Monday, April 8, 2013

My First Time: Terese Svoboda

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 Terese Svoboda.  She has published 14 books of prose, poetry, and translation, including Tin God, Bohemian Girl, Weapons Grade: Poems, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent: A GI's Secret from Postwar Japan, and Trailer Girl and Other StoriesPublishers Weekly called her "a fabulous fabulist" when writing about Tin God, her fourth novel which is narrated by God (a woman, of course) and concerns the misadventures of a conquistador and two Midwestern dope dealers five hundred years later.  Click here to visit her website.  (And don't forget that Tin God is this week's Friday Freebie.  Click here to enter the contest.)

The ABCs of My First Novel

The title of this sounds like a primer, something that should be illustrated in bright colors.  There was nothing ABC about it.  Getting Cannibal between boards took fifteen years, from first draft to finish, and three agents.  Its subject attracted their attention: a woman stuck in the middle of Africa with the wrong man, a topsy-turvy of the usual white-man-in-Africa-for-romance.  But I was a poet, what did I know about novels?  I had done eight all-the-way-through drafts when that wrong man—a real one, since most first novels are roman a clefs—revealed that he had been possibly C.I.A. during our travels.  In my third person presentation of the heroine's dilemma, I'd already had a lot of trouble figuring out what the Africans were thinking, they whose actions often resulted in surreal or very mysterious outcomes.  Now I had to reconsider what this man's motives were, too.  I rewrote the book thirteen more times.  Agent number one quit after a top editor suggested that there be helicopters at the end, a surreal solution that made no sense to either of us.

As a poet, I had a hard time with plot.  I knew about potent images but causality, images that build on each other, that don't just torque?  Lyric poems, the kind I did best, occur on the page, timelessly.  Their readers are expected to return to the top or just dwell in the poem in order to get the gestalt that a lyric poem strives for.  This whole idea of linearity, of going to the edge of the margin and returning with meaning accruing, was alien to me.  Even sentence structure was alien, when a stanza break could provide a grammatical innuendo unavailable to fiction.

Another problem was one that plagues most beginning fiction writers: reality, writing down what happened.  Creative nonfiction writers lament that they have the problem of shaping their experience, they can't just make everything up.  But fiction writers nearly always base their writing on something they've lived.  That's the material that's most potent, and has to be shaped in a framework that life doesn't provide.  Shaping is everything.  At least--as a poet--I understood that problem.  It's just that I couldn't figure out what happened, how I had gotten myself into this situation.  Who was I?

What wasn't a problem was my determination.  As you might have guessed, I am perseverant.  I was also bent on revenge, one of the most volatile motivators for writers, especially when you begin.  I switched the book to first person in order to really harness that emotion.  It was only much later, when I was showing around my twenty-first draft, when everyone asked why the heroine didn't leave that man, he's so difficult, that I began to realize anger doesn't necessary produce a book.

I redrafted the work another twelve times to show his good side.  I had to invent a lot.  No, that's not true.  The guy did have a good side but I was not prone, in this endeavor, to show it.  Let's just say he was difficult.  When I finished, I showed the manuscript to my second agent and he suggested I put the book back into third person, that I might get the necessary distance from the situation to show the relationship more evenly, and then the book would “come alive.”  The dead horse analogy is useful here.  I dutifully dragged the horse back into the corral and—before computers existed to make such a change easy—retyped it with the switch of pronouns.  I was too na├»ve about the writing business—after all, I had a graduate degree in writing poetry, not prose—that I didn't understand a thing about point-of-view, how it allows a writer different access to characters.  Nothing changed.

I despaired.  It was time to despair.  I was on version thirty-three.  Christ died when he was thirty-three, as the man I was struggling to get right in the book was fond of telling me in Africa, trying to convince me to get pregnant before he died.  (He has thus far survived into his seventieth year.)  Under the aegis of the wonderful  and patient Willy Kelley (who later taught at Sarah Lawrence), I had begun writing stories about ten years earlier, in an attempt to understand the simplest workings of fiction.  I wrote close to a hundred stories--I counted them—trying to figure out what the secret was.  I couldn't get it.  I could do the character sketch, I could orchestrate stiff tea parties staged in the savannah, I could riff.  It was near that hundredth story that Willy announced that I had written one.  I was doing my grandmother's voice, a voice I had only imagined since she was seldom around in my childhood.  That make-believe voice released all that energy I had cornered, trying to write realism.

When Gordon Lish sent me a note rejecting that story, or maybe something I had, with new hubris--I could write stories!--submitted to The Quarterly because it was impossible to get published in, he offered to have me take his class.  I didn't have to pay.  What did I have to lose?

People wept in his legendary classes, grown men, half-grown gorgeous women, people on respirators and for all I knew, people with knife wounds.  Lish liked to invite the vulnerable, but the invulnerable particularly interested him.  These were the people with the deepest reserves, who came to him because they wanted to write something but they didn't know evisceration would be necessary.  The clever bastard that Lish still is, pitted one writer against another, and cut. But I'd never been in the presence of someone who believed that fiction was worth sacrificing everything for, that fiction made the writer immortal after those cuts—and that immortality was all that mattered.

I wept.  He had called me brilliant one session and an idiot in the next.  The result wasn't that I quit writing my pitiful novel, my novel full of pity and not what Lish would call itself, but that I finally understood that if no one was ever going to publish it, then I could write it any damn way I wanted.  I tossed away all those many dead trees and rewrote the whole thing from scratch. I don't think a word survives.  Lish's ravings and exhortations taught me how to link one sentence to the next, how plot is linked inexorably to syntax, and how words matter.  As a poet, I already knew words mattered, but not what that meant to fiction.  I had been bent in making them transparent, hoping to transport the reader with character and plot.  Ha.  I changed back to the most extreme first person point-of-view I could manage, and started back up that African river again.

I sent the manuscript out another thirteen times.  My lucky number.  NYU Press took it, gave me an award, and the best agent in town called me the day after the ceremony.

Nothing to it.


  1. I loved this account. I, too, started writing my novel out of anger, making the opposing characters so awful, that the readers said right away, 'why are they even in the book?'. The turning point came when my agent called me and said, 'this is completely boring.' I wept for two days.

    Then, I changed my entire life to be happier. Picked myself up by the bootstraps. Started completely over (only for the fourth time).

    What do you know? It just took being emotionally available to the plot.

  2. Wow, inspiring, thanks for sharing. I suppose I should get over the 2 rejections I've received thus far and just keep working.

  3. What a heartening story. I think most of us writers stare starry-eyed at the page and think those first words we put on the page are going to be the ones that make it. It's not until we get deep into it that we realize how much work there is to be done (and that the real reward is in the work).

    Chris Abani once said most books take thirty or so drafts. I'm on 17 and can't wait to dig in for more.