I’m here at the coffee shop near my house, the one where I wrote the majority of Ready for Air, and it’s exactly where I need to be. The sun is streaming in the windows and I’m all by myself (with the exception of the other customers, of course, but I don’t have to carry them around and rock them. Hell, I don’t even have to talk to them. It’s delightful.)
I will usually keep this time sacred for work on the book, etc., but today I just had to start my morning writing with this post about my friend Amy Shearn’s debut novel, How Far Is the Ocean from Here.
I met Amy in a fiction seminar at the University of Minnesota, and the first time I read her writing, I knew she’d be famous one day. She’s that good. It’s no surprise, then, that I love her debut novel. Her prose is so tight and lyrical, and I was immediately sucked into the life of Susannah Prue, the young surrogate mother who leaves Chicago for the Southwest just days before her due date. Susannah’s car ends up breaking down in the middle of the desert at the Thunder Lodge motel, where she interrupts the quiet lives of Marlon and Char Garland and their beautiful 17-year-old son, Tim, who has special needs.
There are two narrative lines—one set in the Southwest at the Thunder Lodge and the other set in Chicago. The latter follows the development of Susannah’s relationship with Kit and Julian, who paid her to carry their baby, and describes the events leading up to Susannah’s flight from Chicago. By the end of the book, these two lines merge, with tragic results.
From the first page, I was drawn in to the arid landscape of the Southwest, which is so pervasive and powerful that it almost becomes another character in the story: “There the horizon had a weight she hadn’t know a horizon could have; a plain unvaried by cactus or tree, unstirred by lizard or coyote, undimpled by even a shadow, only here and there the slightest swell of hills.”
It’s a triumph of a first novel, a delight to read. Amy took some time to answer a few questions for me. Here is our e-interview:
Kate: Your language is so rich. Can you talk a little about your process? Do you wait for the perfect sentence or do you get the writing out and then revise? Or a combination?
Amy: It’s really a combination. I tend to write slowly and obsessively, so that a lot of the time a sentence comes out pretty close to finished. My favorite moments of writing are sitting at my desk staring off into space and trying to think of the exact right word or image. But I think this obsession with getting the sentence perfect can be a form of procrastination, so I try to convince myself to move on after maybe 3 sentence rewrites to avoid getting mired in the never-quite-done-ness of the language. And then of course I go back later and tinker some more.
Kate: Can you talk a little about the using an omniscient narrator? Did you begin writing the book this way or did this develop later in the process?
Amy: When I started writing the book it was all close third person, very much inside Susannah Prue’s head. But about halfway through this started making me feel a bit claustrophobic. Not only that, but Susannah isn’t necessarily the best person to listen to all the time. She’s not terribly good at empathizing with others, though she tries. So I ended up feeling like I needed all the different perspectives in order to really tell the story. Some of the most minuscule dips into other perspectives — when you suddenly get a paragraph from a passerby, for example — were inspired by the shifting point of view in Mrs. Dalloway. I loved the way Woolf employed this device, and felt that it made the fictional world feel more full while also offering even more perspectives on the main character herself — not just how people close to her see her, but how strangers see her, too.
Kate: How did you begin working on HFITOFH? Did you know you wanted to write about a surrogate mother?
Amy: It really started with this image of a pregnant woman driving through the desert, and a feeling that somehow the child wasn’t hers. The process of writing the book was really about me explaining this image and the mysteries behind it to myself.
I was fascinated by the idea of surrogacy in the same way that I’m fascinated by all of those weird things the human body does that almost seem like science fiction but actually are real. Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, organ transplants, even just your everyday average pregnancy — the human body is so amazing and bizarre. That, and I’d also been writing lots of stories for my graduate thesis that involved people trying and failing to care for one another, so I guess I was still playing with that theme.
Kate: It seems that you wrote this incredibly fast. What is your writing schedule? (On Zulkey you said you don’t ever write on the weekends. Can you talk a little about why writing needs to be treated like a job?)
Amy: That’s funny that you say that, since I feel like I actually write very slowly. I’ll sit down for two hours and come away with a single page, or less. But if you do that every day, 5 days a week, for a year or two, then voila, you’ve got a draft. For me, writing pretty much only happens if I’m disciplined about making time for it. But then I also need weekends to see my husband and friends and do weekendy things. It’s all about balance.
When I was writing HFITOFH I was very strict about writing in the mornings, 5:30-7:30, before work. It’s a little easier now that I only work 4 days a week, so I have an entire day to devote to writing and can combine that with the early mornings. My Fridays are sacrosanct: just writing, all day, until I collapse! My ideal schedule would be writing from about 6-11 every day, but that hasn’t quite aligned with real life yet. We’ll see.
Kate: Can you describe the editorial process? (How much did you have to revise/change the manuscript after it was sold? Can you also talk a little about what it’s like to work with an editor?)
Amy: I think I was very lucky in that I got magically matched up with an editor, Sally Kim, who understood and loved the book in many ways better than I did. She’s just a miraculously careful and intuitive reader. First she gave me general notes on the shape of the story, and suggestions on which of the characters could be better developed. My editing process was probably unusual in that I added more than I cut. Scenes and backstory were added to flesh out certain characters.
After this general first pass Sally gave me really detailed line notes, plus her thoughts on what I’d changed so far. I don’t think every editor gives line notes, but they were such a pleasure to have, and her eagle-eyed attention made me feel so much less nervous about sending this thing out into the world. Finally there was one last pass from her, then the copy edits, and then the proofreading marks. All told, I ended up rereading my book about 1,000 times, until I felt like I could have recited it by heart. It was a rigorous, exhausting, and sometimes tedious process, because I got so sick of every last word, but it was also a wonderful experience, one which taught me a lot about writing and novel-making.
Kate: What was the most valuable part of your MFA program? How did it prepare you to begin writing this book? (Because you began writing it almost immediately after the program, no?)
Amy: I did begin this book right after the program. A few weeks after graduating my husband and I moved to New York and it was here that I started writing the book. I remember wanting to get the grad school voices out of my head and just trying to writing something freely, without thinking of anyone ever reading it or judging it or anything. I think a lot of the energy of the book comes from me thinking, feh, I’m just going to write something I like and who cares if no one ever reads it.
That said, grad school was immensely helpful. I was lucky to have wonderful teachers like Charlie Baxter and Steven Polansky who really pushed me and made me think about what I was writing and why. One of the most helpful experiences of all was having Maria Fitzgerald as my advisor for this novel I was writing. Over one summer, she basically put me through novel-writing boot camp, encouraging me to rewrite and rejigger and reconsider again and again. That novel ended up getting revised into oblivion (my fault, not hers, because I listened to too many people’s advice — an easy pitfall of the writing workshop), but I feel like I gained some sort of muscle memory that made it possible to write HFITOFH.
Oh, and I shouldn’t leave out my classmates. I arrived at my MFA program expecting a certain degree of snobbery and pretentiousness that turned out to be, in my class at least, entirely missing. My classmates were these smart and thoughtful readers, and there seemed to be an overall emphasis on real feeling rather than flashy prose; sincerity rather than cynical glibness. I tend to go for flashy prose, actually, and probably a bit of the cynical glibness too, so I learned a lot from this down-to-earth emphasis on feeling and sincerity. So many readers of my book have talked about how much they loved the characters, and I don’t know that I knew how to be as sympathetic to my characters before the program, if that makes any sense.
And of course, I met Kate Hopper in my MFA program! That was pretty valuable.
Kate: Gee, thanks, Amy.
This is a lovely novel. Amy is also partly responsible for my new morning writing schedule—her 5:30-7:30 schedule helped inspire me. So thank you for that, as well, Amy!