This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Lindsay Stern, whose debut novel, The Study of Animal Languages, is out today from Viking. A book that Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney calls “exuberant, wise, and darkly funny,” the novel follows a married couple of professors at an elite New England college who, while brilliant—he’s a philosopher, she’s a rising star in the emerging field of biolinguistics—barely seem capable of navigating their own lives. A send-up of academia and a psychological portrait of marriage, the novel is a comedy of errors that explores the limitations of language, the fragility of love, and the ways we misunderstand one another and ourselves. Lindsay Stern is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the recipient of a Watson Fellowship and an Amy Award from Poets & Writers, Inc. She is currently pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at Yale University.
1. How long did it take you to write The Study of Animal Languages?
I wrote the novel’s long-abandoned first scene in September of 2013, in a guesthouse in Phnom Penh, and sent the final draft to my editor in late March of 2018. But I wasn’t writing continuously over those years. The first draft took about six months, and then—because I was teaching and applying to graduate school at the time—I set it aside for about a year, and picked it back up during my two years at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa. Once my agent sold it, I worked on it in spurts for about another year and a half with my editor. I remember exactly where I was when she e-mailed us saying she thought it was ready: a Metro North train to New York. It pulled into Harlem’s 125th street station, and I practically floated out onto the platform.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Realizing I had to rewrite it. The nadir of the process came the morning after my first workshop at Iowa, after the brilliant Paul Harding had had his gentle but uncompromising way with my first draft. Light was coming through my window. I had that moment of bodiless amnesia. Then the memory of our two-hour discussion came trampling back, and all the air went out of my skull.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Anywhere I can find a room of my own, green tea, and frozen peas. When I’m in the thick of a project it gets me up and to my desk by 7 AM. Because of other commitments I’ve had to take a break from that rhythm over the last few weeks, which is frustrating for me but not fatal to the work, as long as I keep the embers going internally.
4. What was the most unexpected thing about the publication process?
Its length. There’s a phenomenon in journalism that Nick Davies has called “churnalism”—you get the point—which has not infected book publishing, thank god. I had close to two years with my editor to wrestle The Study of Animal Languages into its final form.
5. What are you reading right now?
Nicholson Baker’s Vox.
6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
She’s already a legend in Japan, but I think everyone should read Taeko Kono. Her story “Toddler Hunting” is a marvel of psychological exploration.
7. What is one thing you’d change about the literary community and/or the publishing business?
The fee to access Publishers Marketplace.
8. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
A tendency to forget that I have a limited time on earth to do it.
9. What trait do you most value in an editor (or agent)?
Clarity of thought. I was wildly fortunate to land an agent, Henry Dunow, who is both a gifted editor and mensch. My brilliant editor, Lindsey Schwoeri, also lavished attention on the manuscript. Because of them The Study of Animal Languages is a stronger, clearer book.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Go there. When the work takes you somewhere deep, it can be difficult not to swim back up out of fear or squeamishness. I did that in early drafts of the book. It took great teachers to show me that the novel was avoiding its true subject matter. So: Always go there.