I first met Bryn Greenwood in an online writing group a few years ago, and I was immediately struck by how clear and authentic her voice was. She doesn’t equivocate in her conversations or her writing. Her pull-no-punches style may sometimes be uncomfortable, but it’s always interesting.
Bryn, who bills herself as a “fourth-generation Kansan and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer,” has an MA in creative writing and two small press novels, but it is her latest work, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (St. Martin’s Press) that’s garnering talk. The Associated Press says that “This book won’t pull at heartstrings but instead yank out the entire organ and shake it about before lodging it back in an unfamiliar position.” Library Journal calls it “…so freakishly good and dangerous that it should come with a warning label.”
Intrigued? Then read on to get Bryn’s take on the road to publishing, what makes a character compelling, and whether it’s true that any publicity is good publicity. (And as a bonus, meet her big brown dogs!)
LM: True confession time — I have a big brown dog I call the Slobbering Beast, and my main goal in interviewing you was to get you to talk more about your own beasts. You have two, correct? Are they as much trouble as mine?
BG: I have two boxers, who are the most wonderful, pain-in-the-ass thing that ever happened to me. They were the dog equivalent of an unplanned pregnancy. I dated this guy and in the process of our very messy relationship, he left his dogs at my house. That was six years ago and now they’re my dogs. The one is a pretty pretty princess who lives to be petted and admired. The other is truly a slobbering beast, who hates all but about three people in the world. Her head is approximately the size of a car battery and she becomes unhinged when she has to confront anything with wheels on it. They really are the nicest thing in my life on any given day.
LM: Always nice to have the dogs to lean on during the publishing process, isn’t it? Speaking of which, your path to publication has been a twisted one. You’ve had fiction and essays appear in places like The New York Times and the Kansas Quarterly, you have an MA, and you have two previous novels published with indie publishers. On the surface, it sounds idyllic. Yet getting to this place where you are now — with a well-received book coming out from a mainstream publisher — has been a struggle. Would you talk a bit about that, and what kept you going?
BG: My experience is a reminder that the path to publishing is not linear. In 2008 I had an agent and a novel that went to several acquisition boards, but was never sold. It was enormously discouraging, but publishing is a Sisyphean chore. I had pushed my boulder to the top of the hill and fallen back to the bottom. After my agent and I parted ways, I started over. I wrote another novel and started querying it. Over the next four years, I sold two novels to a small press, and racked up 122 agent rejections for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.
The thing was, I knew it was a good book, the best thing I had written up to that point. Enough people I trusted had told me that, so never underestimate how important your encouragement can be to a writer. In 2014, having failed to find an agent, I started to talk with a few people about self-publishing the book. Then I got an email from an agent I hadn’t queried. She’d read some of my earlier work and wanted to know if I was represented, and if not, would I send her what I was working on. I sent the manuscript without much expectation. Three days later, I had an agent, and three months later, that roundly rejected novel sold at auction to a Big 5 publisher. It’s a perfect example of how random luck plays into publishing. You do have to write the best book you possibly can, but after that it’s a question of the right agent reading it on the right day and sending it out to the right editor.
LM: This novel has at its heart two kind people in a very damaged world. Wavy is a child of eight when she meets Kellen, a much older drug dealer and con. Eventually, their friendship turns to love. On the surface, it’s a disturbing story, one I wasn’t sure I’d be able to read. But it turns out most of the disturbing parts aren’t the scenes between Wavy and Kellen — it’s the way the other adults in Wavy’s world behave.
Did you set out to write a story where the conventional idea of what is right and what is wrong was turned upside down?