First Books: Author Spotlights
The University of Minnesota’s creative writing program hosts an annual “First Books” reading that highlights the publication of debut works of literature by Minnesota writers. This year’s event features three authors who are also alumni of the MFA program: Andria Williams, Kathleen Glasgow, and Ryo Yamaguchi.
Below, each author discusses the inspiration for their books and the journey to publication. Join us at the Weisman Museum on March 9 to hear more from each writer.
The Longest Night is a gripping novel based on the true story of the US's first—and only—fatal nuclear reactor accident. The book is set in Idaho Falls, Idaho where the government began testing all experimental reactors around 1950. The story unfolds in 1959 and is narrated by three people: Paul, a young Army reactor operator who moves to Idaho Falls to work at the site; his wife Nat, a free spirit of sorts who is unsure about her new role as a military wife; and Jeannie, another Army wife who is merely tolerating her buffoon of a husband—who happens to be Paul's boss—as she awaits his impending retirement. Disintegrating conditions at the reactor and Paul's attempts to keep control over the various aspects of his life create fissures in his marriage that Jeannie—and others—will only widen, until they reach a breaking point. The book was Amazon's Debut Novel of the Month for January 2016.
Where did you find the inspiration for your first book?
I'd read about the accident in Idaho Falls a couple of times over the years, and always thought the story would make a good novel. Then, about five or six years ago, I came across another take on the accident in a book called Atomic America by Todd Tucker. Tucker gained access to formerly-top-secret documents surrounding the investigation and, a nuclear operator himself, he came to believe that the accident was not caused by human error or sabotage as had previously been rumored, but was rather an avoidable accident caused by institutional mismanagement and neglect of a reactor that had been showing signs of severe wear for well over a year. I thought this theory was even more moving than the previous rumors, and I wanted to think about who the people involved with the accident might have been, how they got there in the first place. The way I think through things is by putting them into fiction, so I wrote a novel about it.
What was the biggest lesson you learned through the process of releasing your book?
I've learned a lot about publishing, about finding an agent and all of that. When my book sold, it was my agent's first sale (she'd just become an agent) and my first novel, so we were pretty much on cloud nine for a while. The advice I give people who are looking for an agent and who don't yet have any major publishing connections is to query the newer agents at any given agency, rather than going to the top of the masthead and querying the biggest name there. The newer agents have much more room in their schedules to take on new writers, and they are being tutored and advised by the big names above them anyway, so I think you get the best of both worlds. My young dynamo of an agent had been with the company for only about a year, but she was able to sell the book in a day, which was just ridiculously exciting after years and years of my personal doubts that I'd ever get a novel published.
Plans for another book?
Oh yes! I will never be able to stop writing. I'm working on a second novel now. I was hoping it would get easier each time, but I think when you write novels that are all very different from one another, none of them are really any easier, just different. I'll keep plugging away!
Girl in Pieces centers on 17-year-old Charlie Davis, who suffers from depression and uses self-harm to cope with the traumatic events in her life. Self-harm can be described as cutting, burning or poking oneself. More than one million girls and boys self-harm each year, and those numbers are only increasing. The novel brings widespread attention to this important topic; it made the New York Times Bestseller list this past fall and will be translated and published in 15 countries.
What inspired you to tell this story in your first book?
I was inspired by a girl I met on the number 16 bus from Saint Paul to Minneapolis. She sat down next to me and I saw that she had fresh scars on her arms from harming herself. I never spoke to her, and I should have. This book is kind of a letter to her, and to the millions of kids who harm themselves.
What hurdles did you encounter while getting the book published?
It took a long time to write, almost nine years, because I was working full-time, had two babies, and lost my mother and my sister. I could not have written the book without receiving grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board to take time off my job to finish crucial drafts of the book, so I'm forever grateful. I was also tremendously lucky to be working for the creative writing program—they were fully supportive of the time I needed to take off to complete the book. I was fairly lucky in that my agent really understood the book and was able to be such a champion for Charlie's story.
What about the book’s publication makes you most proud?
I’m most proud of the letters I receive from readers telling me that they feel heard, that they feel less alone. Young women thank me for telling my story and say that they didn’t know there was anyone else who felt this way. I’m grateful that my book made the New York Times Bestseller list—that’s a life dream—but that makes me sad, because the more people that buy this book, the more it goes to show there’s a problem we’re not addressing. The public conversation of what is happening to our kids, and why they are turning to self–harm is not being addressed. It was a heartbreaking book to write because I wanted to be very honest about what it’s like to harm, so readers having this experience could feel it wasn’t romanticized. . . When it was published I felt almost naked, but it was all worth it get letters from readers and hear how much the book meant to them.
What would you say was most helpful about Creative Writing’s MFA program?
The multi-genre aspect of the program is essential, I think, to broadening an aspiring writer's world. I did my thesis in poetry, but I was able to take fiction courses with Julie Schumacher, and I couldn't have written those first two books, or Girl in Pieces, without the knowledge that I gained in those workshops. It is so important to let students experience the writing life from another vantage point: absolutely a nonfiction writer should take a poetry workshop; absolutely, a poet should take a fiction workshop, and so on.
What ambitions do you have for your writing career?
My second novel comes out in the summer of 2018. I always remember that MJ Fitzgerald told us you really don't know how to write a novel until you are writing your eighth, so I'd like to get that far! I've written four novels so far; I think she might be onto something.
The Refusal of Suitors is a collection of poems. The tile is borrowed from Joseph Campbell, who cites it as one of the world’s prevailing archetypal stories; for Yamaguchi’s book specifically, it's the story of Penelope fending off the suitors at Ithaca, weaving and unweaving her tapestry to delay time (just like Scheherazade in 1001 Arabian Nights), while Odysseus himself suffers a tale woven and unwoven in perpetuity. Yamaguchi explains that in his book, there are cars and the internet and skyscrapers standing like ingots in the light of the late 20th century—but little in the way of cyclops or sirens. The modern setting represent Yamaguchi’s refusal to let the story end.
Did you always intend to write this book as your first book?
Of course not! I never knew exactly what the first book would be. As a poet, I was just writing poems, and the book is my opportunity to see how all those separate poems were related, how they talked to one another. That's not always the case—many poets these days actually write a real book, have a real project. But I refused that. Rather, I knew my book would be a snapshot of a longer moment in time, of many days following one another in some constantly querying succession. In truth, it is a snapshot of my years in Chicago during a time—youth, youth!—when the city was for me a breathing manifestation of possibilities.
What inspired you?
Life! I think! The challenge to know, the desire to flourish. The want to create a world and extend it into another one. The love of music and the ways it hides in language. I don't know, how are poets inspired? By the mornings and the evenings. Maybe simply because it's what writers should do—make books.
What challenges did you experience while getting the book published?
How much time to do we have? Even while the tools to publish have never been more accessible, and even while the flourishing of small press culture has never been more vibrant, it is still extraordinarily difficult to get a book published, no less by a press you admire, such as the one (Noemi Press) I was fortunate to have take interest in me. The life of a writer is a life of constant rejection, and of being motivated by that rejection to write better, submit with greater savvy, do that important imaginational work of envisioning what your book can really be and how.
What makes you most proud of your first book?
I am most proud of the way the book moves, the theatrical way that it feels: the lights come up, the songs are sung, and then the lights are dimmed.
Why have one book when you can have two! Right now I have the poems, I just need to put them in order. Should be easy! I jest—more work to be done. I hope I never stop writing and publishing: my own poems, my thoughts about other people's poems, and everything in between and around and within earshot of those.