Last night, Aspen Words veterans Stephanie Danler, Anna Noyes and Molly Prentiss spoke about their debut book releases. For those unable to make the Aspen Words event, Claire Woodcock spoke with the authors while they were in town to bring us this conversation.
CW: Each of you were emerging writers through a fellowship with Aspen Words between 2014 and 2015. What was it like?
“I came in 2015 and it was right sort of right after I had sold my book,” said Anna Noyes, author of the short story collection Goodnight, Beautiful Women. “So it was this sort of vulnerable kind of tenuous time where I already had the stories selected for the collection and I workshopped one of them. The thing I mostly got out of the program was having left graduate school in this really wonderful sort of comfortable contained environment where you get feedback and then going into this void where you don't you're just writing alone for about a year I had been doing that and not showing my work to anybody so this was the first workshop I'd had since being in that supportive place and it felt so good to commune with other writers again.
"I did my workshop with Meg Wolitzer which was a huge gift,” said Molly Prentiss, author of the novel Tuesday Nights in 1980 which came out last spring. “I had also, I was also sort of finishing my book at that point in the late stages of it but I hadn't gotten it sold yet so it was still in that vulnerable stage, different vulnerable stage.
"I came at the beginning of the void Anna was just talking about,” said Stephanie Danler, the author of the novel Sweetbitter, also released a year ago. “It was the first time I had seen my novel as a whole and then to have feedback on it immediately, that's the kind of thing like, I could have finished my novel and it could have sat in a drawer for 10 years and but aspen kind of forced it into the light. And the notes from that workshop are how I revised it. And I sold it later that year."
CW: So a couple years out of the emerging writers fellowship, how does it feel to be back in Aspen actually speaking as experts on your debut novel?
“Of course there are all the beautiful moments of when you hold your book for the first time and when you see the people that come to your readings and you hear that your book touched people,” Prentiss explained. “There are all of these amazing magical moments but then there are also really really scary things. I mean every single week is a new thing you've never done before. Being on the radio for example, all these things you've never done before. So you're constantly in these new spaces and arenas that you've never dealt with before. So it's often very scary too.”
“When we were talking last night, we kept coming back to this interesting question of art and commerce,” Danler said. “And it's you're a writer and you would like to write a book and it's this private artistic endeavor and you're kind of alone in a tunnel with it and then once it's out in the world I really do feel like there's a shift where it's a product and it's a book and you have to promote it. And there is a side to the job that you can never imagine when you're in that tunnel.”
“Yeah, we were saying last night I think there should be some sort of support group of emerging writers that gets you through this process with somebody to talk to about it,” continued Noyes. “Because I think it's surprising and you don't really know what you're getting into and nobody really knows how to prepare you, there's no way to give you guidelines for this because I do think it's different for everybody. But you know the good news and the bad, at least for me just sort of registered as this sort of bodily panic, you know you think you're just going to be floating on air all the time and everyone else anticipates that reaction from you also, but it's a much more complex thing and I think you're also in the most, your raw space with your work where the entire it's enclosed to the world and yet you're so you're very vulnerable but then you're having to talk to that work in a poised gracious way night after night and I do think to be so public when internally there's so much turmoil going on is a really complicated and hard to anticipate feeling.”
CW: Maybe you all can start the group?
“There’s a sense I get sometimes that I don't have the answers and who am I to say these things?” Noyes confesses. “Time after time I have to just sort of remind myself by giving the answers like I actually am the expert on my own work. But I do feel this sort of sense of inadequacies sometimes in you know panels or you just feel like a fraud and I think that only that maybe lessens a little bit in time but I don't know if I'll ever get used to being at the front of things.”
“There's also that strange thing where when you're writing, you're certainly having all of these reasons for what you're writing,” Prentiss begins. “It's coming out of your life, it's coming out of your mind the way it works, the things you think about, the things you're obsessed with. But then when you have to retroactively address what you've written about, it becomes this different thing because people ask constantly, why did you choose to write about that, like why did you choose to write about that point in time or why is your character from argentina or all these kinds of questions. And you have to be like huh, why did I do that? But at the time you were sort of just following your own whims and to create the answers afterwards is this strange thing, it's almost like you're creating your story about the story. But you kind of come up with all of these ways it actually is really interesting to go back and address your own sort of thought process and your own obsessions and then to like deliver that as sort of another layer of how you worked.”
“I wonder if it doesn't take that amount of time to be able to articulate what your book is about,” Danler said. “Like when you're in it, when you are just following these threads and obsessions I'm sure you could never answer questions like what's this book about, like no idea. Words on a page. Don't talk to me--but it takes maybe that amount of time to be like this is a coming of age novel.”
“Which isn't really want to know as you're writing it could be detrimental if you knew these answers until this stage where you're way beyond it,” said Noyes. “I had a hard time owning up to that truth about my book, I was like I don't want it to be coming of age but it is okay.”
CW: What are some of the challenges female writers publishing works for the first time have to go through?
“When all of us went to graduate school and I think that you don't really realize that you're playing in a male dominated field,” Danler starts. “I didn't, at least until it came to publishing time and I started to see the ways in which male writers around me were received versus the treatment that I was getting. And it can be as simple as like and these are not necessarily bad things but like more lifestyle questions or questions about whether or not the book is autobiographical or questions what your parents think about the book. I started to notice all of these differences but restaurants are a male dominated industry, academia, a male dominated industry, you just are you're kind of used to fighting for your space and when your book comes out I feel like it's the same sort of fight to take up space. to say no this isn't trivial because it's about love or sex or youth. It's important and deserves the attention that it's getting.”
That's why I think like even us all being together,” Prentiss adds. “I think when women writers kind of like ban together that's like where the power is. And I've found that so much in publishing the book that almost all of my peers that I've connected with are women and helping each other with this weird journey is really important.”
“And to go back to sort of Stephanie's point also about how the book is received and the language that people use to talk about the writing of young women versus perhaps a man's writing,” Noyes said. “It does sort of get to me to hear my book described and many books described that are sort of authentic women's experiences as just drinking in these raw emotions like unfiltered raw emotions, I get that a lot. Or these sort of, there's certain terminology that's used whereas in a male narrative, it would be described as craft and it would be described as he has a wonderful toolbox of effects that he knows how to employ because he's a master of the form and we're just like these autobiographical sort of raw throbbing units--that sounds like something that can't be on public radio. But I think there's a way, when you start to get this feedback where you can really track the kind of language that people use to take work seriously and to put it into a certain category that's maybe taken a little bit less seriously and that's been you know challenging to be on the receiving end of that and also just in the way that your book is marketed, like I think all of us think we have these very serious literary books. I envisioned a cover that was like very dark and didn't have a cursive font on it and that kind of thing and then they know the readership and they know people want to beach read and they know people want to romanticized maine book. And I do love the way my book looks but I also think that that is catering to a certain readership that's like maybe I'll trick somebody into reading something that's darker and more serious than they wanted to get into when they picked up something that looks a little more lovely. But it is a shift from how you perceive your work to how the world might be willing to accept your work and what kind of adjustments are made to make it more palatable.”
Listen to Danler, Prentiss and Noyes read excerpts from their books below.