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 Margo Orlando Littell, author of Each Vagabond by Name, a debut novel set in Pennsylvania and published by the University of New Orleans Press. Each Vagabond by Name was the winner of the press’s UNO Publishing Lab Prize. In the email accompanying her “first time” submission to me, Margo wrote: “This was the press’s first-ever contest, intended to give a group of UNO grad students first-hand experience selecting, editing, and promoting a novel. As a first-time author, I’ve found this arrangement incredibly valuable. I’ve Skyped with the class and even joined them via FaceTime as they toasted me and my final edited manuscript. I’ve loved my indie experience—nontraditional, and just right for my dark little story.” Margo grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. She earned an MFA from Columbia and has spent the past fifteen years in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Barcelona, Sacramento, and, now, northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. You can learn more about Margo on her website and blog, www.margoorlandolittell.com.
The First Time I Let My Mother Read My Novel
I’m not sure how it happened, but in the ten-plus years since graduate school, I never let my parents read my fiction. When I finished my MFA, I brought home my bound thesis so my parents could read my three novellas. They enjoyed them, but the presentation was somewhat anticlimactic: though I’d finished my coursework, I’d been matriculating for over a year just to keep my subsidized university apartment in Manhattan while working as an editor. These novellas seemed a bit beside the point since my “real” adult life was well underway.
And then life just kept happening, with the kind of concrete achievements that are easy to celebrate and share on Facebook. Engagement, marriage, new jobs, moves abroad and cross-country. Baby #1. Baby #2. All this time, I was writing: working on one novel, and then another, trying to find an agent, trying to snag a contest win. But along the way it became a kind of secret. It wasn’t intentional; I simply never talked about it. I was the only one who knew the intensity of my efforts, squeezed into the nooks and crannies of my exhausting young-child-rearing responsibilities. Without a measurable success like publication to talk about, I wound up keeping my entire writing life as clandestine as an extramarital affair.
It wasn’t shame or a feeling of failure that kept me from talking about writing. Instead, I lacked the language for communicating the ephemeral, intangible accomplishments that accompany the act of creating a novel. It’s one thing to chat on the phone about breastfeeding challenges and sleeplessness. These need no translation; easy comforts and reassurances can be offered in response. Not so with the daily trials of deleting nine hundred of every thousand words; of hastily axing beloved scenes only to frantically retrieve them; of writing and writing and cutting and cutting and only then—at the end of so very, very many pages—catching a glimpse of what the story is meant to be. Unless your mother is herself a writer, there is no clear way to explain the soul-crushing–slash–exhilarating work that happens during the babies’ naptime. It’s easier to keep it quiet, let it slide into the dark recesses of those very long days.
So, I realized, it would happen like this. There would be no grand unveiling on pub day, no ceremonial raising of the curtain. I’d have no time to prepare myself or anyone else. I knew every word of this novel as well as my own nails and knuckles, but still I wondered—what would she see?
Familiar things. That was certain. My hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania, where my parents still live, inspired the setting of my novel. A run of home invasions over a decade ago by outsiders whom the locals called “gypsies” loosely inspired the plot. I thought of all the people and places I’d uprooted from reality and shape-shifted to fit my tale—rendering them unrecognizable from what and who they’d been. I’d worked on this novel for more than ten years. The origins of many of the oldest strands were lost even to me.
But those origins were what my mother saw first. Every few pages, she’d look up. “Oh, Margo, I know that place,” she’d say; or, “Is that a bar you’ve gone to?” Alarmed, she remarked on some characters’ names and pointed to the real-life people who shared them. With time to make final changes to the galley, I was grateful: along these many years I’d forgotten to replace a few of my placeholder names. Still, I tried to emphasize that my book was partly inspired by life, but was not an imitation of it. Things may seem familiar, but they’ve been slanted and mirror-warped in the telling.
I think she believed me. Mostly.
I watched her all that day and the next, as she worked through the novel in spare moments. Of course, I wanted her to like it. I may be pushing forty, but I felt my desire for approval as keenly as I feel my young daughters’ when they present me with tiny pinecones and other found treasures. And after the initial reality/fiction forensics, I got it. A few chapters in, the story of my novel replaced the novelty of my having written it; and my mother’s reactions shifted from investigative to appreciative. “I really like it,” she finally remarked. “You say things in such a clever way.”
I can’t blame my mother for searching my book for shards of my life. For a decade I’d scribbled in secret. I could have been writing about anything—even about her. Perhaps, as she turned the pages and read of thieves and lost children and hunters, she felt a measure of relief. Perhaps that’s why she took up the book so swiftly. Curiosity, and dread. And then, only then, pride and pleasure in the story I told.
Author photo by Kathryn Huang