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 XXI: "A misunderstanding of what books can do"
In this installment, I set up Molly Antopol (above) with Sophie McManus (below). They discuss choosing titles, complex characters, nightmare protagonist dinner parties, becoming a writer, the dreaded question & more.
Andrew Lipstein: Today I’m with The Uns: Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericas (WW Norton, 2014; long-listed for the National Book Award), and Sophie McManus, author of The Unfortunates (FSG, 2015; long-listed for the NBCC’s John Leonard Prize). A friend suggested I invoke Lenny Bruce here, specifically his claim that everything can be broken down into the goyish and the Jewish, but each book defies easy categorization, and the two resonate in a real way.
The UnAmericans is a collection of stories that melds humanity with vitality with the intimate. In each one, the reader is submerged into characters teeming with want, in a world of indifference. At that boundary of the self and reality comes a chaotic, uncertain and singular beauty.
The Unfortunates, like its protagonist Cecilia Somner, is larger-than-life, a sweeping tale of corruption, old money, new problems, and status (in every sense of the word). What is at stake is a loss of decency, but that’s what also holds it together, the substrate of humanness found in all true stories.
So, to begin: Have you met? Where are you? What do you see?
Molly Antopol: Thanks for that lovely intro, Andrew!
Sophie McManus: Yes that was lovely! I don't think we have, but we share Erica Ehrenberg as a dear friend I think?
MA: Erica!! Yes, she's the best. How do you two know each other?
SM: We were fellows at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and took long walks on the cold beach together, and her poems still/forever rattle around in my head all the time. How do you know her? She might be mortified that we are talking about her!
MA: I always have her poems rattling around in my head, too -- she's amazing! Maybe you know Amanda Coplin then, too?
SM: I do, I do! The writing world is small.
MA: We did the Stegner together, and we lived down the block from each other in San Francisco ... she's so wonderful. Amanda too! Yep, super small world. Where do you live now?
SM: I am in Brooklyn, sigh. I wish I had a more exciting answer. I try to leave, and then everyone I know, and all the jobs, are here. Where are you?
MA: In Cambridge, MA, but just till the fall. Then back to the Bay Area. Also not a very exciting answer!
SM: And, since we are both Un-s, how did you get to your Un title?
MA: I had this long list of titles while I was writing my stories, and they were all horrible...I liked the play on the McCarthy connotation. I didn't know how it would make sense with all the stories, but it ended up being kind of a fun challenge. How about you?
SM: Titling a story collection, unless you have a story that seems to be a big obvious headliner with a great title -- it just seems impossible. I worked as an assistant to a literary agent and she told me to write a title a day and after a year I'd have a bunch of good titles to choose from. I did that for three years and had a thousand bad titles, the document of an insane person. And then 24 hours before the book's catalog copy was due the word unfortunate popped out of the text at me. And I went, PHEW.
MA: 24 hours before? That's amazing! It's a great title. Btw, I'm in the middle of your book and am really loving it. The writing's incredible. And CeCe's my favorite kind of character -- it's so satisfying to read about her.
SM: Oh thank you! I can't wait to read your book. It's on my desk as I type. Did you get unlikable character flack over any of your stories? My sense is your characters are all my favorite kinds, which is, I guess to state the super broad preference of most writers, complex, complicated, not one thing.
MA: I get the "unlikeable character" comment all the time. I never really know how to respond, to be honest -- one of the things that's most interesting to me about writing stories is zeroing in on the most tense moments of someone's life, so of course they're not going to be on their best behavior.
SM: Yes, exactly. Where is there a true plot to be found when everyone is well behaved? And, it's not even plot that's the thing, it's more--human desire is always convoluted and bumping up against impediments. Lately I've been thinking about readers who want a book's character to be their friend, or someone they would be friends with. And I feel like that's a misunderstanding of what books can do. Maybe, in some deep, weird way, a book can be your friend. But not it's characters! And now I'm immediately second guessing that, thinking of all the detective novels I consumed in my teens, exactly because there was so much pleasure in bouncing around with those characters.
MA: Oh, I agree with that completely. I've been thinking a lot about that, too. It's true -- I definitely find companionship in books, but it's not like I need to go get dinner with all the narrators!
SM: Ha, yes. Now I want to invent the nightmare protagonist dinner party: Emma Bovary being needy and narcissistic, Hamlet mooning around, Ignatius yelling and gaseous, Humbert going on and on about Lolita.
MA: Ha! I love that dinner party. That's interesting about how it changes as we get older. When I was a kid I was always trying to write myself into all my favorite books -- there were these Anastasia Krupnick books I was obsessed with, and I'd pretend that she was my older sister. It's funny to think about how that relationship with books changes as we get older, start writing them ourselves, etc.
SM: Yes, we need them in so many different ways at different times, that is really fascinating. I am curious, how did you become a writer? Was there a moment that you were like, ah, this is what I do, or this is what I am going to do?
MA: I think I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know any writers growing up and it felt too pie-in-the-sky, like being a magician or an astronaut or something. For a long time I wanted to be a marine biologist and write on the weekends. What about you?
SM: I have a strange sense that if we are around the same age, marine biologist was a big dream for our generation at a certain point? Like now you talk to seventh graders and they say they want to be in criminal forensics, I forget the proper name for that. I always wanted to be a writer, but I too thought it was not a possible scenario. I had no idea what else I wanted to do, though.
MA: Yep, it definitely had something to do with watching endless hours of the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Did you try to do other things before writing?
SM: Yes, but not in an ambitious long term way, more in the short term bumbling way. I temped, I was a waiter, I was an assistant, I did dopey editorial work for a web marketing company. Did you?
MA: Yeah, but I was really bad at everything. Can I ask about CeCe? I love her character -- I love how she basically functions as the master of the world but is so painfully alone. Did the book start out with her? How long until her voice kicked in for you?
SM: Her voice was the first thing, the easy thing. Nothing else came so easily. The book started with her lying in a bed looking out a window, which I wrote after reading V Woolf's amazing essay on being ill. I am still a little taken aback that the easiest thing for me to write was this ornery, rigid, dismissive voice. I was sick for a year in my early twenties and I think I was so mad about it, but not admitting it to myself, that still years later when I started to write, CeCe was just all my fear and anger from that time, distilled into a rich old lady. How did you get into your characters heads? Are there any that came to you easily?
MA: That's really interesting. I've thought about Virginia Woolf while reading your book -- Edith Wharton, too. A similar thing happens for me -- it's much easier for me to write about the things I'm really upset about, terrified of, etc. when I can look at them through the lens of someone very different from myself. Basically my sweet spot in writing is cranky, middle-aged Jewish men. But nothing in writing comes easily for me, unfortunately! These stories took FOREVER.
SM: I grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan in the 80s. Cranky middle aged Jewish men are the men of my youth. Yes, writing takes forever! Except those few times where you get on an inspired tear, but those are few and far between and you can't really count on them I don't think? I didn't know many published writers until I became one, and the more of them I meet and talk to, the more I think what separates them is that they love revision, that they find deep pleasure in it, even though it can also be hard and dull sometimes. Because, writing towards complexity takes so damn long, you just can't sustain it if you don't like dogging after the same little sentence over and over.
MA: Amen! I'm trying to get traction on a new book and am waiting endlessly for that isolated tear you're talking about ... the thing I love most is revision, working on sentences for hours -- it's just getting anything somewhat intelligible on the page that feels like such a slog.
SM: I just saw this great video where G Saunders talks about revision as an act of love, have you seen it? It's so good. http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/419391/george-saunders-on-story
MA: No, I haven't seen that video -- I'll look for it! Hearing him talk about writing always makes me a little less grumpy.
SM: Oh, this is such an awful question to ask, but I really want to ask it--how did you begin a new book? Like, what was the first moment, or second or third where you realized that's what you are doing?
MA: I was on a walk with my dog and a scene came into my mind that seemed interesting. I always feel like it happens that way for me -- I'll sit in front of the computer for hours and nothing will happen, and then I'll go on a run or a walk and things in the book will start to make sense. Of course that scene doesn't fit in the book anymore! What about you? Dreaded question, I know: are you working on a new book?
SM: I would like to be, but for now I'm just writing in circles and up and down and left and right, looking for it. Yes, I have that feeling too, that it usually comes as a scene or some glimmer of an idea when we are walking or somehow looking around and thinking other things. Those first scenes are kind of like the North Star you pilot towards, like, you just write towards them and write towards them but just as you said, you never get to them. But then you invent or discover some other story, or part of that story along the way.
MA: I love the way you describe the process -- I'm hoping it will power me through some work today!
AL: We're nearly out of time, so I'm going to have to ask for final thoughts.
MA: Sophie, it was so nice to chat -- hope we get to in person some time.
SM: Yes, I will be glad to meet both of you in the real world someday! Thanks for having us Andrew--and, how did we not get around to where you started with Lenny Bruce? I bet no one will ever cite him re our books again, and we are lucky you did!
AL: Haha. That lede was recommended by a rabbi-in-training friend of mine. Thanks you two!
MA: Indeed! Thanks, Sophie and Andrew!