blackbirdonline journalSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
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Panel Discussion
Moderator: Chad Luibl. Panelists: Boris Fishman and Henry Dunow.
captured November 10, 2015

Chad Luibl: Thank you all so much for coming. It’s a great honor to be here. Thank you for having me as your moderator. How this is going to work is, we’re going to speak for about half an hour and then we’re going to open it up to the audience for questions. And I believe Kate and Cade will have microphones, so at that point you can just raise your hand, and they’ll run over and hand you the microphone. My name is Chad Luibl, I am a graduate student, or I was a graduate student from the MFA program two years ago, and a former Cabell First Novelist Fellow. I work up in New York now at Janklow and Nesbit Associates, and it’s a real honor and pleasure to be here.

Sitting next to me: this is Boris’s agent. Henry Dunow, who has been an agent since the early eighties, founded his own agency in 1997, which has since evolved into Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner Literary Agency. He works primarily with quality fiction and voice-driven nonfiction. And he’s also an author of the book The Way Home, which is a memoir about fatherhood. Some of his clients are Jean Thompson, Aimee Bender, Elizabeth McCracken, and of course Boris Fishman, here joining us tonight.

So, I’d like to start from the very beginning, when this book was just an idea, and sort of go through a little timeline of how it came to fruition and the publication and how you two [Boris and Henry] met, because you told me you might have an interesting story of how you met, I think in an email.

Henry Dunow: Right.

CL: Not to put too much pressure on you.

HD: No, No.

Boris Fishman: This is why he’s here.

HD: Yeah, but before I go into the origins of our association, I just wanted to congratulate you personally, Boris. Working with you, and working with this magnificent novel and the work that’s followed, has been just tremendous. And it’s really gratifying that you’ve won this award and that A Replacement Life has gotten such accolades since its first publication.

BF: Thank you.

HD: The publishing industry sees a lot of really terrific novels sail by without a great deal of notice. It’s been really satisfying to see this have the kind of ride it has had.

BF: Henry would bat this away, but there’s not a little he’s had to do with that outcome. But we’ll save that for later in the conversation.

HD: So you asked me how we got to know each other. Boris approached me through an email, and I don’t think I’ve shared this with you (Boris), but I knew a bit about you, Boris, before I heard about you. And it was all good, in fact. You know that I represented a former girlfriend.

BF: That’s right. There’s nothing like ending up with the same agent as your ex-girlfriend.

HD: Well, you invoked in me, in that introductory email, and wondered if I might have remembered hearing your name, but what an understatement that was. Because I had heard so much about you, in fact, Alana [Newhouse] often went on about her brilliant, writer boyfriend who worked for The New Yorker and was publishing journalism here and there, everywhere. So I confess, I was actually quite intimidated to be in touch with you, at first, and very flattered to be on the list of agents that you were approaching. You wrote a very good letter—it was very succinct in describing the novel, which is a virtue that I admire. That works for me. You reduced it, in fact, to a single sentence that spoke to me immediately because it was a way of describing the novel that was just going to stick in my brain. I think you said as much as you said in the first sentence you said about the novel tonight. Which is: it’s about a young man, struggling writer, cajoled and then coerced by his very persuasive grandfather into writing, forging, Holocaust restitution claims for the old Jews back in the old neighborhood. And with that premise, I just thought, “Yes, I can see the book that develops from that.” You sent me the novel and as history tells it, I turned you down.

BF: Did you?

HD: Yes, I did.

BF: I’ve rewritten that history in my mind.

CL: When was this, by the way? How many years ago?

BF: December 2012.

HD: I actually have the letter here.

BF: What? You don’t remember the date?

HD: I did a little research into our past, so I’ll read some of the things. Do the words New Orleans bring up any memories? I said, “Boris you’re as talented and interesting a writer as I’ve come across in a good while. Some of A Replacement Life is just dazzling. Hence my excitement when I read the early pages.” I think I had written you a quick email after just a day or so. “The writing is earthy, pungent, both quick and wonderfully complex. I sat up and took notice over and over again. Your characters are drawn with great precision and great heart, especially the bickering and tenderness and guile of the old Jews in Brooklyn. Ultimately though, I don’t think the novel fully succeeds, and I’d like to try to explain why I feel that way. I went on for three or four good, detailed paragraphs, and I rarely go into this kind of detail when saying no to someone. And then it closed by saying, “I wouldn’t go into this kind of detail if I didn’t think this could really be an extraordinary novel and a wonderful premise, terrific writing, vivid characters, but at least in my opinion, it needs a pretty major overhaul. I may be way off-base with these comments. I don’t know what kind of reactions you’re getting from other readers, but if you’d like to discuss any of this, I’d welcome that conversation. And I’d also be interested in hearing about the other projects you alluded to.” I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next.

BF: Let me take a second to explain what Henry’s referring to. Before starting my novel, I, out of great anxiety, created not only a complete road map as to what it would be about, but came up with an extremely clever elaborate parallel to anchor it. It would not only be about Holocaust restitution fraud in Brooklyn, it would also be about reparations fraud after Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans. So I’d have Jews behaving badly and African Americans behaving badly, the two taboos of our politically correct age. The problem was that the New Orleans part was just dead. I had done too much research. I’d spent a very dutiful amount of time down there. I’d gotten all the details right, but it had no life. Precisely because I think it was over-concerned with getting a wallpaper right, and what Henry said to me, if I’m remembering it correctly, was “I believe in you, and I believe in this book, but New Orleans has to go.” [And so,] I gained an agent and lost half my novel.

HD: Well, I will say this, you came in, and we had a terrific meeting. You know, I think we just sensed a very nice fit in so many ways. In terms of what was on the page but also just in terms of our interests and sensibility and, to a certain extent, shared backgrounds, and so forth. And I did not want to let this guy [Boris] go.

We talked the novel through pretty extensively, and you went off and thought about it. I wasn’t really sure what the decision was going to be. We might have had a couple more conversations or exchanges of emails and so forth. Then you came back and said, “Yes, I am willing to do this.” And I took a flier in a certain sense, I mean I really wanted it to work out, so I said, “Yes, let’s do this.” Now, the many, many times I’ve sent a writer off to work on revisions of a manuscript, and I’ll be expecting them to come back in maybe three or four months, they instead come back in two weeks, and you have to search with a microscope to see where the changes have been. In this instance, Boris just remade the novel very aggressively, very dramatically, and I think made it a much stronger book. So it worked out beautifully. But, I can really count on one hand, in all the years that I’ve been doing this, the number of times I’ve said to a writer, “Well, I’ll take another look if you revise it, accordingly,” and it ended up working out. But you [Boris], really rolled up your sleeves and made it into the success it’s been.

BF: And we kept working, that wasn’t the end. We did three new drafts together before Henry deemed it adequate for submission.

HD: Well, at the point that I’d memorized most of the manuscript, I thought it was time to let it go.

BF: But I should add that by the time HarperCollins purchased it for publication, I don’t know if they changed a single word. It had been so worked on, initially by myself and then together with Henry, that they got a product that they felt comfortable sending into print.

CL: Your editor was Terry Karten, correct?

BF: Yes.

CL: So afterwards, there was not much back and forth with you and Terry? It was just ready to go?

BF: I mean, there was a back and forth about “Holy crap, I’m getting a novel published.” There’s a lot of just logistical stuff I wanted to learn about. But editorially, very little.

CL: That is one thing that really surprises me when I started working in publishing, was the editorial role that agents often take. I was going to ask you, how often do you do that, and if you give a lot of feedback and editorial advice?

HD: I do. For me that’s the most interesting, challenging, and rewarding, part of the job. I like being as close to the creative inception as I possibly can.

BF: That’s important to find. Because a lot of agents don’t edit, and some writers prefer that. I think all writers can use an editor, and they can certainly use an editor before it gets in front of any editor at a publishing house. But a lot of agents don’t edit. And I knew well enough to know that I really, really wanted someone to be interested in that in order to work with them. That said, you [Henry] strike a really beautiful balance in that you’re deeply engaged in the macro without micromanaging my prose. And that particular balance is so valuable and important to me, I would work so hard on my sentences, I’m sure Henry would flag it if it was really trying too hard and really failing. We have talked about things down on the sentence level, but it’s really wonderful to have that left alone while a tremendous amount of close attention is given to the macro structure of the work. That balance was always the right balance for me.

Also, Henry’s balance between the art of it and the business of it, because it really is both. If you think about it differently, then good luck. It was really, really, incredibly useful to have a guide that had one foot planted firmly in both of those sort of terrains. I couldn’t have done well with a pure businessman, and I couldn’t have done, well I don’t know if any agents are stargazers exclusively, but that particular balance is incredibly instructive and also reassuring. Because I don’t know if you get too many shots at having this thing sent out into the world, so having that kind of guidance was very valuable.

HD: Well, thank you.

BF: I haven’t said that to you before.

CL: But what inspired A Replacement Life, even going back further before you started giving it to agents? And I’m not sure, did you query a whole bunch of agents, or did you go for specific agents?

HD: And how many years in the making was this before you began showing it to me?

BF: You got the cream on the top, Henry. It was grim beneath. My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and because the kid learns English the fastest in an immigrant family, I was given her restitution paperwork to fill out. Even at the tender age of sixteen or seventeen, I was struck by the fact that the application did not require any documentation. Why? Because so much was destroyed during the war by the Germans. A lot by the Soviets was never released. If you had something they asked that you please submit it; if you don’t, you’re not disqualified. What was incredible about this was that it basically came down to [was that] this matter of history became a matter of storytelling. If you could tell a good story about what you went through during the war, you were in.

In her case, it wasn’t hard. I just took down what she went through, and even a little bit about it was more than enough. But I started thinking to myself, it’s got to be only a matter of time before someone in my community has a field day with these. Which I turned out to be more right about than I expected, because as it was revealed in 2010—I had down a draft of the novel by then—but a whole bunch of people in South Brooklyn were doing exactly what I had imagined in the novel. They’d been doing it since the early 1990s and were finally caught in 2010 and sent to prison for it. They forged 5,000 applications. And it ended up getting caught only because they got lazy and started repeating the details, which is exactly why they get caught here. Part of it, at least.

So, that was the inspiration for it. I had an agent when I started working on the book. He and I had sort of been editorially missing each other for about five years by the time I started working on it. So it was a great disappointment, but no surprise, when I presented him with the first draft and he said, “I just don’t see it.” At which point I stopped feeling guilty about parting ways and went off on my own, though that was terrifying because I proceeded to do a lot of drafts alone. Then after about six, I sent it out to about a half a dozen agents, all of whom wrote back to say no, and not one of them proposed to take another look at it once I went back to the drawing board and made changes to it. So from six to nine [drafts] again, I was on my own. It was after the ninth draft that I finally had enough people—

HD: Do you hear that? Nine drafts.

BF: And then three more with Henry. I crossed some hump after I’d done nine because I now sent it out to fifteen [agents], and I got about a half dozen positive replies, among which was Henry.

Now I just want to tell you a very quick story about agenting, and I’m actually curious to hear your perspective on this. I’ve had a friend who was trying to decide between two agents. He sent his manuscript around, and one of the two agents said, “I will not give you my feedback until you sign with me.” He reasonably said, “How can I possibly sign with you if I don’t know what you think about my work?” And she just shrugged. Compare that with my conversation with Henry, where I went so far as to say, “Henry, to which editors, to which houses, would you send this novel?” And he just sent me a list, without any anxiety about having it stolen or taken away for the benefit of another agent. And I thought to myself, “What an incredible, reassuring, and inspiring level of confidence.” That was only a part of what persuaded me. I’ve been talking a little bit about the rest of it. I just loved that maneuver. Only somebody who knows what he’s doing does not feel threatened by revealing that information. So that was really cool and also very reassuring.

CL: Yeah, that sort of transparency is sort of crucial. Why would you want to work with someone that’s not going to be honest with you?

BF: I spent five years with the wrong agent. We had the same ethnic background, or national background I should say, and I thought that that would connect us literally. But ethnic affinity is not the same as editorial affinity. If you’re trying to publish a novel, the latter is more important than the former. So I know, from being mismatched, one ought to be with the agent with whom one is going to soar the highest, based on what one’s strengths are.

HD: Well, it is a key relationship in the publishing business. It’s probably the key relationship that an author will have in her or his career. The traditional relationship between an author and an editor is no longer as stable or long-lasting as it might have been a generation or two ago, largely because of all the changes in corporate publishing that both make an editor’s, and also an author’s, longevity at a particular house much more precarious than it was at other times.

It is very important to make the right choice and to feel a certain comfort level with your agent. To hear your agent talk about your work, in the way that you would yourself want to talk about your work. Because, ultimately, the way he talks to you about your work is the way he’ll be talking to editors or potential buyers for your work and helping create your profile in the literary business. That level of common understanding and communication is really key.

CL: Definitely. I heard you speak earlier today on Virginia this morning, and you were saying how this book is spiritually autobiographical. I was wondering if you could maybe elaborate on that. Because I know it’s an annoying question when people say, “Is this you?” And it turns out that you had written a restitution letter but obviously not for an entire community. Spiritually, what was this for you? What was this sort of experience? I imagine also there was probably a sort of moral obligation here, or weight, that you might have been feeling because this is quite a personal topic to you and very close to your own experience.

BF: Yeah, I mean it helps that almost no one in my family can read English. Only my mother has read this novel; my father’s English isn’t strong enough. And interestingly enough, despite having sold in places like Brazil and Estonia, it has still not been bought in Russia. Which  . . . it’s even been bought in Germany, this is a tricky book for a German publisher to issue, but not in Russia.

So it wasn’t so much of an obligation as a just kind of fear of my mother, who quite vainly decided the family in the novel was ours, and therefore everyone would assume the worst things about us. “What will they think about us?” But honestly, perhaps arrogantly, but . . . I do believe a certain amount of healthy arrogance is very valuable, especially for a first time novelist. The only obligation I felt, though I’m a pretty responsive and responsible and guilt-ridden only son, but the only obligation I felt, ultimately, was to the book.

Now people do ask, “How much is this autobiographical?” I have had said to me, “If you tell me what really happened, I’ll buy the book.” And of course, there’s a young man in this, trying to figure out his way through his twenties, and figure out what art means and [what] being an adult means, and [what] being a good son means. And of course, that was me. But of the two love interests, one is based on someone real and one is invented. Of the two elder men in the story, one is based on someone who exists and one is invented. And I invite you to decipher which is which, and I bet half this room will pick one and half will pick another.

The issue is that even when you take from real life, real life does not work as drama.

They have completely different requirements; you cannot put a transcript of what really happened into a story. It’ll fall flat. Even the things that are taken from real life are completely warped and manipulated and distilled and have had all sorts of things done to them. So often, that an entire set piece, about buying graves, the graves that Grandfather buys . . . I remember reading a New York Post item that was this big, about a guy who had cornered the unofficial grave market of Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. That was maybe twenty words, and I made a scene that was a chapter out of that. Ninety-five percent of that is invented, but I suppose the important kernel is factual.

The other thing is that when writing from autobiography, there’s this assumption that it’s easier because you’ve got the material ready. But I think that actually sometimes makes it harder because you’re overly influenced by what really happened, and it’s hard to imagine what would have happened, which actually might work better fictionally. Sometimes you’re better off working from a clean slate. There was a lot more autobiography here at the beginning than there was at the end because I understood the freedom of inventing from scratch, and by that time I’d had a little more confidence to do that. There is, and there isn’t.

My second novel is about a family in New Jersey that adopts a boy from Montana that turns out to be feral, and it’s written from the adoptive mother’s perspective. I don’t have to tell that I’m not a woman, or a parent, nor an adoptive mother, or any of that stuff. My contention to you, which requires you to read the novels, is that the second is way more autobiographical than the first.

CL: I wanted to ask you about writing your second novel, which is coming out under HarperCollins in the spring, and it’s called, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, and just from that title I can tell that it is a different novel than A Replacement Life.

BF: Not to get superficial, but part of it is superficial. Titles are important. Being able to summarize things in a sentence is important.

CL: Did you change the title for A Replacement Life, or had it always been that?

BF: It was always A Replacement Life. I think the British editor on the novel wanted to rename it. She’s such a wonderful, smart editor, but she really slipped up on the titles. I remember she wanted Potatoes and Moonshine or something like that. I’m glad I stood my ground when that email came through.

CL: I thought I saw something that was translated that had Brooklyn in the title.

BF: The German title is The Biographer of Brooklyn.

HD: We went back and forth about that, too. The German publisher insisted that it would be a more effective title.

BF: While we’re on this, the Estonians had a wonderful typo in their contract. Do you remember this? It said, “We would love to purchase A Replacement Wife for publication in Estonia.” I said, “Only on the condition that it gets that title in Estonian.”

CL: Did you have that idea for a title from the beginning? I know there’s one part in the novel where the character says that he had gotten a replacement life—was that sort of an “aha!” moment?

BF: Yeah, we talked about endings earlier at this round table, and the endings in both occasions have come in “aha!” moments, and the titles have come in “aha!” moments. The body has taken forever, but those particular things have come in flashes, and if it continues to feel as right as it did in that moment, then you hold on to it. We see so many bland titles; there’s a strange convention in book naming. It’s like The Fishmonger’s Wife, and The Police Detective’s Nephew—all these possessive titles. It’s such an overtired convention, I feel like. This is possibly the one thing in addition to the book cover at the bookstore that your book is going to be evaluated on by somehow who doesn’t know much about it yet. Make it stand out. Don’t make it false; there are plenty of ways to make it both true and memorable. So that was a criterion as well, for me.

CL: Was the process easier, writing the second novel? How did it change?

BF: Yes, it was much smoother. I wrote four drafts instead of twelve, and two, three, and four were minor. Part of the reason I think it happened that way was because I’d gotten practice with the first one, but I also planned far less with the second one. I knew the major characters, I knew that basics of the story, but I knew nothing beyond that. I knew how it would begin and how it would end, that’s it.

HD: Amazingly, you’d finished a draft by the time A Replacement Life was published.

BF: Yes, which in retrospect is so, so fortunate because there’s been so much less time since this novel has come out. HarperCollins purchased the novel in January of 2013 but didn’t publish it until June of 2014. They gave me a contract and finally I had a little bit of money to not have to do side work for a little while but the time to write and write and write without distraction. I used those eighteen months to write the second one. I don’t need to tell you that since June 2014, when this book was published, I’ve barely written at all.

CL: What about promotion? I know most authors don’t get to pick their own cover for the book, but I think in today’s time it’s never been more important for the author to sort of self-brand and be active on social media and doing readings. Maybe not doing book tours anymore, but I’m curious about how publicity was handled, and how did you promote your own book?

BF: I’d like to hear Henry talk about it because I only have experience with one [publishing] house. HarperCollins, at the grate of it, they are a corporate behemoth. They have history, they have a lot of practice, money—they have all kinds of great things. I’m also very lucky to have a wonderful editor. What they don’t have is a lot of nimbleness to adjust well-established processes on how a book gets promoted and the like.

I found it incredibly useful to supplement as much as I can. So often I’ll come to Harper with an idea, and there just aren’t the mechanisms in place to make that happen, even though I know I’m welcome to try it on my own. For example, I’m going to pay Harper to print another round of galleys for the second novel that I’m going to send out not to reviewers, which they will take care of, but people in my life that I want to have the book because they might read it, like it, and talk about it. There are people I would love to have talk about it, and I’m paying for that out of pocket, and I can already tell it’s worthwhile.

HD: I think Harper did an okay job, better than okay.

BF: I think so, yeah.

HD: It’s a rare author that is completely satisfied with whatever their publisher does, because it’s your book, it’s your only book.

BF: You would knock on every door in America. You don’t understand why your publicist isn’t doing that.

HD: Especially with the first novel. It represents culmination of a great life’s dream for you, and so on and so forth, and you’ll lay your life on the line to get people to know about this book. Obviously, for a publisher, it’s one of 100 books in a season for the larger publishers. Publishing has been somewhat slow to come around to some of the new mechanisms of publicity and marketing that have come around in the Internet age. Increasingly, they look to the author to be their partner in getting attention for their new book, and in Boris’s case, they had a superb partner. As you can tell from listening to Boris tonight, he’s a wonderful speaker, incredibly articulate, passionate about his book, and he’s able to communicate that, and that’s a publisher’s dream. You’re also incredibly energetic, and nicely connected—not in an obnoxious way, but as one that has been a part of the literary community for some time now. I think you did an amazing job of holding up your end of the promotion deal. All of this funneled together in the week of the book’s publication—not only because of the book’s quality but because of some of the efforts to make it stand out from the crowd. It got the cover of the New York Times Book Review, which is any first-time novelist’s fantastical dream to achieve. I’d say, all in all, it went pretty well, and in no small part because of the efforts and the energy and creativity and sweat equity that you put into promoting it. Authors, like anything else, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes; some are natural self-promoters; for others, it’s the most anathema thing to their personality and temperament. I always say to authors, “You push yourself to edge of your comfort level—not beyond that, but this is your opportunity to make your book stand out from the crowd.”

BF: Yeah, if you’ve got to sweat potion for a novel, spend it all on the first one. I killed myself for the first book, I left no stone unturned—I never said no to anyone. I was in living rooms, I was on Skype, I was in book clubs, I was in big venues, I was in small venues, I was in Cedar Rapids, I was in Orlando, and I was in Rochester. I flew myself out, sometimes they flew me out. I did nothing but this for a year, and it made a difference.

One quick thing about covers that you asked about: neither one of my novels had a first cover that I felt represented the novel accurately. That’s why I try to be as good of a citizen as I can with HarperCollins, so when cover time rolls around, I’m going to have to spend all of that capital in order to persuade them to give it another try, which is the last thing they want to do, understandably, because it is an involved process. I’ve been very fortunate to have had them grumblingly agree in both cases and come up with someone far better, I think, in both. So overall, considering I’m working with a fairly large publisher and all the advantages that entails, financially and otherwise, it’s very hard to complain about the role that they’ve played in the process. They allow me to be myself. Sometimes that means being neurotic, sometimes that means being over-worried, sometimes that means being reasonable. They dance with me, and that’s all I can ask of them. I don’t know that Terry gets more emails from any of her other authors.

CL: Terry is your publicist?

BF: Terry is my editor.

CL: You said earlier—I’m bringing this back up because there are a lot of writers in the room—that books or writing ought to bring people forward, and it made me think of one of my favorite scenes in your novel, and that’s when Slava is being followed by this eighteen-year-old. His name is Oleg, and this moment just really shines. It’s right in the middle of the book. This guy is following Slava, he doesn’t know why, and he finally confronts him. It turns out that this teenager has heard about his writing, and he wants to do the same thing. Slava doesn’t get mad, but he sits down—he has some food on him—and he breaks bread with him, and basically gives him a writing lesson. It’s just this really beautiful moment in the middle of the book. There are other parts in the book about the children, and how it’s up to us now, and passing the torch on to the next generation. Both in the sort of mindset of being within an émigré book, but also sort of meta when it comes to writing.

BF: I’m so gratified to have had this brought up, because this came up at a round table discussion we had earlier, and believe it or not, in almost 100 events, it’s almost never brought up. It’s a “throwaway” scene because the character never shows up again, and he’s not central to the story. Actually, Elaina, the British editor, encouraged me to get rid of it, but I kept it in anyways because I felt like it needed to be there, mostly because most things in the novel should reconcile, even if they just stop rather than resolve. But that’s the beauty of a novel. Novels can have some loose ends, and it felt very important to me to include this scene. I’ll share with you this story from earlier: I did a reading in a living room in New Jersey where, after I was done, one of the people in attendance came up to me, a young mother, and she said, “My son is thirteen years old, and he has read everything ever written by Shakespeare and has been writing his own novels since he was seven and cannot wait to go to college and become a writing major and whatever else goes on after that. Please tell me how to stop him.”

CL: My mom said that before I went into an MFA program as well.

BF: I don’t think this is exclusive to the community that I come from—this was a Russian Jewish gathering—I come out of a community where there is a great amount of reverence for art, as long as it isn’t your own. I did my best with her, but Oleg is at a crossroads—he’s trying to spread his wings, and his family is doing its best to beat them down. I had less mentorship than I wanted as a young journalist coming up. Publishing is a lot better with that, just in the way that the institution of agenting is an institution of mentorship. Nothing like that exists in journalism. I’m not the world’s greatest journalist, but that is the career I wanted to make first. I will never make a career in that because it showed no interest in my skills whatsoever. It is never practical to take time out to work with someone junior to you, rather than senior to you, but who wants to go along the same path. There’s just a great nobility to that because you are investing in the future. I don’t encourage all of my students to keep writing, but those that should, I beat down their door by insisting that they don’t give up and they don’t stop after the class is over. I have a student right now who is ROTC, and a fiction career is the very last thing that he’s thinking about, but I’m going to have some conversations with him after the class is over to at least plant that seed in his head. Just in case there’s that moment where he’s twenty-six and casting out and is trying to figure out what to do because X isn’t working out—how I would love to be the voice in his head that comes up then. And if he writes to me then, I will find time to engage with him, even though there’s no practical value to it.

HD: I thought that was a point in the novel as well, where Slava is realizing his influence and his responsibility.

CL: Well, let’s take some questions from the audience. I think this is a good time to. Go ahead and just raise your hand, if you have any, and Kate Zipse and Cade Varnado are ready with microphones. I see one, right here in the middle.

Audience: Is HarperCollins still in e-publishing, or do you have the right to have this book e-published by somebody?

HD: It has been e-published. All of the major publishers, when they buy a book now, buy not only the print rights but also the e-book rights. It’s almost impossible to sell a book to a major publisher without including the e-book rights.

CL: Actually, I’m just going to interrupt for a second to say that I listened to your book as audio, and I read it, and the voice actor did an excellent job, so I would encourage you to listen to it.

BF: It’s the guy from Scandal [George Newbern].

CL: Gosh, it was good. He nails all of the accents—I thought so, at least. It was really great.

BF: Or maybe I’m misremembering the show—he was in Father of the Bride, I’m blanking on his name, he’s a British guy.

CL: I think I saw another question.

Audience: I know this is a hard question, but I feel like your characters often talk about truth versus fiction. I was wondering where you draw the line between nonfiction and fiction?

BF: We could honestly spend a semester on that topic, and I hereby invite VCU to invite me to teach a class on the borderland between fiction and nonfiction. Oh, there is so much to be said about that, please jump in if you have something to say. There’s this idea today that pure fact isn’t possible, even what you’re reading in The New York Times isn’t entirely fact, if only for that it’s being written by an individual with a subjective viewpoint. This strange convention of not including the personal pronoun in times of reportage always rubbed me the wrong way because it actually conceals the fact that this is being presented to you from a particular viewpoint. There’s ten different ways to write that story. We get biographies that are supposed to be nonfictional, but so much of that is reconstructed. Has anybody read Patrimony by Philip Roth? It’s technically a memoir, though who knows how much of it is reconstructed and reinvented, but to me it is finer than any of his novels because it uses so many of the tools of fiction in order to tell a story that was ultimately factual. It’s a memoir of his father dying. Meanwhile, as we see with a book like this, so much fiction is grounded in things that really happened. The best thing that I can say without going on for an hour is that the borderline is so very porous, but for some reason, so many of us, in so many different ways, want to live in a world that sees the border as far clearer than that, and it just isn’t. I would exhort all of you, when reading nonfiction, to think about how much of it didn’t necessarily happen that way, and when reading fiction, how much of it possibly did. It’s a really porous border.

Audience: This may be a basic question, but when you’re going through the actual writing process, most of the writers I know tend to have this weird mix of low self-esteem and narcissism. I want to ask, whenever you’re going through the process of making editorial choices—Do I keep this? Is this concept sod? Is the execution a little bit shaky, should I alter it? Should I omit it?—how do you operate between the voice in your head that hates everything you do, the voice in your head that thinks you’re a secret genius, and the voice outside of your head that tells you to get rid of half of your novel?

BF: I’ve referred to a healthy arrogance before. The more you read and the more you write, you develop a sense of things. You know when you’ve produced a good line, and you know when you’ve produced an insight that’s valuable. It’s especially wonderful when something doesn’t go the way that you planned, but it feels true, and all of a sudden that character has revealed themselves differently than you planned but in a truer way than what you planned originally. You just know that’s good, and you don’t worry about that. I’m talking about something very abstract, because I’m talking about instinct. If you have developed enough of an instinct through reading and through writing to be able to spot that, you would be betraying yourself to doubt yourself at that moment. I think all writers operate with such an enormous sense of self-doubt that you should never worry about being too kind to yourself. No one is harder on my work than I am, before I let anyone see it. At the same time, there is something so ugly about narcissism and secretly thinking you’re a genius. I don’t know who can proceed too far with that kind of notion of oneself, considering the pleasure the world takes in saying “no” to you over and over. If you manage to preserve that sense of yourself, despite that, then I have things to learn from those people. I try to waste no time on narcissism, but equally little time on low self-esteem. Neither is helpful. There’s this idea that suffering leads to great art, and one of the few conservative and fairly non-destructive things that Norman Mailer said was, “Nothing is more important to the writer than to be healthy, to have slept well, to have energy,” and it is equally as important to be mentally sound. Take care of yourself, bodily and mentally, in order to be able to give well to your work. This recalls another line by Flaubert: “be bourgeois in your life, so you can be a madman in your art.” I go to bed at ten o’clock if I can, because I like to get up early and write. That is more exciting than any bar I can go to.

CL: Is that your system, do you write every morning?

BF: I’ve struggled to find the time since this novel came out, for the most wonderful reasons, but on an ideal day I’ll be up by eight o’clock, reading by eight-thirty, writing by ten o’clock, and finishing by two or three. If I’ve done that, it’s been a great day. Ideally, one does that Monday through Friday and ends up with a draft by the end of the year.

HD: You start the day by reading other novels?

BF: When I read others before writing, when I was just starting out, it messed with my prose. Now I’ve gotten to a point where it inspires me, rather than impedes me, and I’ll just read to get jazzed about what words can do, and I’m just hopped up on it. It’s like a fix. It’s like a drug that you take in order to get right with your work, and you just toss the book away, ideally, and sit down and get cracking. Ideally, it’s a really energetic experience. You learn which writers help you in which ways. For example, Nadine Gordimer’s novels are very hard for me to finish, but no one is better at making me realize everything that words in close observation can do.

Audience: Did you negotiate a two-book deal, or did it just so happen that after the first one, they were quick to say, “If you’ve got another one, we’ll sign you?” Is that the way it works?

HD: No, it was a one-book deal, and the timing worked out happily, such that [Fishman’s] new novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, was ready to be shown to publishers at that exact moment in time that the Times review came out, so that was fortuitous!

Audience: As someone who’s spent a lot of time on beginnings and short stories but has never completed a novel, I’m curious to hear you talk about what it’s like to be bringing things full circle. I imagine it must be a different place, but I’ve never been there.

BF: I mentioned this earlier, and this, for me, was very instructive. I started writing fiction late. I was thirty years old by the time that I began. It was my second career—the first one had not been very lucrative, and I jumped from the frying pan and into the fire by going from journals into fiction. I was desperate for some kind of referendum on whether I had what it takes. I got through about 150 pages of the first draft of this novel, and I had an agent who was willing to look at what I was doing (I was sort of cheating on my agent at the time, because I knew that wasn’t going to go anywhere). I sent it off to her, and she wrote back very quickly, and she said:

“You have no idea what this novel is about, and you won’t know until you finish the draft. When you finish the draft, then you’ll finally understand what you have been meaning to do all along. At which point, you’ll have to go back to the beginning, and then write what you intended. When you get to the end of draft two, give me a call.”

What I mean to say by this is that the value of finishing a short story—three thousand words, five thousand words—is ten times the value of writing a beautiful paragraph. As a friend of mine says, “Write the most boring story you can, but get to the end.” Some of us are so daunted by the challenge of writing the best story that’s ever been written that we travel away from what our native strengths and instincts are. Try to write the most boring story you can. Try to bore the hell out of whoever’s going to read it. You’re going to surprise yourself, but whatever you do, get to the end. Write five hundred words a day for two weeks; you will have a story at the end of it. Waste no time worrying about how crappy what happened before was. Even if you realize, “Oh, I should have done something differently two pages ago because of where I am now,” leave that until later. Just go. The value of finishing is immeasurable.

Audience: I’m just dying to know, is your mother still talking to you?

BF: I only empathize with my mother because she—she’s very proud—but she did not ask to be brought into the spotlight in this way. By this way, I mean there are no saints out there, or there are, and my mother is pretty close to it. That’s not what makes a character interesting. It’s what makes a person wonderful, but it’s not what makes a character interesting. You want the warts in there. She is proud but taken aback by what all this has meant.

Audience: When you were thinking about creating this novel, was it more that you wanted to do it, or was there a sense of obligation to finish and release it to the world?

BF: That’s a great question, because I tried everything I could to do something else. I interned in a law firm, I was accepted by the Foreign Service, I was a hiking guide; I was a market researcher for a maker of temporary concrete. I had a family that would have loved for me to do just about anything else. I got a job as editorial director of a technology start-up, where my job was to travel the world on their dime and write about the hotels that I stayed in, and they gave me six figures for it, and I had the audacity to be miserable while doing it. At a certain point you say, “If I am going to be impoverished, I might as well be impoverished on behalf of something I really love. If I’m going to be miserable, at least I’ll be miserable doing something I love.” It would not go away, and how grateful I am. I was on the verge of receiving a pretty strong offer from a PR firm when I got a phone call from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is a writing residency on the edge of Cape Cod where you go for seven months. They take five fiction writers per session and out of the hundreds that apply, and I was number six. Then somebody’s mother passed away, God forbid. That meant they could no longer attend, and now the invitation was mine. That phone call came a day before I accepted that job offer. When I went off to be miserable for seven months in the Cape Cod winter, where I also finished the first draft of the novel, I also would have been miserably in a wholly different way if I had to take on that PR job—not because there’s anything wrong with PR, it was just the wrong fit for me. I am grateful that the phone call came through when it did, and I do wonder a lot what would have happened. You know what? I probably would have quit that job three months later. It just won’t quit, and if it won’t quit, please don’t kill it. Respond to it.

CL: Boris and Henry will be around to talk, and Boris will be signing his books in the back. Boris’s next book comes out March 1, 2016.  

Henry Dunow founded his own literary agency in 1997, which became the Dunow, Carlsen & Lerner Literary Agency in 2005. He is the author of The Way Home: Scenes from a Season, Lessons from a Lifetime (Broadway Books, 2002), a memoir about fatherhood.

Chad Luibl is a literary agent assistant at Janklow & Nesbit Associates. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University as an MFA candidate in fiction.

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