I was mid-way through reading an interview with Amy Bloom in The Guardian when I ran into a line that stopped me short. I had to read it twice.
“She was in her mid-30s when she started to write, her 20s having been spent raising three children and working fulltime. She would write late at night and first produced a mystery novel, which, after it was accepted for publication, she bought back because she didn’t think it was good enough.”
Let me repeat that in case you didn’t catch it the first time, either. She bought it back. From the publisher. Because she didn’t think it was good enough.
I dug a little deeper into this anecdote, and might have even tried to interview Amy Bloom myself if I were not raising children and writing and, let’s be honest, if this were a paying article.
Instead, I googled for an earlier interview that might mention this bought-back book. I found one in 2000, in the literary magazine identitytheory.com. The book she’d yanked back had been a mystery novel, titled Them There Eyes.
She had this to say about it: “It was my warm-up … It wasn’t anything of which I had to be deeply ashamed. But it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Once I saw that, then I wanted it not in print.”
This fascinates me.
So many writers talk about the proverbial novel in the drawer, but like many clichés, it’s there for a reason. It seems everyone has a novel in the drawer.
When I first started writing fiction and heard writers talk about the one that got (put) away, I couldn’t imagine it: all that creative energy, the characters trained to say just the right thing, the heartache and carpal tunnel syndrome, moldering somewhere in a computer file and chalked up to experience. Those years of late nights and middle of the nights and early mornings, all just training wheels for the big ride to come some other day.
Those are the phrases I hear to describe these first novels: Warm-up exercises. Limbering stretches. Training wheels.
Just the other day, I was talking to my husband about this from the slough of revisions of my own first novel, which my agent plans to sell soon. I was comparing it to the bike my daughter rides, pink and white with Dora the Explorer on the side. In a prolonged metaphor that amused only me, I told him I’d tinkered with this manuscript for so long that I’d pushed it to the starting line through the sheer force of my stubbornness. Whether or not it was the soundest vehicle, my Dora bike was now lining up for the Tour de France, its tall plastic flag flapping in the wind and little metal bell going brring-brring-brring all the way.
Is there something wrong with publishing your first novel? Should I have stood up after finishing it, cracked my knuckles a few times, then sat down to write something darker and more exotic—something that resembled more closely the novels I find most transporting to read, set in other cultures, countries, times? I hadn’t done it consciously, but I’d followed the old adage that you should write what you know. For me, that was the terrain of motherhood and marriage, honesty and facades, security in an uncertain post-September 11th world. I’ve heard Amy MacKinnon talk about her own training-wheels novel of motherhood; she sent hers down to the drawer, and began work on what would become her hauntingly beautiful work about an undertaker, called Tethered.
All writers want to come out of the gate with their strongest work. So I suppose the real question is, how do you know when you’re doing your best work, and since that’s an ever-changing benchmark, can you embrace yourself as a work in progress? I once read about a well-known author, someone quite old and established, who said he never went back and read his old work because the desire to change it was too strong.
We are all so critical of ourselves, we writers. Though it seems to me the greater danger would be to keep pulling back, always measuring your work against some elusive voice you dream someday to express, which may not in fact be your own.
At times when I’m spinning my wheels, I wonder to what extent it’s possible ever to be completely satisfied with your work. To hand it over with a confident Fini!, and maintain that certainty all the way to publication and beyond.
And I wonder too if Amy Bloom ever reads her old work and hears a little brring-brring-brring herself, and can love it anyway.