On "Letting Go" of My First Novel–A Reply

Last week, one of our commenters responded to this post on “Goals and Priorities” and asked: “Erika, I’m curious as to why you abandoned the goal of publishing a novel?”

Well, I haven’t necessarily abandoned the goal of publishing a novel, but I have pretty much abandoned the idea of publishing my first novel manuscript. I promised our commenter a more detailed response, and here it is:

Once upon a time (the summer of 1996, to be specific), I discovered a file in the French National Archives while I was conducting dissertation research in Paris. Although the file lacked direct relevance to my doctoral project, it was an amazing find. Because its contents sparked the idea for an entire novel.

For the next several years I worked on that novel. I split my time three ways: I taught (I was an advanced graduate student, after all); I worked on my dissertation (which I finished in 1999); and I worked on the novel. I enrolled in workshops locally (in Massachusetts) and, for four consecutive summers, at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I applied to and was admitted to a Master Class at the 92nd Street Y. I attended the inaugural session of the Taos Summer Writers Conference. I obtained two in-depth consultations. I shared work-in-progress with my writing group, and with my colleagues in Harvard’s History and Literature program.

By the time my Harvard colleagues got a peek at the work, I was looking for an agent. I’d already received a few very generous referrals, but none had panned out. So when one of my colleagues told me I should go ahead and contact his agent, I was thrilled.

The agent didn’t snap up the manuscript right away. But she seemed to “get” what I was doing, and she made editorial suggestions I was willing to try. By the spring of 2001–very shortly before I was to attend the first residency of my “low-res” MFA program in North Carolina, the novel was officially “agented.”

Although the writing sample I’d submitted with my MFA application was, in fact, the novel’s opening chapter, it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to be submitting chapters for critique while the book was simultaneously making the rounds in New York. Was that a mistake? I don’t know. What I do know is that for the first three semesters of my MFA program I focused exclusively on short fiction. It was only by the fourth semester that I was back to “workshopping” the novel.

And that was because it hadn’t yet sold. My relationship with my agent had not been easy. I found it difficult to get her on the phone, or to receive responses to my e-mails. Between 9/11 and her own series of health problems, she was, understandably, distracted. More significantly, she was primarily a nonfiction agent–which I should have realized and appreciated as soon as my colleague-her-client, a nonfiction writer, recommended her. But I was so happy to have “found” an agent who was willing to take me on, that I’d jumped right in.

By the winter of 2003 she’d told me that the novel had been rejected by many, many publishers (though I saw only a handful of the responses). One of the few she did share with me came from a Major Editor at a Major House. This editor really liked the first half to two-thirds of the novel, but thought the rest of it needed a lot of work. And she said that was willing to review the manuscript if I revised.

I was willing to revise.

So, in my last semester in the MFA program, I thought I’d try to focus on the novel again. But I really had no sense–nor had I received any advice concerning–how to workshop a novel over a semester. I figured the group had to see the first chapter. Big mistake. I didn’t really want feedback on the first chapter. I needed help on the later segments, but had no idea how to get it. What happened in that first workshop that semester destroyed my trust in and respect for the instructor, and, I am quite aware, made her dislike me equally.

I soldiered on, though, and tried to revise more or less on my own. The Major Editor rejected my revision, and my agent was clearly losing interest. We soon parted ways. For a year or so I tried submitting the book to contests and independent presses on my own. No success.

Meantime, I’d become quite entranced with the short story form, and had begun publishing some of the short stories I’d written in the MFA program. My energies seemed more naturally directed toward developing a collection. But every time I approached agents with the collection, they wanted to see a novel, and the novel I had to show them had, well, been around. I needed a new novel, but I had no inspiration to write one.

I’m not sure when, exactly, I gave up on the novel. Publishing a snippet in 2006 seemed to help me close this “chapter” of my writing life more than it motivated me to continue with yet more revisions. Go figure.

So here I am. I want to write a new novel, and for the first time, I have some glimmers of hope in that regard (hopefully I can share more about that as the summer goes on). But when I return to that first one, I simply don’t have the passion for it that I once did. It’s almost painful for me to read it. Stubbornness aside, I’ve let go of this project. For now, at least.

The Wednesday Web Browser: Agent Queries, Creative Writing in Israel, and Julianna Baggott Interview

Looks as though there’s a new resource available for writers seeking guidance on agent query letters. (via Guide to Literary Agents)
Joan Leegant offers a glimpse into the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Julianna Baggott fans will be pleased to see this interview on Poetic Asides.

The Wednesday Web Browser: Fraud Follow-up, Agent Advice, and Short Story No-No’s

I must not have read the Sunday NYT very carefully, because I missed this piece by Public Editor Clark Hoyt, following up on the Margaret Seltzer story. (via Galleycat)
Chuck Sambuchino continues the “Agent Advice” feature for the Guide to Literary Agents blog with an interview with Michael Murphy of Max & Co.: A Literary Agency and Social Club. (You can access the archive of Sambuchino’s agent interviews here.)
I have Jason Boog to thank for discovering this list of short story no-no’s, graciously provided by the folks who didn’t find a single worthy entry to select as winner of this year’s Willesden Herald Short Story competition (but who escaped castigation from yours truly when that news broke given that the contest charged no entry/reading fee).

A Doctor’s Initiation (and an Author’s): An Interview with Sandeep Jauhar


by Erika Dreifus

(This interview was first published in The Practicing Writer‘s January 2008 issue.)

A little more than a year ago, I read an article in New York magazine by Sandeep Jauhar. Since I’d been following his writing with great interest for several years–he is married to the elder sister of one of my own sister’s very best friends–I was delighted to learn in that article’s bio note that he was completing a memoir. I e-mailed him right away, and asked if he’d participate in an interview for The Practicing Writer once the book was published. He responded immediately, and affirmatively, and most graciously.

So I am thrilled to present this interview, timed to coincide with Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s publication of Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation. Knowing Sandeep (and having read many examples of his excellent prose) before the book’s publication, I suspected he’d have a lot to share with us, especially concerning writing nonfiction about science and balancing writing with another, highly demanding full-time career (plus family life). He hasn’t disappointed.

But before we get to the Q&A, let’s introduce him a little more completely. Sandeep Jauhar is the Director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, the largest program of its kind on Long Island. He trained as an experimental physicist at the University of California-Berkeley, where he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow. After earning his Ph.D., he went to medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. He completed internship, residency, and a cardiology fellowship at prominent teaching hospitals in New York City. Since 1998 he has been writing regularly about medicine for The New York Times. He is the recipient of a South Asian Journalists Association Special Recognition Award for outstanding stories about medicine. His first book, Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation, which focuses on a key year in his medical training, has just been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He lives in New York City with his wife and their son.

Erika Dreifus (ED): Fairly early in your memoir, you tell us that “journalism had always been a passion” of yours. You mention that you spent the summer before starting medical school on a science journalism fellowship sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You also mention an internship you undertook–while you were a full-time medical student–with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Please tell us a little about your training and development as a writer–how these (and any other) experiences proved formative.

Sandeep Jauhar (SJ): In high school I always enjoyed writing. But like most budding writers, I didn’t know how to parlay my interest into a career. When I went to Berkeley in 1985, I made a deliberate choice to focus on science and math. My writing interest lay dormant for many years until I came across a brochure advertising the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program. I applied and, much to my amazement, got the fellowship. I spent the summer of 1995 at the Washington, DC, bureau of Time magazine.

That experience convinced me that journalism and writing had to be a part of my career if I was going to feel fulfilled. Heeding the advice of journalism mentors, I landed a reporting internship at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during my second year in medical school. The internship taught me how to write 500-word news stories on deadline. These pieces and some longer feature articles became the portfolio I presented to The New York Times. Cornelia Dean, the science editor, gave me my first big break in 1998 by accepting a query for a 1200-word piece about the closing of a leprosy hospital in Louisiana. I eventually started writing essays about internship and residency for the science section of The Times. (My first essay required 3 or 4 complete rewrites! I remember Cornelia advising me to stop being “writerly” and just tell the story.) After a couple of years I moved on to 3000-word pieces for the Sunday Times Magazine.

ED: Which specific writers, teachers, and other works have influenced you?

SJ: Several doctor-writers have made a strong impact me: Abraham Verghese, Melvin Konner (whose memoir Becoming a Doctor accompanied me everywhere during my first two years of medical school as I looked forward to my clinical rotations on the hospital wards), and Berton Roueche (the old New Yorker writer whose baroque clinical tales inspired a generation of readers). I also enjoy reading Atul Gawande’s insightful essays in The New Yorker.

The non-medical memoir that has had the most influence on me is Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. Conroy, of course, ran the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for many years. His memoir of adolescence is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. When I first met with my book editor, Paul Elie, he asked me about some of my favorite books, the sort of books that I might aspire to write. When I mentioned Stop-Time, Paul immediately started recounting the prologue, which finds Conroy speeding in a car through the English countryside. (At that point I knew I was working with the right editor.) Other memoirs I’ve especially enjoyed reading recently are James McBride’s The Color of Water and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.

ED: What resources might you recommend for those interested in developing their skills in (or simply learning more about) writing about science for a general audience?

SJ: The Mass Media Fellowship is a great way to start for scientists and engineers. For non-scientists, I’d recommend making a habit of reading the science section of The New York Times and science pieces in The New Yorker. The “best science writing” anthologies are also excellent introductions.

ED: One of the episodes in this book that really caught my attention concerns your first visit to the Times offices. I won’t ask you to recount that here (readers, you’ll have to check it out yourself!). But I will ask you to describe a bit about another event: the first Times essay acceptance. As you narrate it, the publication of your essay (a piece of writing whose purpose you characterize as “to warn hospital administrators and future residents to the dangers” of an element of your own training, “caused a firestorm” at the hospital. To put it bluntly, not everyone at the hospital was happy with it. Were you aware of the reaction the essay might provoke ahead of time? And, on a related note, how did you learn to negotiate the particular ethical and professional concerns you have faced as someone whose work as a writer is so entwined with the very personal medical stories of your patients?

SJ: I knew the essay would not be well received, but at that point in my internship, I didn’t care a whole lot about what hospital administrators thought of me. I wanted to see the essay get published, for other residents, and also for myself.

Preserving patient confidentiality is a concern of any medical writer. I believe that my work as a doctor is a part of my story, but obviously this story overlaps with the stories of my patients, so privacy and confidentiality need to be protected. It is probably more difficult to do this in a publication like the Times than in magazines or in books, where pseudonyms can be used and identifying details can be changed. These devices aren’t allowed at the Times, so one often has to leave out interesting details, which isn’t ideal for writing but is obviously the right thing to do.

ED: In the memoir’s acknowledgments, you thank your agent, Todd Shuster, whom you say “knew [you] should write a book well before” you did. That’s intriguing. Tell us more! How, in fact, did you realize that you had a book to write? And how did you come to work with this agent?

SJ: Todd actually contacted me after an essay of mine about mysterious fevers was published in the Times in November 1999. He tried to convince me for many years to try my hand at a book, but I could never find the right subject. Eventually, I proposed compiling the essays I had published in the Times into a book. We circulated a proposal and received interest from several publishers. FSG was interested, too, but not in the book I had proposed. They suggested instead a book about my education as a doctor. That was in August 2003.

ED: Since I know a little bit about you–I know that in addition to treating patients you teach medicine; I know your wonderful wife and son (and I can attest that you are a hands-on dad–I’ve seen you with your adorable little boy at his swimming lessons!); I continue to see your byline in the Times. When on earth did you manage to write this book? Many writers find it tiresome to talk about their “routine,” but I’d really like to know how you’ve been able to nurture your writing career, especially given how consuming a life in medicine, as you describe it in your book, can be.

SJ: People find time for what they enjoy. I write on weekends and at night after my son goes to bed. I sometimes find time at the hospital during the day. Luckily for me, my work informs my writing, so the whole thing is sort of “organic.”

ED: Anything else you’d like to share with us? News on upcoming appearances, for example?

SJ: [In the near future] I have two book readings scheduled: on January 3 at 6 pm at the Corner Bookstore in Manhattan (Madison at 93rd St) [Editor’s note: I attended this packed reading, and it was terrific] and on January 17 at 7 pm at the Barnes and Noble in Manhasset. [Editor’s Note: On December 27, Sandeep and his book were also featured on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.”]

ED: Thank you so much, Sandeep.

Visit http://www.sandeepjauhar.com to learn more about Sandeep Jauhar and his new book.

(c) 2007 Erika Dreifus

The Wednesday Web Browser: An Agent Interview, Freelancing Insights, Kudos, and Low-Res Advice

The January-February 2008 issue of Poets & Writers is out. And it contains lots of good stuff (not all, unfortunately, online). You can, however, click over for an extended interview with agent extraordinaire Lynn Nesbit.
Linda Formichelli discusses the divide between “pay-on-acceptance” and “pay-on-publication” policies.
Congratulations to Practicing Writer subscriber Hank Nielsen, who has very kindly shared the news about “Half a Man,” his story/photo combination in the January/February 2008 issue of The Writer’s Eye. Hank writes: “Thank you so much for the lead.” You’re welcome, Hank!
Finally, yours truly has an article posted over on AbsoluteWrite with tips on evaluating low-residency programs in creative writing.