The original version of this interview appeared in the June 2017 issue of The Practicing Writer.
From “Driveway Moment” to Debut Novel: Q&A with Margot Singer
By Erika Dreifus
I don’t recall exactly when I first became aware of Margot Singer, but her first book, a collection of short stories titled THE PALE OF SETTLEMENT, overwhelmed me in all the best ways; it remains one of my all-time favorite collections, and I consider myself fortunate to have developed a friendship with its author. This spring brought the publication of Margot’s first novel, UNDERGROUND FUGUE, which is the focus of the Q&A that follows here. (We completed this interview, by the way, prior to the spring 2017 attacks in Manchester and London.)
MARGOT SINGER won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award for her story collection THE PALE OF SETTLEMENT. Her work has been featured on NPR and in KENYON REVIEW, GETTYSBURG REVIEW, AGNI, and CONJUNCTIONS, among other publications. She is a professor of English at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.
Please welcome Margot Singer!
ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): I know that many writers despise the “where-do-you-get-your-ideas?” question. But it’s a question I like to ask, and I understand that this novel has its own origin story. Please tell us how UNDERGROUND FUGUE began.
MARGOT SINGER (MS): This project began with one of those NPR “driveway moments” back in April 2005. The piece that kept me sitting in my car was about a strange fellow who’d been found on a beach in the south of England, dripping wet, dressed in a formal suit and white shirt. He carried no identification; all the labels had been cut out of his clothes. He could or would not speak, but amazed the hospital staff with his abilities at the piano. When a Missing Persons bulletin was put out, thousands of people called in, but no one could identify him. The tabloids dubbed him the “Piano Man”; the story got picked up by the press around the world. Speculation ran wild. Some claimed he had immigrated illegally; others compared him to David Helfgott, the genius pianist portrayed in the 1996 Australian film SHINE.
I was intrigued by the image of the “Piano Man.” It began connecting in my mind to other things that were going on during that summer of 2005: the 7/7 terrorist bombings in London, the fears and paranoia in the wake of 9/11, the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. It got me thinking about what it means to flee, to be a refugee, to try to reinvent yourself, and how, no matter how hard you try, the past pulls you back at the same time.
ED: As you (and lots of other people!) know, I am a *big* fan of your first book, the story collection THE PALE OF SETTLEMENT. I’m wondering now how you “know” when an idea is meant for a story rather than a novel (or vice-versa)?
MS: That’s a good question. I had a vague sense that I was writing a novel very early on, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. Mostly I just wanted it to be a novel-sized idea. But there were many times when I was certain that it wasn’t going to work at all. I discarded hundreds of pages of early drafts over several years. At one point I wished it would just turn out to be a short story or a novella so I could be done with it and move on!
To be honest, nothing about the writing process was easy. I struggled to figure out how to hold such a big story in my head. I had to learn how to write longer, less-compressed scenes. I did a ton of research. The turning point, for me, was when I settled on the structure of chapters narrated from four different characters’ points of view. It parallels the structure of a musical fugue – different voices arranged in counterpoint. That’s when I knew it had to be a novel.
ED: UNDERGROUND FUGUE explores the inner lives – and sorrows – of characters from different backgrounds as well as an array of major world-historical events, including the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, the 9/11 attacks in the United States, and the London bombings of July 2005. This mix could be overwhelming to the reader, but it isn’t. That’s no small feat. Can you please share with us some literary models that take on similar challenges that may have helped or inspired you, as well as any other craft tips you might have for other practicing writers attempting comparable projects?
MS: I was inspired by many books, including Colum McCann’s novel LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, Pat Barker’s THE GHOST ROAD, and Michael Ondaatje’s ANIL’S GHOST. Not American-born writers, for whatever reason. I usually look for formal inspiration rather than thematic models, although my tastes often run to work that engages the political in some way.
You say that the mix of elements could feel overwhelming, but at one level the story is pretty simple: it’s about what happens to four people, neighbors, over the course of the summer of 2005. As an American, at least, I don’t think you can think about terrorism without thinking about 9/11. And you can’t think about refugees and racism without thinking about the Holocaust. All of the elements are intertwined in our historical consciousness, in our political discourse, in our imaginations.
From a technical perspective, what helped me most, oddly enough, was focusing not on thematic elements but on image patterns. Early on, I spent a lot of time simply looking for connections, for resonance. I found I kept coming back to certain images: flight, heights, stars, water, grayness, music, underground. I came to see the image-patterns operating rather like the repeated melodic fragments – the subject, answer, and countersubject – in a fugue. I even mapped the image-patterns out on a chart that looked a bit like a musical staff.
ED: What’s the biggest surprise you’ve encountered in this book’s path to publication?
MS: The biggest surprise, I think, was realizing that it’s possible to write a novel that might never get published. I mean, of course I know plenty of writers with novels “in the drawer” [ED’s note: including yours truly!] – probably every serious writer I know has a novel that they never published – but I’d never really had to face what that might feel like if it were me. I never before had to face what it would feel like to work for years and years on a project and then potentially have nothing to show for it.
People often say novels are easier to publish than short story collections, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Literary novels, and certainly debut literary novels, aren’t great commercial bets. Prizes and small/university presses support the publication of short-story, essay, and poetry collections, but few such options exist for novels these days. The commercial element drives publishing more than ever, which is a shame. As we all know, there are so many books in the literary canon that would never have been published if commercial considerations came first.
In the end, I got very lucky. Melville House is an awesome press, and they’ve done a fantastic job of supporting UNDERGROUND FUGUE all along the way. My agent, Irene Skolnick, has been an incredible support as well. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to work with on this book.
ED: At this point, the book has been out in the world for several weeks. What has been most surprising and/or gratifying to you about its reception thus far?
MS: It’s always a little scary to launch a new book into the world. It goes from being your private struggle to having a life you can’t control. For me, the most gratifying part, by far, is to hear from readers who really “get it.” I am so deeply touched by the friends and strangers who have taken the time to write me a thoughtful note. Often I am amazed by their insights. To all of you, a heartfelt thanks.
ED: And MY thanks again to Margot Singer, and to Melville House for the complimentary advance galley they provided. To learn more about or purchase UNDERGROUND FUGUE, please visit https://www.mhpbooks.com/books/underground-fugue/.