On Writing: Hillary Jordan and Michael Dahlie

Hillary Jordan is the author of two novels: Mudbound, which won the 2006 Bellwether Prize and a 2009 Alex Award from the American Library Association, and When She Woke, publishing October 4, 2011.

Michael Dahlie is the recipient of a 2010 Whiting Writers Award. He is the author of the novel A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, which won the PEN/Hemingway award in 2009, and has a second novel due out in late 2012.

 

HJ:

You’ve just finished (as I have) your second novel. For me they were two very different kinds of ecstasy and agony: With Mudbound I experienced the joy of discovering my voice and learning that I was in fact capable of writing a novel and getting it published (what a feeling, holding the book in my hands for the first time!); and the torment of spending five years wondering whether it was any good and would ever be finished and read and liked by anyone not related to me by blood. With When She Woke I had the thrill and terror of being under contract (“Wow, I’m actually being paid to write!” and “Uh oh, this means I owe them a book”) and the sporadic reassurance that came from having written a pretty successful first novel, which of course gave rise to anxiety over whether WSW would rise to the standards of MB or fall prey to the dreaded “sophomore slump.” What was the experience like for you?

 

MD:

I always feel like writing is something close to dreaming – I’m inhabiting a world that’s both imaginary and also entirely my own. So taking something that seems to belong to my imagination and turning it over to the so-called world feels strange. So far this has been my experience with both books, even though the second one will not be out for a bit. Anyway, I think that’s something like what you’re talking about with WSW. There are the publication pressures you describe, but there’s also the sense of unreality when other people read the story and talk about it. It’s what it would be like meeting Robinson Crusoe or Maggie Tulliver at a cocktail party. Two different and unresolvable realities have somehow collided.

 

HJ:

Writing is like dreaming, isn’t it? And publication is the wake-up call. And as much as you want the book to be out there in the world, part of you just wants to pull the covers over your head and drift back into the safe cocoon of sleep… But to return to my original question: were Gentleman’s Guide and your forthcoming novel different kinds of dreaming for you?

 

MD:

Strange to think about now that I’m asked, but the truth is that I remember so little about writing them. I suppose there are a few distinct moments I can recall – researching the correct spelling of Lobster Newburg for instance (there’s quite a literature on this topic). But writing for me is really like reading (or dreaming, once again). Even with the books/dreams I love the most, the details always escape me later on.

Okay, here’s a question for you – one I’d be quite annoyed by – what’s up with book three? Are you going to be writing the next novel on tour? I ask this now because I find embarking on fictional projects to be quite calming. Perhaps this is the way you deal with delayed plane connections and unsettling hotels?

 

HJ:

I didn’t write much when I was touring for MB, unless you count all those breakfast menu door hangers I filled out (“NO home fries please”). I need intense focus to write, and I find that elusive when I’m constantly packing and unpacking and returning my seat and tray table to their fully upright position and praying that the guy coughing his lungs out next to me has allergies and not avian bird flu and that the hotel I’ll be staying in doesn’t wrap the glasses in plastic. The tour for WSW is going to be even more epic than the last one—I’ll be doing 38 events between mid-September and the end of the year—so realistically I don’t think I’ll be able to start the third novel until early 2012. And yes, I know what it is, but I’m not telling!

And because I just finished reading the manuscript of your most excellent second novel last night (I devoured it in one sitting), I’m going to abruptly change the subject and ask: as unique as the two books are, both of them center on hapless but lovable rich guys. What draws you to this type of character? And will you return to the same territory in book three—or do you even know yet?

 

MD:

I think what I most like writing about is money. From an artistic standpoint, I can’t get enough of rich people, especially the ones getting the bad end of things, although I tend to be very sympathetic towards my characters. But it now all seems even more interesting to me given what’s going on these days with the economy. Maybe my protagonists are some kind of stand-in for the reported decline of American economic dominance. On a more personal level, though, I think my artistic fascination with cash also comes from living in New York for so long, especially since I was always on the ragged edge of financial disaster. The credit card debt I amassed over that decade was absolutely colossal and a lot of that was via cash advances for rent. At any rate, I suppose I spent significant time thinking about what it would be like to have a lot of money. (Back to my dream life again.) Anyway, this leads to two questions for you. First, what was it like for you to write two novels that are both equally excellent but also so different – kind of an impressive feat. Second, you just moved back to the city. How is it influencing your writing?

 

HJ:

You know, I don’t think I’ve never really sat down and defined what I most like writing about. People in really effed-up situations, I suppose, and also people battling other people’s notions of what’s right and wrong. And love; I think I’ll always write about love. Both my novels are about those things, so in that sense they’re not entirely different. But it was really exciting to me, after spending 7 years in 1940s Mississippi, in the past tense and in the first person (all of which I was heartily sick of), to jump 35 years into the future, into the thirrd person limited POV of a young woman nothing like my MB characters.

 

As for being in NYC—who’s going to be in NYC? Certainly not me, at least not till the book tour’s over. How is that for you, meaning the author part of the job vs. the writer part? For me it’s surreal (and lovely) that people would actually care about meeting me. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, and until I became an author I never once went to a reading or cared about getting a book signed. Though I probably would have, if Jane Austen or Flannery had been doing the reading and signing.

 

MD:

Yeah, touring for a book can be quite baffling, but aside from the opportunities for people to meet and socialize, I do think there can be something artistically important about them, with readings specifically. Authors can add a certain kind of inflection and emotion to their words when they read aloud that can’t always be captured in print. For instance, when you and I first met we were reading together and your selection from Mudbound was truly exceptional. You read at a slower pace than I would have read it and I really think it added something, and certainly colored how I read the book later on. Anyway, as you know, we’re going to track you down in Chicago, so it will be interesting to see what you do with WSW – the book is so memorable and arresting already that I wonder how you’ll handle it out loud. (I’ll give you my full review at the bar afterwards.)

 

HJ:

Aw shucks, Michael. The admiration is mutual.

 

2 Comments On This Post:

September 26, 2011
10:47 am
chris oslund says...

One of the things I enjoy most about readings are that authors do bring a unique voice to their own work. I like to hear the writer’s take on their written word (and the small changes they might still make.)

September 26, 2011
11:34 am
Tim C says...

Thanks for this. Good insight into process and fear and the integrity of the artistry–both before and after publication. I loved both of your debut novels very much, and I look forward to reading both of your new ones.

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