The First Novels panel at LJ’s Day of Dialog showcased six very different writers of five very different novels, with something for everyone in the audience. Authors Ron Childress, Sloane Crosley, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Paige McKenzie, and Claire Vaye Watkins offered animated answers to moderator Stephanie Klose’s questions and kept the session lively from start to finish. For the first order of business, each author briefly described his or her—or, in the case of Fink and Cranor, their—novel.
Childress’s And West Is West (Algonquin. Oct.) revolves around the concerns of contemporary America, he said: how family, government, and corporate secrets can turn toxic; the seductions of technology and the ways it isolates us; and identity—losing one and acquiring another. As with Bill Clegg’s first novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, discussed earlier in the day in the “Book Trip” session, Childress’s book begins with an explosion—in this case, a drone strike.
Watkins wanted to explore Wallace Stegner’s concept of how movement is central to the American West. Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead, Sept.) is, she said, a mystic road novel and an epic love story about motherhood, youth, beauty, faith—and drought. If we’re a culture that looks toward the natural world for nourishment, she wondered, what do we make of the fact that the world is becoming ruined? In summation, she said, “It’s kind of comedy, kind of disaster porn.”
Crosley’s The Clasp (Farrar, Oct.) had two simultaneous inspirations, she said: the challenge of writing a novel about art—opera, ballet, or painting—and trying to capture the shifting time of late-20s/early-30s post-college friendships—“people on the precipice of hanging onto each other.” Crosley’s three characters follow the trajectory of Guy de Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace,” moving from love triangle to madcap adventure.
Fink and Cranor’s Welcome to Night Vale (HarperPerennial, Oct.), based on their popular podcast of the same name, is about a town in the American West where ghosts, angels, and aliens are common, everyday occurrences, according to Fink. The novel takes the podcast’s town and develops several intertwining stories, explained Cranor, with characters that include a 19-year-old pawn shop owner, a mid-30s single PTA mother, and—naturally—a strange visitor who comes to town.
The Haunting of Sunshine Girl: Book One (Weinstein, 2015) is another offshoot of an existing new media series, in this case loosely based on the eponymous YouTube serial. McKenzie, the series’s star and coauthor of the novel with Alyssa B. Sheinmel, described the book as “creepy and ghosty.” It involves a 16-year-old girl who moves into a house that she thinks might be haunted—but, said McKenzie mysteriously, the reader will discover that it’s “so much more than just the house.”
Addressing the authors of the latter two novels, Klose asked if they thought readers would need to be familiar with the new media they were based on. McKenzie said that as reviews rolled in, many noted that they had never seen the YouTube broadcasts; some specified that they didn’t even want to. While being familiar with the series wasn’t necessary, she added, “There will be Easter eggs in the book” for faithful viewers.
Cranor explained that they had wanted to build out the world of Night Vale so that the novel’s readers could pick it up without needing to know anything about the podcast. The two media “work hand in hand,” he said, with some overlapping characters, but don’t require each other.
For the authors with experience in other types of writing, Klose wondered how creating a novel compared. “Well,” volunteered Childress, “corporate writing is not fun.” While he has always enjoyed being able to express himself in his fiction, he said—“because nobody cared”—corporate writing offered the discipline to focus on aspects such as clarity and flow.
Watkins, whose 2012 collection Battleborn (Riverhead) won the Dylan Thomas Prize, the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and The Story Prize, described the psychological difference between writing a short story and a novel: “You finish a short story and think ‘I made a piece of art!’” Novels are more of an endurance test, she said, although the four years she took to write Gold Fame Citrus, she added, “in novel time is actually quite quick.”
Crosley wrote her two essay collections, I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number (both Riverhead), while working as a publicist at Random House but left her full-time job in order to work on The Clasp. The difference between the two kinds of writing, she said, feels like the “nature vs. nurture” argument. Nonfiction is like the equivalent of adopting a child—“these are the events that happened,” at least some of which was given to you. A novel, on the other hand, is like having a child where both the DNA and the nurturing are your fault. Still, she said, writing a novel was freeing after a career in nonfiction, if only to be able to say, “Because I said so.”
Fink said that producing a weekly podcast made for good habits. Having nearly three years of Welcome to Night Vale episodes under their belts meant not needing to build an entire mythology from scratch. “We knew that world already,” he said, “so that made it a lot easier.” McKenzie agreed with Fink: more than four years of The Haunting of Sunshine Girl videos had already provided characters, a world, and a story arc. The rest, she said, “was all just writing it in words.”
Libraries, of Course
In a nod to Day of Dialog’s sponsor, Klose wondered about the authors’ relationships to libraries.
The opening scene of Watkins’s novel is set in a private library, but the author did research in the Columbus Metropolitan Library, wandering the stacks and pulling books at random when she got stuck, she said. Childress is a fan of the Washington, DC, Public Library’s ebook lending program, adding that “libraries have become very important to me lately, especially since my bookshelves have become extremely full.”
Crosley, who serves as cochair of the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) Young Lions Committee, cited NYPL as playing a huge role in her writing life. She writes in NYPL’s Wertheim Study, and there are several scenes in The Clasp that take place in NYPL (as well as a character who drops out of Pratt Institute’s School of Information and Library Science).
The Night Vale Library is a major setting in both the book and the podcast, noted Cranor—based, Fink said, on the old library in Camarillo, CA, where he grew up. There is a whole scene in the book, he added, about the dangers of visiting the public library—curious parties will need to read it to find out.
Current Events, Nuts and Bolts
In response to Klose’s query about the authors’ use of timely elements as plotlines, Watkins said that she had originally wanted to write “high concept sci-fi about megadroughts.” As she did more research, though, she realized that much of what she had envisioned was actually happening, and the book ended up being less futuristic and more about current drought conditions. “I couldn’t really call myself a writer of the American West…if I didn’t address water,” she said.
Childress had been writing copy for high-speed trading platforms in the 1990s. As he read accounts of drone operations over the year, he said, he realized how connected military operations were to corporate operations, which shocked him into wanting to find out more and eventually became the genesis of his novel.
As the session wound down, Klose asked about the details of the writing process. Most of the panel admitted to a lot of back-and-forth on coming up with titles, working in the morning, retaining a few close friends as beta readers (or, in McKenzie’s case, “a coauthor—they’re handy”). Nearly all admitted to consciously downplaying the writing process so that it wouldn’t seem so daunting. On that note, all agreed with the Post-it Watkins keeps on her computer that says, “Writing isn’t hard. Working in a mine is hard.”
Fortunately, these debut novelists chose writing.