Monday, July 6, 2020

What if you could meet your younger self again? Edgar-award finalist Debra Jo Immergut talks about her stunner, YOU AGAIN, quantum physics, Buddhism, and the choices we make and don't make.

Portrait of the artist beaming about her NYT Editor's Choice novel!

Portrait of the artist as a young woman dreaming of her bestseller to come

Debra Jo Immergut is an Edgar award finalist. She is the author of the novel The Captives, (June 2018), and Private Property, a short-story collection. She is a MacDowell and Michener fellow and has an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. A magazine editor and journalist, she has also taught writing in libraries, military bases, and prisons. Her work has been published in American Short Fiction, Narrative, and the Russian-language journal Foreign Literature.Find her on twitter and Instagram at @dimmergut.


   Debra Jo Immergut's latest novel YOU AGAIN is wracking up the raves--and it deserves every one of them. Just take a look:

 Debra Jo Immergut's stunning You Again…is dreamlike and immersive, like falling into someone else's alternative reality.
    The New York Times Book Review - Sarah Lyall

A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
Selected as “A Novel to Read This Summer” by Good Morning America
Debra Jo Immergut’s stunning YOU AGAIN feels eerily relevant, perfect for this time of deep uncertainty and rapidly shifting news. It is dreamlike and immersive, like falling into someone else’s alternative reality. — New York Times Book Review
At once a mind-bending puzzle and a profound meditation on love, fate, ambition, and regret. — Kirkus Review (starred)
Immergut delivers a furious page-turner. Booklist

A swirling, propulsive novel of suspense …Ambitious and enthralling. James A. McLaughlin, author of 2019 Edgar Award winner Bearskin

So accomplished, so glorious—a complete original from page one. — Janet Fitch, author of The Revolution of Marina M. and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral 

Thank you so, so much for being here, Debra!

I always want to know what was haunting you when you started writing this novel?  And did you find the answers you expected?

The novel really did begin with a haunting!  I was pushing my son’s stroller through a NYC neighborhood I’d lived in at 22 and didn’t visit anymore. I found myself in front of my former building and it was so unchanged, I had this strange feeling that 20-something me would come walking out of the door any second. What would she say if she saw me? That question stayed with me. I loved my life as a mother and wife, but I had largely shelved my creative work--and I thought she might be disappointed by that. I felt compelled to write this novel so I could see what she might say, how I’d explain my life to her, and how we might come to terms. I fictionalized it all heavily, created the characters of Abigail Willard and young A, and those two showed me the way. Writing their story forced me to clarify my thinking about the struggle to construct a meaningful life. And we build it with so many disparate elements--work, love, family, home, self. How do we make it all come together?

Do you think that motherhood and marriage impede a creative life—as Abigail wonders?

Well, I’m a lousy juggler. Of course there have always been incredible writers who were also moms—Toni Morrison and Alice Munro, just to start with the major leaguers! But it wasn’t much talked about, how to manage it all. When my son was born,  it felt like a kind of isolating oddity, to be writing with a baby in your lap. Now I see so many women writing essays and posts about pursuing their creative ambitions with young kids around, putting that part of themselves front and center. This has everything to do with how women have gained in voice and power in the literary world, and it’s so heartening. But honestly, most of my struggles were rooted not in my family, but in myself. I had so much growing up to do.  And I think Abigail comes to the same conclusion, ultimately. It’s not her boys who are in the way. It’s her demons.

The idea of a woman being haunted by her younger self is so fascinating—because haven’t we all wondered what we would tell ourselves if we could? But also, as a quantum physics junky, I truly believe that there is no real time, that all things are happening at once, and we can manipulate that fabric. Can you talk about that please?

Well, I agree. A lot of my headspace is devoted to memory, daydreaming, visualizations of future events. Living in some other moment. Just this morning while I was cleaning house, I had the strongest sense of deja vu, that time was folding over. I love the work of Brian Greene, who is a Columbia physicist and a wonderful writer for non-scientists. There is actually some support for the idea of meeting one’s younger self. Ever since Einstein, it’s been theorized that everything is happening all at once. If this theory holds true, then the only thing preventing you from hanging out with Caroline of 1990 is your ability to actually see her.

I really want to talk about the writing strategy of writing a mystery, and how you know when things are too obvious or red herrings, and when you know you’re about to surprise everyone. Your plot is so full of twists and turns that I was breathless. How do you manage to do this and surprise yourself?

I’m so glad it surprised you. I’m constantly surprised by my characters’ tendency to stir up trouble. Plot, for me, needs to be rooted in a deep understanding of these people. The action then flows from shifts in their desires, the choices they make as they attempt to satisfy those desires, and choices they make when obstacles get in their way. A dramatic or rapid shift in desire, or an unforeseen consequence of a choice--these can result in a plot twist. Twists are about defying expectations—the characters’ or the readers’ or sometimes even the writer’s. But I really try to keep it rooted in the character’s personal journey. If I’m tempted to throw in a bit of action just because the plot’s getting slow, that’s when it starts to feel gimmicky and obvious. I think hard about this stuff, because while I love to play with genre elements, I have a real fear of falling into genre cliches.

What would you personally do if faced with your former self? And what is the nature of self? Are we fooling ourselves? Do we create our identities daily? How much control do we really have?

I would love to see her. I thought a lot about her, writing this book, and grew to really cherish that young woman and all of her many avoidable mistakes and misguided notions. I’d tell her to worry less and claim more space.. As for the question about identity, it’s so interesting that you should ask that. In the last year, I’ve been delving a bit into Buddhist psychology. I’m so intrigued by the notion of identity and self as meaningless, fluid, transient. Obviously, writing You Again, it’s all about deeply invested in the idea of self. But now I wonder if we can actually do away with that notion. Without a concept of “self,”  what would be left to us? Enlightenment, a Buddhist might say. I just enjoy pondering it all. I have no answers, that’s for sure.

We question our memories—that resonated for me, because there have been studies of implanted memories, so we can never really know what’s true, and even if it isn’t true, but we believe it, what we do about it?

You’re making me think of the Buddhists again! They might say that the only thing that’s truly, indisputably real is the present moment. Some of us are suffering at this moment, some are content, many of us are just sleepwalking through it. Everything else--not just our memories, but our fears, our loves, almost of all that occupies our minds--are the stories we tell ourselves. Vital stories--because we make choices and take action based on our understanding of them. But it makes sense to me that memories can be unreliable. They are experiences saved in story form on the great hard drive of our brains-- maybe our most basic creative work?

So much of this astonishing book is about choice. I especially focused on the “former.” Abigail, a former artist who is now a senior art director for a pharmaceutical company. Her husband who also is a “former” creative. It resonated for me big time, because while I was struggling to be a writer, I had to have a job job working for a company, and I somehow told myself when I had saved 500K I could quit. (Of course I never had that, and I quit anyway.) But the whole notion that sooner or later you have to “grow up” and if you haven’t made it yet, give up the struggle and do something “adult,” got under my skin. So in a way, would you say that this isn’t just about choice, but about what we CHOOSE to believe about ourselves?

Absolutely! From all the above, I think it’s clear that I’m fascinated by how we are controlled by our perceptions, beliefs, the stories we tell to ourselves. With age, we can look back on our choices and see how they were not necessarily made based on careful weighing of the facts. If that were the case, no one would ever fall in love! So yes, I used to think that being a grown-up meant listening to the “nos” I was getting from the publishing world and taking a “real job.” Of course, I needed the paycheck, so it was essential, as it is almost everyone. I didn’t have to internalize those rejections though. Now I understand “being a grown-up” as doing good and creating meaning, however and whenever I can. As long as I find writing a meaningful way to spend my remaining time on this earth, that’s reason enough to keep doing it, and I can figure out how to pay the bills too.

What, besides the terrifying state of our world, is obsessing you now?

I’m obsessed with trying not to be terrified, I think. We need calm and steady hearts and heads right now. So I’m searching for ways to get myself there, and to help others do the same, so we can finally win some of these crucial fights. Also, I’m very busy keeping the blight off my tomato plants. Every morning I pluck all the yellow leaves.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Who makes the best vanilla soft-serve cone in New England? I’ve done extensive research over many summers. DM me and I’ll share my findings.


July 8, YOU AGAIN live virtual launch party sponsored by McNally Jackson Books, NYC—with Cheryl Pearl Sucher on Zoom. More info REGISTER HERE , 7 pm EST

July 14, “Mighty Mystery, Celebrity Edition” conversation with Megan Abbottlive on Facebooksponsored by a Mighty Blaze. 4 pm EST, at

July 15, YOU AGAIN and Us Again—Conversation with Kahane Cooperman, sponsored by Wachtung Booksellers, Montclair, NJ, live on Crowdcast at 8 pm, REGISTER HERE

1 comment:

Prod UA said...

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