5 On: Rufi Thorpe

Rufi Thorpe

Author Rufi Thorpe (@RufiThorpe) discusses writing for men, what she calls her improbable path to publication, what she likes to see in a book review, and more in this 5 On interview.

Rufi Thorpe received her MFA from the University of Virginia in 2009. Her first novel, The Girls from Corona del Marwas long-listed for the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize and for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her second novel, Dear Fang, With Love, releases May 24. She lives in California with her husband and sons.

5 on Writing

KRISTEN TSETSI: You said in a Tumblr interview,

I honestly didn’t know if men would find something worth reading in [The Girls from Corona del Mar]. One of the things that has surprised me has been an overwhelmingly positive and also surprisingly intense response from male readers. Each email from them begins with the phrase, ‘I wasn’t expecting to like this book,’ or, ‘I was pretty sure I would hate this book,’ or even, ‘I would never have picked up this book, but I went to high school with your husband,’ and then they would go on to say they stayed up all night reading and couldn’t put it down.

It is, unfortunately, a wonderful surprise when men will guiltily admit to enjoying fiction written by and featuring women (and it does come across as a guilty admission when the praise is prefaced with an explanation of why the book was picked up in the first place). But, as you also said in that same interview, “I think that women are part of the human experience, and if women can fall in love with reading Moby Dick, there is no reason men can’t identify with the characters in Pride and Prejudice.”

There really is no reason. Still, even in 2016, you’ll hear “my favorite authors” vs. “my favorite female authors.” When you write, do you write with the expectation that women will be your primary audience, and how important is it to you (if at all) to have a male audience?

RUFI THORPE: I think that when I was younger, still in college and even in graduate school, I wrote exclusively for a male audience. Claire Vaye Watkins has written so beautifully about this conundrum in her essay “On Pandering.” She writes,

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!

I wasted a lot of time writing about men getting boners. Writing female characters who were nothing but reflective surfaces, romantic images. I failed and I failed and I failed. I had one teacher who suggested we find our biggest fault and then do nothing but that. For him, he felt his dialogue was stilted so he wrote stories that were nothing but dialogue. “What is my biggest fault?” I asked him. “Oh,” he said, “I would say maybe the melodrama.”

The melodrama. Oh, I went home that night and sobbed and sobbed. It seemed such a female problem to have! I had been trying so hard to be stoic, so hard to write about nothing but boners and Cormac McCarthy, and there I was: a silly girl writing melodramas. I was, I think, less good at “passing” than Claire Vaye Watkins. I was not good at writing for men, I was never able to do it properly. And so, perhaps, that made it easier to give up.

In a way, you could say I write only toward women. And on a personal level, I can tell that my artistic center is my own pimpled, chubby, fierce, and dreamy eleven-year-old self. I think I write toward her, but also toward my mother, my grandmother, my best friend.

On the other hand, one of the things I most like about books is that you can never ever imagine, let alone control, who will read them. They are messages in bottles. I am quite certain that A. E. Houseman would be astounded and disturbed by me as a being, and yet I can read his poems and feel moved. He could not have dreamed me up, but I can feel an unexpected affinity with the ghost of his mind. In some strange way, I think the writer is always writing to this unfathomable, unknowable, secret reader. Part of what drives a writer to write is his very experience as a reader: that shock of finding a friend in a book written by someone long dead, the solace of being recognized by a text when you cannot find a reflection of yourself in daily life. And knowing this, that we can find our selves in unexpected places, I think writers always ultimately write to readers they cannot imagine but who they know are also, mysteriously, part of themselves, ghosts of themselves in the future. That’s a very bizarre answer, but that’s what I think. So I think as much as I write for women, what I love most about the construct of literature is the idea that some young man I cannot even fathom would find my book and see himself in it.

What jobs have you had that you would consider the most literarily interesting and that have either appeared in your writing or that you someday hope to fictionalize?

I think working as a waitress for so many years definitely gave me a lot of perspective about what sort of place the world was, and I think it informs my work, but at the same time waiting tables is not literarily interesting. I used to think you had to do that: have interesting jobs, travel, have raw aesthetic experience that you could turn into fiction. I think that less now. What you really need to do is examine the world and people and think deeply about it, and you could probably do that in your hometown working the dullest job imaginable.

dear fangYou wanted to explore mental illness in Dear Fang. What about mental illness interests you as a writer, and what kind of research was involved to present and handle it as believably as possible?

I have had two people very close to me diagnosed with Bipolar 1, and over the years I have watched them struggle with it. I don’t just mean with the brain chemical imbalance, or the medications, or the damage to their self-esteem, the limitations on their lives. I’ve watched them struggle with the very idea that their lived experience might be non-valid. It is a terrifying idea: that your reality is not reality. This kind of Cartesian terror is, for whatever reason, a preoccupation of mine. I often have flashes of fear that I am wrong, that my perception of reality is wrong, that I should stop and wait and try to ascertain a realer reality.

So there is that. As for research, I think I really started with what I knew about bipolar already and then I did a lot of reading. I did a lot of reading of first-person accounts of psychotic breaks. It’s very sad but very interesting reading. I also contacted a psychologist in Lithuania who works in the particular mental hospital where the book is set and had her read it for accuracy, and I found a mental patient who had been treated at that facility and had her read it as well.

You said in a Publishers Weekly interview that the character of Lucas, the father in Dear Fang, is the closest you’ve come to a self-portrait, that “a lot of him came from trying to look at myself, which is easier to do with a character who’s not female.” Your two female characters in The Girls from Corona del Mar also drew from you, though, in the sense that you would imagine yourself reacting to situations they’re in in order to write their reactions. What parts of yourself tend to come out more freely when writing women, how are they different from what’s revealed about you when you write men, and why do you think those differences exist in the way they do?

I think most writers imagine themselves as each character, and in this way the characters are aspects of self. For Lucas, what I meant specifically was that I gave him a lot of biographical detail, which is, to me, different than personality or self. I gave Lucas my background at Exeter, I gave him my fatherlessness, I gave him a kind of version of my mother, even. I told my mother I was going to put her in a book, and she said, “That’s fine, but I require that you make me tall and thin with curly hair.” “All right,” I said. “And I want perfect pitch!” “Deal,” I said. So I just gave Lucas a lot more of my stuff. But I’m not sure that means he wound up with more of my spirit. I don’t think his dilemma is necessarily my dilemma. I relate a lot—to feeling a fool, to not knowing how to be who you want to be. But that isn’t necessarily my core problem right now in my life. I’m not actually sure what my core problem is right now. But it’s manifesting as a lot of not-done laundry.

But there is a deeper element to your question, which is: what does a woman get out of writing herself as a man? Donna Tartt famously does this, and I think Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is another intriguing example, a novel about four male best friends written by a woman. In an interview for Salon, Tartt points out that having the narrator and protagonist be male allows him to interact with other male characters without the issue of attraction collapsing the novel into a romance: “But that novel would never have worked with a female narrator because then you would inevitably have the question of whether she was attracted to some of the male characters … it would just never work. It would have been a different book.”

I remember being seventeen and lounging around with my best friend, hanging our heads off the bed, smoking, listening to Bob Dylan, bemoaning the fact that we could not be men. We discussed the mustaches we would grow, the risks we would take, the travels and the adventures we would seek. We did not want our entire lives squashed down into the question of who we would marry. To imagine ourselves as men was a fantasy of freedom, and I have to conclude it was a seductive fantasy for these other female writers who have chosen to write in the voice of male protagonists as well.

What kind of writing-related pressure or doubt do you struggle with at this point, if any?

Sometimes I read a writer who is very different from me, and I am just filled with this longing to be them. I don’t think writers really get to choose their material. What obsesses you is what obsesses you. But there is always the concern that what obsesses you is perhaps stupid, not to the point, narrow. And there is always the desire to set down your boring problems and exchange them for fresh, new, interesting ones. So, on an existential level I think I exist in a sort of superposition where I feel at once completely unsure that what I am writing is worthwhile at the same time as accepting that I cannot really change it and so I might as well carry on. You can really only try to write the best book you can and leave it at that. To worry about whether or not you are talented is as useless as worrying about whether or not you are beautiful. You cannot go to God begging for more. As my three-year-old says, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” They tell him that at school. A useful if troubling phrase. The half rhyme bothers me.

5 on Publishing

Your first novel (your first to be published, but the fourth novel you’d written) was published by Knopf. (My genuine punctuation feeling: !) What was it like to get word of that acceptance, and what was your path to publication? (How many agents queried? And when you started querying, had you already developed a network in the publishing community through the MFA program and teaching and writing, or were you approaching as a relative stranger? Did you experience any disappointments or setbacks?)

My story is an improbable one, but here it is. I had done my MFA and I had failed to publish even a single short story in a real literary magazine. I was waiting tables in California, and eventually I transitioned to teaching composition, first at a community college and then at a private college that was really wonderful. But I certainly had no connections, not to anything. I had thought going to an MFA would give me connections, and it sort of does, but mainly it gives you connections to your peers, so you sort of have to wait for their careers to sprout as well. Years went on this way.

My husband and I had our first child and moved to Washington, D.C., and the cost of daycare was roughly the same as my annual income, so we decided I would stay home and try to finish and sell the novel I had been working on when I was pregnant. I sent it off to one agent and I got back some feedback that didn’t make any sense to me, and I just felt so discouraged, like no one would ever get the book, and maybe the book wasn’t even get-able, and maybe I wasn’t get-able, maybe I was just, you know, a bead lost under a big cosmic sofa.

But I felt this huge pressure. I had this one year home with my baby, and after that I would have to make a living and my chances to actually ever get published would be virtually zero. It was go big or go home. So I decided to figure out who my absolute dream agent would be. Who I would want if I could have any agent in the world. Obviously, it was Molly Friedrich. Jane Smiley, Elizabeth Strout, Karen Joy Fowler—they were the writers I was obsessed with, whose new books I read the second they came out. As an agent, Molly was way, way out of my league.

So obviously I wrote her an insane, highly emotional, personal, and long email, which is absolutely not how you should query an agent. But I think she could tell that I knew a lot about her and had read a lot of her list, and maybe she could guess from the fact that I had gotten an MFA that I wasn’t completely talentless, so she wrote back and said, “You are very lucky that it is a Friday and I am in a generous mood. Send me your novel.”

I did. She had some extremely insightful notes, the kind that you hear and think, “Oh, of course, it always should have been that way.” I spent a few months making the changes. I sent it back. She called me, and she started telling me all the things she loved about the book, and I remember I fumblingly asked, “Does this mean you’ll represent me?” and she laughed and laughed, and was like, “Yes, that’s what this phone call is.”

Ten days later she sold it at auction.

It was by pure chance that my best friend happened to be in town on the date of the auction, as we had planned the trip long before we even knew there was going to be an auction, and it was also by pure chance that we all got the worst stomach flu any of us had ever had before or since. The baby got it, I got it, my best friend got it. We lived, at the time, in a kind of damp, airless basement apartment, and with all the vomiting going on, it was truly disgusting and depressing in there. I remember I got the opening bids in an email and I was so surprised that I actually fell out of the bed, and it was a high bed and the tile floor I fell on was very cold and I sort of screamed and thrashed there for a minute and it woke up the baby.

We celebrated by going to Whole Foods and buying soup. I remember I bought the most expensive bottle of wine I had ever bought. It was fifty dollars. We were so sick it tasted disgusting, like blood, but we drank it anyway, delirious and happy.

You’ve said of the “agony of publishing’s incredibly long pipeline” that it helped you to have previously made a steady habit of writing, because it meant you were able to get to work on your next idea (Dear Fang) while waiting about a year for the The Girls to publish. Also within that year, did your publisher expect you to write side projects to help market the book (interviews, guest blogs or articles, essays, etc.), and what is your creative/mental management system when pressing, time-sensitive projects interrupt a novel you’re working on?

With The Girls, it worked out that I wrote the entire first draft of Dear Fang before the pub date of The Girls, but this time [for my third novel], in part because I had another baby and a cross-country move, I started making notes and doing research, wrote the first sixty pages, and then it became clear that I would need to set it down in order to start working on essays and Q&As for Dear Fang.

the girlsHowever, I’m also unusually squeezed for time—my only writing time is the two hours of my baby’s morning nap. If I had a bigger chunk of time, it’s possible I could do both. For me the issue isn’t in keeping two threads going at one time, it’s in being forced to abandon one of the threads and pick it up months later. That said, I daydream about whatever I’m writing or writing next pretty constantly. I’m also doing a lot of the research, note taking, etc, and so in that sense I’m still working on it. I’m just not expecting myself to produce polished pages at the same time I’m writing essays or doing publicity work. But it’s basically a terrible feeling—to be needing to write a book and not writing it. It’s a form of spiritual constipation. But if you’re lucky enough to need to do publicity work, how on earth can you complain?

Having established a reliable author identity with one well-received novel and another gathering positive industry reviews, do you have any plans to revisit any or all of your first three novels to ultimately submit them for publication?

I don’t think so. They aren’t very good, and I don’t have the patience to go back and make them good. I was learning on them, and I’m grateful I got to mess them up so badly without anyone reading behind me and saying, “Boy, real missed opportunity there! What was she thinking?” Plus, every writer thinks the new thing they are working on is the best thing they have ever written; otherwise we would all be too afraid to write at all.

How do you know when you’ve read a good review? And by that I don’t mean a positive review, but a thoughtful, well-considered critique, whether positive or negative.

It’s always exciting to see someone engaging with the actual themes and material of the book; whether its good or bad, there is always a surprising nakedness to it, like you didn’t know anyone could see you. At least that’s how I feel. It’s a profound spiritual gift when someone reads you like that. Even if they hate what you’ve done, they have done you the honor of taking you seriously. It’s incredible.

You said soon after publishing your first novel that you were “shocked by the publishing industry,” which you said appeared to be “made up entirely of people who genuinely love books.” Before any of this started, when getting published was merely a hope, what did you imagine it would be like, and what are the most notable differences and similarities when compared to what it is actually like?

Well, see, I think I just never thought very deeply about it. I had very vague ideas that publishers would be business people, which is really a mental stand-in for “rich people who would scare me.” I suppose I thought the whole thing would be more rigged than it is. That the houses would sort of closed-room decide which books were the big books of the season. I had no idea how much more it is a gamble, and how little publishers themselves can predict or control which book will suddenly take off.

I think perhaps I grew up in a time when publishers really did know what would make a book a success, like a rave NY Times review, or being chosen for Oprah’s book club, but I entered publishing in a time when all the old wisdom was being shuffled around. Sometimes a rave NY Times review makes a book a best seller, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s Amazon reviews, sometimes it’s book bloggers, sometimes it’s Twitter that makes a book catch fire. There isn’t really a silver bullet anymore, which makes it much clearer to everyone involved that what really makes a book sell is people reading it and loving it. Which is as it should be, I think.

Thank you, Rufi.

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