Sunday is the new Saturday
How do you finish a book?
Let’s blame the newsletter delay on Daylight Savings Time, but let’s also not think about that excuse too hard. Your refunds are in the mail.
As I’ve noted previously, I’ve been working — and all too often not working — on a book for quite some time. I’m also working on a future post where I say more about that, at length, entertainingly, without whining. I say “without whining,” because I want to acknowledge that there’s a fine line between the very interesting genre of “Writers at Work” texts a la The Paris Review interviews, and the less interesting genre of two writers telling each other how hard it is to write, which examples I won’t link here because you can find them on your own.
I know that the answer to the animating question in this, my own little “writers at work” series, is “It depends!” But I know that I find sustenance seeing other writers talk about their work (there’s always a little whining, of course), and I hope some of you do, too.
Without further adieu, here’s the first installment in our ongoing series:
How Do You Finish a Book?
No. 1: Marc Fitten
Marc Fitten is a lovable hustler.
He’s also a former literary magazine editor, a novelist, a tech strategist, and a good friend of mine.
In the mid-90s, Marc eschewed college in favor of an earlier model of literary apprenticeship. Just out of high school, he went to Europe, looking to acquire experience. He ended up in Hungary where he stayed for five years. He returned to the U.S. with his wife, Zita, and their newborn son.
As a very young father, he pieced together work and college. Eventually, he latched on at The Chattahoochee Review, the literary magazine hosted by his school’s English Department.
And here’s what I mean about hustling: as an assistant editor at the Review, he looked at its publishing operation and figured out how to save a bunch of money. Instead of sending off a huge Microsoft Word document to the white-glove publishing firm paid to lay the whole thing out and send back a finished journal, Marc taught himself InDesign and other publishing programs and began laying it out himself. It was the dawn of the digital era, and Marc embraced those changes in the publishing operation.
Having freed up something like half the budget, Marc then used that money to cold call big-name writers to ask if they had anything laying around that he could pay them to publish. While he never did close on Harry Crews, he closed on many others and this raised the Review’s profile along with Marc’s. When the editor retired, he was the obvious successor.
During this time he wrote two novels, Valeria’s Last Stand and Elza’s Kitchen. Each book is set in Hungary in the uncertain times of post-Soviet collapse. Each book features a proud, prickly, not-always-lovable woman as its main character.
I met him at the inaugural Yale Writers Conference. He was on the faculty, and had just published Elza’s Kitchen. I was a student, and we were both regulars at New Haven’s Anchor bar. His confidence and charisma were intoxicating. So was the beer.
Marc soon discovered that a lot of the disruptive trends he had put into place at the literary magazine were also occurring at technology companies. Needing money to support a family, and accepting that lit mag editorships aren't as lucrative as brand strategy for Silicon Valley, he changed careers and began working at tech startups. One of those startups was eventually acquired by a huge tech firm. No, not the one you’re thinking of. Not that one, either. It’s probably not one of the first four or five that come to mind, but you’ve definitely heard of it.
Marc is now thinking about his next project.
Marc Fitten: I don’t pay tuition anymore. It’s like I got a raise. I bought this guitar [holds up a modest acoustic]. And then I bought this guitar [holds up less-modest Telecaster]. And then I bought a motorcycle.
Sebastian Stockman: You bought the motorcycle after the guitar?
MF: Yeah, and then I bought motorcycle gear [goes on to list a bunch of gear; Interviewer loses interest].
“[T]he translator liked it and gave it to a German agent, who began the process of pitching it to German publishers, and she had to drop me for some reason, but the bell had been rung and it all sort of took off from there.”
SS: You bought all that stuff and you haven’t even spent a year of tuition, right?
MF: Yeah, in the beginning it was like I was working on it: what else should I buy? What I do now is, I’ll look at something online that I might want, and then I’m like, oh that’s so cool! I think I’ll just put the amount into my… IRA.
Sebastian Stockman: So, anyway, my project is this newsletter, right? I’ve got this feature: How do you finish a book?” And you’ve done that a couple of times. So… that’s the question.
MF: I wrote the book without any… It was just a book that I wanted to write, and so I wrote it...and then I tried to shop it.
SS: But was there no — I mean, you don’t have anxiety, so maybe that’s it. But you were here in the States working this shitty job, right? You didn’t write it in Hungary.
MF: No, I didn’t write it in Hungary. I was editing a literary magazine. I wrote the book while I was doing that. I reject anxiety. I just reject it. I don't partake.
SS: And how did you do it?
MF: How did I do it?
MF: Uhhhhhh. Like how did I write?
SS: Yeah, when? How? How did you finish?
MF: I don’t know. I just wrote. I kept working on it. It was basically the project of my — from 25 to 31, 32 — there was no pressure, it was just a little bit here, and a little bit there.
A little bit at a time. I thought it would be fun to do, and I did it. And then one day I thought “this might be finished.” And then I thought, “I wonder what to do now?”
And I sent it around to a couple of people who were like “Yeah, it’s not very interesting.” And I thought, “That’s fair.”
MF: And I sent it around to a couple of more people who were also not — they were like, “That’s random, and whatever.” And I would always go back to polish it and do what I thought was polishing…
MF: And then one day, I had the idea to send it off to a translator in Europe who was very positive about it and thought, “Oh my gosh, this is really great, and I know a German agent who might want to see it.”
SS: And why did you send it there, to the translator? You were hoping for that sort of response?
MF: Well, by the time I’d gone through readers in the States, it was like nobody was interested. And so I thought, well, they don’t just publish books in America. Germany is a market, too, so maybe I should consider publishing it in the European markets.
And I thought, wouldn’t that be funny? I could be like Hasselhoff, get published once in Germany and that would be the end of it, and then it would be a funny story at a cocktail party, like “Oh, I published a book in Germany once.”
That’s kind of what I set out to do, and the translator liked it and gave it to a German agent, who began the process of pitching it to German publishers, and she had to drop me for some reason, but the bell had been rung and it all sort of took off from there.
SS: Right. And then that got you your current agent, right?
MF: Yeah. It was during the London Book Fair. I don't really know what happened behind the scenes, but I imagine hilarity ensued, and then it sold and was published internationally.
Ed. note: The problem with interviewing a friend is that a bunch of stuff the interviewer already knows can get elided. In this case, the “hilarity” mentioned above is that the buzz about Valeria’s Last Stand in the German market caused American publishing to take a closer look. Marc signed with superagent ( now also a novelist) Bill Clegg, who snagged Marc a three-book, low-six-figure deal with Bloomsbury (then flush with cash because of its success in publishing the Harry Potter series outside of the United States). Oh, also, Marc was big in Germany: he once gave a “reading” at the Hamburg Opera House, where he sat on stage while German television actors read from the German translation of his book.
SS: So you got this big deal, and then you were on the hook for … two more books.
MF: They bought the book. Then I asked why they didn't want the other two. And then there were some discussions and they really believed in it and so did I and so we kind of threw in a couple more. I’m still on the hook for one, but everybody has turned over and by now I'm pretty sure they've mostly forgotten my name.
But I gotta tell ya, I don’t know how I finished my second book. I really don’t remember writing that book. I feel it is a horrible book. I feel very …
SS: Really? You feel like it’s horrible?
MF: Yes, I feel like it’s a terrible sophomore effort. It’s like everything you read about. But I was on the hook for it and the experience of writing it was the exact opposite experience of the first book, because this one was written under pressure and having to get it finished. And I did it to myself. I shot myself in the foot.
And… yeah, well, I don’t necessarily do anxiety, but I certainly did then, and it was just like … to this day I can’t even tell you what that book is about.
SS: It’s about a restaurant!
MF: I wish I could say it was because of the drugs and the alcohol and my retreat to Betty Ford or whatever, but there is no story [like that]. I couldn’t tell you how I finished it, how I wrote it. The book just hit the same note again and again. You can hear the machinery grinding.
I honestly couldn't look at it very much after it was published, because…. I guess I was just so disappointed in myself.
SS: Didn’t you read from it at Yale?
MF: Maybe that was the last time, like a chapter or something. And I”m sure it was like, oh, yeah, I wrote this. I’m sure the parts are better than the whole and I’m sure it’s got some interesting lines maybe, but overall it was not an experience that I talk about. It really shook me to the core in terms of what it means to produce art. I don't know anything about how to write a book. I suspect the completion of a work is something that needs to be rediscovered every time for whatever that work is.
And, for this third novel -- well, I’ve been writing it for the last 10 years. And now that book has completely aged out.
Did I mention I bought a motorcycle instead? I ride motorcycles now.
MF: That’s how I’ve dealt with the third book.
SS: What do you mean it’s “aged out”?
MF: If I look at what I was doing, and what I was trying to do — so, I mean, this is going to sound crazy: I expected Trump much earlier than we got him.
MF: And I started the book during Baby Bush’s second term, expecting that Trump would come right after—
SS: You mean Trump literally or Trump figuratively?
MF: A Trump figure. A right-wing demagogue. I thought Baby Bush had primed the pump and this figure would come right after and throw us into chaos. I’d been waiting for that figure for 15 years.
And, that’s the book I was kind of trying to write. American Entropy. And then Obama got elected and I was like “well, I’m clearly wrong, and I don’t have my finger on any kind of pulse of any kind of zeitgeist at all. Clearly, I don’t know a damn thing.” But then Trump won, and I was like, “nope, I was right all along.”
SS: And then you went back to it, kind of?
MF: And then I kind of went back to it, but by that point, shit, everything was happening so fast and — where I had been ahead of it, I was suddenly too late and the wave totally crashed and now I just feel like… And then the pandemic and then it was — I didn’t have a pandemic in my book!
SS: So you’ve shelved it now?
MF: I guess? And it’s just like, I can’t bring myself to finish this thing. I don’t know what it is. So, yeah, I bought a motorcycle. And I’ve written some essays, here and there. And the essays have been fun. And I feel like they’ve gotten more attention than I expected. And I’ve been pleased with that because they were an opportunity for me to be thoughtful.
And I think now that maybe my next book should be nonfiction. One of my goals is to ride my motorcycle along the Trail of Tears. Have I told you this?
SS: No, I don’t think so.
MF: So, yeah, I spent all of last summer in state parks. And I found them super-interesting. The Mississippian Culture has been effectively erased and most of us just don't get that before the United States there was a culture here that lasted thousands and thousands of years. In America. These people were so decimated, that even memory is gone. And then we get to Native America and the Trail of Tears. And then you fast forward 200 years and everybody in Oklahoma is voting for Trump anyway.
How does that happen? That's the book I'd like to write now. That's a question I'd like to ponder. And I'd like to do it on a motorcycle.
I’ve been reading a book by ’s this professor out of Canada -- Ted Bishop. He's got this book called Riding with Rilke.
SS: <reading from book description> “Reflections on motorcycles and books” I see.
MF: It seems really promising, but I’ve kind of been like “oh man, I wish this guy would get in a bar fight.”
SS: “Archive-diver and Ducati enthusiast.”
MF: Yeah, right now it’s “I rode my Ducati from Alberta to Austin, and then I went to the library.” And that’s basically what happens in this book. And he’s like “They’ve got funny accents in Texas.”
SS: But your idea is the same.
MF: Ha. Maybe. I ride my Yamaha from Atlanta to Oklahoma. They've got funny accents in Oklahoma. Honestly, I’ve got to get over my fear of riding 850 miles by myself into Oklahoma and into Trump country.
SS: You’ve only wrecked it a couple of times, right?
MF: Only crashed once.
MF: I survived, though I sprained my ankle. And I feel like I pulled my — oh, I did crash twice, actually. And just yesterday I was like, why is my hamstring hurting? Ohhhh, because of that time I flipped over the handlebars riding in the Arabian desert.
SS: I tore my MCL playing freaking football with [the 7-year-old] in the yard …
[Interlude of two 40-somethings comparing various aches and pains.]
SS: I remember, at Yale, you were like “you gotta finish the book, you gotta finish the book.” It seemed very easy to you. It seemed like a very easy thing for you to say.
MF: Gotta finish that book. My advice for every writer.
SS: I mean, because you’ve done it twice, right? And this third one isn’t done. And it’s not gonna be done, you feel like?
MF: I don’t know. The novel? I feel like, I was raised as such a Catholic, like, I have to finish everything on my plate. I have to eat every bite, drink every drop, take things to the sad bitter end. Because dammit, that's just what you're supposed to do. There’s no getting up from the table until it’s done. So part of me does feel that way about it.
But another part of me knows that this is silly. I’m obviously not dying to write this book. So maybe my answer to your initial question is...write the book you're dying to write. Maybe the best thing I could do for myself is put this book down and plunder what I can, and then write the book I'm dying to write. Without contracts. Without readers. Without the promise of publication. Just write the book I absolutely feel like I have to write.
Gabrielle Bates is a poet I admire and am friendly with. I wanted to share her beautifully-unsettling poem “Time Lapse,” published in Catapult this week: “And what did I say to him,/ did I say, Thank you?”
And finally, I’m not much of a Royal-watcher, but I thought this column from Patrick Freyne in the Irish Times was great. Just check out the lede (that’s newspaperese for “beginning.”):
“Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories. More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.”
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