“Finishing a book is certainly exciting, but lately I have come to dread it, because it means I will soon have no more novel to write. That dead period in between novels is uncomfortable for me. I miss the powerful sense of purpose that gets me out of bed in the morning. What I love more than anything is the long, boring middle – the months and years of working the sentences, exploring the story and characters.”
JENNIFER HAIGH is the author of THE CONDITION, BAKER TOWERS and MRS. KIMBLE. Her new novel, FAITH, will be published by HarperCollins in May. MRS. KIMBLE won the 2004 PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and her New York Times bestseller, Baker Towers won the 2006 PEN/L/L/ Winship Award. Jennifer’s fiction has been published in Granta, Ploughsares and Good Housekeeping, among others.
Meredith: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth creating? Is there a telling, pivotal or aha! moment?
JENNIFER: I wish there were an aha! moment, but honestly, that rarely happens. I always have moments of great excitement about a new idea, but for me that’s not a reliable indicator of whether the idea is any good. (Historically, I’ve been wildly enthusiastic about some really terrible ideas; so I’ve learned to be a bit circumspect about my own “gut feelings.”) I mull over a new idea for weeks or, in the case of a novel, months. I take long walks and ruminate obsessively, like a dog with a chew toy. At a certain point I start writing, though it’s not until I have a complete first draft that I feel committed to the idea. For a novel, that takes twelve to eighteen months.
Meredith: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Pretty, ugly, other? Now flip it—how about ending?
JENNIFER: Starting is terrible. It’s very difficult to create something out of nothing, to believe in something that doesn’t yet exist. Doubt is the enemy. Like most writers, I second-guess myself constantly. Writing the first draft is a bit like rock-climbing – not scary until you look down. And it’s really hard not to look down. What gets me through is my routine. I go to my studio every day, even weekends, and work as long as I can stand it. (Some days that isn’t very long.) In the early stages my writing day is short. After a couple hours I have to stop, simply because I’m empty: I’ve written all I’ve got, and I don’t know anything more. Then I have to get outdoors, go for a hike, see a movie, talk to a friend – live the rest of my day, so I can go to sleep and wake up and – I hope – have a little bit more to write.
Finishing a book is certainly exciting, but lately I have come to dread it, because it means I will soon have no more novel to write. That dead period in between novels is uncomfortable for me. I miss the powerful sense of purpose that gets me out of bed in the morning. What I love more than anything is the long, boring middle – the months and years of working the sentences, exploring the story and characters. I have a wonderful, supportive publisher, and I am glad my books are published and read; and yet I don’t particularly enjoy the process of publishing. It’s distracting and stressful and intrudes on my imaginary life, the quiet routine that allows me to do my work. I really enjoy the writing part of being a writer.
Meredith: How do you balance writing for you and writing for an audience. What does it feel like when you find the sweet spot/balance? How do you know when you’re off in one way or another?
JENNIFER: When I am composing new work I spend a lot of energy trying not to think about an audience. I approach it in much the same way I approached writing in my diary when I was twelve. (I still have that diary. Written on the inside cover, in bold capitals: DO NOT READ UNDER PENALTY OF DEATH.) At that early stage the work is very fragile, and if I let myself think about how a reader might react to it – my editor, a reviewer or God forbid, my mother – I would be utterly paralyzed and might never write another word. Later, in successive drafts, I allow myself to think about audience, but only in terms of clarity: is the language so precise that the reader will understand exactly what I meant, or was I speaking in tongues? My editor is immensely helpful at this stage; as are one or two close writer friends who’ve been my readers for years. What I don’t do is self-censor – make changes to the story or characters in hopes of pleasing (or to avoid displeasing) readers. I try to stay true to my own instincts, the impulse that led me to write the story in the first place. What I do, always, is try to write the sort of book I would like to read. I’m not that exotic in my tastes, so I have to trust that if the story interests me, it will interest someone else too.
Jennifer lives in New England. Visit her website by clicking RIGHT HERE.
Photo: Asia Kepka.