I’m so grateful to Jennifer Gilmore. Thanks to her compelling writing, I just finished reading my first novel in 4 years! Did I just say that out loud? It’s not a badge of honor, the no-books thing. I simply couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough after my young kids went to bed to make a commitment to a novel. Four years into parenthood, though, I felt ready to rejoin the literate ranks…and Jennifer’s Golden Country was the perfect book to set before my eager eyes.
This character-juicy book is a thrill and I was sad when I got to the last page, but I need not mourn the end of Golden Country – a book that was named a New York Times Notable Book and was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist – because I can dive right into Jennifer’s brand new novel, Something Red.
Released this past Tuesday, Something Red is on O magazine’s “6 Books to Watch” list and was highly praised in Vanity Fair and The Los Angeles Times.
Set in 1979 Washington DC, Something Red has been summed up as “at once a poignant story of husbands and wives, parents and children, activists and spies and a masterfully built story that unfurls with suspense and humor. This bold and moving novel brims with wit, intelligence, and pitch-perfect observations about an American family.”
Reading group guides for both Golden Country and Something Red, as well as the author’s interesting bio, can be found at Jennifer’s website. Even without a group, I loved reviewing and considering the guide’s questions after reading Golden Country – it helped enhance my own processing of the story.
Not so incidentally, Jennifer’s sister Kate Gilmore is a highly accomplished video artist (you can read her Mom Culture interview from January here.) You’ll see in the q&a below how I try to find out how two incredibly successful artists came out of the same family…did they eat extra special Wheaties at the Gilmore house?
If you’re a reader already, put Jennifer’s books on your nightstand. If, like me, you doubted your ability to read a novel at this moment, try Jennifer’s books…accessible, entertaining, engrossing stories that transition your day from hectic craziness to relaxing escape.
from the art closet – a flashback to some items from 1979 that made a huge impact on our culture. see them here.
Something Red Trailer
How do you decide on a story concept — what’s that creative process like?
Most of the time what I start out thinking the book or story or essay will be is not what it ends up as. I write my way into stories, and am guided in many ways by research. If I think I need to find out something about Ethel Rosenberg, this will lead me to something about Trotsky, and then, I could end up in Mexico, where he was murdered. Reading mimics hyperlinks in that manner, and often I end up in an entirely different place than where I began.
How do you map out a novel – particularly one that’s non-linear like Golden Country or is full of intrigue like Something Red? Do you make it up as you go, do you outline it all first or do you use an entirely different technique?
The real work for me is finding my characters. Once I know who they are, the structure can be worked out around them and their needs. But yes, my first book (Golden Country) takes place over 40 years, and moves back and forth in time, so housing that story was difficult. It changed a lot as I went. And for my second book (Something Red), the intrigue came with the more research I did. 1979 was during the Cold War and the US relationship with the Soviet Union became so fascinating to me on a human level. A lot of immigrants were from Eastern Europe, so how did that play out—this notion of home—in the middle of this conflict? The more I read and learned, the more that aspect of the plot developed, but only because it fit so well with the on-going themes of the book.
Golden Country takes place from the 1920s to the 1960s and Something Red is set in the 1970s. How did you research what was going on back then?
Golden Country began for me when I was going through my grandmother’s papers, after she died. I found a self-published memoir by the wife of the man who invented Lestoil, the first real two-in-one cleaner. (Think: Pine Sol) Her book was about their romance, but beneath that was this immigrant story of a man who went door to door selling soap, and then went on to invent a product that changed the life of his family, and the life of this country. It went from there…
Something Red emerged out of my deep interest in the way different generations define themselves as radical. And also the way that food plays out in a family and in the world. (These notions, believe it or not, are connected!) The novel takes place in 1979 and I read about grain embargoes and Jimmy Carter and punk rock and the Grateful Dead and Ethel Rosenberg. And I talked to people in the CIA (who would not be named…) and my father, who is an economist, and I read a lot of Irving Howe to really understand the nuances of the old left politics. Research is exciting for me because I never know where it will take me. What I think I am looking for when I begin my search is rarely the material I end up using.
What was your path to getting published? Did you find an agent and then land a book deal? Did you ever have to deal with rejection…and, if so, how did you move past it?
Writers—most of them—have to deal with rejection in every step of the writing process. It’s best to start dealing with that early on; if you can’t take it when the literary magazine rejects your first story with a form letter, this is probably not the career for you. Sometimes it’s harder than others; I think it depends often on where you are in your personal life, and what your relationship to the actual work is. When I’m in the middle of a project and it’s going fairly well, and I don’t get the Big Grant, it feels a lot better than when I’ve gone four months without writing.
For me, and for most of the writers I know, getting the agent was far more difficult than landing the book deal. An agent will only take on what she believes she can sell. And with some luck, that agent will be able to sell what she believes in.
Did you have the same editor for both Golden Country and Something Red? When someone edits your work, do you see it as the work evolving and getting better or do you simply have to develop a thick skin and deal with it?
I am an usual case. My editor is a saint. I have been fortunate to have her for both of my books, and I hope she’s my editor for my next book, and my next. I’ve had two different experiences with her though.
With my first book, I sold when it was completed. There were some edits, but they were not as extensive as with this second book, which I sold on a few chapters. I never needed a thick skin; I always wanted to make the books the best they could be. I have always welcomed feedback from readers I trust and I trust my editor implicitly, even if I don’t take every suggestions she makes.
Are you a good editor of your own work? Do you ever scrap something you’ve been working on?
I think the more one grows as a writer, the more one understands one’s process. I’m a good editor of my work now because I realize that most of my real work is in revision. I put out a lot of pages and I have to cut much of it. I do scrap a lot. I have learned that everything needed to be on the page at some point, for me to get from a to b to c, but sometimes b just needs to go, even if I feel it’s the “best” part. That said, there are a few people whose feedback I always rely on.
Because you’ve worked in publicity at Harcourt and you’re also an author whose books have been beautifully-received by critics and the public, you’ll have unique perspective on this question: does a publisher know when a book is going to be a hit?
Publishing has changed a lot since I left the industry three years ago, but I can say almost 100 percent of the time the answer is no, a publisher rarely knows. Sometimes the publisher is pretty damn sure and throws a lot of money at a book, and that helps push it over. But unless we’re dealing with known quantities like the second Twilight book, say, or Harry Potter, it’s always such a gamble. In this respect, the sleepers are the most fun because they are so big and unexpected and there is a lot of chaos in scrambling to catch up to an unexpected hit. It’s the gambling aspect of publishing that brings some of the most creative and fun people into the industry.
You teach writing at The New School in New York. Do you notice any common traits among aspiring writers? What advice do you often find yourself giving to your students?
I have found that generalizing about my students doesn’t do me or them any good. But I wish that someone had told me to be patient. With myself. There is so much talk about publishing stories and essays, and getting your name out there at all times, and buying a domain name, and twittering and tumblring and all this stuff and all this noise, but if you don’t have the work, none of it matters. You have to do the work. In the end writing is about hiding away and writing. It takes a long time and it’s very hard. That is why having patience is so important.
How can aspiring writers (like parents writing at home) begin to get professional feedback on their writing? How do aspiring writers get published?
I think a writing group is the best way to a) make sure you carve out time to write and b) get feedback from other writers. Published writers teach private classes all over the country. It’s a great way to start to have a dialogue about your writing, and to get responses on your work. And that can start one on the road to publication.
What’s your writing environment like?
I need total silence when I write. My husband is a painter and for a few years we shared a work space (a whole other story…) and he had to listen to music wearing earphones! I do all my real creative work in the morning. I get up, put the coffee on, and get to it, before the impurity and responsibilities of the day get to me. I write on my laptop—I am embarrassed to report that I cannot even read my own handwriting… I can’t write if I have twenty minutes here and there; I need a few hours stretch to settle into it. It’s a lot easier when I’m in the middle or heading toward the end of something. When starting a new project it’s all too easy to convince myself that I need the space of, say, a month, or I can’t possibly begin. Sometimes I have to trick myself into beginning.
Did you enjoy writing and/or storytelling even as a kid? Who encouraged your writing early on? If you’ve had mentors throughout your life, where did you find them?
I think it was more that I was a kid with a need for a creative outlet. I wrote a lot, in journals, poems, stories. Pretty grim end of the world stuff, even before I discovered Sylvia Plath. But I also painted and drew and made things. Looking back I see I was searching for a way to express myself.
Your sister is a highly accomplished video artist. Do you ever help each other creatively?
We don’t collaborate, I can’t imagine what that would be like, but we do get what the other is going through exactly. Whether it’s the process of making work, or having the work on display, or preparing for that moment, we understand one another so well in that respect. And we have had so many of the same experiences. We have the same parents! We grew up in the same house. I feel very grateful for my sister.
Do you think your parents helped nurture the arts in you?
My sister and I grew up just outside of Washington DC, and we were always at museums or puppet shows or the theater when we were young. My mother reads more than almost anyone I know. She also adores the movies. I think I get that love of narrative—and the addiction to the escape a story provides—from her. Though my parents aren’t in the arts they considered the arts important. But even more than that, they encouraged my sister and I to find, develop and pursue our passions. I didn’t realize this at the time, but it was an important gift to pass on to us.
My favorite snack is: is a lobster roll a snack?
Don’t ask me to: calm down
I would put into a time capsule my: dog’s collar
My favorite place is: everywhere I’m about to go
When I have a creative block I: cook
My favorite mantra is: I really wish I had one