June 28, 2010
Hey, I have the same shoes!
Is this the obligatory self-interview meta-joke?Kind of weak.Should I reveal how long it took you to come up with that?
No. Moving on, then. Tell us about yourself.
My name is Emily Gray Tedrowe, and I’m a fiction writer in Chicago.My first novel is just coming out from Harper Perennial—as I’m writing this, tomorrow, actually, is publication day.It’s called Commuters, and it’s about family, money, and love.
Can you be more specific?
Winnie, one of my main characters, is seventy-eight and has just fallen in love, hard, for the first time in her life. She marries eighty-three-year-old Jerry Trevis after knowing him for three months.This naturally throws both families—children and grandchildren—into upheaval, but it’s Jerry’s immense wealth that intensifies the various conflicts and alliances.The money he brings into Winnie’s middle-class family, and her small unassuming upstate NY town, disrupts both families.When Winnie and Jerry buy one of the town’s biggest houses, everyone has something to say about it.
Hmm. So this is a novel about old people in love?
It’s about a lot of people in love, actually.The book is told from the intertwined perspectives of three characters.Winnie is one of them.But her daughter, Rachel is another—Rachel lives in the same small town, Hartfield, and is struggling with the aftermath of her husband’s near-fatal freak accident.On the brink of losing her house, Rachel has to balance motherhood, a full-time job, and a strained marriage that only seems less appealing to her in comparison to her mother’s fairy-tale newfound love with Jerry.The third main character is Avery, a twenty-year-old ex-addict and wanna-be chef who has just moved to New York City.He’s Jerry’s grandson, and gets caught in the middle of a bad family feud over Jerry’s business and inheritance.
You sound a little defensive, making sure that we know there are some younger, hipper characters in your novel too.
I guess so.Maybe it’s how you phrased your earlier question—
Are you worried that your focus on the concerns of the elderly in this book will turn people off?
Maybe I wonder if there are readers who will doubt my ability to get into the head of a woman who is seventy-eight.After all, what can I know about that stage of life at 36?But honestly, I never felt much fear in taking on that character or her voice or perspective.Once you make the leap to imagine what it’s like to be anyone else, there is such freedom in trying to open your mind to lived experiences in different situations.That’s what I love most about writing fiction, actually.
What else do you love about it?
I love how creating stories that are made up feels more true than those writing down those that are “real.”I love the sense of play that comes on a good day of writing, where you are practically bouncing in your seat at the computer, delighted by what your imagination has spun out of nothing.I love walking around the city thinking about a whole other world that you’ve created, holding this amazing secret, this thing you are building, smiling at passersby.On days like that everything you come across finds a connection to the novel or story you are working on.The song on your i-Pod, the dog outside the coffee shop, the taxi driver washing his car. . . it all seems magically essential to your story, the one no one knows about yet except you.
Tell them about the tree.
One day while I was in the middle of drafting Commuters, I took my youngest daughter on a walk to a nearby playground.The scenes I had been working on that week concerned Winnie’s decision to cut down a historic tree in her front yard, a 100-year-old sycamore, in order to build a pool that she thinks Jerry needs for his back problems.As my daughter and I strolled to the park, we came across a tree-service company chopping up the remnants of a beautiful linden that had been cut down so that the owners of the huge new house on that block could have an unfettered view out their front windows.I stood there as the tree trunk sections were fed into the chute of the brush chipper machine; one by one, other neighbors wandered out to watch and discuss.My whole sense of that morning—the violence of the noisy machine, the irreparable fact of the tree in pieces, my neighbors’ shared dismay, the owners’ closed curtains—went directly into my novel later on.
What was hard about writing Commuters? What did you struggle with?
Well, that same experience I was just raving about—walking around with your own created world inside your head—can also make for some hellish writerly angst.I remember once toward the end of writing my first draft, I ran into a problem with one of the characters.I can’t remember what it was exactly—
That’s not very helpful.
–because I’m assuming I’ve blocked the details, as the experience was so unpleasant.Anyway, there was a problem with a character’s story line.What he was doing wasn’t believable, didn’t seem true to who he was, or had no connection with the rest of his significance in the over-arching novel’s story.I had tried several fixes, and was getting nothing but more confused and turned around.So I became stuck.I literally couldn’t figure out a way forward, and I went about my business for several days with the sense that something crucial was terribly wrong, but yet none of it really existed for anyone else.I do have a wonderful writers’ group and I depend on their smart critical suggestions, but at this point I wasn’t ready to show the book to anyone else.In fact, I felt as if I couldn’t even describe the problem to someone if asked, because so much of it was only in my head. . . and it truly tormented me to realize that no one but me had caused this agitation—and no one but me could solve it.If you’ll forgive me, it was like having a nervous breakdown.
So did you?
Did I what?Solve it?Oh. Yes, eventually.But I don’t remember how, exactly.
I think we’ll turn now to a more productive topic. Tell us about the title Commuters. I hear there was some drama on the title front.
After she bought the book my editor said that while she loved the title, she thought it made the most sense to readers after they finished the novel.And also that maybe the book should have a “softer” title.We went round and around about this for what felt like forever.I racked my brain coming up with substitutes, which met with lukewarm response.My editor and her colleagues would also propose alternate titles, but none of those seemed right to me.Throughout all this, I was a mess.Well-meaning acquaintances would say things like, “Wow, you’re getting your novel published, how great!What’s it called?” and I would have to hold back tears.Anyway, after six months of this, my editor put “Commuters” back on the table and everyone agreed that it was, in fact, the best for the book.Or maybe they were all just sick of dealing with it and wanted to move on.It’s the right title, to my mind.But I’ll let readers judge as well.
A few more general questions. As a fiction writer, what are your thoughts on e-books?
I’d like to be a “live and let live” kind of girl when it comes to reading—can’t we all just get along?That said, I personally read books that are made of paper and glue.I wrote my novel to be a book with paper pages—that was the object I held in my head as I worked toward writing and revising the story.Now I have to confront the basic question: what was it I made?Is Commuters a sequence of words that exists in the abstract?What kind of experience will readers have, reading it on a screen if they choose to?
A last question I have about the e-book thing, and maybe this has been addressed already, through some genius techie fix, but. . . what happens if you want to get your book signed by the author?I was lucky enough to sign a bunch of copies of Commuters at a librarian conference this past weekend—librarians, some of my favorite people in the world!—and it reminded me how much I treasure my own signed copies of favorite books, those by writers I revere as well as by dear friends publishing first novels alongside my own.In pen and ink, they are singular and inscribed to me alone—those blurry signatures, a kind phrase or two, the occasional in-joke—these few words can make a book as meaningful to me as anything else I own.I honestly want to know: are e-book readers okay with giving up on this tradition?
You must be one of those anti-new-media people, then.
Ahem.No, I frequently fall prey to the Apple hype.And yes, I’ve been known to waste plenty of time on Facebook, Salon.com, Jezebel, and . . . tmz.com.Did I just say that last one out loud?
In terms of writing process—
You know what would be great?Can we pretend for a minute that this is a Paris Review interview where you’re asking me about those mundane details about how I physically write, so I can go off on my predilections for a certain type of pencil that’s been discontinued except for my secret stash of 80 boxes that I once found at a hole-in-the-wall stationery shop in Paris?You know, that kind of tossed-off anecdote that the above-it-all author pretends to indulge the interviewer with, even though he’s totally flattered and knows it’s the kind of insider dope all of us secretly crave?
[Slight pause.] All right, then. Could you tell us about your writing habits or rituals? Those pencils, for example—
Well, actually, I write on a computer.MacBook.
That’s it? Anything else you want to say on this topic?
[Long pause.]Hmm.No, sorry—I guess not.
Favorite writers, off the top of your head?
John Updike.Alice Munro.Ann Beattie.Philip Roth.Richard Ford.Carol Shields.Jane Smiley.Siri Hustvedt.Paul Auster.Rachel Cusk.
What are you reading right now?
I’m riveted by Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
What are you working on now?
A new novel, with the working title Wonder Lake.It’s about a group of musicians.
Thanks for your time.