Becoming Unbecoming

My debut novel launches this Friday, May 15th, 2020. Here’s the story of how the book came to be.

I was in my late forties in 2015, sending my oldest child off to college and feeling glum about the next phase of my life. Hormonal shifts were not helping. On a walk with my spouse, I said something like, It’s not fair that mutant superpowers always come at puberty. Menopause is basically puberty in reverse–I want my superpowers now. He said, That would be a good premise for a novel.

A poet, scholar, and teacher, I thought I’d passed the forking path to novel-writing a long ways back. Chris is a cheerleader, though, and–this is crucial–author of a couple of published novels and many short stories, so he’s a great person to talk to about small, vague story ideas. I’d been fantasizing about another tale I never expected to write: a changeling professor, Dr. Perfect Poet, visits on a faculty exchange program and makes literary triumph look like a breeze. I’d drafted a bad poem about her, in a fit of frustration about my own messy life. (The closest thing I had to a superpower was yelling, Flame on! during a hot flash). As we walked and talked, I realized these two plots could interlock. Chris and I started spinning it out–who this main character might be, with her irritating and uncanny new colleague, and how she might react when weird things started happening.

Even when possible structures appeared in the air, I wasn’t sure I had the will or the stamina to put them on paper. I wrote fiction as a teenager but it always stalled. I’ve never taken a fiction writing class, either, although I’ve been an obsessive novel-reader since childhood. But I was on sabbatical 2015-2016, so I thought maybe I would try to write a short, mediocre novel, told chronologically in a single voice–no pressure, no big ambitions, although I wanted it to be fun to spend time with. Complexity with humor, possibly even hope, plus a world that draws you in quickly and won’t let you go: that’s my sweet spot as a reader. That’s one reason poetry is important to me, by the way. The world can be unrelentingly awful, and I’m ready to stare down that badness in short forms, especially when they deliver the consolations of patterned sound, but you have to live in a novel for days. I need novels to be better than life, or at least absorbingly different.

That fall, my mother came down with a mysterious but devastating illness, eventually diagnosed as lymphoma. My concentration and schedule were broken into fragments. When, stabilized, she moved back into her home (in Pennsylvania, a six-hour car ride from here) and entered a steady chemo regime, I had time again, but still couldn’t seem to finish the book of essays I was supposed to wrap up. A scene came to me in the shower. I dried off and wrote it down. I finished a chapter. I kept going. For weeks, sentences arrived in my head and I typed them in. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing, and by late January, I had that short, mediocre draft.

The rest of this origin story is less fun, and not just because it coincides with Trump’s election and presidency (some of my characters saw that coming, by the way, but at least in my conscious mind, I did not). I learned that my draft was considerably more mediocre than I realized and had to put the ms through numerous painful overhauls, fixing everything from clumsy prose and plotting to tricky problems of character I’d been refusing to confront. I queried agents prematurely, earning some requests to see the full ms but never an offer. I revised more, with help from many readers, and eventually received a “revise and resubmit” letter from Aqueduct Press, which specializes in feminist sf. Further excruciating revisions ensued, plenty of them at a rapid pace last fall, as I was teaching full-time and delivering my youngest to college. And here it is. Good early reviews make me hope it’s a decent book now, not god’s gift to literature but engaging and sometimes funny (in Locus, Gary K. Wolfe, whose sf criticism I admire, even said parts were hilarious and evoked the campus novels of David Lodge–whoa). I presume I have plenty of ego blows ahead, but I’m glad I took the risk and followed the spark of impulse.

I’m on sabbatical next year and I have another novel idea, a project that again emerges from a twilight zone between realism and fantasy. I’m not at all sure the drafting process will feel magical again, with characters whispering lines to me. It won’t be a campus novel this time, either, which means much more research. I’ll also work with multiple perspectives–getting more ambitious, basically. It still feels like playing hooky from poetry, knowing I’ll come back to my home genre freshly, having learned a few things.

Looking off cliffs

I’m not processing very well, here at the quiet edge of apocalypse. Sometimes I’m fine, scared, down, or stir-crazy; often I’m busy teaching remotely, being fortunate enough to still have a job; generally I can’t concentrate. New York City has always been the center of the world for me; how will it fare? When will everyone have access to testing, so we know the scope of things? A few steps from now, what will happen?

I wonder, too, what art is in the pipelines now, and to what extent those pipelines are or will be blocked. My novel, Unbecoming, was available for pre-order for a hot second and scheduled for publication on May 1, but now that’s been postponed. My publishers are in Washington State and can’t safely mail out copies, and one of their key distribution warehouses is not accepting shipments anymore. I hope the book is for sale in time for my reading dates this summer, but who knows how much we’ll be traveling and congregating then anyway? One nice augury, anyway: it just earned a star and a lovely review from Publishers Weekly. At least one stranger likes it! That’s more of a relief to me than you might expect. A debut work in any field–who can really judge her own writing, at first venture?

Many have told me that the novel will do better at a later date, anyway; apparently the brilliant Margot Livesey launched a book on 9/11/01, a day of crisis for all kinds of art, and I heard from many people that nobody bought books right after Trump’s election. I am also relieved to focus for longer on the virtual launch of The State She’s In, my fifth poetry collection (also languishing in a locked down warehouse, although copies are available directly from my saintly publisher, at least for now–this has me suspecting that a ton of books from independent presses must be similarly stranded). People have been generous about helping me publicize it over social media and otherwise, although general sadness has put me behind on sending in the recordings people have asked for. Here’s an interview Will Woolfitt posted on his terrific Speaking of Marvels blog. And I’m going to keep paying poetry back by putting up virtual poetry salons, although with the term in gear again, I might be slower.

The picture above is from last Saturday’s drive to the nearby Blue Ridge mountains, where we’re trying to take walks most weekends to watch spring’s advance. It’s beautiful out there in a way that seems bizarre and reassuring in turns. The photo below is of three new anthologies I’m fortunate enough to have a poem in–all of them terrific and all of them coming out, as my own books are, at a pretty difficult moment. Here’s a shout out, then, to Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, edited by Annie Finch; Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habit, Defiance, and Democracy, edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield; and Rocked by the Waters: Poems of Motherhood, edited by Margaret Hasse and Athena Kildegaard. The Tables of Contents of all three brim with the names of the writers I admire most, and all bring together immensely powerful and moving work. Having work in them is good company. I’m also proud to have an essay on Millay’s abortions, “The Smell of Tansy through the Dark,” in the latest Massachussetts Review. I’ve talked to several editors of print magazines who were rushing to send off spring issues before their university mail services ground to a halt, and I’m so glad this one made it. I wonder how the publishing landscape may change for them and others. One good thing: Ecotone’s most recent issues, a couple of which I have poems in, are temporarily free online. What a gift to the housebound!

I am writing a bit for National Poetry Month, without confidence that I’m producing anything lasting, although I’m not able to get myself together to mail recent work out. And for Shenandoah, I’m reading the 650 batches of poems that came in during our 2-week March reading period (holy cow). My first read is usually a quick-ish screen to winnow the submissions down to likely top contenders, and I’m only halfway through that; it’s going to take a while. Looking off the edge of this April, though, I feel confident that Shenandoah WILL keep bringing you great art. So many collaborative artistic productions are stalled now, but writing is cheap and lonely, any season. We’re all going to go through weeks of blockage and flow, I guess, but you can’t stop poetry.