In this 5 On interview, debut author Nadine Darling discusses her revision and query process, blogging, writing with children in the house, and more.
Nadine Darling (@darling_nadine) was born in San Francisco, CA, and really enjoys going on and on about how much the nineties sucked/were awesome. She currently resides in Boston, MA, with her family and too few dogs. She Came from Beyond! (Overlook Press, October 2015) is her first novel.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: You say in your blog profile that you love beautiful books. What title immediately comes to mind when you think “beautiful book”?
NADINE DARLING: Oh, my god, The Shrine at Altamira by John L’Heureux. I read the review in the San Francisco Chronicle while I was laid up in a hospital bed after being hit by a car in 1992. I bought the book in the SF State book shop in 1993, as a senior in high school. Every fucking word is a revelation. There’s such restraint—this incredible restraint—until the end, with this horrible, unthinkable release. I believe that after I read that book I understood writing was inevitable for me, and, I’m sorry, I know that makes me sound vaguely like an asshole. But, that was it. After that it was just a matter of time.
I don’t have kids, and even without them I can have a hard time getting into an uninterrupted (mentally speaking) writing zone. You have seven children, including step-children. What does it take for you to get into a writing headspace, and how do you manage your writing time? Note: I would also ask a male novelist with children this question.
I don’t have time to do shit, ha. I should be in bed right now, actually, but I love you and I drank the biggest coffee, so here we are.
My husband, Ken, and I were watching a documentary a while ago about this photographer who goes to great lengths to set up his pictures—cranes and shit, the perfect light, the perfect everything. And, in one scene, he wants to take this one picture with a four-week-old baby sleeping on a motel bed, and it’s very stylized, the mom is sitting on the bed in a housecoat staring at the baby, and the shot is taken from outside the motel with the door wide open, everything bathed in the neon light of the motel sign. But, every time the baby’s dad tried to lie her down on the bed, she would wake up, crying—she was naked, and it was cold. And, this photographer, this guy who’s used to getting his way, is just standing there, silently seething. So, we’re watching this, and Ken says, “Haha, that baby doesn’t give a fuck about that guy’s picture.”
And that’s as close as I can get to explaining writing when you have kids; they could not give less of a shit about your art. Which is not to say that you can’t find a way to make art while having kids, but it’s on you, completely. No child has ever said, “Hey, write that story, my thing can wait.” Even my step-kids, man. I can explain it to them and tell them why I need time and why I need them to watch the babies or whatever, and they’re still like, “Yeah, where’s the orange juice? Are there any AA batteries? Can you find them?”
Where did the idea for She Came from Beyond! come from?
I wanted to write about Oregon, because Oregon is the place of my spiritual birth—and that sound you’re probably hearing is my sister, who lives in Oregon, laughing her ass off. We’re from San Francisco! One of the most beautiful places on earth. But then I stepped off a Greyhound in southern Oregon, and it was like, oh, okay, I’m home.
I didn’t live in a particularly scenic place, or anything, but there it was, bam. I wanted to write about living there because it was this banal magic. And I wanted to write about my secret dream job, which is being a horror host. I love horror movies, science fictions, all that stuff from the eighties, and I know a lot about it, just from being a nerd and being obsessed. I’ve always loved the idea of hosting some terrible horror movie and having those little bumpers before and after the commercials with comedy and information about the movie and actors. So I gave Easy, the main character, that lead and that life. I was curious about being a celebrity who’s only a celebrity to really lonely sad people—the kind of kid I was, probably. I would die, probably, if I met Tom Atkins from Halloween III: Season of the Witch. That is the truth. Or, like, any of the stars of Creepshow. One of whom was actually Tom Atkins.
And being a stepmom, too, that was something I wanted to explore because it’s so weird. In the best-case scenario, which we actually have, you’re only really asked to be a glorified babysitter, but it goes so much deeper than that. It’s incredibly complex, because you end up loving them as much as you love your biological children, but there’s always these boundaries, and it’s kind of this furious balance. I mean, now, for us, we have it all figured out—but the beginning is very odd. They don’t make handbooks for that shit, man. But they shouldn’t make handbooks for that, because you have to figure it out for yourself, and every case is different.
What about writing challenges you the most, and has the challenge changed over time?
Everything is time, now. Sometimes I daydream about the time I used to have. When I was pregnant with my first kid, I quit my job in my fourth month to try to write a book—a different book—but then I ended up sitting home gaining seventy-five pounds and watching Sex and the City and Gossip Girl. Sleeping until noon, the whole bit. I get so angry at that past-Nadine! That idiot! Now I could write three books in that time. But, anyway, whatever. The main thing I used to struggle with was being distracted, or, I guess, a kind of fear of success. I would sabotage myself when it started to get good because I was freaked out by trying to get an agent, etc. It was easier to not try.
What piece of advice has been most valuable to you as a writer?
No one ever gave me advice, which is awesome because I was enough of a shit as a kid to have done the opposite. I accepted some general advice, though, which, I guess, applies. “Sleep on it,” is good. I try to put distance between me and whatever I’m writing before I share it with someone because good stuff comes to me in the shower and I need to add it. And I always write down an idea right away because my memory is garbage now. My mom always said “everything will be all right,” and that’s one to live by, you know, because you can torture yourself as much as you want about a thing, but in the end you have a choice, and the thing passes and it’s on to the next.
My advice to other writers, though, is to not write when you feel terrible about writing. Not to make yourself write. I mean try, of course, but if you’re half an hour in and you’re miserable, do something else. I’ve never written anything good while feeling resentful of writing. And, the reader can tell, I’m pretty convinced. Nobody wants to sit down and read your struggle-writing. Can you imagine? This is why no one publishes grocery lists. Because if it was a chore, it reads like a chore.
5 on Publishing
Many authors have been wondering lately how beneficial blogging really is, whether they should bother contributing time and writing energy to a saturated blogosphere. As the publication of your book got closer, you decided it was important to become more active online and started a blog. Your posts—and many of them make me laugh out loud at least once (usually more) while I’m reading—range from film critiques to book recommendations to critiques on our own society. They’re posts I think a lot of people would enjoy, but there are a lot of blogs a lot of readers would enjoy—if they would only read them. How effective has blogging proven to be thus far as a marketing tool, and what do you to do attract readers?
Yeah, ha, no one reads my blog. I had some anxiety in the beginning, like, oh, shit, I need a following, what can I do? What is my gimmick?
So, the blog started as a hybrid of book reviews and beauty products. Like, I would review a book and then, in the same blog, some kind of skincare product or makeup that was somehow connected to the book. I reviewed Sarah Blake’s poetry book Mr. West and an OPI nail polish that was gold, because Sarah signs her book with a gold Sharpie.
And, I mean, it was a clumsy concept right out of the gate. I was limiting myself to books which would pair with a beauty product in a way that was appropriate. The book I read right after Mr. West was The Book of Laney by Myfanwy Collins, a book about a girl whose brother was involved in a school shooting. And, it’s a fantastic book, of course, but I couldn’t very well segue from that subject matter to, like, you know, a fucking leave-in conditioner. So, the blog had to evolve.
I can honestly say that I write the blog for myself, which is great because, as I mentioned, no one reads it. I mostly go on and on about movies that were ridiculous to me, and a lot of times I feel as though I’m the only one who feels that way. Like the movie Rudy. People die over that movie, and I was rolling my eyes so hard all through it. It’s like that Seinfeld episode where Elaine is the only person who hates The English Patient, and everyone in the movie theater is crying and she’s staring up at the screen and in her mind she’s screaming, “Die, die, die, why won’t you just die?!” I was pretty much the only person who ever hated Good Will Hunting, basically. I’ve never wanted to punch a movie in the face as much as I wanted to punch that movie in the face. And I live in Massachusetts, now, so that’s a problematic view.
Anyway, I blog what I want with no agenda. No one’s writing me a check for it. You know, yet.
Between the first draft of She Came from Beyond! and its submission to your agent, how many revisions would you say the book went through, and how many people read it to offer constructive feedback and aid in the revision process?
Zero. And that doesn’t mean I’m any sort of prodigy or whatever, because I’m not. I wrote about things that I know and that I understand. I didn’t have to research a character’s mental illness, because I grew up neck deep in it.
I was on a panel of debut novelists last week and we got this same question from the audience. I’m sitting next to Cecily Wong, who wrote Diamond Head, which is about four generations of a Chinese/Hawaiian shipping dynasty, and she’s saying, yeah, this was twenty or more revisions, easily. But, there I am, with no revisions. Because, look, no one’s going to be up my ass if I mistake the year C.H.U.D. came out, right? Or Chopping Mall? I sort of had the luxury of winging it to a great extent, so I can’t sit here and be like, yeah, damn, it really sucked having to look that up on my phone—those were precious moments I’ll never get back.
My book is based in the present, and the situations were situations I felt really comfortable with. You know, therapists, family members being committed—I’m your woman. I’m the expert on that type of dysfunction.
I probably had concerns about writing a full-length manuscript, if only because I had had my best luck with short stories—I think there was a certain fear of writing ten thousand words and then just being abandoned there with something that was either too long or too short. I mean, what could you do? Pad the shit out of it? Add a long lost twin or something? This was unwarranted, for the most part. Sometimes I think anxieties like that are just ways for your brain to scare you out of doing a thing you really want to do. Because, honestly, if we dwell on the scariest, most negative possibilities of anything, we wouldn’t even be able to get out of bed in the morning.
It’s sort of embedded in me from childhood the idea that there’s secretly no point in doing anything, and that’s the absolute worst. You have to fight against that feeling really hard because if you don’t it can become your reality. It’s so easy just to settle back with that Eeyore feeling—”Oh, woe is me”—and not take responsibility for yourself and your opportunities.
All of the changes from my editor, except for misspellings and whatever, were suggested edits, and all of them made a great deal of sense to me. I think there was only one suggestion I didn’t end up taking, and even then I understood where she was coming from. So, basically, a hard copy of the manuscript came back to me with all these little notes—some of them very simple, like “?” or “I love this”—and then I went into my manuscript on the computer, tracking changes, and fixed things, switched words, whatever.
This, surprisingly, was the part of the process that gave me the most anxiety, but I can’t say why because I’m not sure why. After she sent me the annotated manuscript, I think I set it aside and didn’t touch it for a week or two weeks. I definitely thought it would be a stressful experience, but avoiding it was also stressful. Finally, my husband opened the envelope and flipped through the pages and said, “There’s barely any notes. Can you just please get this over with?”
So, I looked, and he was right, and I think I knocked it out in a few hours. There were a couple of places in which the editor wanted padding—more explanation, I guess—and two characters actually became one character, which, in the end, seemed so obvious. After that it was just a matter of writing acknowledgements and going over the first-pass pages very carefully, looking for typos. We had a proofreader, but it was just extra security to have as many eyes on the page as possible.
Even the best book can never find an agent if the query letter fails. How much work went into your query letter, and are you willing to share the letter that got the agent?
I would, but I don’t think I have it anymore. My husband wrote it; he really has a gift. He’s a writer, too. He really understands what it takes to turn a head—just switching a word, or the position of the word; and your query letter has to be in the writer’s voice, because it’s really the first taste of your writing that an agent sees. It has to have the energy of the book. You can’t write a fun book and have a tight-ass query—it’s too much of a leap—and you need to get that manuscript into as many hands as possible. Also, you know, if you can, in your letter, explain how your book can be sold, what its tagline is—that just makes it so much easier for the agent.
So Kenny looked at what I had written—the bio, the summary, the book itself—and he remixed it all into this perfect letter. And it was so much better than anything I could have done, because, at that point, I think I was too close to it. I was going to overthink it, and it was going to sound robotic, and whoever got that letter was going to smell my fear. I mean, I guess that advice—have your husband do it—isn’t the best or the most realistic for most people, but I understand the concept of the query a lot better now. It’s sort of like, don’t get cute. If something feels really stilted and uncomfortable, it’ll read even worse.
What’s your opinion of book review sites that charge a fee? (This includes Kirkus.)
I didn’t even know it was a thing until recently, and that was after Kirkus reviewed SCFB!, which was one of our biggest What the hell?! moments, as I don’t think any of us really expected it. I don’t know that much about it, so I don’t want to be a blowhard about it. I would assume—again, without knowing anything—in theory, that it might be sort of a boon for a self-published author in terms of publicity and credibility, especially with a site like Kirkus.
Now I’m curious, actually, and I want to look up the prices of lesser known sites! I mean, for what it’s worth, having our Kirkus review opened up a lot for us, at the very least in terms of confidence. I wrote letters to people asking for blurbs with a lot more ease because including the link for the review was kind of a veiled way to say “Hey, this is a thing” and “I’m not a stalker.” (Which is not to say that writers who self-pub are stalkers or not a thing.)
And it was the beginning of something, now that I think about it. My agent, Sarah, called me when we got the Kirkus review, and she was crying. And then I was crying. But we’re both Pisces, so that’s not really a huge thing for us, crying.
What thoughts do you have as your first novel publishes? What excites you the most, and what concerns you the most? How does the reality of publishing a novel compare to the rough-draft-period fantasy?
I don’t have a hell of a lot of concerns right now, to be honest, because shit’s gonna happen whether I worry about it or not. As I write this, I have a launch in like five days, and I have to buy a big thing of OxiClean for an audience-inclusive comedy bit. Then there’s a tea party in New York. And the Boston Book Festival. And a thing at Tufts Library. And a thing at Papercuts J.P. in Jamaica Plains. And then a thing at Porter Square Books.
That’s all exciting, and it’s going so quickly that sometimes I have to stop and say to myself, “This is happening.” It’s as good as or better than the fantasy, mainly because I’m choosing to say yes to as much as I possibly can, and when stuff is unexpected, we’re not getting taken down, because, look, who’s gonna give a shit in a hundred years that the books were a week late from the printer? What are you gonna do about it, make everyone around you feel like garbage? Have a coffee or something, take it easy. When my kid gets frustrated and throws herself on the floor about something, I’m like, “Okay, but now what?” And life is just a constant variation on that, right? So, you’re on the floor, but now what?
Thank you, Nadine.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called a novel “for right now” and “scathing social commentary.” She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.