Fresh Ink is a monthly series of interviews with debut novelists that focuses on the journey to publication. I’m so excited for today’s interview with Jennifer Miller, author of The Year of the Gadfly, which debuted just yesterday. Jennifer stumbled upon this blog about a year ago and emailed me to say hello because we’re both represented by the same agency. At the time, she’d just finished submitting final edits to her editor, and I’ve so enjoyed cheering her on from the sidelines as time crept its way closer to her launch!
Jennifer and I spoke just weeks before her pub date—about the writing process, the choices she made while developing her novel, and her advice for aspiring authors…
Length of time from the book’s start to your pub date? 7 years.
# of agents that you queried before signing? I only worked with one agent on this book, but I’ve worked with two agents in my career.
# of books written before this one: Just one. Inheriting the Holy Land, which is non-fiction.
# of revisions you went through: Too many to count. It was a work in progress the entire time.
We’re lucky that there are so many great resources for writers to learn about publishing these days. That being said, what’s the one aspect of the process you never could have predicted?
It’s just really interesting to think about the difference between starting to promote this book and promoting Inheriting the Holy Land, which came out in 2005. I felt like back in 2005 there really wasn’t very much that I could do, and I kind of just had to leave it up to the publicity and marketing department. But now, I find that there’s so much that I can do that I never expected. Not just being on Twitter, but Facebook, just being able to connect with all these book bloggers that I previously never knew existed. Connecting with people on Goodreads, which I’m really making an effort to do, every day pretty much. And starting a correspondence with readers around the country, or potential readers around the country, who I may never have had access to back in 2005. I can actually do outreach.
Most of the people I’ve interviewed on the blog are debut authors. But this is really your debut fiction. Are there any ways that you feel that this prepared you? Either in the publishing process or the writing, going from a non-fiction author to now a fiction one?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say that, in terms of preparation, I definitely—because I wrote a book before—I knew I had the stamina to write another book. Inheriting the Holy Land, I recorded in six months, and I wrote it in six months, and it was done. This [novel] was obviously a seven-year process. So I knew that I could do it. I knew that I could produce content of that length. And so that definitely helped me.
Even though I published a book before, and I had an in into the publishing world, it actually didn’t, in a lot of ways for me, didn’t make it any easier for me to write this book or sell this book or anything like that. If anything, if your first book doesn’t do well, then you’re at a disadvantage for your second book. And honestly, this novel, part of the reason I think that I was able to get it published is because I did switch genres. The research book got really great reviews. It didn’t really sell very well. And I remember the publishing company asking me for sales figures. They’d already bought the book. They wanted sales for the last book. I was like, (jokingly) “I’m not giving you the sales figures. If you really want to find them, you can go find them.” It’s all part of like how—you hear this about authors failing to sell a book, and then having to publish under a pseudonym because if a book doesn’t sell well, you kind of have a mark against you. And I hate that. My suspicion is that because I was switching genres, they saw it as I’m starting over in the eyes of the publishing world. If that makes sense. I don’t have that mark against me because I switched genres. It’s a totally different—fiction is very different than non-fiction.
That’s interesting, because I was reading in your post on Writer Unboxed how your previous agent had mentioned that switching to novels would be a bad career move. What kept you going? Because even if the previous book didn’t do well, you do write a lot of non-fiction. You’re a journalist, and you’re very well published in that arena, so what kept pulling you toward fiction? What do you feel feeds you in the process in a different way than non-fiction?
I still love non-fiction and journalist stuff. I still would love to write another non-fiction book. But I’ve always, always, always wanted to write fiction. And I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I’ve always been in love with stories, and with characters, and with compiling a narrative. So I knew that this was something that I had to do.
And once I got into the process—I’m a private person. I’m a little bit obsessive. Once I get started on something…once I decide that I’m going to be invested in something, I really can’t stop working at it until it’s finished. Or until I feel like I’ve succeeded. Which is why was able to continue to do this over seven years and write five or six drafts. Because I just can’t stand to know that there’s a draft of something sitting on my computer. It sucks. I hate that knowledge in my own head. I have to keep working at it to make it better.
How did The Year of the Gadfly evolve from those initial drafts to what you ended up with? And what do you feel took you down that path?
An intro of the book: the book has three narrators. The main narrator, Iris Dupont, who’s a young teenage journalist, she actually did not exist until a couple of years ago. She was the very last addition. Which gives you a sense of why there were so many drafts of this book.
Initially the book was about two characters. It was about Jonah and Lilly. Jonah is this microbiologist who experienced a tragedy when he was a kid and runs away. And then the other main character is…this albino geek girl named Lilly, who is the daughter of the school principal. Jonah is closely based on my younger brother, who, like Jonah, is a scientist. And then Lilly is actually very much based on me, because the guy that she dates in the book is based on my boyfriend in high school, who was killed in a car accident the summer before our senior year of high school. And I knew that I wanted to write about that experience, and I wanted to write about my boyfriend, because he was a very, really an extraordinary person. And as I wrote, the book kind of started turning into a mystery, started turning into a novel in which basically the characters are running away from their past, and various events start calling them back to face up to the things that they swore they would never face up to.
I realized at a certain point, they needed a vehicle to push the plot forward—I was really focused on the back story. I was really focused on the past and what happened to these characters in the past, and what they were running away from. And at a certain point it occurred to me that it’d be awesome to have an investigative journalist, because that’s inherently cool, to have a character whose job it is in the narrative to start uncovering things. Walking into things and meeting, and trying to pull out people. So that’s really where the character of Iris Dupont came from. And she emerged after I went to journalism school. And I think if I hadn’t been to journalism school, I might not have even thought to create her.
That’s why she came really late to the process. But obviously I didn’t just want Iris to be a tool. I wanted her to be a well-rounded character in her own right. I wanted her to have her own story, and her own challenges, and her own problems.
She sounds so cool. I love the idea of her communing with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. I wondered where that came from. At what point did it occur to you and why did you feel like it fit her and fit into the story?
Iris has this ideal about truth with a capital T. And the beginning of this book for her is really about exposing the truth above all else.
So the reason I chose Murrow is because Murrow, in a lot of ways, he is the ideal representation of truth. He is the heroic figure who will be true to power, who will go up against McCarthy, who will basically always stand up for his ideals and for the importance of free speech. He seemed like the perfect person for Iris to obsess over.
At the same time, Murrow was actually a very broad figure with a lot of demons and his own past. I wanted the realization of Murrow’s ideal versus Murrow the human being to also be part of Iris’s growth over the course of the novel. She was idealizing him, and at a certain point she has to start seeing him as a real human being who is just as flawed as everybody else.
The other reason I chose him is because I just wanted a really sharp juxtaposition between 14-year-old prep school girl, and then you’ve got 50-year-old, chain-smoking Edward Murrow. I just love to kind of bring those two opposing figures together and see what would happen when they’re forced to talk.
I was reading how you teach writing as well. What’s a piece of advice that you give most to students?
The thing that I emphasize…is that the ideal is to communicate what you want to say in a clear and straightforward way. You want things to be accessible. At least I want the literature that I read to be accessible. This isn’t to say that all writing has to be that way. I actually really do enjoy Joyce, and I enjoy Foster, and people whose writing is actually not accessible. But I think that just like any sport or creative field, or art, or whatever you do, it’s always about practicing and honing your skills and getting down to basics. And I think that that’s true with writing, too.
Know the rules, and then break them. Especially for writers who are just starting out – and I’ve done this plenty myself – there’s this tendency to just completely overdo it. To write these long, complicated, flowery sentences that you think sound fantastic, but actually don’t say anything. So for myself even, I’m always trying to simplify my language, even in my fiction.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you want to mention?
I would just say to anybody who really wants to write and is trying to publish a book and is feeling frustrated—I talk to a lot of writers about this, and there really is a general consensus of some of my friends that if you just keep doing it, and you just stick with it, you’re going to have some kind of success.
It’s just that it’s very much a marathon and not a race. I remember so well the afternoon that I got up in front of my agent, I had just finished a draft. The first time that I finished a full draft of Gadfly and she read it. And we got on the phone and within five minutes, she had told me that the second half of the book had to go entirely and the first half of the book needed serious reworking. And she was right. She was absolutely right. And that’s the other thing. Be open-minded. Find a reader that you trust, and don’t be defensive when they tell you that you have to throw out half your book.
At that point, I could’ve easily been like, ‘You know what, I did a lot of work, but I’m done with this. I’m tired, I’m done. I’ve already been working on it for five years. I don’t have the stamina to keep going.’ The thing is that you’ve got to keep going. You have to see that criticism as an opportunity to improve. And then keep working at it. Keep doing it, and eventually you’re going to get to the good product.
Thanks so much for the great conversation, Jennifer, and congratulations on your fiction debut!
About The Year of the Gadfly:
Iris Dupont is a teenage reporter who communes with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. Jonah Kaplan is a failed microbiologist-turned biology teacher who is haunted by the ghosts of his past. Each embarks on a private investigation to uncover a secret society in their remote New England town. As Iris and Jonah’s paths start to intersect, they are drawn into the darker corners of their town, their school, and their own minds.