Two First Novels, 10 Years In The Making

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First Foray Into Fiction? Here's A How-To:

The writing process is not for the faint of heart, says novelist and editor Colin Harrison. And he should know: His own first novel took five years to complete — and was then rejected by everybody. Fiction writing promises years of obscurity, little money and no guarantee that anyone will ever read what you write. But many fiction authors — Harrison included — keep at it.

"Although I didn't realize it at the time," Harrison says, "[Rejection] was a fantastic stroke of luck. Because that first novel that I had worked so hard on was terrible — it really was."

In Harrison's case, that first unpublishable novel served as a painful but valuable training exercise.

"[It] probably flushed a lot of writerly poisons out of my system," he explains. "And then I had to go on and start something new." That something new was Harrison's Break and Enter, the first of his seven wildly successful, published novels.

Though there is no formula for a successful first novel, the writers who make it through tend to be mulish, or obsessed with a single event or idea.

The Report
The Report: A Novel
By Jessica Francis Kane
Paperback, 256 pages
Graywolf Press
List price: $15
Read An Excerpt

Short story writer Jessica Francis Kane spent 10 years on her first novel, which did get published. Her motivation came from a true story: While living in London, Kane read about the Bethnal Greene tube disaster — World War II's worst civilian accident — during which 173 people suffocated trying to enter the subway station's air-raid shelter. There never was a German air raid that night, and no one has ever figured out exactly what happened. And so Kane found herself hooked by a historical mystery that she couldn't fit into a short story.

"Friends used to say to me, 'What's your problem? [Novels are] easier. You can put everything in,'" Kane recalls. "[In] short stories, every word counts and in a novel you can write and write and write. They seemed so sure of that. And yet I think as a writer I am kind of a minimalist. I like compression and concision."

Compression and concision are indeed on parade in the The Report, Kane's just-published novel. It was recently shortlisted for the Center for Fiction's 2010 First Novel Prize. (You can read our review of The Report here.)

Like Kane, writer Susanna Daniel was a short-story writer who got hooked by a larger-than-short-story idea — following a marriage over many, many years. Daniel, too, spent a decade — much of it, she says, in "hand-wringing" — on her first novel, Stiltsville. The second chapter in particular gave her fits; it's where her main characters, Frances and Dennis, fall in love.

stiltsville
Stiltsville: A Novel
By Susanna Daniel
Hardcover, 320 pages
HarperCollins
List price: $24.99

Read An Excerpt

"I didn't want to show just the up side of falling in love," says Daniel. "I wanted to show some of the ambivalence. I didn't want it to be all hot sex and long conversations."

Which it's not, by any means. Dennis and Frances' relationship in Stiltsville hurks and jerks along, just like real-life romance. Daniel says a fascination with her character, Frances, helped keep her writing.

"Her [point of view] has such strong narrative drive that as a reader I would want to read more," Daniel says. "Her quiet powerful gaze on the world is, I think, a page-turner."

Both The Report and  Stiltsville were Barnes and Noble discover picks for great new writers. And Kane and  Daniel both say getting their novels published was worth the angst and consternation of the 10-year writing process. But Harrison says that's a process that scares off a lot of young writers.

"Unfortunately nobody's waiting for you," he says. "No one's expecting you to be here — you in particular. It takes a certain kind of bull-headed, determined person who probably has other ways of being conventionally successful to stay the course quietly without external recognition."

Talk to any publisher or literary agent, however, and you'll hear they're inundated with manuscripts. Evidently there are still plenty of bull-headed writers out there, slogging away.

Excerpt: 'The Report'

The Report
The Report: A Novel
By Jessica Francis Kane
Paperback, 256 pages
Graywolf Press
List price: $15

At the town hall Bertram was given the job of documenting the dead, recording what was in their pockets, and returning the items to the families. The mayor and deputy mayor, senior clerks and wardens — even some of the more capable members of the Home Guard — were all preoccupied with petitions from the borough council, the Regional Commissioners, the London City Council, the Ministry of Civil Defense, and the Ministry of Information. Even the Ministry of Food was concerned, about the victory gardens and window boxes that might now lie fallow if the number of dead proved to be as high as was thought. A campaign to sustain the gardening effort was suggested, with "Save the Green in Bethnal Green" proposed as a motto. Mr. Wycomb, senior clerk — a friendly man who blinked and swallowed frequently, sending his Adam's apple up and down — guffawed.

"Someone's got us confused with the West End, mate," he said.

There were also the editors and reporters, borough engineers, city engineers — all concerned with matters more critical than the contents of pockets. What had gone wrong? What could be done to prevent it from happening again? Would there be a public or a private inquiry? These questions were compelling because still unclear.

The dead, however, were clear enough. They needed to be counted and identified; their personal items, returned. Mr. Wycomb put his hand on Bertram's shoulder and handed him a notebook.

Bertram's expression must have worried him. "Whatever you want, Bert. It isn't going to be easy."

"Where are they?"

"All over, I'm afraid. You might start at the hospital. Best I can tell, some are there and some are at the morgue. The maternity ward got a few of the women and children, apparently."

"And Regional Commissioners want to know what's in their pockets?"

"That's right. And bags and purses. You know. Whatever they were carrying."

"Why?"

"Not sure, mate."

"But what do they expect to find?"

Wycomb rubbed his eyes. "Who knows."

Bertram took the notebook. "Do I have to use this?" The cover was green, reminding him of the girl's shoes that night. That the job had fallen to him seemed preordained.

"Of course not. I was just trying to get you started. Do whatever you like. Maybe they want incriminating evidence. Maybe it's an assignment from those eavesdroppers, Ministry of Information. Maybe they just want to return the belongings to the families, 'who have already lost so much'" — he parodied Herbert Morrison. "I'm sure that's what we'll read in the papers. Can Clare go with you?"

"I might see."

"I would."

But when Bertram asked the next morning, Clare said she couldn't. She had an assignment from Mass Observation, for whom she volunteered.

"They're sending me into Stepney. They want to know what the Jews are saying about the accident." She was making him breakfast, and when she saw his face, she helped him gather what he'd need and pack his bag. She even walked with him part of the way to the hospital. "Are you all right?" she asked.

He nodded, but they both knew it was a lie.

"Bring everything home tonight, and I'll help you sort through it."

He nodded. "I don't think I can do this."

She kissed his forehead. "I'll help you tonight."

Alone, Clare's kiss drying on his skin, Bertram could think of nothing but the accident, how he'd been sitting in the park, watching the poplar leaves across the water. Then what? He couldn't recall, exactly. Did he walk or run? Speak or scream? He did remember the feeling of his hands on someone's back, someone else's hands on him. He'd heard a siren, a child's cry, everything enfeebled by the wind that came up suddenly around them. A shop awning flapped white above the crowd. He remembered thinking that he'd never seen so many people on the Roman Road, all converging on the shelter, streaming out of shops, climbing out of buses. The night was clear — he remembered that — but the pavement damp, amplifying the slap and grind of so many people rushing. The crowd had grown thick fast. The faces Bertram remembered were confused but not frightened. Most people were moving quickly, not talking, he thought, except for one man deep in his pints, belting out the national anthem as he ran.

And when was that? How close had Bertram been to the entrance then?

In front of the hospital gates, Bertram could smell a coal fire and damp earth, two seasons in the air on the same day. A gentle rain fell over the street, the raindrops steady enough to set the leaves all around to nodding. He tried to see it as encouragement, but it looked more like shock. He adjusted his umbrella, then crossed the street for the café next to the boarded-up Red Lion.

The shopkeeper asked how he was feeling; did he need a roll with his tea?

He shook his head.

"Are you sure? I've some left over from yesterday."

He took the roll — it seemed easier than refusing again — then sat by the curtained window and watched the street through the large holes of cheap lace. He saw a boy of eight or nine walking with his mother. They were making slow progress, and it wasn't until they were closer that Bertram realized it was because the boy's eyes were closed. He seemed to be trying to impress his mother with his intimate knowledge of the street, naming every place as they passed with his eyes tightly closed. In front of the bombed sites, he would throw his arms up and make noises with his mouth. She remained unperturbed. Bertram saw her pause only once, when she pulled her hand out of the boy's to brush something from her cheek. Her boy's eyes popped open then, and he waited.

Tea and roll were indistinguishable (both tasted vaguely of potatoes), but Bertram began to feel better with something in his stomach. When he left, the shopkeeper called after him. "There now. I thought you were hungry!"

People want to take care of each other, he thought. Until they can't.

And when had that been? How close was he to the entrance then? His fear, what he didn't want to tell Clare, was that he might have been pushing on a dead man. How could he know? Where had the boundary been?

Jessica Francis Kane, excerpt from The Report. Copyright 2010 by Jessica Francis Kane. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press.

Excerpt: 'Stiltsville'

stiltsville
Stiltsville: A Novel
By Susanna Daniel
Hardcover, 320 pages
HarperCollins
List price: $24.99

1969

On a Sunday morning in late July, at the end of my first-ever visit to Miami, I took a cab from my hotel to Snapper Creek marina to join a woman named Marse Heiger, whom I’d met the day before. When I stepped out of the cab, I saw Marse standing in the well of her little fishing boat, wearing denim knee shorts and a yellow sleeveless blouse, her stiff brown hair pinned under a bandanna. She waved and gestured for me to climb into the boat. She poured me a mug of coffee from an aluminum thermos and started the engine. "Ready?" she said.

We puttered out of the marina, under a bridge from which two black boys were fishing with what looked like homemade poles, down a winding canal flanked by mangroves. The knobby, twining roots rose from the water. I sat on a cushioned bench and Marse sat in a captain’s chair at the helm. She handed me a scarf and told me to tie back my hair, which I did. We passed an egret standing stock-still on a mangrove root, then emerged from the canal into the wide, open bay. The Miami shoreline stretched out in both directions. Marse picked up speed, and each time we came down on a wave, I gripped the corner of my bench.

I’d grown up in Decatur, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, and had been to the ocean only once, when I was eleven years old. My parents and I had spent a weekend on Saint Simons island, in a one-bedroom rental cottage three blocks from the beach. That weekend, I’d seen a dark fin from shore, but my father had said it was probably just a dolphin. And though I’d spent a few afternoons on lake pontoons with friends during college, never had I been out on the open water. From halfway across the bay I could see the low silhouette of downtown Miami, where Freedom Tower spiked above the blocky buildings. The bridge connecting the city to Key Biscayne looked like a stroke of watercolor. Above the wind and whine of the engine, Marse named Miami’s parts for me, pointing: farthest southwest were the Everglades, then the twin nuclear reactors at Turkey Point — just built but not yet in operation — then Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, then downtown. To the east, the Cape Florida lighthouse squatted at the tip of Key Biscayne, signaling the edge of a continent.

We landed hard on each wave and the spray hit my face. Marse’s boat — an eleven-foot Boston Whaler with a single outboard engine — was, in my estimation, little more than a dinghy. When we’d traveled fifteen minutes across the bay, Marse pointed ahead, away from shore. There was nothing there but sea and sky, but then a few matchbox shapes formed on the hazy horizon. They grew larger and I saw that they were houses, propped above the water on pilings. I counted four­teen of them. As we neared, I saw that some were painted, some were two stories high, some had boats moored at the docks, and some were shuttered and still. They stood on cement pillars, flanking a dark chan­nel along the rim of the bay, as if guarding it from the open ocean. Marse slowed the boat as we entered the channel, and when we came to a red-painted house with white shutters, she shifted into neutral. A larger boat was tied to the dock, but there was no one around to greet us. Marse cut the engine and the world stilled. "Where are they?" she said. A plastic owl perched atop a dock piling. An open bag of potato chips sat in a rocking chair on the upstairs porch.

"Guys?" called Marse. She stepped to the house’s dock with the stern line. I took her cue and stepped up with the bowline. I imitated Marse’s knot, a figure eight with an inward loop, and after the boat was secured, I heard shouting in the distance. I turned. Two men stood on the dock of a stilt house eighty yards east; they waved at us. One was dark-haired and held a duffel bag, and the other was fair-haired and wore bright orange swimming trunks. Marse waved back, and because the waving went on for several seconds, I raised my arm as well. As I did, the fair-haired boy dove off the dock into the water, then started to swim.

I’d taken the train from Atlanta two days earlier to attend the wed­ding of a college girlfriend. I’d met Marse at the reception, and we’d spent an hour chatting about Atlanta and Miami, and about the brides­maids’ dresses and the best man’s toast. Her given name was Marilyn, but Marse — rhymes with arse, as she put it — was a family nickname. From what little I knew of the city, I concluded that Marse was a true native daughter: she was darkly tan, with premature lines around her eyes, and she dressed in a confident, sexy way that anywhere else would have seemed showy, but in Miami was unexceptional, even practical. She’d grown up in Coral Gables, in a Spanish-style bungalow with a wraparound porch and no air-conditioning, and had never considered moving out of South Florida. When she’d invited me to spend the day with her at a place called Stiltsville, I’d accepted readily. So that Sunday morning, I’d dressed in a pair of Bermuda shorts and my most becoming top — still plain compared with Marse’s blouse — and called a taxi.

While we waited in rocking chairs on the upstairs porch for the boys to arrive, Marse filled me in. The dark-haired boy was Kyle, her older brother, and the fair-headed one was Dennis DuVal, whose par­ents owned the stilt house where we were sitting. Kyle and Dennis were in their last year of law school at the University of Miami; Marse was a year behind them. "You’ll like Kyle," Marse said. "Girls tend to."

"And Dennis?"

"Dennis is mine. That’s the plan, anyway."

She wore dark sunglasses and she’d pulled off her top to reveal two triangles of purple bikini. Her stomach was flat and tan, with taut creases across the navel. The boys were yards from the dock, arms and legs lashing, sending up brief white wakes. "Does Kyle know I’m coming?" I said.

She nodded. "Don’t worry, there’s no pressure. You’ll be gone to­morrow, anyway."

It was true: my train back to Atlanta left the following afternoon. In the time since I’d graduated from college, I’d dated a few colleagues from the bank where I worked as a teller. I was twenty-six years old, and though I’d come close, I’d never been in love. "What’s your plan with Dennis?" I said.

She took lip balm from her pocket and applied it, then handed it to me. "There’s this fund-raiser every year at Vizcaya," she said. She didn’t explain what Vizcaya was but I already knew — it was a Renaissance-style villa on the bay in Coconut Grove, surrounded by elaborate formal gardens, open for tours and events. I’d visited Vizcaya the day before the wedding, sightseeing. I’d walked alone through the overdressed rooms, then stood on the limestone terrace and watched sailboats cross the bay. "Everyone dresses up and picnics on their good china and drinks champagne."

"You’re going to ask him?" I said.

"I’m hoping he’ll ask me."

"What if he doesn’t?"

She frowned. "You’re no fun."

Excerpted from Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel Copyright 2010 by Susanna Daniel. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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