Monday, August 7, 2017

My First Time: Jay Baron Nicorvo

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 Jay Baron Nicorvo, author of The Standard Grand, picked for IndieBound’s Indie Next List, Library Journal’s Spring 2017 Debut Novels Great First Acts, and named “New and Noteworthy” by Poets & Writers. He published a poetry collection, Deadbeat (Four Way Books), and his nonfiction can be found in Salon, The Baffler, The Iowa Review, and The Believer. He lives on an old farm outside Battle Creek, Michigan, with his wife, Thisbe Nissen, their son, and a couple dozen vulnerable chickens. Click here to visit his website.

My “First” Novel

My first published novel—The Standard Grand, released earlier this year from St. Martin’s Press—is the fourth novel I’ve finished. I started my first one as an obscenely naïve undergrad. A couple years later, in grad school and no less naïve, I wrestled it to something resembling completion. I spent a year or more trying, and failing, to get an agent—any agent—interested in it. When that didn’t work, I started the next novel. Five years later, the second novel I’d finished landed me my first agent.

That novel went out on submission to editors in September of 2006. I’d just turned 30 and, at that point, I’d been at it, pretty much on a daily basis, for a dozen years. My agent at that time—who isn’t my agent at present—was young, energetic, and enthusiastic. She was far smarter, savvier, and better educated than I. She was slumming somewhat, and I was marrying up, so to speak. She was lovely in every way, and I was in love with her a little. The whole process felt like a courtship.

Publishing people are a bit like the Beatles, and I love the Beatles—if not for love, they’d all be out of jobs. Love is not all you need, but it sells books. And love is also the dominant metaphor when it comes to book acquisitions. Time and again, you’ll hear agents say to writers, and editors say to agents, “I’m sorry but I just didn’t fall in love with this.” Sure, cynically and occasionally, such a euphemism can be read as: “This shit doesn’t deserve a toilet.” But more often, and more readily, didn’t fall in love is shorthand for the following run-on.

The publication process, at the big NYC publishing houses anyway, is so drawn-out (taking years in most cases), so fraught (even the most successful books face far more rejection than acceptance), involves a fair bit of money even at the low end (tens of thousands of dollars), and requires so many people (droves of hardworking individuals across the country), that the principals—writer, agent, editor—must feel the deepest, most abiding of human emotions, for one another and the work itself, otherwise the working relationships, and the books born of them, can only end in personal devastation every bit as fraught—emotionally and financially—as divorce. Turns out, the love metaphor isn’t really a metaphor. It’s literal. And you never really get over your first one, whatever it is (which is why this feature of David’s blog is so damn satisfying and inexhaustible).

That first novel submission of mine spent a year getting kicked around Manhattan, in two different versions, before my then-agent said enough was enough. The experience was brutal, slow psychological torture, and our relationship had a hard time surviving it. By the time I had another finished novel (the third, if you’re counting at home) I needed another agent, the inestimable Jen Carlson, whom—you may well guess—I love. And guess what. Novel number three didn’t sell either, despite accumulating more rejections than I care to count, though Jen has the tally. But by then I was mature enough (read: hardened by heartbreak) that I didn’t let my failure ruin our relationship. It’s a good thing, because some six years and one more novel later, Jen found me my editor. And yes indeed, dear reader, I do love her, too.

Last year, I read a wonderful interview with Emma Straub, a writer whose first published novel was the fifth one she finished. “They all got rejected by every single person in publishing, in the world,” Emma says. “It’s still true that I will go to a publishing party or event, and the first thing I will think of is, ‘I know who you are, you rejected novels 2 and 4.’” Emma has now published three novels, and I wrote her yesterday to ask if any of those unpublished novels went on to see the light of day or if they remain foundation work supporting all that’s come after.

In between opening a beautiful new Brooklyn bookstore, Books Are Magic, with Michael Fusco-Straub, her designer husband, raising a pair of boys, championing books at every available (and even unavailable) opportunity, and surely stealing a moment to write her next critically-acclaimed bestseller, Emma replied to say about those early stabs:
The first three were dead, are dead, remain dead. I say that not unkindly. The first may be resurrected someday, but no day soon. The fourth book I think of as the first draft of what became The Vacationers—or rather, it was a totally different book with most of the same characters. I struggled with it for years, and published two other books before I went back to those characters. The second time around, it was easy as pie—I knew every inch of those people. Then I just had to write it down.

What I love most about this—and, Beatles-like, I love it all—is the loving ruthlessness: dead, dead, dead. If you don’t reach that point, it’s easy to become precious and protective of your every written word. That attitude rarely, if ever, leads to publication.

Because publishing a novel isn’t just a matter of murdering your darlings. Killing darlings is easy by comparison. (While the love metaphor is lovely, if not very insightful, I’m afraid another favorite figure of speech, the war metaphor, is far more telling.) You’ve got to be willing to firebomb Dresden. To fly the plane. Identify the target. And ride a bomb giddyupping on down to the goddamn ground. Lay utter waste to years, even decades, of building sentences and characters and settings, bringing it all lovingly to life, only to be the one to give the awful order and, in the aftermath, dance madly round your own intimate devastation. On top of the ashes of first times—and first novels, plural—you may then, if you’re lucky, make something that, in the full maturity of repeated but ever greater failures, comes to feel like second nature. As Emma says, “The second time around, it was easy as pie.” The hellish part, I’ve found, is getting there in the first place.

Author photo by Thisbe Nissen

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