Saturday, March 21, 2009

Interview with Randy Susan Meyers

Novelist Randy Susan Meyers has published numerous short stories in literary journals and co-authored a book of non-fiction, Couples with Children. I met Randy in a Grub Street novel workshop a couple years ago. Her humor and constructive, helpful critiques set all the other writers at ease.

A few months ago, the novel she had been working on in class, Adopting Adults (now titled The Murderer’s Daughters), was picked up for publication by St. Martin’s Press, and is slated for publication January 2010. The Murderer’s Daughters concerns two young sisters who witness the murder of their mother at the hands of their father and how this trauma dogs them through their adult lives. How has this development changed Randy’s life? Let’s find out as the Unreliable Narrator pulls up a comfy pillow and interviews Randy Susan Meyers.

Unreliable Narrator: Your novel Adopting Adults was bought by St. Martin’s Press last fall. The sale process went really fast, from what I understand. Can you tell me about that experience and how it all went down?

Randy Susan Meyers: The experience knocked me down and stunned me. On Tuesday, my wonderful agent, Stephanie Abou (from Foundry Literary + Media) emailed that she’d submitted my book to editors. I prepared myself for a long season of hitting my email key (having already worn out one keyboard during the agent hunt). I was no novice to this. I’d been through a prolonged selling season with a near-hit-novel before. Experience warned me to settle in for waiting season, but a chattering monkey wrapped his arms around my neck, chanting check it, check it, check it, from the moment my book was out in the world.

On Friday, my husband and I drove from Boston to New Jersey for a wedding. We arrived at the hotel. I wondered how fast I could get an Internet connection to check my email. While shimmying into my dress, while sitting in the church, while drinking scotch, while dancing—all the while, I tumbled down the rabbit hole of publishing craziness. I wanted this so much, too much. Feeling hope frightened me. Inside the monkey hummed it will happen/no it won't/yes, it will /no it won't. My heart, my darling, was being read by cold new eyes.

In this book, I believed I’d hit my deeper place. Years of crazy had been replaced by calm and I’d become able to write truer and clearer. I am convinced, that for me, the less drama in my life, the more drama in my fiction. Writing obsessed me. After years of raising kids alone, often working two jobs, sending the kids through college—all the life-important stuff—I’d been given a gift of time and happiness by my sweet now-husband, and I could concentrate on my other true love. Writing became my work, my fun, my morning-noon-night thoughts. My social life became Lost. I whipped myself with warnings to be calm. I crammed chocolate in my mouth. I’d been here before. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, stupid, I reminded myself.

It will happen/no it won't/yes, it will /no it won't. My husband, the monkey, and I came home on Sunday night. On Tuesday, September 23, a week after her announcement that she’d sent out my book, my agent again emailed. We had a pre-empt offer from St. Martin’s press. My husband had already left work for the night. He was unreachable, on the road between Lexington and Mission Hill. I couldn’t tell anyone. I needed him to be the first to know. Unspoken words snapped inside me like atomic fusion. I ran from window to window, watching for his car. I charged up and down the stairs in a futile attempt to burn off my fever. I somersaulted in my mind.

Learning about my book sale was unadulterated, unambiguous, unprecedented joy.

UN: Definitely a life changing event. We were taking the same workshop at the time, so I remember you mentioning that wedding. Then during our last class you announced this fantastic news, and the champagne flowed. Sounds like St. Martin’s really put some faith in your book. Is receiving a pre-empt offer unusual? Take us through that process.

RSM: According to literary-agent–who-blogs Jonathan Lyons: “A "pre-empt" is a preemptive offer. A publisher conveys this offer in advance of an auction or an expected auction in an attempt to preempt other publishers from getting the book. Typically this offer is conveyed for a short period of time (24 to 48 hours) before it's pulled from the table.”

Literary-agent –who-blogs Nathan Bransford describes a pre-empt thusly: “Essentially the editor is making a bid to close the deal before it goes to auction…Pre-empts are usually pretty attractive offers because the editor/publisher is establishing a firm commitment, are showing they know it's a hot commodity, and are trying to head off a bidding war. The agent and the author have to decide 1) if they are comfortable/happy with the offering editor/house and 2) do they think it's a fair offer or can they get a better deal if it goes to auction.”

My largest role in the pre-empt process was saying to my wonderful agent Stephanie Abou (hereby to be known as Wonderful Agent) Really? Wow! Whatever you think, as the process (quickly) unfolded. Not because I wasn’t included in the decision-making, but because I have total faith in Wonderful Agent. She called and told me that St. Martin’s had made a pre-empt offer and that we had an incredibly short time to respond—my faulty memory says we had a day. Wonderful Agent did her magic incantations and negotiations, told me the details, and I said YES!

Actually, for me, in addition to the great offer, the enthusiasm of the editor, Hilary Rubin Teeman, clinched the deal for me. She was and continues to be, a huge supporter of the book. She bubbled with enthusiasm about The Murderer’s Daughters (then titled Adopting Adults) and I daily bubble with enthusiasm about her.

Despite the doom and gloom, and the damn-those-horrid-capitalist-literature-killer stories floating around the world of writers, as regards editors and publishers, my experience has been nothing but great. Hilary has been a terrific editor—a real partner in revision. Her keen eye helped me sharpen the book (as did Wonderful Agent’s). I am so pleased with the final manuscript. In every conversation both she and Wonderful Agent have shown the utmost love of literature and a true commitment to getting good books out there.

The same has been true in the case of my foreign editors. I spoke with one of the five (Joanne Dickinson of Sphere Publishing in the UK) and her passion about books just flowed right over the phone (all the way from Britain!). In a lovely turn of events we spoke the morning after President Obama’s election, thus adding a hands-across-the-ocean excitement to the conversation.

The same caring held true in my correspondence (whether by email, or related to me by Wonderful Agent) with representatives from Calmann-Levy in France, Uitgeverij Artemis in Holland, Diana Verlag in Germany, and Kinneret in Israel.

Since all my love of writing traces back to the way books saved me in childhood, and continue to be my lifeblood today, finding editors who also live for books has been breathtaking. I am replete with happiness.

UN: That does sound like a great experience. And it bodes well, considering how some publishers have had layoffs and acquisition freezes. Let's change gears. You've done social work and been a bartender. Did you always think, someday these experiences will make great stories?

RSM: It was more a case of being fascinated, at times knocked over, and sometimes traumatized, by the intimate inside workings to which I was given access. I’m drawn to listening to the stories and details of people’s lives. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been uncomfortable—in many ways I still am—with the details of my own peculiar upbringing (which certainly informs my fiction). Other people’s stories stabilized my own memories.

These stories—from my work and my life—meshed into a framework upon which I could hang my fiction. For instance, a book I’ve partially written and will pick up again in a year or so, revolves around an angry man racing to work. As he drives, he is so locked in his fury of the moment that he causes a tragic accident in his family. This came from my work with batterers. As I drove to work each day, I’d go around a rather difficult rotary where people battled for position. While driving, I’d be thinking of my clients—men who’d been violent, and who were adjudicated by the courts to the batterer intervention program where I ran groups. My mind traveled two tracks: scary traffic, scary men. My clients had difficulty remembering the potential catastrophic outcomes they might face if they allowed themselves to be swallowed by their rage. This became my what if for a book, and the imagined accident which was the fulcrum for the book, took place in that rotary.

In The Murder’s Daughters I accessed the same method of using a jumping off point towards the what if, by using a childhood incident and twisting it towards a far darker trajectory. I also used thought of my former clients, and how, despite being violent in their actions, they also loved their families—even if it enacted in awful ways. That allowed me to penetrate the antagonist in the book and make him, I hope, a more fully realized character.

Bartending allowed me tremendous access into seeing id vs. ego vs. super ego in action. In vino veritas.

UN: Your experiences in both areas definitely inform your work. For me, an interesting part of your publishing process has been following your experience with your book title. It’s gone through numerous iterations. And just when you thought it was set, it’s been changed again. You were involved with the naming process until now. Do you like the new title?

RSM: Actually, I’ve been involved in the naming process the entire way through. My last experience involved pondering and than signing off on the last iteration. I think we (my agent, editor, and I) have always tried to reach consensus—but the final decision belongs to the publisher. I just looked at my contract (it’s dense folks, but read before signing!) and it says the publisher will consult with the author with regard to any title changes. Note: consult! So, I’ve felt lucky as to the amount of participation I’ve had.

I’ve always felt more than fully included in the process—in fact; I felt my job was coming up with titles to be voted up or down. My original title Adopting Adults was believed to be too non-fictionish. The second Tricks Against Crying, in the end was probably too esoteric. The final title The Murderer’s Daughters—thought up by Hilary Teeman, my editor at St. Martin’s—I’d originally rejected. I think my main fear was that by featuring the father in the title, it became his book. But, in actuality, it captures the essence of the story: sisters whose lifelong battle is being identified and defined only by being the daughters of the man who murdered their mother.

And yes, I like The Murderer’s Daughters.

UN: How long have you been affiliated with Grub Street in Boston? How important is it to be involved with a community of like-minded writers?

RSM: About five years ago I took a daylong seminar with Margot Livesey that simply blew me out of the water. Her teaching style, the amount of wisdom she imparted in a short time, pushed me to ramp up my expectations of myself in regards to learning and working harder.

Soon after I took an advanced novel class with Jenna Blum. It differed from previous writing classes I’d attended, being generous, well-designed, and most of all filled with Jenna’s ability to focus in on each class member’s ability as well as weakness with care and respect. The next session I joined her Master Novel workshop. There I met the men and women who I now count among my most trusted readers, friends, and co-workers. I’ve taught seminars and workshops at Grub Street and find the experience exhilarating, as the students are smart and dynamic. You have to be dedicated to schlep out after work to take a class that demands much of you.

Writing is an isolated profession—which I find comfortable—perhaps too comfortable. There are days I worry I could live in my study forever, but I don’t know how you can be a writer unless you enjoy solitude. Still, eventually, one needs to leave their computer. Grub is the perfect vehicle. There are classes, short seminars, a yearly conference, readings, online discussion forums—you can find a way to connect with other writers at the level you require. The Grub staff (Chris, Whitney, Sonya, and Whitney) promotes a generous and open atmosphere.

Having a community of writers—this wonderful Grub Street village—has anchored me through these years of wondering: will I ever publish? Am I crazy? Why do I want to spend all my time in this imagined world? Grub Street provides a vehicle to soothe you away from the crazy thoughts and offers the support of knowing you’re not alone. I treasure Grub Street.

UN: Who are some of your favorite authors? What books have inspired you in your writing?

RSM: Hmm. That’s a scary question, as I’m always afraid I’ll miss naming a writer who I love. But, here goes.

Favorite books and favorite authors can be different categories. One author may be an I’d-read-his-grocery-list writer (like some people say about actors and telephone books) and then there are particular books that smack your head and heart and became go-to books.

Some which have influenced and inspired my work (books I’ve read more than once, sometimes more than twice) include: Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux (intense family in denial study with a killer plot); Tender Mercies and Before & After by Rosellen Brown (especially for her POV twists—brilliant!); Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (shows how pages can fly); Tin Wife by Joe Flaherty (a great slice of a particular time); Rosie by Anne Lamott (wonderful mother-daughter-drinking story, a genre I love); Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (a brilliant mother/daughter split POV, where you sympathize with both, despite their disparate views); Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (what a story—the moment I finished, I wanted to re-read it); White Oleander by Janet Fitch (oh, such rich writing combined with such intense adolescent travails), and so many more, I know I’ll soon kick myself.

Favorite all-around authors, those whose books I just about always pick up include: Caroline Knapp (sadly gone,) John Irving, Tabitha King, Wally Lamb, Tom Perotta, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth Benedict, Zadie Smith, Pat Conroy, Margot Livesey, Elizabeth Berg, Joyce Maynard, Kim McLarin, John Updike (sadly gone,) Judith Rossner (sadly gone—read Attachments immediately) and Lisa Alther (then read Kinflicks.)

Debut novels which have impressed the heck out of me this year include: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (incredible story of Paris roundups and deportations of Jewish families during the Holocaust), The Help by Katherine Stockett, and The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker.

This week I finished a memoir I must share: Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption. This book was co-written by a man wrongly accused of rape (and jailed for eleven years) and the woman who accused him of raping her, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo. It takes you from despair to hope.

Finally, there are my beloved craft books. Escaping Into the Open by Elizabeth Berg offered me the courage to admit writing was my love, and then invest the time and energy. Sometimes I hear writers scoff at this genre, which I find difficult to understand. Learning good practices adds skill to talent, and for those who are self-taught, these books are a blessing, especially for editing tips. My return-to books include: The Artful Edit by Susan Bell, Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, Between the Lines by Jessica Page Morrell, On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress, Hooked by Les Edgerton, The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict, and Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway.

Whew! Okay, as you can see, books and me—we’re best friends. An overriding fear is being stuck somewhere without a book. I’ve made family swear that if I’m ever in a coma, they’ll play me audio books, in case I can hear and am being bored to tears which I can’t even shed.

I’m certain I’ve forgotten truly great and favorite authors, and I apologize in advance. I admire all writers of all genres for giving me and other readers such gifts. Now, having a book being published, well, I feel as though I’ve been given keys to the Promised Land.


liz's Mom said...

This is splendid.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Great interview! Randy's book sounds fascinating, looking forward to reading it.