Jonathan Evison and I share the same publisher, Algonquin Books, and the same editor: Chuck Adams. But more than that, we’re friends who always talk to each other about writing. We’ve both achieved a degree of success, after years of failure, but that doesn’t mean everything we produce from now on will be golden. Sometimes, no matter what we do, or what our editor does, a novel just doesn’t work. But how do you know what to do about it? Do you junk the whole novel, and if so, when? Can you save parts of it? Can you rewrite, and if so, how many times? Or is it just time to move on and give the novel a final resting place in the ground, in a body of water, or in a drawer?
Both Johnny and I have failed novels. Mine was the terribly titled—I’m embarrassed to even reveal it—“Second Chances,” which I wrote in 1996, under the tutelage of Michael Dorris, who was married to Louise Erdrich at the time. I had a story line about two teens who fall violently in love, and when their concerned single parents try to break them up, her mother and his father fall in love themselves and get married. So these two kids are thrown together into a house, now stepbrother and stepsister instead of lovers, and I was interested to see what would happen over the generations. Ha! Guess what. Nothing and everything did. The center never held.
It just didn’t work. I never really could figure out what the novel was about, what the deeper meaning was. “It will reveal itself,” Dorris kept telling me. I didn’t know or use story structure back then. I had no idea what a character arc was, or a moral choice, reveals, reversals. None of it. I was floundering. And when Dorris sent the book out to publishers, acting as my agent, they didn’t see a narrative line either. It was too convoluted, editors said, spinning off in too many directions. The story line wasn’t driving, and the characters weren’t changing. I kept taking the novel apart and trying to put it together in new ways, adding and subtracting characters, forcing them to act, but still it didn’t add up. “It will,” Dorris insisted, and then shortly after, his life shattered, his marriage broke up, and in 1997 he committed suicide.
I shelved that book, feeling scorched. I was too heartbroken to look at it ever again. Or so I thought.
With Johnny, it was “The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales,” the story of a group of teens who vanish, a shadowy figure who may or may not be the devil, a sheriff who has very ulterior motives, and Huntington, who seems crazy but just might have the truth. “The Dreamlife” displays all of Evison’s gifts: gorgeous prose, a riveting story, a hook to the heart. But despite eight years of rewriting and reworking, he decided it just didn’t work and he was going to let it go and pull it off the market.
He had finally given up on it, and I wanted to know why. I was sure he was gifted enough to solve any of the novel’s problems. And maybe, I thought, I could solve them for him. (I couldn’t.) So I asked to read Johnny’s novel, curious about what did and didn’t work. I absolutely loved it. And I was at a loss as to why it wasn’t being published.
So we started a conversation about knowing when to give up on a novel, because we thought it was important to realize that publishing successful books doesn’t mean you won’t have failures—and you can learn a lot from those failures.
Leavitt: Did you see this particular novel as different from ones you had done before? Was the writing process different? I know with my novel, Dorris had me write in a way that I wasn’t totally comfortable with, a kind of free-writing without having a direction. And though there were parts of that blasted novel I loved, if someone asked me, “Well, what’s this novel about?” my answer would have been, “I’m not sure.” And Dorris would have added, “Yet.”
Evison: My answer would have been so convoluted I would’ve sounded like an insufferable elbow-patch-wearing windbag even trying to address the question. “Yada yada, sort of an exercise in subjectivity, yada yada and the multiplicity of public perception yada yada, a thematic collision of commercial logging, country music, schizophrenia, global conspiracy yada yada, and so forth.” It would have all come out sounding too earnest and self-important. You would have wanted to punch me at a party.
I’m going to get intertextual here and dig up the final, terrible version of my “elevator pitch,” so you can see firsthand from the synopsis that describing this book required a loooong elevator ride and not a particularly compelling one. Bear with me, as the description will help inform the rest of our conversation:
Welcome to Big Fork. Once a boomtown, now a bust. The Vikings haven’t won a high school football crown since 1971. Les Mohr’s Chevy dealership died twenty years ago. The video store closed eighteen months ago. But Dale’s Diner, the Evergreen Motel, and the Doug Fir Pub abide, the last vestiges of what was once a major American lumber producer.
Sheriff Clem Wiley is a perennial treasure in Big Fork; affable, familiar, steadfast in his sense of duty, scrupulous in his Sunday service attendance, and perpetually suffering from a lack of fiscal, organizational, and bureaucratic support. But with the help of Loretta down at the station, and the new love of his life, Jolly Judy, he gets along just fine, thanks in large part to a sunny disposition and the unyielding support of his community, all the while dreaming of his retirement in the high desert of eastern Washington.
Huntington Sales is the final step in the devolution of a logging empire, the last surviving namesake of a bloodline who wrote the Big Fork town charter in the 1880s, saw it boom for most of a century, before essentially killing it in the 1980s through bad resource management. Although Hunt was once a promising high school athlete and scholar, his life jumped the rails in 1999, shortly after his father committed suicide and his brother went missing. Days after his brother’s disappearance, Hunt is discovered naked and traumatized on a logging road with no memory of what transpired.
Sixteen years later, Liz Bineman, overachiever, daughter of an alcoholic, freshly divorced, ambiguously childless, and hopelessly workaholic, is the beleaguered FBI agent flown across the country and tasked with aiding Sheriff Wiley in his search for the whereabouts of several missing young men convinced that the deep state is conducting psychological experiments on innocent victims in underground facilities hidden deep in the backcountry of the Olympic Peninsula.
Nothing is what it seems. “The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales” plays with the tropes of the crime drama, and gothic fiction, while exploring themes of isolation, identity, and religious fanaticism. Like the film noirs of the 1950s, “The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales” addresses the heightened anxiety, alienation, and moral ambiguity of our epoch.
See what I’m saying? This whole description is too informative and trying way too hard, and when something sounds too informative and trying too hard, it’s usually a load of crap, am I right? You can just feel me straining for clarity and significance in this description. Also, my description bears little resemblance to your description, which is another red flag.
Leavitt: That description is nothing like what I thought the book was.
I still don’t know what “Second Chances” was about—I should have called it “99 Chances” for all the rewrites. But looking at it now, I can see how the characters were spiraling out of control. They weren’t headed for anything, and even worse, none of the stories came together in any meaningful way. It felt as if each character was walking on the stage, and then walking off, and then another would come on.
So here’s another question. You’ve told me that you couldn’t shake the comparisons of your novel to the Netflix series Stranger Things, but there must have been something else going on that you couldn’t transcend. Can you walk us through the rewrite process you did? Did you start with character arcs? Did you have index cards? Did you color-code all the scenes?
Evison: The Stranger Things comparisons just bugged me because I started the dang thing five years before Stranger Things ever went into development, and by the time people started reading “Dreamlife,” it sort of looked like maybe Stranger Things had informed the book. Lesson: The zeitgeist is real, people, but you’ve got to act quickly on it.
As for your take on “Dreamlife”—you’re too kind; really, you are—Christ, I don’t even know what I was thinking. I feel like the novel has gone through so many incarnations over the years that I don’t even know what it is anymore. God, what a mess. The best thing to come out of all of this is that my perception of the novel’s failures really awakened a new awareness in me. So much of writing fiction is persuasion. But a subtle persuasion. And the persuasion needs to happen during the process, not after. Here I was, after the fact, trying to conjure some kind of literary dialectic aimed at clarifying my book by association—as in “tropes of noir and gothic.” These elements were never part of the book’s original conception. I was putting lipstick on a bear. It was hopeless.
When I look back at all my successful novels—and by successful, I mean only technically, thematically, etcetera—I find that there is a single passage somewhere in the book that epitomizes the larger whole, meaning that the entire body of work is unified thematically, and that it’s narratively consistent and concise enough to locate a thesis.
In West of Here, for example, a novel that is epic in scope and length, and utilizes upwards of forty limited points of view and a bifurcated time line, not to mention a big streak of magical realism to tell the story, which is the story of the boom and bust of a small town engaging in a two-way conversation across a century of history, the whole book and its purpose is encapsulated in one passage, containing the one idea that was the entire impetus of the big, sweeping story:
We are born haunted. Haunted by our fathers and mothers and daughters, and by people we don’t remember. We are haunted by otherness, by the path not taken, by the life unlived. We are haunted by the changing winds and the ebbing tides of history. And even as our own flame burns brightest, we are haunted by the embers of the first dying fire. But mostly we are haunted by ourselves.
Similarly, in The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, a book about surviving irredeemable loss, and the imperative of moving forward, the main character, Ben Benjamin, achieves a similar goal with a warning early on in the novel:
Listen to me: Everything you think you know, every relationship you’ve ever taken for granted, every plan or possibility you’ve ever hatched, every conceit or endeavor you’ve ever concocted, can be stripped from you in an instant. Sooner or later, it will happen. So prepare yourself. Be ready not to be ready. Be ready to be brought to your knees and beaten to dust. Because no stable foundation, no act of will, no force of cautious habit will save you from this fact: Nothing is indestructible.
In This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance, which is the story of a seventy-eight-year-old woman’s reckoning with her personal history, the Alzheimer’s disease–related death of her husband, it’s a moment near the end of an Alaskan cruise, when she’s sitting across from her daughter and a fellow traveler at the waterfront restaurant in Ketchikan:
It’s not every day that there’s order in the universe, Harriet, so enjoy this: Breathe deeply of that salty air, really let it fill your lungs. Feel that coho melt on your tongue, feel it slide down your throat like butter. Sink into that easy conversation. Feel the breeze blowing through your thin white hair. Taste that lemon, Harriet. Wince with pain and pleasure. Laugh, sigh, and massage your aching joints under the table. And while you’re at it, take a good long look at your daughter smiling across at you, the lines of her face moving in new directions, one hour, one day at a time. Recognize and give thanks for the crisp edges and heightened sensations of these moments, for they are precious. Remember them until you are no longer able.
So this one passage in each book, for me, is like the center for the whole work, the beating heart, the one idea or sentiment or observation—or let’s call it a note—that colors every other passage in the book, upon which every other beat or permutation depends on to give it life on the page. And I’m not saying I planned it this way, like a persuasive argument, but I knew for certain when I wrote each passage that I had found the center. I did not have that experience with “The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales” in any of its lives, and it’s not exactly that the novel was unable to sustain all of its divergent themes or points of view, because West of Here employs these in far greater measure. The difference is the entirety of West of Here is in harmony with that one note, while “Huntington Sales” (that I know of) at this point still has no single impetus inciting its creation, no idea or condition or perfect note I was groping to express that made the novel necessary or enduring.
Leavitt: Yes! That’s what I was trying to get at. You have to have that one note, and more important, you have to believe in it. That failed novel of mine that I cannot name yet again did not have that one unifying note. By the time I got to the third iteration, I was wondering, “So what if they were stepsister and brother, why couldn’t they have lived together anyway and been in love and had a life? They weren’t from genetically similar stock.” When you get that “so what” feeling, you know you’re in trouble.
For me, what makes a novel is the unfolding of a question that haunts me, that I have to explore—and that I hope, in digging deep, will answer that question for myself and for my readers. I feel it in my gut when it works. And, alas, when it doesn’t. Sometimes I don’t realize the question my novel is asking until the book is finished and I see how I’ve answered it. With Cruel Beautiful World—which centered on a young girl in 1969 running off to a back-to-the-land paradise only to find it’s a nightmare, and her older sister who feels it is her job to find and rescue her—the question was, “Must we let go of the things we cannot fix?” And the answer, which dashed me, was yes. It was a deeply personal question because I was missing my sister desperately at the time and I meant much of it to be a love letter to our growing up. With the Dorris novel, I had only a vague idea of the question, which was about love: “How do you love without destroying someone else’s love?” I recognize now that that’s not a deep enough question, not enough of a moral revelation. But back then, I was just moving characters around, hoping meaning would find me, when what I really needed was to create that meaning myself. And it had to be deeply personal for me—otherwise it would fail.
I wrote the whole novel, not quite knowing where it was going because truthfully, there was nothing in the main idea that resonated for me once the two teenagers in love moved into the same home—but what did resonate were two stories: one about the teenage boy as a little child with asthma whose mother abandoned him, and the other about the mother of one of the parents, an old woman finding first love. I couldn’t let go of those stories, both of which kept me at this infernal novel for longer than I wanted. Those were the pages that had my heart in them. I felt incredible compassion for both of those characters. I could see how their stories might arc. The boy needed to find out the truth about his mom. The old woman needed to have the bliss of love even as she was dying, but I couldn’t make it fit into the larger story of the novel.
So was there anything haunting you when you were writing that helped you create?
Evison: To be honest, I just remember being obsessed with the Neutral Milk Hotel album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I was writing West of Here at the time, mostly out of my motorhome, in which I would camp for days on end at various locales around the Olympic Peninsula, where the book was set. Many nights, I got drunk as hell by the campfire—like cripple-your-language-centers drunk—gazing into the flames and listening to that album on my headphones, which was such a crazy, unlikely, phantasmal decoupage of an album, one that I didn’t particularly like upon first listen, one that took dozens upon dozens of listens to appreciate and begin to understand. And it blew my mind continually as I began to grasp it. I thought, “Wow, how did Jeff Mangum arrive at such a batshit-crazy place?” There was an authentic madness to its creation, which I recognized as an off-the-charts, self-medicating manic. I became obsessed with the disorienting effect of the album, the creepy, circuitous telling of the story. And I thought, “I want to write a book that has that haunting, disorienting effect.”
Who knows, maybe I succeeded in that. But it turns out the dictates for a sixty-minute album are different from those of a three-hundred-page novel. At this point, you maybe have a clearer conception of the moral, philosophical, thematic sludge that the novel represents than I do. But to touch briefly again on the single-passage thing, I never viewed it that way until I finally abandoned “The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales” (for, like, the third time). It’s just something I came upon in the narrative archaeology that I preformed after the fact, while I was trying to figure out what made those novels work and not this one. I, too, start with a fundamental question. In West of Here: “Where do we proceed once we can no longer proceed further west, literally and figuratively, and why?” Revised Fundamentals: “How do we face and survive irredeemable loss?” I think the passages I located were born out of really addressing those questions head-on and also very late in the process. I think though that the underlying ideal in each passage was there unconsciously all along.
I look at “The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales” and I ask, “What the hell is it? Why was I compelled to write it?” Looking at it now in its various guises, I still have no idea why. It feels like I was having a lot of fun with POVs, but was there really a compelling reason to use them all? I don’t think so. In West of Here there was for sure. The goal was to write an inclusive history, so that the varying POVs were linked directly to the theme. In my current novel, Cave Dave, there is also a compelling reason for the many POVs—the book deals with subjective views of history and mythmaking and ultimately how we are dependent upon one another. But in “Huntington Sales” it just feels like a convention. The whole book feels like various conventions, some of them operating at a high level perhaps, but to what end? Man, I need a beer just talking about it.
Leavitt: So what do you think is the question “Huntington Sales” is asking? Wait, better question, where are the parts of the novel that engage you the most—the parts that give rise to emotion in you? Doesn’t that sometimes help? And what if you pared down those points of views and focused on Hunt, Clem, Jasper (we never get his point of view, which is sort of interesting, at least as I remember it), and Liz?
Evison: That’s the point; I still have no idea. But then, I wonder if Jeff Mangum had an idea when he wrote that whacked album. Maybe I’m not crazy enough (though I’m sure my family and friends would beg to differ). The novel is full of writing I’m proud of and characters I love, but in terms of saving the thing as a whole, honestly I’m not sure if I want to revisit the damn thing again, even if I could crack the code. So much of what I love about the process of writing is the thrilling sense of discovery as I build a world and populate it. Fixing this crazy narrative hash feels more akin to math or some exercise in logic than world building and emotional investigation. I’d have to go in there and start cleaning house all over again and holding the world at a distance and asking myself, “Is it a thriller, is it a mystery, is it a morality tale?” Frankly, I’m bored with devising strategies to sew this crazy quilt together and unify it, you know? I’m over it. Only the pragmatist and breadwinner in me thinks I ought to save this novel. It’s really not a thorn in my side. My efforts were not wasted just because I wasn’t happy with the result, or that it didn’t see the market. In fact, I revel in its failures, as they’ve led me to new revelations about craft and structure and approach and so forth. Unless I’m excited and all-in on a novel, I doubt whether I’d be able to generate the urgency it takes to make the story jump off the page. The process runs the risk of feeling uninspired, and that would be a drag. There’s enough uninspiring work to do in the process of writing a novel—all the exposition, moving the characters around, the brick-and-mortar stuff that always seems to go so slowly. So why would I want to go back in and tinker endlessly with a world I’m no longer interested in inhabiting? While I love (and encourage) the mythology that “The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales” is some tortured masterpiece that I wrestled with for decades, fueled by some white-whale obsession to finally, decisively get it right, the truth is that it’s just one more novel left for dead in a growing pile in my basement under my hip waders.
Leavitt: I totally get that feeling. And I think you’re right. It’s like stirring the pot a bit too many times—and after all, I’ve read and experienced your novel only once. It’s so fascinating to hear a great writer talk about when to give up on a novel—and how such a thing is not only possible, but it happens a lot.
But as you say, all is never lost. Sections of “Second Chances” about the teenage boy Sam, who has asthma as a child and is cruelly and mysteriously abandoned by his mother, resonated for me. I just felt it worked in my gut, you know that feeling? Plus, I myself had grown up with asthma and always felt ashamed of it. So I turned it into a short story, with a beginning, middle, and end, a moral question in there, and I sent it off to Bellevue Literary Review, and it won a prize. But that particular story wouldn’t let me go (which I now know is the feeling I know I need to keep at a novel), and I began to expand it in Pictures of You, a novel about a mysterious car crash and a woman who falls in love with the survivors, including—you guessed it—Sam. I gave Sam a whole life, from young childhood up until his thirties, centered on that struggle of figuring out what happened with his mother’s abandonment and why. I knew I had approached Sam the wrong way in “Second Chances,” trying to get him to fit into the plot, and when I started with Sam and worked out from there, he got his story right.
There was another section, too, that moved me. (Sad that only two sections in a whole novel did.) It was about the teenage girl’s grandmother—don’t ask me why she was in the book—who had never had love, or who had an unhappy marriage during World War II (I loved doing the research) and finally finds first love in her eighties. Again, that part resonated with me over the years, and I found myself wanting to tell more of her story in Cruel Beautiful World, so she became Iris, the adoptive mother of the two sisters, who to her astonishment falls in love when she thinks her life is over. And because my heart was deep-beating in both books, they finally worked. And that allowed me to let go of that failed novel and not feel terrible about it.
I also think it’s important to know that there are so, so many false starts in writing novels, and false middles, and some ideas just don’t work no matter what you do. The new novel I sold to Algonquin started out as a novel that I was totally excited about, but I suspected it was a split story—that it went off in two distinct directions. I showed it to a zillion people before I showed it to my agent, who loved the opening but then felt it fell apart. I didn’t know what to do—and then I showed it to Chuck Adams, and he said the same thing and offered a suggestion that suddenly unlocked the whole novel. Not to say that that always happens. I have another novel I showed my agent, who said it wasn’t working...yet. Maybe I can get it to work next, or maybe I can’t. But you’re so right—and it really is terrifically brave to let go of something—because in the end, if you are not excited anymore about it, probably the reader won’t be either.
I love that it got you to learn something new about craft and structure and the realization that nothing is ever wasted. For me, discovering story structure saved my life. Dorris believed in the muse guiding you, but I have come to believe in making up character arcs, building a story with reveals and reversals and moral choices, and making sure you are telling a story that feels like it will change your life, because then it will change readers’ lives, too.
So, one last question: Any advice to beginning writers?
Evison: As much as I don’t like to be prescriptive, what the hell. I guess I would tell beginning writers to learn how to tell a great story in a surprising way and not worry quite so much about their luminous prose and their social commentary, no matter how wry, clever, or earnest it may be. Let the politics exist organically within the world you create. The act of living is political enough. Make the language the blood running through the story. Learn how to move your characters from Point A to Point B in interesting ways. Make us care. Don’t shroud everything in irony. Be brutally honest. Sublimate your themes in the lives of your characters instead of stating them overtly or devising clever mechanisms to play them out like wind-up toys. The reader is the best tool in any writer’s belt. So make your writing a dance with the reader, make the reader do everything you do backward and in heels. Surprise them, misdirect them, force them to question whether everything is as it seems, keep them ever-so-gently off-balance, but lead them, never forsake them. And lastly, most importantly, don’t listen to my advice. Go find your own way in the wilderness. Good luck with that.
Leavitt: Ha! I love that. Find your way. Be brave. Take risks. And I would add: Never, ever give up. Unless your novel is telling you to.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times best-selling author of Cruel Beautiful World, Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls in Trouble, and seven other novels. Her new novel is forthcoming, if she can ever finish it. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her husband, the writer and editor Jeff Tamarkin, and their theater-student son.