My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Dana Cann, author of Ghosts of Bergen County, now available from Tin House Books. His short stories have appeared in The Sun, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Florida Review, Barrelhouse, and Blackbird, among other magazines and journals. He’s won fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. Dana earned his M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, and he teaches fiction workshops at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Click here to visit his website.
My First Novel (the Unpublished One)
This week I’m publishing my first novel, Ghosts of Bergen County, with Tin House Books. While Ghosts will forever be my debut novel, it’s not the first one I wrote. That novel was called The Happy World, and it exists in the deep recesses of my computer’s hard drive, never to see the light of day. It’s the novel I needed to write in order to learn how to write a novel.
I’d been writing fiction for eleven years by the time I completed my M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins in 2002. I’d written dozens of short stories, but I’d published only one. My Hopkins thesis comprised five stories. I thought they were pretty good. I thought it was time to submit those stories to journals and magazines, and start something new, something long, since I wasn’t bound anymore by classes.
A few years earlier my aunt had died. She was my father’s sister. They were estranged, their relationship complicated. She was nine years older than my dad. Their mom had died when my father was very young and my aunt was still a girl. Then their dad died when my father was in his early teens and my aunt was in her early twenties. She became his de facto guardian, a role she would discard when my dad was sixteen and she sailed to England to marry a barrister she met in New York after World War II. My father, who rarely talked about his childhood, felt she’d abandoned him when he needed her most.
I could go on, recount the stuff I remember as a kid: the one meeting when I was seven; the drunk, long-distance calls she’d make from London, complete with boasts about her wealth, promises of how rich my brothers and I would become when she died and inherited her assets, and insults hurled at my father and mother.
When she died, my older brother and I flew to London to help settle her estate. I came home having spent time in her flat among her things. And I came home with mementos—photos and letters and telegrams—stuffed into a vintage Harrods box. I hoped to use these as inspiration to write a novel based on her life.
And I did—275 double-spaced pages. The Happy World was about an unhappy woman—old and alone, friendless and isolated in London, where her dwindling assets could no longer support her. She prepares to kill herself. She looks back on her life.
I knew things about my main character. These things were based on my own experiences with my aunt, snippets of family lore, and the contents of the Harrods box. My dad, ever-mum about his childhood and all things having to do with his sister, wasn’t opening up, even after she died. Nor did I ask him to or even want him to. I wrote fiction, after all. My plan was to take the scant real stuff that I knew (let’s call it the bones) and make up the rest (the flesh).
What went wrong? As it turns out, plenty. Here are three mistakes I made when I wrote The Happy World and the adjustments I made when I wrote Ghosts of Bergen County:
1. While I’d thought I didn’t know enough about the woman my main character was based on, it turned out I knew too much, and my adherence to the actual events constrained me. Writing The Happy World began to feel like a forensic exercise instead of a story. In contrast, the characters in Ghosts were freer because the situations they found themselves in were divorced from any real events I knew of or was aware of.
2. The Happy World was too grim. A literary agent, upon reading my pitch, observed that the story didn’t sound too happy. Of course not, I thought. The title’s ironic! He was right, of course. I’d piled on so much bleakness that the protagonist (and the reader) could barely breathe. Grim things happen in Ghosts, too. One of the principal characters, for instance, has gone through a major depressive episode; however, as the novel opens, she’s begun to recover. Then she discovers a way out.
3. The Happy World employed a structure that was too ambitious, too unconventional for my writing experience and abilities: I was telling a story backward—starting at the end and ending at the beginning. While such a structure might work for Martin Amis, it didn’t for me. It turns out there are reasons why stories are generally told with a beginning, middle, and end, and I was conscious while writing Ghosts of chronology, of keeping the forward motion forever moving forward.
I spent about three years writing The Happy World and another year in a futile search for an agent. It sounds disappointing, and, at the time, it was. But it wasn’t a waste. These were productive years during which I learned a lot about the types of stories I could and should write and how to tell them.