Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series.
In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.
Episode III: "Your confidence is a wonderland"
In the third installment, I set up Nellie Hermann (above) with Courtney Maum (below). They discuss Flaubert, reviews on Goodreads, posting your breakfast to social media, Courtney’s years as a party promoter, Nellie’s experience teaching writing to doctors & more.
Andrew: Welcome to the third installment of PIXELATED. I’m here with novelists Nellie Hermann, author of THE SEASON OF MIGRATION (FSG, January 2015) and Courtney Maum, author of I AM HAVING SO MUCH FUN HERE WITHOUT YOU (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, June 2014).
Both books claim a visual artist as their protagonist: one you haven’t heard of (Maum’s fictional Richard Haddon) and one you have (Hermann’s Vincent van Gogh). Haddon is the terribly unlikable character you end up liking. In Maum’s often hilarious telling, he’s turned his art into commodity and his marriage into a shell, choosing another woman—until she chooses another man. The New York Times’ Leah Hager Cohen couldn’t have put better words to it than “a portrait of a crisis”—but she didn’t. Those words were meant for THE SEASON OF MIGRATION; the portrait is one lasting ten months (before van Gogh became van Gogh) and the crisis is one of faith (and a whole lot more). In a rare, sublime and ethereal piece, Hermann creates the intimate out of the historical.
First things first, would you a) each kindly describe your current environs, and b) confirm whether you have ever met?
Nellie: Oh I thought this was gonna be video! Okay figuring this out. I'm currently in my apartment sitting at my kitchen table. I don't think we've ever met .... though boy Courtney your name is familiar to me! Have we met??
Courtney: I'm currently in my mother's place in Stuart, Florida. My mom is playing in the living room with my baby daughter. I'm hiding from my daughter in my mother's bed. I haven't been fortunate enough to meet Nellie, no!
Andrew: I should be more clear that this isn't going to be video—that's a common theme.
Courtney: And thank you, Andrew, for the lovely introduction! Only fair that we ask where you are, too!
Nellie: Ha. No problem it's better this way.
Andrew: I'm in Gainesville, Florida—not quite as vacation-worthy as Stuart.
Nellie: You florida people!! I'm so jealous. It's forever cold here in NY these days.
Andrew: Here's a conversation-starter. The famous, ambiguously-credited line—“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—probably works equally as well with any four arts substituted in. Behind its wit is the hard truth that’s impossible to convey the magic of any art with the tools of another. You both can bypass this trouble by painting the man, not the art. Did you find constructing a character naturally full of tangible expression more difficult?
Courtney: I found it enjoyable to describe my narrator's artistic process. Both while he was creating the work, and after it was done. My protagonist does a lot of pop-culture-y installation pieces, so that's not too hard to describe. Reading is still a visual medium. Your reader comes to the page ready to imagine what you tell them to. So it's not that big of a leap to ask them to imagine a piece of art. What's really tricky, I'm finding, is writing about music. Which is something I was trying this morning. It's much harder to get a reader to imagine the way that something sounds than the way that something looks.
Nellie: I don't think it's any more difficult than constructing any kind of character ... in fact maybe easier, because any artist I think is fundamentally struggling with how to express what it's like to live in the world ... and that's a struggle I can understand.
Andrew: Then maybe I was wrong about the mutability of the phrase.
Nellie: Oh god yes I can't imagine trying to write about music. The visual art and expression far easier I would think.
Nellie: I like the way you put that Courtney, about reading still being a visual medium. I don't think I thought about it that way but that makes a lot of sense.
Courtney: Well, I've always thought about it in visual terms but maybe to a fault. For example, I often describe what my characters are wearing because I see what they're wearing in my head, and naturally want to share that information so that other people see it, too. Because of this I sometimes get slammed for not being "literary" enough. Because it's low brow, you know, to describe somebody's shoes.
Nellie: Is it??? No way. Flaubert did it!
Andrew: Yeah—who's slamming that?
Courtney: He did. He's also Flaubert, though. So.
Nellie: Ha. True.
Courtney: Oh, it's something I hear from people-- someone wrote me on Goodreads about how much they hated the description of people's clothing. People take time out of their day—total strangers—to tell you things like that.
Nellie: HA. Oh, goodreads. I learned that lesson long ago -- do NOT read goodreads reviews.
Andrew: Goodreads reviews are something Flaubert certainly didn't have to deal with.
Courtney: Oh, I don't! It was a woman who wrote me personally. Via Goodreads in mail or whatever the heck it's called.
Nellie: OH jeez. I haven't gotten one of those yet.
Did you respond?
Courtney: No. I'm remembering it now. I reviewed my own book on Goodreads, you know, how people do, gave it a winky 5 stars. and she commented right under my own review about how distracting all the clothing descriptions were.
I could care less. It isn't stopping me. I can't be stopped.
Nellie: You can review your own book?? Did not know that.
Andrew: It would be odd if that stopped you.
Courtney: CBM dropping the knowledge!
Nellie: I'm totally gonna go review my book like 100 times now.
Courtney: You can only do it once and it will notify everyone that it's an "author review". Most authors do tongue-in-cheek five star reviews.
Nellie: Ohhh okay yeah that's weird.
I definitely still have no figured out goodreads. It's a scary place.
Courtney: I held off for a couple months and then caved. Starred my own book. You get driven to this point, don't you. Of desperation. Or at least I did! Was this your first novel, Nellie?
Nellie: No, this is my second. Yes you do get driven to it...
Andrew: Do either of you feel pressure to engage fans through Goodreads, Twitter, whatever else...
Nellie: Ugh. This whole topic ... I feel so speechless about it. My book just came out a month or so ago so I'm really in the thick of this still, but hate it. Pressure, maybe, yes, but I'm certainly not doing much "engaging of fans' on any media ... this is not what writers are good at!! No?
Courtney: I'm terrible at engaging people. I love Twitter, have a love/hate thing with Facebook, but I mostly post sarcastic comments or funny observations that are just statements. I don't really engage people. I'm just mumbling to myself in a corner, really. But then my book comes out, I panic—I beg. Please buy my book! It's very hard, even with good reviews and what not, to get people to buy your book.
Nellie: I feel so grateful when people (like you Andrew!!) reach out to me to do stuff, and I say yes to pretty much everything, but I really don't know how to do this stuff. Totally agree Courtney. And I have all these friends posting things about press they're getting and they seem to be engaging all the right people ... but how are they doing it?? No idea.
Andrew: What's the portion of published "literary" writers that have publicists, etc.?
Courtney: I don't know. I have friends and acquaintances who are the type to wake up and post, "Good morning, Facebook! What are you having for breakfast today? Here's a picture of my breakfast taco!" But I do not have time to take a picture of that taco and I don't have time wait around to see pictures of yours.
Andrew: There should be a term for those sort of posts, and a filter for those sort of posts.
Courtney: Literary writers that have publicists? No idea. Think it depends on the house. Mine was in-house with Touchstone. I know some people who have hired publicists out of house on their own dime.
Nellie: I was just wondering about this the other day, because someone posted on FB about a publicity company for writers, you know pay a fee and they push your book for you in all these different ways, and I was wondering how many people do that stuff? Do you just let you publishing company if you're lucky enough to have a good one work for you and then inevitably feel like no one's working hard enough? Ugh. And then I hate feeling ungrateful, because I'm really not! I'm really grateful!
Courtney: There is a term for that, Andrew. It's called "procrastination."
Nellie: Ha. Yes. I admit I lurk on FB far more than I post anything.
Andrew: But as a Twitter reader, I wish I could click a button that said "earnest" or "jetsam".
Courtney: Jetsam's pretty good.
Nellie: Ha! Love it
Andrew: I'll email it to Jack Dorsey
Andrew: What's amazing to me is who's "killing it" on Twitter as a writer
Like, 180k followers without a properly designed cover
Courtney: Yep. They're probably sharing photos of their breakfast.
Nellie: Who are these people??
Andrew: Breakfast tacos in particular, the most viral of foods
Nellie: They must be paying for those followers. Someone recently introduced me to the fact that you can pay all these companies for twitter followers and fb friends. So weird.
Courtney: I don't know. I just don't...I don't mean to be rude but I don't care. I truly don't care what you're having for breakfast. Like, I do, in the larger sense-- it's actually very interesting to me how writers fuel themselves, but I think it's grody knowing what everyone is thinking and wearing and doing and smelling like at any given moment. I'm for the return of mystique.
Nellie: Amen sister
Andrew: Fuck yes
Courtney: But for the record, I smell like suntan lotion.
At least, right now.
Andrew: I'd hope that wasn't a permanent disposition.
Nellie: Suntan lotion! Such a foreign concept to me right now.
Andrew: Did either of you spend time in your novel's locale?
Nellie: Nope! Funny you should ask that, I'm actually planning a trip to go there in March! But haven't been before.
Courtney: Yes. I lived in France for five years in my twenties, and most of my book takes place in Paris. Some of it takes place in a London suburb, too, but I only visited that particular place with Google maps.
Andrew: What were you doing for five years in France?
Courtney: That's pretty impressive, Nellie, that you wrote such a sensuous novel without visiting the artist's haunts.
Nellie: Well I figured it was so different now than it was back then ... I did check it out on Google maps as well and decided that it wouldn't even really help me all that much to go.
Courtney: I was a party promoter for Corona Extra. Really. And I was writing this book. I originally wrote it ten years ago while I was in Paris. Came close, but never sold. It stayed in a box for ten years. I wrote it completely from scratch while I was pregnant, and...voila. It finally sold.
Nellie: Whoa! What a great story! To revisit something and make it come alive again ...
I think about that with old stories of mine but it just feels so daunting to revisit something after so much time ... that's inspiring.
Courtney: It was a strange experience. My book is about adultery and a marriage coming apart so it was heavy to write while I was pregnant with our first child.
Nellie: Also a party promoter for Corona?? That sounds like not-your-average-writers-job
Andrew: Yeah—what did that involve?
Courtney: Oh, the revision was far too daunting. That's why I re-wrote it completely from scratch. I didn't want to. I have a very aggressive agent and she insisted that this book was my debut novel. Which it really was. I mean, I have all these discarded book manuscripts but that's the only one I ever really felt like I got right. That had a chance.
Nellie: So you kept the bones of the story that you remembered but literally didn't use any of the old text? How did that go?
Courtney: The Corona thing was the only way I could get a Visa! I was working in translation and trend forecasting on the side but couldn't get a work visa through that. I met a guy (friend of a friend) at a Corona party, and he said, "I'm leaving for med school tomorrow, want my job?" The very next day I had an interview and was given a set of keys to a Coronamobile. The funny thing is I can't stand Corona.
Courtney: Back to Nellie's question-- it went really well! Knowing that my daughter's birth was arriving was a pretty serious deadline so I just wrote like a woman possessed. Plus, when I first wrote the book, I wasn't married. Now I've been married for 10 years so it was easier for me to access the frustrations, compassion, all the up and down emotions of the couple in the book.
What got you interested, Nellie, in Van Gogh's life/inner life?
Nellie: Did you find yourself having trouble letting go of any of the old book? I'm still just stuck on this idea of completely re-writing an old book ...
Courtney: It became easier once I just completely put the old manuscript away and sat in front of a blank page. I truly didn't care. I've gotten pretty ruthless in terms of revision. I have so very many pages of discarded writing at this point it just doesn't matter any more, I don't stay too attached.
Nellie: I've been getting that question a lot and it's hard to answer! I'm not exactly sure, just when I started to read his letters and learn about his early life I got totally hooked. I had no idea that he had tried to be a preacher or had struggled so much with "what to do with his life," at the time I was around the same age and I think I just related to that ... plus he's an amazing writer! And I really loved being in his voice and his world ...
That's very cool.
Courtney: I just read a review of your book ( you have fantastic reviews) that said your structure really echoed his mental state. What's the structure of the book like and how'd you come to it?
Nellie: What review is that??!
Courtney: I'm just looking at your Amazon page- Electric Literature. "and in its structure, justice to the tumult of the painter’s troubled, violent life.” —Jake Zucker, Electric Literature
Nellie: The book is divided into two narratives, one third person about him walking to Paris to see his brother and deliver him the letters he's been writing to him, and the other the letters themselves. It took a while to figure it out ... for a long time the book was completely in the first person and wasn't even written in letters ... bringing in the third person allowed it to breathe a bit better because VG is not the easiest character. Even though I would happily read in his voice for 300 pages I don't think most people would.
Oh that review! Yes I think that one is my favorite.
It's weird how books come to be in their final forms, right? It's like a comment from one reader here, a certain insight there ... and then you just step back and pray that it's right ... but in the end I sort of have no idea how it happened.
Courtney: That's interesting. People who didn't like my book, or who the book didn't connect with, mostly didn't because of the very (very!) strong first person voice.
Nellie: Hmm interesting. Yeah that was a comment I got from a few early readers, that his voice was just two intense -- very internal and discursive and I think people found it hard to take.
too I mean! Not two
Courtney: So you delved into the life of van Gogh-- I have this book on deck that takes place in the first person fictional voice of John Mayer. You know, he of "Your Body is a Wonderland?"
Courtney: I think it's fascinating, imagining the interior lives of real people. Especially famous ones.
Nellie: I mean no, that's a joke right?
Courtney: No. Really.
A whole book.
Nellie: WHAT. What is this book.
Courtney: It's called "John Mayer Reviews Things." It was the book I was trying to sell when my agent was like, this insane thing is NOT your debut book.
Nellie: OMG I love this idea. YES.
Courtney: If you read the first installment of my "Celebrity Book Review" on Electric Literature, it's in my John Mayer voice.
Nellie: Speechless on this one. Can't wait to read.
Courtney: I "method wrote" the book. I went out to LA, lived in Joshua tree, went to strip clubs, snuck into the Chateau Marmont. It was awesome.
Nellie: What?? You are just becoming cooler and cooler by the second.
Courtney: As are you! Any way, I think it's awesome that you also are kind of freaky in that you want to get into the world inside real people's heads.
But it's fascinating, isn't it? Trying to imagine other creative people's processes? It's a fun way to circumvent the torture of your own
Nellie: I do! It's weird I've been thinking that my next book wouldn't be historical at all but I'm still drawn to trying to imagine my way into another (real) human. The idea of writing into one that is alive and contemporary is so awesome -- I confess that the one thing I've been working on lately is a weird piece where I try to be Edward Snowden. (!)
Which is impossible.
Courtney: I wrote a celebrity book review from his POV!
We are IN SYNC
Nellie: I didn't think I'd ever tell anyone that but you've got it out of me.
Courtney: The role I'm attracted to taking on is Bernie Madoff's wife
Nellie: OMG GREAT ONE
Okay we need to talk off line about all of this. I see a collaboration coming on.
Courtney: Thank you! Another temptation is Tonya Harding. I like assholes, as you can see
Courtney: You still there, Andrew? You getting us drinks or what
Andrew: Of course, legally, I get 15% of all profits made from any collaboration started during this discussion.
Courtney: never signed that, bro
Andrew: Sorry guys, I've got a team of attorneys on hand
Nellie: It is pretty great. We'll make you a t-shirt or something.
I've got to ask Nellie something that I'm super curious about and we've got like 15 minutes left.
Nellie: ask away
Andrew: I read that you teach writing to med students, which makes me curious in a lot of ways (my girlfriend is in med school).
What type of fiction are med students writing?
Courtney: OMG NELLIE IS WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS
Andrew: Nellie—please confirm or deny
Are you, in fact, William Carlos Williams
Nellie: Yes I do! To all kinds of medical people really, less so the med students these days. But in my experience med students write all kinds of fiction! Nothing I could easily pin down. They often want to write really wild stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with real life or medicine .. but not always, sometimes they process what they've been through in their fiction ... anyway lots of stuff! Like real people!
You got me
I am, in fact, WCW
though I'm not a doctor. Or a poet. But I'm still him.
Andrew: I guess I was hoping they all wrote like, psycho erotic thrillers for some reason
Nellie: Hmm. I can't say I've seen any of those. But I'm sure they're out there ...
Nellie: Yeah no, I'm trying to think if I've ever seen anything that was worrisome in any way ... most of the stuff has been pretty tame.
but good! Definitely some good stuff!
Andrew: OK, here's something else for the both of you: I feel the trend of reinventing your life as fiction is exponentially increasing. Both of your books are so very not that. Is it something either of you are eyeing for the future?
Courtney: eff no.
Nellie: Well I kindof already did that for my first book. So I'd like to not do that anymore thank you very much.
Andrew: I guess you really can only do that once
Courtney: I like making things up. I saw somewhere on Twitter the other day that someone said writers are people who wear glasses and like to lie. That's me.
Nellie: I mean I'll be mining that stuff forever, I know, and that's okay.
But I think the first book let me get my own story out of my system in a way, so that I could go onto focus on other stories.
Courtney: I mean, obviously I'll always be pulling on experiences from my real life but I feel no desire to fictionalize my own life.
Nellie: no corona novel on its way?
The Magic Bus revisited?
Andrew: Yeah, really
Courtney: I tried. The only way I like sharing those stories is drunk around the dinner table or behind a mike. They don't come out well on the written page.
Courtney: My non fiction is very dark. So I wasn't able to communicate the humor of it all.
Nellie: Ha. This is a whole other thing we could talk about -- I have trouble with humor in my writing. Not in my life though! Just in my writing. Both my books have been very serious and dark. I guess it's just my thing and that's okay. but I admire you for writing funny!
Courtney: Well, I try. Am trying.
That's all we can do, right?
Nellie: I can tell already by this John Mayer piece that you are good at this. A whole book written by John Mayer??!!! I still can't get over this it's so good.
"you have got to ReFresh." !!! Amazing.
Courtney: I need an actual room full of attorneys though to make it happen. Or I need John Mayer. He has, as of yet, escaped my evil grip.
Nellie: Right. We'll make it happen.
Andrew: I'll be sure to tag him when I post this
Dude has 650k followers
Courtney: Thank you, Nellie. Your confidence is a wonderland.
Nellie: No one reached out to you when you published this piece? None of his people?
Andrew: And he has one favorite: someone posting "O to enjoy this perfect evening in the moment and simultaneously realize it will be remembered on our deathbeds!"
Nellie: No way. Come on now. You just can't make that stuff up.
(or can you?...)
Andrew: Isn't life just a made-up John Mayer fan fiction?
Courtney: What is this deathbed stuff? No, Nellie, I even managed through personal contacts to get the full MS into his manager's hands but I don't think it ever got into Mayer's. It's okay. I have a master plan. Publish a second novel, make my name mean something, than I am COMING for that man.
Yes, Andrew. Obvs.
Nellie: I'm starting to think it sure is.
Oh I am so happy we've met now Courtney, I need to be witness to this journey.
Courtney: I'm happy, too! You really know how to pick these third parties, Andrew! Now, if you two will excuse me, I have to change my daughter's diaper. Cool? We out?
Best exit ever.
Thanks for playing guys! This was a lot of fun.
Nellie: Totally. Thank you Andrew for this!! So fun! And Courtney I'm gonna be in touch soon. Have fun in Florida you luckies!!
Courtney: Nellie, get my contact from Andrew, we will plot and scheme. Thank you for having me!