New York Times and USA Today Bestselling novelist, screenwriter, editor, namer, critic, movie addict and chocoholic
Monday, February 11, 2013
New literary star Megan Fishmann talks about her unsettling new story in Five Chapters, writing a novel, and so much more
My first publicist at Algonquin Books was Megan Fishmann. She came with me to GLIBA, acting as my escort and quickly became my partner in crime. I was heartbroken when she left to move to San Francisco with her new husband, but thrilled that we kept in touch and when she told me she was writing a novel and she showed me a section at the prestigious FIve Chapters, I thought my head would explode. It's brilliant. And I think everyone should know about Megan before she becomes so famous you won't be able to get near her without an appointment six years in advance. It's my huge pleasure to interview her. Thank you, Megan!
This story is one of the most brilliantly unsettling tales I've ever read. It's raw and funny and disturbing and hilarious all at once. Where did the idea spark? It's part of a novel, too, so can you tell us a bit more about the novel as a whole?
Oh my goodness, thank you so much! First and foremost, it is an honor being able to chat with you, Caroline. In terms of the idea, it actually came about two ways. About nine years ago, I read an article in The New York Post (of course!) that was just heartbreaking: a baby really had been accidentally sent to the hospital Laundromat instead of the morgue. I saved that article for years (I still have it in an accordion file buried somewhere) because I knew that I wanted to write about it at some point.
Second, in terms of the house, many summers ago, an ex-boyfriend of mine housesat for a professor at Princeton. I visited the house one weekend and was just astonished how enormous and eerie and beautiful it seemed. What secrets were hiding there? Somehow I knew that the house and the Laundromat were linked: it just took me a few years to figure it out.
Finally, in terms of the novel, it follows three different characters over the years: Caroline, Henry and Caroline’s sister, Lucy. Traveling back and forth through time, readers learn early on that Caroline has committed an unforgivable crime in Tokyo and for the rest of the novel, we learn what she committed, how this affects a sisterly bond and how it will forever connect her to Henry in mysterious ways he could never imagine.
What's your life as a writer like? Do you have rituals? Do you outline or just follow your pen?
In terms of my life as a writer, I always write at my kitchen table. I had a writing desk for years that I never used. There’s something about writing at the kitchen table, in all that open space, that makes feel like I can dance around the room if I need a break. Funny enough, my husband’s wonderful aunt Holly just gave us a new table for our wedding so I’m curious to see what it will be like writing on it. It’s made of teak, which is one of the strongest woods in the world (I’m clearly looking into the symbolism of writing onto such a powerful object from nature).
I don’t outline, per se, but I have been sticking one thousand Post-Its on the back of a closet door, to make sure that my timeline is correct. With the book jumping back and forth through time, it’s important that I make sure my details and timing are as accurate as possible.
In terms of ritual, when I workshopped with Tony Earley this summer, he mentioned that he always goes over his old work the next morning and rewrites part of it until it’s just right. So now, not only do I start my writing off with that, but also after about a month, I print out my work and edit it by hand. It’s amazing to see how many tiny errors I may have missed or how many sentences I will mercilessly cut out (despite my previous attachment to them).
You began your career as a publicist--and I can attest how wonderful you were at that job--and now you're on the other side of the fence as a novelist. What in your life as a publicist has helped you in your new life as a novelist?
First and foremost, I will shout from the rooftops that working with you was an absolute dream and for anyone who gets the chance to work with you, they are in luck. I’ve been working in publicity for nearly ten years now and it’s both frightening and exciting to see how much publishing has changed. If anything, I would say that I’ve learned it’s up to writers to promote themselves just as much as their houses promote them.
I will also say that through a writer’s own self-promotion, it’s really important to show support to others in the writing community as well. Indie bookstores like Book Passage in San Francisco or BookCourt in Brooklyn are just two examples of the many incredible people/stores I have had the chance to work with. And what’s great about promoting/sharing someone else’s story is that maybe you’ll get lucky (like I did!) and another writer will be happy to share your work with their readers and friends later on down the line.
What's next after this novel?
In all honesty, I’m wondering how I can go about witnessing an autopsy (if at all possible). That’s not a very light answer, is it? Once I get this novel out the gate, I’d like to go back and continue working on my second book (which follows burial practices around the world). I recently read Mary Roach’s “Stiff” over the holidays and found myself taking copious notes…
What's obsessing you now and why?
Well, right now it’s both the book and the historical/factual accuracies in it, despite it being fiction. A huge portion of the novel takes place in Japan and I’ve been researching a lot about the country to make sure my work is accurate. Recently, my husband gave me a copy of Bruce Feiler’s “Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan” for inspiration. My main character Henry becomes an ESL teacher in Tokyo and I realized that there’s so much about the school system (and how it’s different than ours) that I didn’t take into consideration. So right now, I’m trying to learn as much as I possibly can on the subject. I’m hoping to return to Tokyo this summer: it truly was the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
There are so many questions I’d want to answer! If there’s one thing I’d like to end on, it’s ‘what writing advice would you give to others?’ I think for a long time I thought that a book would just magically happen but it doesn’t work that way. Writing is like training for a hotdog eating competition. You can’t just run eat a few dogs a day and then think you’re ready for the big leagues. You have to keep at it, religiously, working every day, until the moment happens when you can look at the draft and think, ‘Yes. It’s done.’
Stay tuned, THIS OTHER LIFE has sold to Algonquin, my beloved publisher and I am busy writing it now. My 11th novel CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD is an Indie Next Pick. IS THIS TOMORROW was an May Indie Pick. I'm also the New York Times bestselling author of PICTURES OF YOU, a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick, a Costco "Pennie's Pick." a NAIBA bestseller and on the Best Books of 2011 List from San Francisco Chronicle, Providence Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Bookmarks Magazine. I'm the recipient of a New York Foundation of the Arts Grant in Fiction. I was a 2013 finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and a finalist in the Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellowship, four of my novels were optioned for screen, and I talked my way into writing the script for two of them. My essay, HIgh Infidelity, has been optioned for film. I'm a book critic for The San Francisco Chronicle and People Magazine. I teach novel writing for UCLA Extension Writers' Program, and Stanford online, do private fiction editing, and I am a professional namer! I live with my husband, writer/editor Jeff Tamarkin and we beam with pride about our son, an actor/filmmaker in college. Visit me at http://www.carolineleavitt.com.