LIANE HANSEN, host:
All over the world, aspiring writers are trying to churn out that first novel. It's a masochistic adventure. They spend years in obscurity, make no money, and there's no guarantee that anyone will want to read what they're written.
Martha Woodruff talked to two authors about their first novels to discover what made them not only decide to do it but to keep at it.
MARTHA WOODRUFF: Writing a first novel, says novelist and editor Colin Harrison, is not for the faint of heart. His own first novel, for example, took five years to complete and was rejected by everybody.
Mr. COLIN HARRISON (Novelist, Editor): And that, although I didn't realize it at the time, was a fantastic stroke of luck because that first novel that I had worked so hard on was terrible. It really was.
WOODRUFF: In his case, Harrison says, that first unpublishable novel served as a valuable, if painful, training exercise.
Mr. HARRISON: And probably flushed a lot of writerly poisons out of my system. And I had to go on and then start something new.
WOODRUFF: That something new was Harrison's "Break and Enter," the first of his seven wildly successful - and published - novels.
Jessica Francis Kane spent 10 years on her first novel, but it did get published. Her motivation to begin 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 tube station. As there was no German air raid that night, no one has ever been able to figure out what happened. And so, Kane found herself hooked by an historical mystery demanding greater than short story length.
Ms. JESSICA FRANCIS KANE (Novelist): Friends used to say to me, what's your problem? It's easier. You can put everything 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 that as a writer I am kind of a minimalist. I like compression and concision.
WOODRUFF: Compression and concision are indeed on parade in "The Report," Kane's just-published novel. Here, a mother, Ada, loses hold of her four-year-old daughter Emma's hand on the crowded tube station steps.
Ms. KANE: (Reading) The stairwell seemed to swallow her. The weight of the falling crowd sucked her in. My daughter's in there, Ada screamed, and she clawed at the people in her way. A few seconds later, she turned to one person for help, a warden in a white tin hat, but when she saw the terror and confusion on this man's face, she became silent, full of purpose. She would have to get Emma out by herself.
WOODRUFF: "The Report" has been shortlisted for the Center for Fiction's 2010 First Novel prize.
Like Kane, writer Susanna Daniel was a short-storyist 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.
Ms. SUSANNA DANIEL (Writer): I didn't want to just show kind of the upside of falling in love. I wanted to show some of the ambivalence. Not just wanting to be hot sex and long dinners and long conversation.
WOODRUFF: 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.
Ms. DANIEL: Her point of view, to me, has such strong narrative drive that, you know, as a reader I would want to read more from her point of view. Just sort of her quiet powerful gaze on the world, I think, is a page-turner.
WOODRUFF: In this passage, Frances looks back 30 years later on her decision to marry.
Ms. DANIEL: (Reading) When Dennis did propose, kneeling on the stillhouse dock where we'd met, I believed my love for him was strong. Now, though, I know it was a blip, a farce, a thousand times my love might have dampened instead of swelled. I had no idea then what would happen to my love, what nourishment it would receive, how mighty it would grow. I thought, I love him. And so, as if it were the only answer I could give, the only answer available to me, I said yes.
WOODRUFF: 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 novelist Colin Harrison says it is a process that scares off a lot of young writers.
Mr. HARRISON: Unfortunately, no one's looking at their watch, tapping their foot, saying, hey, where are you? I'm expecting you to be here - you in particular. And 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.
WOODRUFF: Talk to any publisher or literary agent, however, and you'll hear they're inundated with manuscripts. So, evidently there are still lots of bull-headed writers out there slogging away on first novels.
For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodruff.
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HANSEN: You can read excerpts from Jessica Francis Kane's and Susanna Daniel's first novels and tips from Colin Harrison for making your first novel fabulous. It's all at our website, NPR.org.
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