"The scene that scares you the most, that you don't want to write because it's the most difficult to write--that's the one you have to write. So I think when people have writer's block, it's because what they have to write scares them. And that's usually the heart of the book."
Marcy Dermansky is the author of two novels published by Harper Perennial, Twins (2006) and her novel Bad Marie, out this summer. Both have received considerable critical acclaim. Among other accolades, Twins was a New York Times Editor's Choice pick and Kirkus starred review, while Bad Marie is a Barnes and Noble Fall 2010 Discover Great New Writers pick.
As you can see from the above quote, the process techniques that Dermansky advocates are those that all writers--be they novelists, attorneys, non-fiction writers, whatever--can apply to their writing. I've long told writers that they should spend more time on crafting their introductions than they probably do, because if they lose their readers in the beginning, they've probably lost them for good. Audiences need something easy to digest as soon as possible, something short and punchy that doesn't overwhelm. The first sentence of Bad Marie is a good illustration of that opening punch.
In this standalone follow-up to her popular debut Twins, Marcy Dermansky spins a tale about Marie, a bad girl ex-con who has just been released for hiding her now deceased bank robber boyfriend. Not willing to marinate in rehabilitation, she hooks her up with her best friend’s French writer husband and absconds with him and the couple’s toddler daughter to Paris. Her new relationship fizzles quickly and even before landing in the City of Lights, our felonious protagonist has become a very strange single mother in a very strange land. Hip new noir novel.
If you live anywhere near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, put this event on your calendar: September 28 at the RIverRun Bookstore, a white-hot double bill night of literary fiction with readings from Dermansky and Jessica Francis Kane, author of the new novel The Report (read my recent interview with Kane here). Until then, read my interview with Dermansky. You'll learn what it's like to live with another writer, what it's like to write with a baby, and how Scarlett Johansson helped her write Bad Marie.
Like Jessica (Francis Kane), I wrote some stories in elementary school in fourth grade, like one about an African elephant in a zoo who wanted a friend and another about a goldfish who saved another goldfish from being fished from the sea. They were typed and made into books. But I didn't actually write again until my senior year of college. I have always, however, been a voracious reader, so I think that's where I got a lot of my training.
What authors serve as inspirations to you, whom you might, either consciously or unconsciously, write like?
I have a masters in creative writing, and I had the good fortune of studying with Frederick Barthelme and Mary Robison. I knew their writing really well before studying with them. I remember once in short story workshop, Frederick told me, "You can start the story in the first sentence. You don't have to wait. If it's going to be about your father's birthday, put it in the first sentence." And I always remembered that. With Bad Marie, the first sentence is "Sometimes Marie got drunk at work." And Mary is one of the most famous minimalist writers, so she really taught me how to cut and edit my work.
Let's talk about your writing process. What is it like writing with a young child?
It's interesting about the timing when Nina was born. I pretty much sold the novel and found out I was pregnant in the same week. It was the perfect time in a way because I had something big and done, so when I had the baby I was not actually working on anything. But once you sell a book you forget that there's still a lot of work to do like editing, interviews, essays to promote the book. I have small batches of time when Nina takes naps and I get all of my work done.
Both pre and post Nina, I've always worked in bursts. A novel is this enormous project that you are involved in all the time. You never stop thinking about it. I'll work compulsively. But when I finished both novels, there was almost a sense of loss: I had this huge project, with all of these characters in my head that I had been working on, and suddenly they weren't there.
Starting a novel is no small thing. You have to commit yourself to the idea for at least a year. Now that the baby is sleeping through the night, I have the time to write another novel, but I just don't know now what kind of novel I want to write.
Has having a child made you change what it is you want to write about?
With Bad Marie, the subject matter is about a babysitter who falls in love with someone else's child and runs off with it, and I don't know if I would write that now. I think my point of view might be different. The mother in the book is a very unsympathetic character, and I might have more sympathy now as a mother. I have a dark sense of humor, and I don't think that's going to change. I'm not going to suddenly become politically correct or think proper good thoughts because I am a mother now. I wish I would, but I think I am always going to be a little off-kilter.
When you say you don't know what your next book is going to be about, even by saying that, you are still engaged in your writing process. So how does an idea begin? Is it something you are always thinking about?
I've written two short stories in the past four or five months because they are easier to do. When I sit down to write, I don't know if it's going to click. I've written 100 pages where I realize it's not going to last, or I've had starts that I thought would be novels but turned into novellas instead. You don't know until you are in the thick of it what the form is going to be. In fact, I have trouble writing short stories because everything I do ends up going a lot longer. But like someone told me recently, short stories are a lot easier to write when you have a child. I don't work with an outline. I don't work with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I like to be surprised as I write. So I figure out form as I am going.
Rosecrans Baldwin told me that his novel You Lost Me There started with an image. Was this how Bad Marie started for you?
It did start that way. It started with an image of a woman in a bathtub with a little girl and a drink. That was the first scene, and I didn't know of the other characters. But it was a woman asleep with a baby and a glass of whiskey. And I wrote a book from that. Twins started with a set of identical twins, and one of them wanted to get a tattoo. That was an idea I had for a short story, but it turned out to be a novel.
Bad Marie is dedicated to Jurgen (Fauth, her husband), and he has read every single draft of this book, and there have been many. He edited it and copy edited it. I live with my editor, and in that sense I am blessed. It's wonderful. And I do the same for him.
But it can also be maddening. It's only happened once that I've given him something to read and he didn't like it. As a husband, that was painful for him. I was so angry, I remember saying, "How can you not like it!" Normally he likes everything, and I take it for granted, like, "Of course you like it, I am married to you." So the one time he didn't like it, I was really angry, which was quite irrational. It's an interesting balance.
Is there anything about the processes of you and your husband that completely clash?
He likes to write in the middle of the night, and I go to bed at a reasonable hour. At one point, he had a rule about writing every day as an act of honor and discipline. I don't keep such strict rules. If I don't feel like writing, I won't write. Whereas he feels it's important to write on Christmas. But we don't write in the same place. We live in an apartment that has one office, and when I was writing my novel I wrote in a writer's space in Manhattan called The Writer's Room. We have to be somewhere else when we are working. We can't write in the same space.
Are there any quirky parts of your writing process?
I listen to music when I write because it blocks out the outside world, especially since I've been writing so long in a shared space. I need that insulation. The funny thing I do is listen to the same thing over and over, so I don't really listen to the music and the words, and it's not distracting. Most of Bad Marie was written to a Scarlett Johansson album.
What happens when you get writer's block?
I generally push past it. When I am in the work, I'll think of a different way to start a scene. Or I'll think, "I'm not good here," so I'll jump ahead in the plot. Or a lot of times if I am stuck in the story, I go backwards. I'll re-read from the beginning of the story, and I'll end up editing and working and pushing past the part that was blocking me.
I am very compulsive about beginnings. By the time I get to the last scene, I know my characters so well that what comes out is usually how it's supposed to be. But my beginnings get worked and worked.
What did you learn about your process while writing your first novel that you applied to the process of yout second?
I think by finishing the first book, I had the confidence to write the second because I had already done it once. I was able to tell myself, "Marcy I can do this."
What valuable revision tips can you offer?
The scene that scares you the most, that you don't want to write because it's the most difficult to write--that's the one you have to write. So I think when people have writer's block, it's because what they have to write scares them. And that's usually the heart of the book.
That's a good bit of advice for any writer: poet, lawyer, engineer, novelist, you name it.
That happened to me when I wrote Bad Marie. In the first draft of one section, the characters were all in Vermont. And when I rewrote it, they were in Paris. I was scared to put them there because I hadn't spent a lot of time there and didn't know how to write about it. But I knew they had to go there, so it was scary. I did a lot of research on Paris to make it work.
You are also a film critic. Does being a novelist affect your role as a critic?
It's harder for me as a critic. When I write film reviews, sometimes I'll take a lot of liberties with style, or I'll write sentences that aren't really sentences. I can't be as quirky, so I have to dial myself back.
I rarely pick anything apart. I am always aware that I'm writing about someone who labored over their work. I want to feel comfortable that if I met that person at a party, I would not want to run and duck.