WHAT INSPIRES AND INFLUENCES YOUR WRITING THE MOST?
The inspiration part feels impossible to answer. If I felt I could choose not to write, I would. As far as influences, that ranges from Joy Williams and Charles Portis and Tom Drury—folks I’ve been reading for many years and who shaped my preferences concerning dialogue and tone and language, etc.—all the way to writers I’ve gotten into recently, like Lucy Corin and Jean Rhys. I guess what they have in common is they all play in their own strange yard. Influence is complicated, because I think you’re influenced by writing you don’t like as well as writing you admire. You read something and say, “I don’t want to do it that way.” There are also writers who influence you by being daring, rather than by some technique or style you can model. When I read, say, Barry Hannah or Padgett Powell, it doesn’t occur to me to try and write like them. You’d make a fool of yourself trying to write like them. But it makes you realize that you shouldn’t be afraid to write like you write. You shouldn’t be afraid to keep working at your particular vision, even if it’s going to take a lot of work to figure it out. It’s normally tough to know how much you’re being influenced and exactly how, but I think it’s probably happening most strongly when you feel jealous. When you read something and you’re sort of angry with the writer for getting it so right, for finding a path in a familiar wood that nobody had found yet. You’re delighted as a reader, but as a fellow writer you’re burning with envy.
DO YOU HAVE AN AGENT? IF SO, HOW DID YOU FIND HIM/HER?
It’ll be difficult to keep this short, but I’ll try. It starts with my first novel, written mostly in grad school, which was called Competition Comes to Redleg. It was a substantial stack of paper—maybe 340 pages or so—and I revised and revised it and had friends read it and revised it more. I didn’t have a lot of wherewithal concerning representation. A couple of my former teachers had agents, so I hoped that in those offices I wasn’t in the slushiest of slush piles. Mostly I just looked up agencies in one of those huge yearly reference books. This would’ve been ten or twelve years ago. Back then you still sent a hard copy of a manuscript. So I sent in my 25 pages to all these places. Some immediately told me they weren’t taking on new clients, some declined to see the rest of the book, some didn’t answer at all, and some requested the remainder of the thing before ultimately turning me down. This was somewhat discouraging, but I was young and brash enough not to care too much. For one, I was already working on the next book and I could feel that I was improving as a writer. Second, I knew it wasn’t a great book. It was a good book, good enough to get published by someone perhaps, but I knew I could do better. So I didn’t fight the system. I took the hint and put Redleg in a drawer (where it still sits, though not the same drawer).
Move ahead a couple years, and I’ve got the Arkansas manuscript ready to go. I repeated the same process—sending out to a couple agents I had some soft connection with but mostly to people who didn’t know me at all. I think I had one published story, total. And the same thing happens. A little flirting from a couple agencies, but nobody wants the book. This time was different, though. I knew the book ought to be published. I was proud of it. I knew I’d found my style. So I didn’t throw in the towel. I sent to another round of agents and another until I pretty much ran out of them. Then when that didn’t work I had to think about where you send a book when you don’t have an agent. Around that time, a friend of mine told me that McSweeney’s (which I only knew from the Quarterly) was publishing books, and that they promised on their website that they read everything that was sent in.
After all the slow no’s from all those agents, I found myself, about a month after I’d sent my manuscript, on the phone with an editor from McSweeney’s. It seemed surreal, because the process of getting a book published was supposed to be so difficult and exclusive. He said they wanted to publish my book and I was like, “Okay.” I just couldn’t believe that was all there was to it.
So when I finished the next novel, Citrus County, I thought for sure I’d be able to get an agent. After all, I’d already published a book. I had slightly stronger connections at that point too. So here I go again, sending the manuscript to New York—electronically by then, I think. I felt pretty sure of myself this time around, so I was profoundly dismayed when they all got back in touch in a few weeks and passed. The difference this time around was I knew I could just send the book straight to my editor at McSweeney’s and not mess with agent-hunting, so that’s what I did. I sent it in and they said sure, they’d publish it.
Here’s where things go my way: That next summer, when the book came out, it got a great review right on the front of the Sunday Times Book Review. McSweeney’s sold out of it and had to print more. Good times for all. And that following week, about half-a-dozen agents got in touch with me. They got in touch with me. All of a sudden I have to choose one. Part of me was appalled at the power of the New York Times and part of me wanted to tell them all no thanks, I was doing fine on my own, but in the end I still wanted an agent so I went ahead and spoke to some of them and now I’m happily agented.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT THE PUBLISHING PROCESS?
I can’t say very much about it surprised me. I thought it would feel good to have books published, and it does.
DO YOU MARKET YOURSELF? WHAT (SPECIFICALLY) DO YOU DO TO BUILD/MAINTAIN YOUR READERSHIP?
I do whatever readings and events I’m asked to do. Interviews and whatnot. I don’t have a website, though. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter or anything like that. I’m not a mastermind when it comes to marketing, and I don’t consider that a shortcoming. I like being an artist and I hate being a salesman.
BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCES IN THE INDUSTRY, WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER WRITERS?
I guess to think about the industry as little as possible. The industry can control a lot but they can’t control how much and how well you write. They can’t control how loyally or bravely you pursue your work. No matter what happens outside the writing room, what happens inside it is your own business, and that’s where your nervous energy is best spent. Whatever keeps you in the room, use that—whether it be bitterness or joy or escape or whatever. Your more important task is to write. Your less important task is publishing and having people favor you. You want to do both, but don’t forget which is more important.