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Editor’s note: Much to Your Chagrin (©Atria Books 2009) chronicles the year that twenty-nine year old writer Suzanne Guillette spent collecting embarrassing stories from strangers and friends alike in New York City. But as she compiled the stories of others, her own life began to unravel in a spectacular and, yes, embarrassing fashion. In this excerpt, Guillette goes on a date with William, her new boyfriend, and winds up at his apartment.  Calamity ensues.

 

Tonight, rain settles into the neighborhood. When William comes to meet you at the door, he waves a half-silly, excited hello through the door. You have not sensed much pretense with this man, and you, one who has never been very good at just dipping her toes in the water, you feel your own face lighting up in a very similar way.

“Hi, sweetie!” he yells through the glass.

You walk into his apartment, which is located in a regal brownstone. It is a large studio, with a small kitchen off to the side of the main room and a back deck. The ceilings are high, the walls nearly empty.

“Should we bring one umbrella or two?”

As you start to answer, “One!” he cuts you off.

“I know. More romantic, right?”

Soon, you two are walking arm in arm through the rain under one umbrella, as William describes his latest court case. You like his large frame and especially how your head fits perfectly into the space below his shoulder. You jump over corner puddles, but always end up curling back into his side.

A small current of unease sets in once you are inside the West Village eatery. Jack lives somewhere nearby, but you do not know exactly where, because you broke up just before he moved in. You hope, with every inch of your flip-flopping stomach, that you don’t run into him, not now, not ever.


After dinner of thin crust pizza and fried meatballs, you stop at the corner deli and pick up some microwave popcorn and ice cream. You stand in his kitchen as William unpacks the groceries, looking out the glass kitchen door. Across the way, you see an apartment building. That’s one thing you love about New York, peering into the ways that other people live. You notice plants, who’s watching what on tv. You can feel the fog is lifting, and it is not because William is in your life. It is because you made a choice, a small, stupidly long overdue choice to dump Jack as your “agent,” your first step toward embracing what is really in front of you. You would almost say that you are “happy,” if that word didn’t scare the shit out of you.


The apartment building directly behind William’s has rectangular windows lit in erratic patterns, one on the top floor, diagonally connected to another on the second floor. You used to look into other people’s windows like these, and imagine what was inside: worn bookshelves, lovingly-stained kitchen tables, the scent of garlic breezing through the apartment. You used to think that this kind of stability was going to be perpetually out of your reach. You will not, cannot claim that you will ever feel truly grounded again, but in this quiet moment, scanning these other apartments all by your lonesome, you are inspired to breathe deep.

But then, something catches your eye. Across the way, in the apartment directly across from William’s, the lights are on. You see a young man with long-ish brown hair sitting at his computer—wearing that unmistakable, worn blue t-shirt. When your eyes fix closer on his face, you feel yourself inhale sharply.

Jack?

Jack!

Jack.

As you squint closer, wanting to make sure whether or not it is indeed your ex-boyfriend sitting there across the way—hadn’t you just declared, with your volume on high, that he was out of your life, forever, like, last week?—you feel a little dizzy. Faintly, you hear William’s voice in the background, as he tells you about how much he loves this neighborhood. But you are glued to this particular set of windows. Slowly, you notice Jack’s head starting to turn in your direction, as if he senses someone staring at him.

Oh! If he saw me, how much of a stalker would I feel like?

As his head turns, you do the only thing that seems to make any sense: you hit the deck.

“Uh, what are you doing?” William asks, when he sees you suddenly crouching down by his back door.

“Nothing, nothing,” you say.

You are not about to tell William, not in this moment when your heart is beating so fast. You could throw up. What are the odds? In a city of 8.5 million people—what are the freaking odds?

Your mind reels further as you remember what William and you had done on the couch before going out, in front of his living room windows, windows that you now know look directly into Jack’s apartment.

Oh, lord.

As you crawl on your hands and knees into the living room, where you yank the blinds shut with one fierce pull, your mind skips through, over, beyond thoughts that are fast, fleeting:

Maybe it’s not him.

Am I losing my mind?

What on earth is this universe trying to tell me?

“Honey,” William calls. “What are you doing?”

In your initial shock, you sit there, alone with the knowledge of this very bizarre, unbelievable coincidence. Or is there something to be learned?

Well, of course there is. You are too impatient, though, to wait for this lesson to come to you, quiet and still, months down the road when you are in some cool grocery store examining organic eggplants in the produce aisle. Impatient, you stretch one guess over everything, for the sake of convenience: This must just be a reminder.

If there is a part of you that still pines for Jack—and you know that there is—this must just be a very literal reminder: how you feel here, with William, your joy in the mundane, is at least an improvement for how you felt with Jack, all caught up in the mire of fantasy, inhaling the smoke and smiling way too long into the mirrors that you’d hoped would be real. But weren’t.

That’s really what this “coincidence” is about, you tell yourself, one too many times for it to be actually true.

**

Copyright © 2009 by Suzanne Guillette. Reprinted by permission. Excerpted from the book Much to Your Chagrin by Suzanne Guillette published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Now available at your local bookstore and at www.simonsays.com. ISBN: 9781416585978, $25.00.



When I thought about the task of a “self-interview,” my first response was: But I interview myself all the time—only I don’t imagine that the folks who came up with this idea want to know the answers to, “Wait—why am going through another winter in the Northeast?” or “I know I want that third cup of coffee, but do I need it?” (Can’t imagine that would be of much interest.) Then again, I think that most acts of writing are self-interviews of sorts.


What do you mean?

Well, like many writers, I write to understand, more fully, what I think or feel about something—the writing (hopefully) has some sort of momentum to it, in that I’m writing towards an explanation or understanding. Using the example of my book, Much to Your Chagrin, the writing process was sparked by a very particular question: what the hell happened to me? The book covers the year before I turned thirty, which was an unexpectedly tumultuous time, a time when everything should have been coming together—in life, love, and career—but instead fell unceremoniously apart, because my life then was built on false ideas. As it turns out, the unraveling was a good thing—it brought me to a much more authentic place, in terms of being able to make decisions about how I wanted to be in the world, based on my honest desires, as opposed to what I (erroneously) thought others expected. But when I sat down to write, three months after that year had ended, I didn’t understand any of that. And so the writing process was such a joy—and yes, cathartic—because I was able to relive and examine the events of the prior year, which, thanks to a persistent anxiety and depression, I hadn’t been fully present for the first time around. I feel so grateful to have had that experience.


Did you always plan on publishing your story?

No. When the year ended, I tried to plow through and write the story of what happened, but I was writing it in the first person, and it made me cringe, every time I sat down to say that I did all of the unseemly things. This showed in the writing. After I had one hundred pages, I sent it to my former thesis advisor, whose opinion I trusted. She agreed: something just wasn’t working. At the time, she said, “Why don’t you try it as a novel?” But I hadn’t written fiction since I was a kid and so that thought was too daunting. Instead, I gave up my ambition. I thought, maybe it’s just time for me to exist without having to cling to a project, especially if I’m clinging out of fear.

Around that time, I happened to pick up a Village Voice and flip to Rob Breszny’s amazing horoscopes. Mine (Aquarius) said something to the effect of, “You are pregnant with ideas, so you should treat yourself as if you were nine months pregnant…” I read that and thought, I want to give birth to my ideas. So I started eating healthy, doing yoga and writing every morning, spilling the contents of my head onto the page, without any expectation that they were going to result in a publishable idea. (At the time, I hadn’t kicked my chain smoking habit and was avowedly single, so it’s no wonder that my joke, “I’m pregnant!” didn’t go over well with even the most good-humored of my friends.)

In any case, three months after this, I got the idea to write the same story in the second person; from that point on, the writing flowed in a way I’d never experienced. All along, I told myself that this writing was only for me. I’d been burned by producing things I thought other people wanted or approved of and so it was really important to separate the process from any ideas of publishing. A month after I finished the first draft, I put it away, unsure of what to do. At the time, the whole endeavor felt so personal and was still so raw that I couldn’t conceive of it as business. And since a great deal of the book centers on my heartbreak after a romantic relationship with my literary agent falls apart, I was doubly self-conscious about sending the book out (especially to male agents).

After a lucky meeting, I was contacted by a literary agent who’d heard about my book; we met, and she quelled a lot of my anxieties about publishing. Her interest and understanding about the relevance of the subject matter to a wider audience was, too, heartening.  After a few weeks of deliberation, I decided I did want to share my story. My hope was that if the process was healing for me, then perhaps it could be healing for someone else, too.


And, eight months since publication, how do you feel about that decision?

Great. So much has changed since that time, now two and a half years ago. Both personally and professionally, I’m in a much different place. Now the book is business and not just a personal story. Since a lot of what happened that year was so painful, I used to feel—especially before publication—guilty when a friend would say, “Gosh, since starting your book, I feel like you’ve been keeping me company.” I’d say, “I’m sorry. I was terrible company that year…” And I guess that came from the memories of not even wanting to be around myself, especially when I was really depressed and not able to envision a way out or anything better. But as time has passed, I don’t feel that way anymore. Instead, I’m more loving and accepting of that year–and so when I read or speak about Chagrin, I always try to remind myself that the story is simply an offering. Plus, life, while never perfect, just keeps getting better—and I can thank, in part, those experiences for bringing me to this place.


Was there anyone whom you were particularly nervous about reading the book?

Yes. My boyfriend read it fairly early on in our relationship, before publication. Given that one element of the book covers a series of failed relationships, it’s safe to say: I was terrified of what he’d think. But, another underlying thread of the book is my desire for love and part of that experience is sharing one’s whole self, not just the attractive parts. So as risky as it seemed at the time, it was also necessary—and ultimately, in large part because he’s wonderful, a positive experience for both of us.


What’s been the best part of publication?

It’s given me a stronger sense of ownership over my own life, by being able to say, This is what happened, through my eyes. And if that sounds very basic, it is. But it was still a challenge, at least for me. The publication process has, too, taught me a lot about the importance of taking greater responsibility for all aspects of my life, including my career. And of course, I love love love—can’t emphasize this enough—hearing from readers who say that the book resonated with their experiences, thoughts or feelings, especially when said experiences, thoughts or feelings were things they felt were unique to their lives.


What are you working on now? And is it related in any way to the themes in Chagrin?

Writing-wise, things are thankfully moving again, after a period of strictly focusing on book promotion. I’m excited about a new project that has been budding for a while now. It’s fiction, and beyond this, I’m not prepared to talk about it, mostly because I’m not even sure what it is myself. It’s related to Chagrin in the broad sense that writing that first book gave me a certain confidence in exploring elements of the human experience that had heretofore seemed too daunting to delve into. Other than this, I am also excited to be working on a screenplay adaptation of Chagrin, as well as a concept for a film based on a summer I spent boxing in Prague, while conflicted about my engagement to my then-boyfriend of several years.


When do you do your best writing?

I guess the best writing comes only after I’ve committed to a routine, which is not easy, even though I know that’s what works. To make a living, I teach and also freelance, so structuring my time is really important. Right now, I’m reading The Gathering by Anne Enright, which is exquisitely written. And of course, being moved by the work of other writers helps me see new possibilities in my own work.

Also, as a volunteer with the fabulous New York Writer’s Coalition, I run a weekly writing group for women over fifty at a Baptist Church in Brooklyn. As with all NYWC groups, this group is grounded in the idea that every human being has something unique to say. We write together, as a group, and then share our work. This has been such a valuable part of my writing process, too, helping me stay focused on writing-for-writing’s sake. Plus, there’s something about the act of writing by hand (versus writing on my laptop, which I’m more likely to do if I’m alone) that puts me more in touch with a visceral perspective.

Speaking of that which is instinctive, I dance regularly with an amazing group of women, as part of a workshop called Zodiac Dance. Having an outlet for movement is so liberating, the value of which is definitely beyond verbal articulation. Witnessing others’ unique expressions is enlivening, as is having the opportunity to move myself. It’s the best! Oh, and every week, the playlist is fantastic, so that’s an additional source of stimulation.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes:  Thank you, NervousBreakdown, for asking me to do this interview!  And best of luck with your new venture!