The Floundering is Part of the Process

A Talk with Annie Hartnett (How Do You Finish A Book #3)

Annie Hartnett knows how to finish a book.

Her debut novel, Rabbit Cake, received all the starred reviews, was longlisted, shortlisted, best-book-of-the-year-listed all over the place. It was a People Magazine(!) Book of the Week, and it’s being developed as a film at Amazon Studios. Everyone who reads it loves the book’s precocious main character, pre-teen Elvis Babbitt, a whip-smart sponge for facts who has trouble making sense of her mother’s untimely death and its aftermath.

The question, for Hartnett, was how to finish a different kind of book, in which the focus was on In this great talk, Annie tells us about writing her first book, abandoning a second, and figuring out how to finish Unlikely Animals, a novel she’ll publish next year with Ballantine/Random House.

The eagle-eyed reader may recall that I’d planned to run this last week, but technical difficulties prevented it. This prompted Annie to break some news in a tweet:

That’s right, folks, it’s the first exclusive we’ve scored here at A Saturday Letter.

This interview is long, but worth it! Come for the wild inspiration for her new book, stay for the advice from Tom Perrotta and other tips I’m going to implement immediately. We didn’t talk about the film adaptation because I’m too high-minded for Hollywood.

I ran a portion of the interview last week, so we pick up right in the thick of it.

How Do You Finish a Book?

No. 3: Annie Hartnett

SS: Do you have a title?

AH: I do.. Although it goes to the marketing people next and so it might not. With Rabbit Cake, I always knew. I was like, “if anyone doesn't like this title, like you're a moron.”

SS: Oh yeah, totally.

AH: It was always the title. It was the title from the moment I started writing that book. This title, I was very tortured about. It’s “Unlikely Animals.”

THE ROBBER BARON AND THE NATURALIST

SS: That’s a good title!

AH: It’s a good title. It’s not, a Rabbit Cake title, but it’s also the right title for this book. Mostly it’s about a small town in New Hampshire, and father and a daughter, and the father is dying from an undiagnosed brain disease.

And so he hallucinates. He’s hallucinating two things: small animals (which is common actually, in Lewy Body Dementia) and a ghost, a naturalist who died in the town in 1925.

SS: Is that based on someone real?

AH: The naturalist is a real guy who I became obsessed with. He was the original seed of the book. I was in New Hampshire at our friend’s cabin and we were driving through Newport, which is just an ordinary, small town outside of Sunapee. They had just moved there and — by ordinary New Hampshire town, I mean just like a rural town: a small town center, a library. It is near Sunapee, but it’s not a tourist destination.

So we’re driving along, I don’t even know what we were looking for, but we passed this huge yellow mansion that was on this hill. It looked like a hotel, fancy, and there were “No Trespassing"“ signs everywhere.

And I was like, what is this place? It’s not a hotel. It’s not public, it’s private property. It’s a just enormous mansion.

Our friends and my husband Drew were kind of like, “I don't know. I don't care.”

I was like, “What!? <laughs> How can you not care?”

And then we went back to the house. Oh! We were going to buy at Christmas tree, that’s what we were doing. So they’re setting up the Christmas tree and I just started Googling, like, “huge yellow mansion Newport New Hampshire” and fell down this amazing rabbit hole.

There was this guy in the Gilded Age who sort of founded Coney Island. Well, he was the first person to build on Coney Island. He built two hotels on Coney Island that are gone.

He was a terrible guy. He was a banker, and a hotelier, he was president of the the Long Island Railroad for a while. Just sort of like a robber baron.

When he retired, he came up to New Hampshire where he was born, and he knocked down the house he was born in. There are different versions, but I'll tell you the best version of that story: He knocked down the house he was born in except for the room he was born in. The other story is that he didn't knock down the house, that the house is still in the mansion, and he built this mansion around it this huge twelve-bedroom, enormous mansion, and that was like his retirement home.

SS: Wow.

AH: And then his retirement project was to buy up — different places say different things, whether it’s 30 farms or 60 farms — 26,000 acres, fence it all in, and fill it with animals from around the world. And you know me, I’m obsessed with animals, and —

SS: Did you say from around the world?

AH: Yeah, and at the time white-tailed deer and beaver had been hunted out of New England, but he — his name was Austin Corbin — shipped those animals, as well as bison and antelope and elk and boar. And deer love New England, but they had just tanked. So they boomed, and this park is the reason we have [in New England] white-tailed deer and beaver, too. Beavers were also brought back because of this park.

He didn’t want any predators in the park. I don’t explicitly say that for the book because ... who knows what’s in there?

SS: And it’s still there? This park and everything?

AH: Yes. The [Corbin] family went bankrupt, and the property and park were sold separately. But the mansion was owned by this man that I knew a little bit. He died two years ago.

SS: Oh, wow. You met him after you found out about this place?

AH: Yeah. I became very into the town after all this. The park is still around, too. It belongs to an anonymous club, and they have this 26,000 acres, which is just enormous. It takes up parts of five towns. So then I discovered this other guy, who was, so Corbin is like this bad guy…

SS: Corbin was the banker?

AH: Yes, and he was an anti-Semite and just a bastard. I was interested in him because obviously he was crazy. Then I discovered that there was a naturalist who was actually there after [Corbin's] death, who was the Park’s official naturalist. There’s never anything about whether he’s actually on the payroll or whether he was just given a house to live in. But he and his wife were allowed to live at the edge of the park and were allowed full access to the park, for their naturalist study.

And he was a Dr. Doolittle. He lived with animals in his house. He had a pet fox, a pet bear, pet wolves, chickadees, skunks. All his books — I have them all on my shelf — are about living with animals and the need to protect animals. And so that guy became, in the book — that’s the ghost.

SS: And what was his name?

AH: His name is Ernest Harold Baynes. He goes by Harold Baynes, and—

SS: <excited> Harold Baynes” is what he goes by?

AH: Yeah, he went by his middle name. I think because, well, I forget...

SS: Not because it’s the name of the Chicago White Sox DH, right? Harold Baines, the famous baseball player?

AH: <decidedly unimpressed> Yes… Drew has mentioned.

SS: Okay. Sorry. Sorry. Never mind.

AH: So, I went to the historical society and found out anything interesting I could about the town. I was just obsessed in the beginning. Was I always going to use it in a book? I guess I was … I mean, you know, I wanted to write another book, and I felt like I’d used all my good ideas on my first one.

SS: So, you'd already published Rabbit Cake and you were looking for another one?

AH: Yeah. I was writing another book, but ....

SS: One you abandoned?

AH: Actually at Bread Loaf, I met with an agent, and I had just finished the first draft of Rabbit Cake and I was really not ready for agents at that point. But I thought I was.

I met with Katherine Fausset. And she was sort of interested in hearing me talk about Rabbit Cake, and then she asked me what my second book was about. I told her, and she was like, <long intake of breath> “wow, you really don’t make it easy on yourself, do you?” There are aspects of that book in this one. I learned something from writing as much of that book as I did.

SS: What was that about?

AH: I don't even really want to be on the record talking about it. It was based on a real story. [Offers a brief account of a story that is indeed harrowing].

The difference was that once I published Rabbit Cake and had the experience of going on tour and having a conversation like this, I realized I don't want to be on the radio e [talking about the horrific basis for the abandoned second novel].

Just realizing, “Oh, you have to stand next to what you wrote.” I have some of that with this book too, because I haven’t quite figured out how to talk about it because I can go into that whole long history but it’s actually set now and it’s about the opioid crisis and this town now, and about the people who are living in this town and this guy who’s dying from a horrible brain disease and it’s a comedy.

SS: But that’s, like, your thing. I mean, Rabbit Cake has horrible stuff in it, but it’s a comedy. Wouldn't you call it a comedy? It’s funny and lighthearted — well, maybe not lighthearted.

AH: Yeah, I think both books are similarly funny. And it’s like I shouldn't be comfortable with this, I shouldn't laugh at this stuff. And somehow I am, and I do.

FINISHING

AH: I started writing that second book that died on the vine in my MFA program because of some advice my professor had: "Stop working on your thesis, which is Rabbit Cake. Because you are going to finish this book and probably publish it. But right now you'll never be in as cushy an environment as the MFA program. So before you leave, stop working on your thesis, just it’s done, like, you can defend it. Don't work on it anymore. Start a second book because what I see is so many people obsessing forever about their first book and then not moving on to anything else.

So that's why I started that second book, and there are seeds of the second book in my real second book because there are kids. So the first second book was told from the perspective of kids and the [to-be-published second] book is told from the perspective of a whole town. And there are kids who are a big part of that sort of chorus. It’s the ghosts of the town who are telling the story, but they have access to everyone's thoughts. So it’s an omniscient narrator.

SS: And so using that sort of choral narrator was the practice you got in that second, abandoned manuscript. That’s interesting.

I’m also interested in what your professor said, because that goes right to the ostensible topic of finishing a book, right? He told you to work on something else because he said Rabbit Cake was finished?

AH: He knew I was going to finish it.

SS: Just because of where it was? Because the story was nailed down or… why was he so confident?

AH: Well, I don't know. That would be interesting question to ask him. It was then at 40,000 words and when we sold the finished book it was like 90,000 words. And then it’s published at, I think, 71,000 words.

I mean, I did graduate into a very cushy fellowship at BPL. So I had that year to finish it. I really had like an extra MFA year.

So with this book I've been in prison in comparison, adjuncting like five jobs, taking care of a toddler, just, yeah… So it's totally different.

SS: So how did you finish this one? What strikes you about finishing it?

AH: Sheer terror and willpower. Whereas Rabbit Cake was this fun thing I was working on. I had a very charmed life in that I was in an MFA program that was fully paid for, and then got \a fellowship that was like, what was it? $20,000. But I lived with my parents for part of it. And then we did have an apartment, and Drew was in graduate school. So between the two of us, plus the bookstore, we were able to pay rent.

SS: And writing the book was like your job.

AH: And that was my job... I didn't have any anxieties of what people would say about it because I didn't know. It was just this book that I was writing and I loved. I did want it to be published very badly, but I didn't have any reviewers in my head. Which is good, because I remember everything that I’ve ever read about my own writing …

SS: I mean, there are those people who say they don't read reviews and it's like, seriously, you don't?

AH: A lot of people say they don’t, do you think they’re telling the truth?

SS: I don't, but what do I know? You read everything?

AH: There’s nothing I have missed. No, that's not true. I intentionally do not read bad Goodreads reviews. I only read the five-star reviews, because I had the experience of reading them [all] and then remembering the exact wordings, and that doesn't seem productive.

SS: So with Rabbit Cake you had this cushy… I mean, not cushy, but relatively ideal —

AH: Super-cushy! Between the MFA program and the fellowship and being able to live in my parents’ house for part of it.

SS: But then for this second published book, you’re fitting it in around jobs and child-rearing and did you carve out specific days? Specific times of day?

AH: Until COVID, I was teaching the Novel Generator class at Grub Street, which is a nine-month course. And basically all I’m teaching in that course — because every novel really needs to be written in a different way — but what everyone kind of needs to learn is if you don’t have a routine, it’s never going to get written.

And it’s helpful if you’re in a class with a boss. So it’s like, I'll be your boss, as scary as I am. I was like, you guys are scared of me now, and as you get to know me you won't be scared of me, but hang on to it as much as you can, as long as it's useful to you.

I can't keep being scary, but like you can keep being afraid of me, if it's useful to you.

It was harder the second time, because the stakes were higher. The first time it was just like “I’m in an MFA program. I’m here to learn. I’m not trying to publish anything.” The second time it’s like “Why aren’t I better at this?”

SS: Maintain your fear. So who was your boss? Are you able to be your own boss? Because I'm someone who is good at disregarding any deadlines I set for myself.

AH: What happened with me with this book is I was just sort of floundering and a couple of lucky things happened. I had someone walk up to me at a Rabbit Cake reading and ask me if I wanted to be in a writing group. And I had just moved to Providence and I was like, “Great, nice to meet you, where do I show up?”

So I joined a writing group but what really really helped me is when my friend Tessa Fontaine, who went to Alabama with me (where we were friendly but not close), her book was coming out, and she asked me for a blurb.

And her book is really, really good. The Electric Woman, it’s a memoir and it’s amazing. It’s about her mother having a stroke and then her mother’s illness after the stroke. And her mother goes to travel, even though she was really not well enough to travel, but like on this death tour of Europe with her stepfather. So there was nothing really Tessa could do for her mother anymore. She was in the MFA during this, and after the MFA, she joined the circus and she spent six months in a traveling circus —

SS: As one does….

AH: — swallowing fire and being a snake charmer and just kind of dealing with the impending grief of her mother’s dying, but not immediately.

And the memoir is amazing and when Tessa asked me to blurb it she also asked me “how do you write a second book?”

And I was like, “Fuck if I know.” I didn't really know how to write another book. I felt I had used my ideas.

So Tessa and I started a contract. There’s this article on Oprah.com by Aimee Bender about the writer’s contract, and there’s a template that comes with the article too. I have all my students do it. All you do is you set a goal for whatever, and everyone, at least in my class, is allowed a different goal. In the article, it’s something like, I have to write for two hours a day, no internet. And if I do it, then I send you an email “done” and then Aimee Bender writes back “check.”

SS: Aimee Bender, or who ever you're in the contract with — not always Aimee Bender, right?

AH: <laughs> Yeah, Aimee Bender is kind of amazing! I don’t know how she ever gets any writing done when she’s just writing “check” all the time. So Tessa and I did that, and her book probably will come out in, I think, 2023 with FSG.

So we both got second books out of it and I think you need to seek out a boss because we write — well, we all write for different reasons — but I think you need to keep tricking yourself .

SS: The “done” and the “check.”

AH: The “done” and the “check.” I needed someone else. I needed to be shamed into it. Without that I don't know what would have happened. That sort of got me through my first draft.

SS: Was it word count? Was it hours? What was it for you?

AH: I’m usually a word count person. I think probably I was doing a thousand words a day.

SS: And “done” and “check” — that was it? You guys weren’t talking about the work or the drafts at all while you did it?

AH: No, we didn’t talk at all about what we were writing until we both read each other’s drafts when it was over. I would share pages [with people], but I don't even really like feedback that much.

Actually, this is a good story, it’s kind of a name-droppy story —

SS: Oh, that's the best kind. I love those.

AH: I was at Winter Institute, which is this booksellers’ conference. I was there because Tin House had sent me. But there were a lot of big-time, really famous writers, because publishers can only pick either one or just a few people to go. So I ended up sitting on this couch in the hotel lobby, just trying to, I dunno, have my 11 a.m. wine —

SS: Perfect, glamorous writer’s life.

AH: So I'm sitting on this couch, in the hotel lobby, and I'm like, is that Tom Perrotta? Yep, that's Tom Perrotta. And oh, is he talking to Ann Patchett? Yep, they’re just chatting.

And I’m just sitting there. I know who both of them are; I’ve read both of all of their books. And then Ann Patchett walked away and I was like, well, now it's only Tom Perrotta. He’s so much less threatening than the two of them together.

So I was like “Hey, Tom...” And he was very nice, and just a lovely person. He started talking to me about the Alabama MFA program, and we talked about my process writing a novel there.

When I first started, I did have a professor who was like, “I think you might be a much better short story writer.”

I was turning in absolute shit every week; the pages were horrible. And I didn't really know why I was telling the story.

And [Perrotta] was like, “Oh, well, it’s because that’s what you do at the beginning of the novel. The floundering is part of the process.”

People talk about shitty first drafts all the time, but that’s one of my mottos: The floundering is part of the process.

And that really helped me in novel-teaching later: do not be hard on yourself if you’re turning in [less-than-great work]. You’re getting out some of those ideas, figuring out what you’re interested about with these characters. You need to write those bad scenes to find your way.

That was harder the second time, because the stakes were higher. The first time it was just like “I’m in an MFA program. I’m here to learn. I’m not trying to publish anything.” The second time it’s like “Why aren’t I better at this?”

SS: I love that “floundering” thing. That's amazing. I think about that with students. I want them to embrace this shittiness or the, you know, the attempt, It’s an attempt. You’re trying it and it’s not going to be great the first time.

But, I don't know if it’s my background having worked in newspapers for a while, or what but I have trouble embracing it the way I encourage my students to. I’m like: I want to be done. I want to just be told that I’m good, that it’s good. It's taken me a long time to get around to realizing that some of it is just — you banged away at something for awhile and now you’re going to get rid of that and that’s part of it, right?

AH: Yeah, yeah: none of it is really wasted.

SS: I feel like some fiction writers have a better, or maybe not, probably it’s a stupid generalization. But I have this thing where I won’t put it down unless I’m sure it’s pretty good, which is not a good way to get a lot of stuff generated.

AH: Maybe it’s because you know what happened? And so if I just have to make up what happened, you know, like I can't…

SS: <mock-bitter> Yeah. Sure, that’s a great point, Annie: non-fiction writers have it much easier Sure. That's an excellent point.

AH: [laughs] No, I mean….

PARENTS

SS: Rabbit Cake and then Unlikely Animals… I'm sure you’ve considered it at some point, but you’re, like, hard on parents? It feels like there are parents in your books who, you know, come to unfortunate ends, or…

AH: This is something that she didn’t say to me, but I think I can quote her because it sounds like something she would say, Jill McCorkle told a friend of mine that “you write your first book about your mother and your second book about your father — if you can stand it.”

SS: Oof, all right….

AH: And, the person who told me that, he said that he fainted when she said that to him. But, neither the [late] mother of Rabbit Cake nor the [ill] father of Unlikely Animals are my exact parents. I make these composite characters of people I know and people from pop culture.

The mother in Rabbit Cake is some of my mother, and she’s a lot of my friend Jessica’s mother who died when I was writing it.

Part of writing Rabbit Cake was sort of my response to my worry about my friend, who lost her mom when we were young, like 25. Jessica would come back from, from Spring Break and be like, “Well, my mom took me to a belly dancing retreat.”

Her mom was just like a hippie and a very forceful, very striking, beautiful person. I didn't know her that well, but she was very memorable. And I know Jessica very well, and I was just kind of worried about Jess, because I was so struck by like, what happens when someone who is that big a personality is just suddenly gone.

So she's a lot of Jessica’s mom, and then she’s also Cher from Mermaids, who is also a very big personality and sleeps around.

The dad in [Unlikely Animals] is somewhat my dad, somewhat my best friend growing up’s dad. And then he’s like Ozzy Osborne-slash-Willie Nelson.

SS: Oh, I like that.

AH: My dad is larger than life and very gregarious and fills the room with his presence. And my friend growing up’s dad was like a very eccentric professor. And then you know who Ozzy Osbourne and Willie Nelson are.

SS: I do.

DEATH

SS: It’s been a few years since I read Rabbit Cake straight through, but I want to talk about your main character, Elvis Babbitt. She’s such a great, precocious character and there is something great about the way she's this little, you know, little fact magnet. She’s a little fact monster who has this kid’s view of the way things are supposed to go. You learn the facts, and then the world proceeds rationally from there, right? And so she has to deal with people behaving in unpredictable ways, and with the prescribed time for mourning her mom not matching up with what she experiences.

And, I don’t know what my question is. Maybe just, where did she come from?

AH: Oh, Elvis? That book was always her voice… Maybe that’s why my professor always knew that I was going to finish the book. As soon as I had her voice… having her voice was the greatest gift. It doesn't matter what happens in that book. Like that book could have a thousand different plots —

SS: That's a really good point.

AH: — and it did have a thousand plots, because I wrote them all. But it doesn't matter. The point is that you get to know that character, and that character is the reason the book matters, whereas the second book is about the town. The books do have a lot in common. Parents are dying in both of the’ both books are about the question of what is an acceptable death? And what’s an unacceptable death?

Because that’s the question that Elvis can’t quite answer: I lost my mom and, I don’t really know what happened to her and I don’t understand death or the way that it should fit into my fact-based [view of the world]. She wants all the facts, that's who she is, and she doesn’t have all the facts with her mom because her just walks out of the house and … They know she drowned, but they don't know what happened that night.

She just doesn't feel like she has enough information, and that's how I feel about everyone who I have lost. I’ve been like, “What really happened? Was there something that we could have done to prevent it?”

Even something like my grandmother’s death — she had a stroke, she was 86, she had 900 other health problems. There’s nothing you can do; everyone has to die sometime. But I didn't feel like I had finished answering that question in Rabbit Cake, because it’s mostly about that family coming together afterwards.

But it’s a bigger question for me and maybe I’m not even done with it now. This book [is] told from the perspective of the ghost, and one of the main characters of the family is dying, but it’s also a town that is in the middle of the opioid crisis.

SS: That’s good. I mean, the opioid crisis is bad, but the subject matter is good.

AH: We get the question of what’s a good life? And what’s an acceptable and unacceptable death, and does it make it easier if someone dies an acceptable death? Clive, one of the main characters, the dad who is dying, is 60. He’s young enough that he hasn’t really come to terms with his own death. There's another character in the book, who is 91, who jokes about death a lot, because he’s just not afraid of his own death. He’s spent probably at least 10 years at that point, waiting, thinking it’s around every corner. And Clive, forced into retirement, is not ready to die, is too young to die in some ways.

SS: The idea of the “acceptable death” is interesting. And then of course it’s like, “acceptable to whom,” right? Your 91-year-old, it sounds like any death will be acceptable for him.

AH: This year with people who were, I don't want to really bring COVID into it, but there was somebody who was really looking forward to their 100th birthday and died of COVID. And we think like “oh, they were robbed of that ‘and is that acceptable? Nooo? But also, you know, you lived to 99. …

SS: Is that, is 100 a goal for you, Annie?

AH: Oh no, take me to...Um, I feel like, you know, mid-eighties. My other grandmother actually died an amazing death. She decided to turn her defibrillator off. And so she knew she was going to die at some point. She just didn’t feel good anymore. So she turned her defibrillator off, and the day she died, she did a crossword puzzle and took a nap.

SS: Would you say you’re death-obsessed?

AH: Am I death-obsessed? Yes. Definitely. I'm death-obsessed. Oh yeah, in Alabama I lived in a graveyard. We put in our MFA acceptance on April 15th and the tornado was like April 26th, I think, or 27th. When I was looking for a place to live, a lot of the graduate student housing had been destroyed in the tornado. And two of my friends ended up moving into a house that was the groundskeeper’s house in the cemetery.

And I still like to walk in cemeteries. We moved across town, but we used to also live right across the street from a cemetery, here in Providence. But there are no cemeteries near me right now, which is kind of too bad. I really like them.

SS: What do you like about them?

AH: I like that everybody’s names are on the stone is just like a little story. I just like walking around thinking about who these people were.

TELLING STORIES

AH: My friend James told me that when your book comes out and people can read it, it’s like people can walk up to you and ask you about that weird dream you had and be like, “Oh, it’s so funny that you were purple and covered in scales.”

This is my mantra for myself and my students: all I’m doing is telling myself a story.

And I thought that was a good way to put it. And still sometimes I’ll have that experience where someone will make a joke from the book at me. And I either don’t remember, or I don’t know what they’re talking about. Someone made a joke about my feet being different sizes. And I was like, what a weird thing to say, Elvis’s feet in the book are different sizes, but I didn’t remember that.

And I’m not Elvis, and in that context I was just like, “they’re both seven and a half.” …

Rabbit Cake was in some ways an easy first book, because everybody loves Elvis, because you have to love Elvis, or you stop reading the book, or you don’t make it very far. This book is a lot more complicated. I think publishing it is going to be a different experience because I don’t have that character.

SS: Yeah. That's more fraught, right? Cause you love Elvis, and people love Elvis. And so it is a sort of take it or leave it thing. And now you have more moving parts?

AH: Yeah it’s all moving parts and it’s a domino thing. It’s a very traditional novel where everybody is kind of connected in some way.

SS: So, again, in terms of finishing this one you know, yes, you were writing under different circumstances, but you were writing obviously a different book, you didn't have this single character that you could just trust.

AH: This comes off as sort of critical of Rabbit Cake, it’s not really, but it is going to sound that way. I could look at Rabbit Cake and say, “I wrote that. Can I write a better book than that?”

They’re different, I don't really think that one is better than the other, but you can see the added challenges that I took on in the second book that are more ambitious and harder to pull off and more complicated, and I’m just trying to do more with the novel form than Rabbit Cake needed to, because it was so voice-driven.

So it does sound critical, but that was the only way that I could get out of that fear of never writing a second book. That was how I wrote the draft, just trying to take all the other noise out of it and saying all I’m doing is telling myself a story.

This is my mantra for myself and my students: all I’m doing is telling myself a story.