SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: ADELLE WALDMAN
Adelle Waldman’s first novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., was named one of 2013’s best books by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Slate, The Economist, NPR, BookPage, and The Guardian. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Slate, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.
Adelle Waldman! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
When The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. was first published, I did anything and everything I could to promote the book. That meant lots of writing for little or no pay—I was exhausted all the time, trying to do as much as I could. I wrote a thing for Publisher’s Weekly, I remember, and one for Oprah.com. I’d be doing interviews during the day and readings at night and get home and have to stay up until three in the morning working on these unpaid or meagerly-paid assignments. I don’t feel good about doing it. I mean, I get why I sought out those assignments—it’s about exposure and book promotion—and why any first-time novelist is advised to do the same, but I think it’s a collective-action problem. The more people agree to do these things for free, for promotional purposes, the harder it is for any one author to resist the pressure and insist on being paid.
Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?
For now, yes.
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?
When I was writing Nathaniel P., I worked many jobs—the one that paid the most was as an SAT tutor. I also taught nonfiction writing classes and wrote book reviews and other pieces of journalism. It was a challenge to make time to write. Eventually I cut out everything but the SAT tutoring, which was the most lucrative. I liked writing book reviews, but I felt like I was making no progress on my novel, so I eliminated all but the novel and the work I needed to do to pay rent.
How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?
It almost always needs another revision. I revise until I want to shoot myself, and then some. I force myself to read the thing again and again. Often I undo some of the changes I’ve made. For me revision is usually a process of taking one step back for every two steps forward. It’s very time-consuming and draining, but I see no alternative. Also, I can only read with an eye for so many things at a given time. That is, sometimes I’m feeling good about structural changes I’ve made and I read the manuscript again, expecting to pat myself on the back for how well it flows—and instead I find that now some other flaw is leaping out at me. I suddenly see that the thing is crying out for more physical description or visual detail, or else that one character’s dialogue is flat, etc., etc. When I’m getting close or tired, I may do things like change the font or spacing so I can see it through fresher eyes. It’s amazing how effective this method is—I highly recommend it for any writers who haven’t tried it yet.
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
I don’t know, but there is a point. I guess it’s when I read it again and again and consistently only find small line-editing changes. It’s kind of like popcorn popping. For a while, when you are in the throes of revising, there is pop after pop, but after a certain point, it slows down. But it might be temporary. I mean, I might have revised the thing all I can at that point in time, but in a few months, once I’ve, say, moved on to the next section and come back and re-read earlier stuff, the revision process starts all over again, from the beginning. As I said, it’s very time-consuming.
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
I’m not sure I’d characterize it as either. I never published any fiction until The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. came out when I was 36. I didn’t get an MFA. I had no one telling me that I was talented, that I should write fiction. I wrestled with it all the time—wondering if I was fucking up my life by working a dumb job as an SAT tutor so I could write fiction that I had no idea if anyone would ever publish. What I’d say I had is a conviction that I had something to say, some insight into people and relationships and psychology and gender, that I didn’t see out there. It was more than a desire to write, but a deep-seated—although anxiety-provoking (because I often wondered if I was crazy/self-deluded for holding it, on so little evidence)—belief that I had something to say that ought to be heard. Is that a calling? I don’t know, the word ‘calling’ sounds a little mystical to me. But it was different from a mere desire to write because I loved novels or a feeling that I was “creative.”
BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?
I’m not sure I relate to this. The books I read when I was too young left little impression. I am a huge devotee of 19th century British fiction—Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, in particular. I read Jane Eyre when I was a sophomore in college and thought it was fine, nothing special—a good story, but old-fashioned. I was surely too young and immature to appreciate what was right in front of me. Several years later I would be able to see what a brilliant, searing book it is, but at 19, I read it in too condescending a manner; I was too knowing and obtuse. All I absorbed was the surface story. I missed the moral and psychological depth.