Killer Meatballs, and Other Food in Lara Vapnyar’s Fiction

Sometimes you just don’t know where the “writing about writing” will show up. Yesterday’s weekly “Dining In” section in the New York Times, for example, featured a front-page piece on Lara Vapnyar and her new story collection, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love.

The article displayed so prominently in the food and wine section includes some good descriptions of how, in these stories, “food has the power to define characters, propel plots, cause riots and even commit manslaughter.” Plus, there’s a snippet about using food in the fiction-writing classroom: When her undergraduates “often turned in work filled with sex and gore,” Vapnyar gave them an assignment “to write about food and how characters responded to it, to teach them how preferences, memories and quirks could make up a personality on the page.” The article quotes her as saying that beginning writers “‘often don’t give their characters enough particulars,'” and that “‘Food is something that readers can understand.'” Good tip. It’s occurred to me more than once that I should probably introduce more food-related elements into my fiction, but for some reason it’s something I don’t tend to do very much. Maybe it has something to do with my own poor cooking skills. Food for thought (sorry!).

To read the full article, click here.

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.

Friday Find: Poetry Exercises

Although I haven’t been blogging about it, I’ve spent the last several weeks enrolled in yet another online poetry class. This time, having finished the basic poetry sequence offered by my previous instructor, I decided to try something new.

And it’s been great. Trouble is, the class is ending next week. One thing I’ve learned from all these online courses is that I really do benefit from assignments. So to keep myself writing, I want to find some good sources for poetry prompts and exercises. I’ve already got files and bookshelves filled with fiction exercises, but I’m still new to the world of poetry.

So, practicing poets, please help me out. Leave a comment referring me to your favorite sources for poetry prompts and exercises (print or online), and tell me how they’ve helped you.

Thanks in advance for helping me develop this list of “finds,” and have a great weekend!