Danielle Younge-Ullman’s debut novel, Falling Under, will be released next Tuesday, July 29th. The description of her book caught my attention months ago. Said Kristy Kiernan, author of Catching Genius, “Danielle Younge-Ullman redefines modern fiction with this finely wrought, edgy debut. She is the best kind of new author— enormously talented and utterly unafraid.”
Sounded pretty unboxed to me. I was thrilled when Danielle, who is also a Canadian playwright and actor, agreed to an interview. Not only was her novel a super fast, dark and dynamic read, but Danielle herself made our Q&A a lot of fun. She also kindly secured an excerpt of Falling Under from her publisher, Plume, which you can read at the end of this post.
Interview with Danielle Younge-Ullman: Part 1
Q: Falling Under marks your debut as a novelist. I’d love to hear about your road to publication. How did it happen? And what inspired Falling Under?
DYU: My first attempt at a book was a chick lit novel. I had a great time writing it but didn’t make much effort to get it published because already I sensed I wanted to go in a different direction—deeper, darker and perhaps more literary. I was interested in keeping some of the common chick lit elements (single woman battling issues with work, love and family) and turning the rest of it on its head, making the issues serious and the writing more instinctive and raw. I didn’t want to follow any rules (besides the general rules of good storytelling and proper grammar) and I didn’t want to censor myself.
In terms of the story itself, I wanted to write a character who has the fears and anxieties many of us have, but who, because of her past, is paralyzed by these fears. I had a vision of her, young and vibrant and talented, but stuck in her house, haunted by the past and afraid of the future. And then I thought, what happens when someone like this falls in love, has a chance at a happier existence? For someone who has no faith in herself or the world, love is terrifying. Love is, potentially, a disaster. Unless of course, this person, under all her fears, is passionate, stubborn, fiercely determined and stronger than she realizes because of everything she’s been through. I built the story on these two opposing sets of issues—put simply, her fear and lack of faith, versus her hope, determination and strength.
When Falling Under was finished and ready as I could make it, I queried agents and soon landed with a great NYC agency. A few months later my agent submitted the book to publishers and three weeks later we had our first offer. Ten days after that we had multiple offers and sold at auction to Plume. There is a much longer version of that story, of course, but those are the main points!
Q: You mentioned the auction. What was it like? How involved were you in the decision-making process?
DYU: Well, we got the first offer on a Friday afternoon. I’d had a few rejections and was feeling a bit glum, so I wasn’t expecting a call at all and it was obviously a huge thrill. Over the next few days my agent let everyone know there was an offer on the table and then editors were racing to read it and more rejections came (most of them nicer in tone, I noticed, post offer) and also a few calls expressing “strong interest”. By the following Tuesday or Wednesday we knew we had at least another couple of offers coming, so my agent set the date for the auction for the following Monday and all interested parties were told they had to let us know by the end of the week if they would be bringing an offer on Monday. It was a bit crazy because some of the houses were down to the last minute with editors trying to get approval from their superiors. I barely slept that weekend–not good when you have a small child! I hovered by the phone all morning on Monday. Around eleven I got an email with the offers and then a phone call from my agent. I was immediately relieved because one offer (Plume’s) was substantially better than the others, which made the path forward fairly clear. And I was thrilled since they have a great reputation and such an impressive publishing history.
As far as the decision making, of course I would always consult with my agent (not to mention my husband), but in the end the decision was mine to make.
Q: You chose to weave backstory throughout the novel, informing Mara’s present condition as the story progressed. What was your process in weaving it through? Any challenges? What makes this style so appealing?
DYU: The story of Mara’s past started with just a few sentences and expanded to the point that it’s more of a parallel story—it counts for almost half of the book. It wasn’t my intention to write so much of Mara’s youth and young adulthood, but I was writing in a very uncensored, organic way and the voice of this kid came through so powerfully that I just had to keep going. Weaving the two stories together got a bit complicated and at one point I actually had to separate them into two documents in order to get a sense of the whole and figure out what needed to go where.
In terms of making it appealing, I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m always trying to figure people out and often a clue about the past will enlighten me. I’m interested in what goes into the making of a person, the forging of character, the events that form the spine of a person’s beliefs about themselves and the world.
Q: Did you uncover any problem areas or ID any trends when you broke the dual stories down like that? How did that help you when it came time to merge the parts together again?
DYU: I initially took it apart because I found I was wanting to stay in each storyline for too long. It was fine to write it that way, but I knew I’d need to flip back and forth more often. Also, to be honest, I was getting mixed up about the chronology–not of the stories themselves, but in terms of the present day story and the timing of revelations from the past. So when I took it apart I was able to write through to the end of certain sections–the relationship with Caleb was one of those–in the way I needed to. And then I was able to weave it all back together and pay attention to pacing, the building of tension and the timing of various events and revelations.
Q: Your past sequences unravel in 2nd-person POV. Why choose 2nd? What advantages/disadvantages might there be to working in this POV?
DYU: The 2nd person was another result of this very organic, instinctual process I was trying to embrace while writing Falling Under. I had the sense of wanting to grab readers and yank them into Mara’s shoes. I was only going to do it for a couple of sentences but, again, Mara came through so clearly to me in this voice that I had to keep going. I think it works very well for this particular book, this particular character, and helps the reader experience her world in an immediate and visceral way. Disadvantages? Well, not many people write in 2nd person and therefore people aren’t used to it—so far most readers love the intensity of it but some may find it a bit disconcerting.
In order to get a better feel for 2nd person and Danielle’s story and voice, she and her publisher, Plume, have allowed us to reprint the first two chapters of Falling Under here. Enjoy!
Ask Santa for a new bike, and you might get it.
But Daddy might leave on Christmas Day.
When you reach out to touch your shiny new bike, Mommy might start yelling at Daddy about how dare he spend their money on a new bike and how you’re only five and what do you need a new bike for anyway?
You play your invisible trick—the one where you pretend you are a small rock—and hope that no one will notice your heart thumping so loud and your ears burning and your eyes blinking again and again.
Daddy yells back at Mommy and soon they are yelling in each other’s faces.
You take your hand off the bike.
You wish, instead of asking for a bike, you’d asked Santa for no more yelling and no more breaking things and slamming of doors.
You wish you’d asked for Daddy not to walk out the door and say he’s never coming back and stay away until Mommy calls and begs him to come home like she has four times already.
The yelling gets louder and the words get meaner and then it all stops. A blast of freezing air gets in when Daddy opens the front door. You shiver and the door slams shut with Daddy on the other side.
In the long silence before Mommy starts her crying and her kicking at the door, you think about what she said about the bike.
How come Dad and Mom had to pay Santa?
It doesn’t matter what you asked Santa, you realize, because there is no Santa. There’s no Santa, and Daddy’s not coming back this time. Somehow you know it.
When all else fails I go to Erik. Tonight, all else has failed.
He answers the door, eyes bloodshot, unsurprised. And then the hitch in my breathing that comes, that always comes with Erik.
“Can’t sleep?” he says.
He steps aside to let me in, shuts the door behind me, slides the bolts, and chains the locks.
“Drink?” he says.
I refuse, as always.
There is no bar, just a huddle of bottles on top of a giant, long-broken stereo speaker. He pours himself a Lagavulin, neat, as always.
“You painting?” he says.
“You breaking the law?”
“Not at the moment,” he says with the ghost of a smirk.
The couch is clear of its usual technological detritus. I follow him there, and sit.
I shouldn’t be here.
I should never have been here. But it was too late years ago, and now it doesn’t matter so much.
We try small talk but soon run out of easy things to say. Our ill beginnings surface quickly, so it’s really better not to converse.
“So,” he says.
I feel his eyes on me. He knows if I’m here, I’ve done everything I can to still the storm inside, to put all the demons back into their boxes and seal the lids. But sometimes they won’t go. Sometimes my ears are full of screaming, and sometimes, like tonight, the voices are mine.
Erik has them too—demons, voices, nightmares seared on the soul—I knew it the first time I saw him. And sometimes, when there are large, dark spaces inside that you cannot escape, sometimes someone can meet you there, keep you company. Sometimes they can break you out.
I turn my head and let his eyes in. We search, and accept.
There can be no love here; we don’t want it and we don’t have it to give, especially not to one another. No love, but there is something else.
“Mara,” he says. A question, a command.
We both stand.
I know the way to the bedroom, I know his mouth will taste like Scotch. I walk ahead and listen for his footsteps behind me. Just inside the door his arms wrap around my waist. He swivels me around and pulls me closer. I let him.
I come here because I know Erik will drag me to the edge. He will drag me there, push me over, and then leap after me, to a place beyond pain, beyond loss, beyond the things that haunt us in the empty spaces of the night.
When all else fails, I have this.
You can order Danielle’s novel at Amazon HERE or through booksellers nationwide.
Come back next week for part two of my interview with Danielle, when we’ll talk about neurotic protagonists, writerly challenges, publicity and The Debutante Ball!