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 XXII: "Upmarket shops at Zara and Whole Foods"
In this installment, I set up Emily Schultz (above) with Melissa DeCarlo (below). They discuss mothers, messed up characters, reader expectations, marketing labels, cussing yourself out of “literary”, upmarket/downmarket & more.
Andrew Lipstein: Today I’m with two writers, each of which had a standout release last year. Now, I put you two together because your books are almost the opposite of each other in nearly every way. One is (ostensibly) satirical, the other poignant (not that each doesn’t have traces of the other). One is careening towards an uncertain future, the other whittling and narrowing and uncovering an uncertain past. One takes place in New York, the other across the very not-New York country.
Emily Schultz’s THE BLONDES (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015) inhabits a world very similar to ours, except that there’s an epidemic—of blondes. They’re the only carriers of a rabies-like disease. Hazel Hayes is a grad student, newly pregnant, dodging these sallow-haired monsters.
Melissa DeCarlo’s debut, THE ART OF CRASHING LANDING (Harper, 2015), follows Mattie Wallace, a broken woman turning into her mother. When she learns of a potential inheritance, she drives across the country to Oklahoma and slowly unearths who her mother once was, and what changed her.
You’re here to talk about whatever you want. You can talk about nothing, sitting here in stubborn silence, but I hope you don’t. Let’s start with this: Where are you and what do you see?
Melissa DeCarlo: First let me say: I am blond. So...probably you can't trust anything I say. You've been warned.
Emily Schultz: That's awesome! I was blonde once, so who can you trust?
MD: I am sitting at my desk, looking at the wall (on which a Picasso print hangs) and listening to the plumbers in my attic thump around while they replace our hot water heater. And, well, I suppose I USED to be blond as well...I am still but it is due to the miracles of chemistry.
ES: I am sitting here in my apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, looking out my third floor window at the snowy branches.
MD: Oooh. no snow here, but there's a little frost on the grass. That's about the best we can do in East Texas.
ES: Let's talk about mothers. My novel does have a rocky relationship between mother and daughter, and Hazel the protagonist is about to become a mother herself--somewhat unwillingly. Tell me about the mother in your novel.
MD: Good topic. There's also a difficult mother daughter relationship (and my protagonist is pregnant as well.) Mattie, my protagonist is the child of a damaged woman--alcoholic, unhappy. She (the mother) has been dead for five years when my book starts, although there are a lot of scenes that take place in the past so we get to meet her in a way. How about your (book's) mother?
ES: We have more in common than Andrew thought. My character's mother is also an alcoholic. We never meet her mother either--except through the scenes and memories Hazel tells us. My whole book is spoken aloud, as Hazel narrates her life to the unborn child.
MD: Oh that is interesting! Much of my novel is Mattie trying to discover what happened to her mother to make her the way she was. She meets people in her mother's hometown who remember her as a happy, talented girl, very unlike the mother Mattie knew. So we get flashes of the mom from Mattie's memories of her and we get info about the girl (who would become Mattie's mom) from people in that town. What gave you the idea to write your story as you did--talking to an unborn child?
ES: I realized that the character was alone for much of the book, which in terms of the sense of drama, can be difficult. So I wanted to bring her out more, and that meant finding her voice and letting her talk. Some readers hated it, because she speaks honestly to her soon-to-be-child as a person, and not in baby-talk. Some people thought oversharing with a fetus was bad mothering.
MD: But a novel all in baby-talk? UGH. And so funny...oversharing with a fetus. Ha! As if that fetus doesn't have a front row seat to any bowchicawowow that goes on etc...
ES: Which character did you have an easier time writing, Mattie or her mother?
MD: Oh Mattie for sure. My book is first person told from her POV. Funny though, Mattie is not (especially at the start of the book) a particularly likable person. I've had some readers complain about that...but I find flawed characters much more interesting than typically "good" ones. Sometimes I feel like I need to tell people that I'm nicer than Mattie is. Ha. Except, maybe inside I'm not (she had to come from somewhere).
ES: I totally agree. My favorite characters are messed up. Because most people are far from perfect. Who are these book readers who demand perfection from characters?
MD: I don't know. People who read James Bond books or something. I'd much rather read about a screw-up. That being said, I think a the character does have to be relatable, and preferably redeemable or if he/she is too unlikeable I find it hard to read the book.
AL: Has an unlikable character ever taken you out of a book you'd consider great?
ES: No--I love an unlikeable character. It draws me in more, because I'm fascinated. But if the character is also relatable one part of you wants to understand them--their cruelty, their selfish actions. We come to books to try to understand motivations I think.
MD: Yup. But I don't want to do any book trash-talk, but there have been some books that friends have LOVED that I just couldn't care enough about any character to even finish. You've got to make me care, or why would I spend my time? Now, I will say I loved Patricia Highsmith's...what was it Ripley? books. The main character is a sociopath, but I was okay with that for some reason. I cared what happened to him (and his victims) I guess, even if I didn't like him. And I agree completely about the motivations being a key thing to hook me as a reader.
ES: Part of it is expectation. You expected that character to be evil. Maybe some people are upset when their expectations aren't met. Some readers wanted a version of The Walking Dead with my book--they didn't expect relationships or gender theory to come into it.
MD: I agree. I think if a reader came to my book expecting a chick-lit love story sort of book, they really would be disappointed. They just wanted blond zombies. Ha!! Could a blond Zombie ever figure out how to get to the brains, though?
ES: I deliver one or two.
MD: Haha. So, when did your book come out?
ES: It came out in April 2015. And it's interesting, I think we're talking about the same thing with our books, which is marketing. How do you sell a female-focused book and avoid the chicklit tropes in the marketing?
MD: I really tried to push back against the Women's Fiction label, but I finally gave in, because clearly the publishers know more about marketing than I do, and probably women would be the most interested readers. Andrew, wait. Are you blond?
AL: I'm technically a ginger.
MD: Ohh ginger. if we're going for stereotypes, let's try not to make Andrew mad.
AL: Well, actually, speaking of easy classifications, I think you two are onto something really interesting here, and I want to provoke you a bit more. You bring up the idea of a marketing of a book not fully aligning with the contents. I'm often approached with books that are labeled literary fiction, commercial, or some hybrid. How useful do you think those terms are in describing your own books?
MD: Good question, Andrew. I feel like the labels have gotten very out of hand, but at the same time I understand that the marketing people are just trying to do the best they can for each book. And maybe it goes back to the issue of expectations. To help readers get what they're looking for. I've been known to say that my book uses the word (I don't know if I can use it here, but it rhymes with "duck") too many times to be literary fiction. But honestly I'm unsure of how the labels are decided. The new things seems to be "up market" or "bookclub" fiction.
ES: I think the term "hybrid" is one that is used in publishing or among writers, but it might be lost on the general reading public, who just happen to read books they like. It is about a book finding its audience. I think The Blondes, luckily, did. But if you go to my website where I show Foreign Editions, you'll see the different covers draw different aspects of the book (emilyschultz.com/editions). The Canadian cover is very feminine. The French cover is more horror. The US hardcover is more high-end thriller. But with the paperback, they are going for a more literary crowd. Upmarket is a strange term.
MD: Interesting, Emily. I find it fascinating that the covers are so different and I agree about finding an audience. That's what we're all trying to do, and if labels help with that then, okay. But, at the same time, I think there are times they limit the audience as well. Yes, it makes me want to see what's downmarket fiction.
ES: It's on the edge of town, the mall is shut down, the bus never comes. Upmarket shops at Zara and Whole Foods.
MD: Sounds like the suburbs (except for the mail thing).
ES: Do male authors get marketed as Men's Fiction. Upmarket Men's Fiction?
MD: Not that I know of. Manly fiction. Lots of belching and eating of beef.
ES: Are you writing now? I just finished a new novel and handed it in. I'm kind of at a loss for what next...
MD: I'm working on another book. It's been interesting writing with a deadline rather than just at the leisurely pace at which I wrote the last one. And by interesting I mean night-sweat terror inducing. Is your next novel in a similar vein to your last?
ES: Exact opposite. It's historical, set in 1920s Detroit where my family is from--and I have the word Men in the title. So...it's Men's Upmarket Fiction! What about you?
MD: YAY! Better quick change your name to Emile.
ES: Thniking about it, seriously.
MD: Mine is similar in that it's still in the quirky-dysfunctional-family genre, but quite different in structure and story of course. And I get the name-change thing. I considered Mel.
ES: I regret to this day not using initials from the beginning. Mel is a great author name. Are you far enough in that you have that can't-get-out again feeling? It's a scary wonderful feeling, right?
MD: I'm in the "I will wrangle this mess of scenes into a cogent story if it's the last thing I do" place right now. It's that place where you've got the story but you're still possibly missing a couple pieces and the rest are snapped together nicely in places, but other spots not so much. There are times I wonder if I was supposed to be a short story writer. Sometimes trying to get all the moving parts of a novel to work makes my head want to explode. Ha.
ES: It's addictive though. I'm seriously addicted to creating the new. (Whether it works is another story.)
MD: Yup. There's just something about creating a story--and then that place when it doesn't feel like it's all you anymore, but more like the story was there all along and you're just excavating it from where it's been hidden.
ES: Exactly. I do write short stories--in between. It helps come down from the novel, and keeps me in practice. Like an athlete.
AL: Hate to do this, but we're nearly out of time, so I'll ask for last will and testaments.
ES: I'm glad I got to meet you--now we have to meet sometime IRL. And I'm off to read your book!
MD: Me too! I'll be in NYC in May...maybe we can meet up somewhere.
MD: And thank you, Andrew for setting this up. It's the most fun I've ever had on a blind date.
ES: Yes, thanks Andrew.