terms of what my daughter is doing. Her changes pretty much rule our family’s trajectory. We react to and also try to help her along her changes. And they’re so drastic, and yet in them you also see how fundamental a part of her is. That’s definitely a different way of being in the world, for me. And of thinking of how the world will become.
Kleeman: Maybe the biggest thing that changed for me was getting out of a bad relationship and into a very good one. This has had many different positive effects on my life, and also some interesting literary effects—I’m less interested in moments of disconnection between my characters, less interested in building them as a series of opacities. Knowing one particular person well has made me feel like it’s more possible to create people from the inside out, while before I was always working from the outside in, from gestures and reactions and appearances.
Do you guys find that you write differently as your life grows more or less imperiled? I feel the official line is supposed to be that we craft stories thinking solely about what we intend to say or communicate, but at some basic level I feel the personal filters in everywhere.
How much do you think people can learn about you as a person from reading your writing? What do you think would get lost in translation?
Salesses: I worry mine is going to be read very autobiographically, since I’m a Korean American adoptee who lived in Prague for a year, as is my protagonist. And partly I was trying to capture some part of who I was in 2004, when I started the book and when I lived in Prague. I think my identity was more imperiled then. I feel like my psychological makeup changed ninety percent from that time to now.
In my final edits, I talked with another writer who’d just finished his, and he mentioned to me that he had to figure out what really mattered to him in order to figure out what really mattered to his narrator. I had to figure out what I was hiding from myself in 2004 in order to finish my book. I changed more in the final stages than I had in the two years before that, probably.
We’re better people now, and hopefully that makes us better writers?
Banasky: Similarly to Matt’s process of figuring out what mattered to him/his narrator, in later revisions I started repeating to myself why my book mattered to me or at all. It got me through a few tougher revisions and helped me understand my own themes.
My book is anything but autobiographical, but yes, the personal filters into every element. My characters’ neuroses and fears are magnified versions of my own, or a combination of my own and those of other people I’ve known.
Salesses: When you asked yourself what your book meant to you, what was the answer?
Banasky: My novel is equally about madness and the fear of madness. So what that meant was presenting schizophrenia as a relatable experience, without reducing or romanticizing it. I tried to put on paper the experiences that friends with schizophrenia had told me about (with their permission), as well as the fears and questions those stories raised in me as a witness. These were experiences I had never exactly read in a book before, and I wanted to. The only way to accomplish this was through as whole a character as I could write—West—a character who has many traits, schizophrenia being one of them. I want to invite empathy, not sympathy. I want not only those friends to recognize themselves in West, but for anyone and everyone to be able to recognize themselves and to relate.
Kleeman: I love that bit, Carmie—“experiences I had never exactly read in a book before, and wanted to.” We all started as readers, and I think you begin growing into a writer when you start to hunger as a reader for something you can’t get in the books that are already out there.
Salesses: A part of me is always just responding to the sense of loss I had as a kid who read voraciously but never found an experience like mine. I’m curious when you write best? When you’re happy? Sad?
Kleeman: I’ve always written from a place of tension, whether it’s that sort of manic tautness late at night when the apartment gets really quiet and I start having ideas in long strands, or the not-so-great anxious tension that comes with being troubled by my material and by the act of writing. I’m hoping, though, that I have a happy mode of writing in me that I haven’t really discovered. Since I finished the major, painful draft of the novel I’ve been working differently, with a bit less pressure—I’ve taken on reported features and personal essays, and even the substantial revision I did on the novel with my Harper editor was done in a spirit of curiosity and play. Maybe that was why I was finally able to change sections that I had always wanted to change but never could figure out how to.
But I have to say, I really do worry that when I start the next novel I’ll be back to default mode—writing all night and waking up feeling hungover even though I was completely sober, worrying that I’ll never figure out the way out of problems I’ve made for myself in my manuscript, crying occasionally. It’s not that this is the most effective way to work, I’m sure, but when you’re in a highly charged emotional state and you find the right edit or the right thing to say, it can really feel like you’ve had an important breakthrough. I think in the past I’ve been hooked on that breakthrough feeling, which usually involves so much angst and pain.
Banasky: Yes, I love the breakthrough feeling. The rush of new material. But for me, the emotional quality of that experience varies based on the content. The fantasy novel I’m working on now is dark, like everything else, but it was delightful to write that first draft, even though there were still occasional tears. Maybe because it is a new genre for me, I put less pressure on myself to make it perfect; I didn’t take it seriously as a publishable thing until I got closer to the end. (Perhaps that is how The Suicide of Claire Bishop started as well—when I began drafting, I had no idea I’d ever let people actually read it.)
Kleeman: Do you think writing the next one will be different because of this first novel?
Salesses: I feel like everything I write makes me a better writer, but almost nothing helps me better understand a new project at its start than I did the last at its start. While working on The Hundred-Year Flood, I wrote another novel in fits and starts, and it ended up published first. I feel like I was able to write a better book because of all the hours spent on THYF, but I don’t feel like those hours made me write a different book than I would have written. Maybe what I mean is that each project has its own internal logic? I get better at various craft things, but still have to figure out what it is that I’ve got to apply the craft to, and that doesn’t seem to get any easier. Maybe that’s just a personal failing.
Banasky: My recent impetus to outline my current project might stem from the difficulty of writing my novel without one. I knew how The Suicide of Claire Bishop began and ended, but not how I would get from point A to point B. I wrote the first draft in a year, then spent the next four years solving the puzzle I’d created. For the fantasy novel I’m writing now, I dove right into writing like I always do, to get the voice, to learn about the characters, to get excited. But then I took a big step back and started outlining for the first time. The outline, of course, changes as I write on. It has been a freeing experience. I also drew pictures for each chapter (and I’m not a good drawer!), to condense the tension into one image, to get to know the world, and to be able to quickly glance at a visual outline pinned to my wall.
While writing TSOCB, I also wrote a couple novellas. Shorter things that I could wrap my head around, study from an aerial view. At times, while revising, TSOCB felt too big to hold in my head at once. Now when I think of it, I can regard it as a whole, but it took a while to get there.
Kleeman: I think there’s a sort of confidence boost that comes with the experience of looking back on your novel and perceiving it as whole—for a brief moment you feel incontrovertibly like a writer! But even though I haven’t started writing the next novel yet—it’s still in research—I think that writing short stories has taught me that each new piece has its own equally large set of problems to solve, and that the solutions you found to the previous set of problems hardly ever translate.
Banasky: I want to talk about sex scenes. I was thinking that in many books, sex scenes can be seen as microcosms of the tensions that are present between characters or the issues the book addresses. What do you think? Is writing a sex scene different from writing other scenes or do you treat them the same? How do you approach them and later revise? What do you learn about your characters?
Salesses: I try to remember not to fade to black before the scene offers something more than the fact of sex. I also think about how you achieve this focused attention from the reader (and from the characters) during a sex scene, and what you can get someone to read when their attention is that focused, without losing them. What about you two?
Kleeman: I always used to avoid writing about sex, and in avoiding that I realized that I was excluding a really useful mode of character-building from my work. Fictional sex now seems important to me not quite symbolically but as a way in which characters articulate their relationship to the things around them in a basic, raw way. It makes visible how your character sees their body and the bodies of others as instruments, how confident, how aggressive. How concrete, how abstract or emotive is their experience of physicality? I’m especially interested in how lonely it can be—usually we get a picture of sex as a seamless melding of two entities, but I think it’s much more likely to reaffirm the boundaries of one or both people, rearticulate how separate you are and what you notice about other people that makes them distinct form you and different. Depending on how you feel about that other person this kind of differentiation could be very intimate—and isn’t that preferable to saying again and again that people dissolve into one another or merge or forget where the end and where they begin? The latter is something that, for some reason, we try over and over again to make ourselves believe.
Banasky: Yes! I think that type of melding, losing-yourself sex is a manufactured, shared, cultural memory that we strive to return to as the Ideal, though we might never have experienced it to begin with. There’s something nostalgic in that struggle. And it is a blurring of media and reality more than a blurring of two people. It’s what Alex’s book touches on directly, and it is very much a symptom of our generation: we were told early on that this is what good sex looks like, this is what your mouth looks like during good sex, etc. (For me, the image was probably first seared as a kid when I snuck into the hallway where I could see two-thirds of the TV screen, while my parents watched an R-rated movie.) Even if mainstream cinema still upholds that imprecise image, perhaps literary fiction works so hard to undermine it that awkward sex scenes have become a cliché in their own right. In my book, Claire has only one “good” sexual encounter amidst a lot of bad sex. But even during this one pleasurable moment, she is distant, above herself.
Salesses: Okay, a couple more questions: Any darlings that made it in? Anything you left in that you actually hate?
Banasky: In my very last copy edit, I cut my biggest darling: my prologue. I’d been talking about it with my editor for six months and I finally did it. Some little pieces made it into other chapters, but one image that I LOVED simply had no place in the book. If we really take this metaphor, which sometimes is phrased “kill your babies,” to its imagined conclusion, picture a frumpy, five-year-old child with a cowlick—it felt good to be rid of that heavy prologue, but—yeah.
Kleeman: Over the course of writing, I was told several times that I needed to cut the amount of Kandy Kat commercials in the book. I made myself cut one, and I cut some sentences down to size, but when I first imagined the book I had thought that fully half the action was going to take place in Kandy Kat’s cartoon universe, which made it impossible to push him into the background. Eventually the book got published and there’s still a good amount in there, which makes me very happy! Now it’s just up to the readers to decide how they feel about it.
Salesses: I’m so glad you didn’t cut those, Alex! I love those commercials. I kind of left Easter eggs for myself in the book—personal jokes. My protagonist, whose name is Tee, thinks early in the book that he might become a “tea connoisseur.” Or sometimes my characters mention in passing scenes that I cut, like a conversation about Tee rescuing a little girl from a dog. It’s as if those things still happened in the world of the book, but the reader doesn’t see them.
Kleeman: Did you feel catharsis now; did you “get something out of your system?”
Salesses: I feel like I got a particular part of a particular theme out of my system, but it’s like eating one orange on an orange tree.
Banasky: Same here. I’m sure I’ll always be writing about madness and art and the self and identity and faith, and all those other big orange trees. Perhaps I won’t write about schizophrenia directly again, but I will write about the madness and that fear and the fragility of our minds.
Kleeman: I think I felt that desired purgative relief for about a day, and then the itching set in again. It’s not that I was dissatisfied with anything in the book, but I was having ideas that didn’t quite fit the scope of the novel but didn’t have anywhere else to go, and before I knew it I was trying to frame a new project—a project that feels like a departure on some days, and an extension of the same familiar set of concerns on others. But catharsis, even though it implies finality and release, was always incomplete even in its original ancient Greek context—people went to theater to experience it, they left feeling relief, and they went back to do it all again days or weeks or months later. I suppose we should be glad that we never achieve that experience of resolution that we want so much—it’s an incomplete release, a temporary empty space into which something new can enter.
Banasky author photo © Arnold Poeschl.
Kleeman author photo © Arturo Olmos.