Welcome to Guildtalk. For this exclusive series, the Rumpus has partnered with the Authors Guild to bring attention to exciting new voices in American literature. In each installment, an established Authors Guild member will choose an emerging talent or a largely unknown master to interview about writing, publishing, marketing, craft, and teaching. The result should broaden our understanding of what it means to live a literary life. It will also bring us together for a conversation about what it means to be a writer in the twenty-first century. In this premier installment, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Authors Guild Vice President Richard Russo speaks to novelist Eddie Joyce on behalf of the Rumpus.
Joyce’s debut, Small Mercies, came out March 2015 from Viking, and follows an Irish-Italian clan struggling to survive a death in the family on Staten Island. Told over the course of one week from multiple perspectives, the book is a meditation on New York City’s forgotten fifth borough, as well as a portrait of one family’s grief following the death of their youngest son.
The Rumpus: A few years ago the New Yorker did a map of the five boroughs called New Yorkistan that made fun of the city’s demographic. The West Village, for instance, was designated “Gaymenistan” and Wall Street “Moolahs.” There was something to offend almost everyone, but perhaps the cruelest joke was labeling Staten Island simply “Stan,” and thereby smugly suggesting it was a kind of cultural wasteland where nothing interesting happens and no one of interest lives. Your Staten Island in Small Mercies emerges as one of the great American places, so vividly brought to life that it feels like another character, perhaps even the main character of the novel. Tell us a little about your feelings for this place and its people.
Eddie Joyce: When you grow up somewhere, you can take it for granted. You don’t know anything else so you assume that it’s like everywhere else. Or more accurately, that everywhere else is like the place you grow up. Then you start to go out into the world—you visit other places, you go to college—and you realize that isn’t the case. Other places and other people are different, often very different. Not better or worse but different. At some point, you either start to feel proud of where you’re from or you feel shame. Or you feel a mix of the two. When I was out in the world, I would occasionally meet someone from Staten Island who didn’t want to be from Staten Island or wanted to downplay it as much as possible. I never understood that. For me, I was always proud, almost defiantly proud, of being from Staten Island.
Staten Island is a wonderful mix of small town and big city. The people are mostly working class or middle class. Most people either work in the city and for the city: cops, teachers, firefighters. They’ve seen it all—the city when it was down (and nearly out) in the ’70s, the wild Wall St. days, 9/11 of course, Hurricane Sandy—so they’re streetwise and skeptical and a little cynical. On the other hand, the Island still feels like a small town, despite a population close to a half a million. The high schools all play each other. The local paper, the Advance, is still widely read. There’s a veneer of brusqueness but most Staten Islanders are jocular, kindhearted souls. They’re some of the truest New Yorkers you’ll find.
And yet, they’re basically exiles in their own city. There’s a real smugness that other New Yorkers direct towards Staten Island, as evidenced by the New Yorker cartoon you mentioned. Their views about Staten Island and its inhabitants demonstrate exactly the kind of narrow-mindedness they find repulsive when its exhibited in other ways. And look, I’m not saying that people from Staten Island are perfect. Far from it. There is some close-mindedness, some insularity. Some people hold views that other people, myself included, might disagree with or even find offensive. I think I showed some of that in the book. But fixating on an easily mocked stereotype overshadows fact that the vast majority of Staten Islanders are decent, resilient, hard-working people. With the book, I tried, in some small way, to change the commonly accepted perception of Staten Island and its people. I hope I succeeded.
Rumpus: And I suppose this next question is a follow-up. When I was a young writer my first novel was about a place that meant the world to me (an upstate New York mill town) but which was either ignored or dismissed by most everyone else. And I remember wondering (to my shame) whether this place and these people could be “elevated” to what I thought of as literature (never suspecting that it would elevate me). I was also afraid I’d be seen as a “regional writer.” I’m curious as to whether in writing Small Mercies you ever suffered such doubts about whether readers would care about your cops and fire-fighters and sanitation workers as deeply as you clearly do.
Joyce: I doubted everything, from the individual sentence to the enterprise as a whole. But yes, I was especially nervous that Staten Island wouldn’t translate to the wider world. Years ago, I stumbled across a James Joyce quote that has stayed with me: In the particular is contained the universal. I turned that into my own, Staten Island version: the local is universal. When I started writing Small Mercies, I wrote that on a Post-It note and taped it on the top of my laptop. It became like a little mantra whenever I wrote something that I thought that was too Staten Island. Whenever I’d start to wonder if a reference was too inside baseball, I’d glance at the note and think screw it, the local is universal. It comes down to trusting your reader. They may not understand the specific jargon but they probably get the gist. Maybe you can go too far—where you’re just inundating the reader with local custom and culture—but I’m not even sure about that. I loved the book Trainspotting even though I only understood half the dialogue.
I also leaned on Joyce by re-reading Dubliners. Here’s a group of stories about people living in a very insular city in a closed off, parochial country a hundred years ago. Yet, whenever I read one of the stories, I invariably find a line or a phrase that cuts me in half. (I usually find a number of them.) Some insight into human nature that transcends place and time. I am not in any way, shape or form, comparing my book to Dubliners. But it provided an aspirational template, in the sense of taking something very local and trying to give it universal appeal.
Frankly, I think Joyce owed me some help. It’s an intimidating and paralyzing thing for a writer to share a surname with arguably the greatest writer of the twentieth century. I’m sure there are a couple of aspiring writers out there—a Rhonda Woolf maybe or a Vinny Faulkner—who know exactly what I’m talking about.
Rumpus: Every character in your novel comes vividly to life, but in my opinion, Gail Amendola, the matriarch of the central family you’re writing about, is your masterpiece. There’s really no corner of her psyche that you don’t inhabit, including her sexuality. Writing across gender is, as we know, not for the faint of heart. How did you come to know Gail so well, and where did you find the confidence necessary to put her in the very center of a first novel?
Joyce: Gail started out as an amalgam of some very strong women I grew up surrounded by—my mother, my grandmothers, a few other women I knew from Staten Island—but she quickly established her own independent identity. To be totally honest, of all the characters in the book, her voice came to me the easiest. Whenever I got stuck, I returned to Gail, doing something completely routine, talking a walk, cooking a meal, and she guided me out of trouble.
I really struggled with certain characters. Tina, the widow, and Michael, Gail’s husband, spring to mind. But not Gail. I think part of it is that I was in the early stages of fatherhood while I was writing this book. I was grappling with what it means to be a parent, how fundamentally your life changes. Gail is many things—teacher, friend, daughter, wife—but in the space of the book, she is a principally a mother. Some aspects of Gail’s personality were undoubtedly influenced by my own emotions about becoming a father. The joy, of course, but also the anxiety and the fear.
It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to put Gail at the center of the book. It’s her novel, through and through. It was hers from the very beginning. I wish I could say that it took courage or confidence but the book just organically developed with her at its center. There’s no book without Gail. I actually miss her, miss spending time with her, as strange as that sounds.
Rumpus: You’re also an attorney. Lots of lawyers become writers, but most of the ones who come immediately to mind—Scott Turow, John Grisham—use the law (and crime) as a backdrop for their fiction. The oldest Amendola son, Peter, is an attorney in Small Mercies but I get the distinct impression that you’re not going to be writing “lawyerly” books. Am I correct? That said, learning to do anything complicated and difficult helps a person learn to do other complicated, difficult things. Did law school help prepare you for a writing career in any way?
Joyce: I think your hunch is correct. I love lawyers, and I enjoy writing about them, but the things that most people find interesting about the legal profession—trials, investigations, the courtroom—are not necessarily the things I find most compelling. Like any other profession, lawyers have their own lingo, their own subculture. But the vast majority of lawyers never set foot in a courtroom. And there are so many different types of of lawyers, from the ham-and-eggers who do eke out a living at the courthouse every day to the corporate attorneys practicing at white-shoe firms and a million other types. There really is a wealth of material that could be covered. I think I will continue to write about lawyers without necessarily writing about the law, if that makes sense.
I practiced mostly white-collar criminal defense, which means I was usually representing very successful people who’d never been in trouble before in their entire lives. Some of them came from privileged backgrounds but many had working class roots and had done very well. I actually really liked most of my clients which is not something that you’ll find most lawyers saying. The goal in most white collar defense situations is to keep your client out of the courtroom, by convincing the government not to charge him or her for some reason. You do a lot of writing and talking but as an advocate, which is very different from writing fiction.
I think being a lawyer and going to law school was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s hard to stop writing like a lawyer. At least, it was hard for me. As a lawyer, you’re usually writing on someone’s behalf, to advocate for him or her. You also need to explain things so your reader—usually either a judge or a regulator—is crystal clear about your argument. Those are bad impulses when you’re writing fiction. If you advocate for a character, your readers will know it. And if you explain everything, your readers will probably lose interest. It comes back to trusting your readers.
On the other hand, law school makes you disciplined and lawyers—the lawyers I practiced with anyway—are very competent. They have deadlines, they have to get things done, they have to account for their time (billable hours). So sitting down to write for three to four hours every day seemed doable. Process-wise, I treat it like a job even if it really doesn’t exactly work like any other job I’ve had.
The other benefit is you get stories. Obviously, attorney-client privilege prevents me from writing about some things, but you just get exposed to a lot of material, which is great fuel for the imagination. Funny stuff happens. People drop a great line and you remember it. A situation arises and you start imagining how you would respond. It’s a variation on being a bartender (which I’ve also done). You witness a lot of crazy things. You see the entire spectrum of human behavior.
Rumpus: Gail and Michael’s sons—Peter, Franky, Bobby—are very different people, and you’re wonderfully efficient in the way you bring each them to life. Here’s Peter, as seen through his mother’s eyes: “[He was] already entitled, not in a rich kid way but expectant… he expected the world to open wide for him, knew that one day he would storm the castle and fuck the princess and drink all the wine, because he was smart and athletic and handsome and diligent.” Young writers are often advised to show, not tell, but this strikes me as telling of the very highest order. How did you learn to do that?
Joyce: I wish I could say it was well thought-out but the truth is I stumbled into it. “Show, don’t tell” is good advice, but it’s a little absolute. You have to do some telling. It should probably be minimal but it’s hard to get through a whole book without telling a little bit. One little trick is to show by telling. In the part you quoted, the reader is being told information about Peter. But I’m not doing the telling. Gail is. So she’s telling the reader some relevant info about Peter, but at the same time, I’m showing the reader a little something about Gail, about how she thinks, about how she thinks about her own son. You’re learning about Peter, yes, but you’re also learning about Gail.
Thank you, by the way, for noticing that. I didn’t even realize it was a little trick until you pointed it out to me. I’m keeping that one in the toolbox.
Rumpus: The digital revolution has completely transformed the music business, as well as photography and film making and journalism, and it’s also changed what we think of as the writing life, which the Authors Guild is committed to defending. Self-publishing has opened new opportunities to writers who wouldn’t otherwise have careers, and genre-writing, along with YA books, appear to be pretty healthy. But traditional markets have shrunk and so have advances. Many writers of serious fiction and nonfiction, especially those starting out, seem far less financially secure than when I was a young writer. How do you and other writers who are breaking in now feel about the writing life? Does writing still feel like a viable career, or more of a pipe dream? What does a successful writing career look like from the outside, these days?
Joyce: My situation is probably not the norm. I came to writing after practicing law for ten years. I didn’t get an MFA. And when I started writing in earnest, I was already a father. In addition, I was lucky enough to have a spouse who had a good job, who was able to take on the full financial burden of the household while I wrote this novel and helped out with the kids. So, I have a different perspective than a twenty-five-year-old fledgling writer who’s not married, doesn’t have kids, and can be single-mindedly devoted to the writing life.
Having said all that, both our situations come down to time and money. I didn’t have to worry about money but with three young kids and a wife and a life, time was a precious commodity. The twenty-five-year-old probably has a lot more time, but she’s got to eat and pay rent so she has to get a job and that’s going to eat into some (and possibly a lot) of that time. That’s just to do the writing itself, which is no guarantee that you’ll get published or ever make any money from the writing. And if you do make money, how much will you make? How much do you need? I think it’s important to think about those questions.
From the outside, the writing life looks really glamorous. I remember thinking that if you published a book, you probably had it made. (I was quite wrong.) And while the writing life has occasional moments of splendor, the overwhelming majority of your life involves sitting a desk and struggling to make the words work. I happen to love it but if you’re in it for the money or the glamor, you’re probably in the wrong field.
I don’t know if it feels like a pipe dream, but it feels uncertain. For a while, there was all the talk about the decline of the publishing industry (which seems to have died down). I’m, hopefully, at the beginning of my writing career, and it’s hard to see exactly what path it might take. A lot of the people you hear about are the people who’ve had the one or two big hits, but it’s been encouraging to learn that there are novelists who are making a living without necessarily having one huge success. It’s also encouraging to see people—Jess Walter and Anthony Doerr come to mind—who did really well on their third or fourth novel.
Taking a broader view, it seems clear that, despite the proliferation of digital media and the vast expansion of options for the consumer, there is still a demand for good, smart content. Television is in a bit of a golden age right now; might that drive aspiring novelists to write for TV? I’m sure. Some writers will probably have more hybrid careers—part novelist, part screenwriter, part teacher—and so forth. But I get the sense (and you would know far better than me) that that’s always been the case. Writers have always had to have adaptability, and I don’t think that will change even if the mediums they work in do.
Rumpus: And finally, do you have any thoughts about how an organization like the Authors Guild can help emerging writers?
Joyce: Information and wisdom. The publishing industry is so opaque. I didn’t get an MFA so I don’t know whether they teach nuts and bolts industry stuff—I get the sense that they don’t—but I could have really used a primer on the whole process. Of course, you pick up a lot of the info along the way and your agent and your editor give you information, but it would be extremely helpful to get the views of an experienced writer. The one thing I have found is that most writers are really supportive of other writers. People are willing to help. It would be great to channel some of that willingness and camaraderie.
I’m not talking anything super formal—lunch or a couple of beers. And the information we’re seeking is not arcana. “Here’s what your agent or editor or publicist should be doing. Here’s what a successful first book looks like. Here’s why I live in Montana instead of New York.” It would also be good to get some nuts and bolts stuff. I was stunned when my agent told me that your advance gets broken into four payments distributed over time. That’s only a little thing and it didn’t matter all that much, but if you were relying on that advance to get you through the next year, it would be crushing.
Some of this may be my own background. When I practiced white-collar defense, I spent a lot of time learning about other industries. If you had a client who worked in reinsurance or at a pharmaceutical company, you had to learn a lot about that industry to represent your client effectively. You had to know that industry as well as they did. So I may have more curiosity about the industry whereas other writers just want to write.
But I think it’s important to take ownership over your career. If you don’t, who will? Your agent has other clients. Your editor has other writers. Nothing helps you do that more than information and the wisdom of those who are similarly situated. The Authors Guild is well positioned to provide both.
Author photograph © Kerry Kehoe.