Therese here. You already know the
victim star of today’s interview, as I’m sure you’ve enjoyed Yuvi Zalkow’s many humorous videos on the writing life here at WU in the past. (And if you haven’t, you can start now!) Yuvi’s Failed Writer series might be on a forever sabbatical though, as Yuvi’s first book–A Brilliant Novel in the Works–was released today, and it is, truly, brilliant. Full of Yuvi’s trademark humor and angst, and possessing a depth that literally had me standing in the ocean on my vacation because I could not put it down, this book is a compelling gem. But, hey, maybe you’ll listen to this woman if not to me.
Yuvi Zalkow writes like the secret love child of the smartest person you’ve ever met and the weirdo who lives down the block. In A Brilliant Novel in the Works, he mines the territory between heartbreak and hilarity with a voice so original it’s as if he made the territory up. His prose is wise and perceptive, generous and bold, funny and tender. The truest thing I can say about this ambitiously realized debut is: you must read this.
– Cheryl Strayed, author of WILD, TORCH, and the Dear Sugar advice column
That’s right. Sugar loves Yuvi’s novel.
So what’s Yuvi’s book about? Honestly, it’s hard to explain. On the surface of things, it’s the story of a writer who doesn’t know what he’s writing. It’s a book about suffering and searching for answers by wading through ancient (often Jewish) history. It’s about impending fatherhood, lost childhood, and faltering marriages. It’s about life, with a character whose name is Yuvi. So is it fiction…or a memoir? Let’s lead with Yuvi’s book trailer, and go from there.
More questions than answers? Mmhmm. Time to grill him.
Q: Did you grapple with your novel as much as fictional Yuvi seemed to grapple with his? Or did you know what the story wanted to become from the start?
Yes. I definitely grappled with how to write this novel. Probably even worse than fictional Yuvi because I only show the parts in the novel that worked for the story itself. On the upside, it was definitely a blast to write about fictional Yuvi’s struggles — I was amazed at how much I could get away with revealing about my messy state of mind in real life. Of course, in the end, it was a ton of work to figure out what I needed to reel in and what I needed to take further so that the story would work. So I did have to pay a price for all the writerly cheating I did…
Unlike the fictional Yuvi, I had some rough mileposts in mind when I started the story. But I took a lot of wrong turns, particularly in the second half of the book. It was a breeze writing about fictional Yuvi’s flaws. I have a billion flaws (both real and fictionalized) that I’m dying to share with anyone who will listen. But it was lot trickier imagining a character arc, and finding a shape for the story, that was neither heavy-handed nor too miniscule.
Q: When and how did you have your light bulb moment re: shape and arc? How much of your draft was abandoned in the process of tightening around the refined idea?
I was about two thirds through the book when I began really worrying about where it would land. Without doing much about this, I wrote through to the end anyhow, and then realized that my fear was basically true. Not enough of an arc. I came up with a few possible outcomes for the story and experimented with writing some scenes from all these possible outcomes. Eventually (with the help of feedback from a few trusted readers/editors), I landed on one ending that I liked. I threw away more than half of the last half of the book (that ends up being 1/4 of the book for those not following my convoluted mathematical explanation!). I’m not suggesting that my novel has some kind of amazing arc now :) — and I didn’t intend for it to be one of those sorts of stories — but I spent some time trying to give it a shape, and to allow some growth for the Yuvi character while still being true to the story I fell in love with from the start…
Q: How long did it take you to write A Brilliant Novel in the Works?
It’s always blurry for me to answer how long it took to write this book because there were several phases. The bulk of this novel was written in two years (amidst a few breaks to write short stories). Then I took a year off, and returned to it for a final draft for about four months. And then a year later, I spent a few more months with my editor at MP Publishing.
Q: You have a style of writing that seems naked, exposed—directly addressing the reader in a manner that not many authors can pull off. Here’s an example:
(EXCERPT FROM PAGE 237)
I need to finish off this novel. And I think I know one way to do it. It’s going to be a little bumpy. It’s a long shot. But I don’t have much time. It involves a pee pee scene, a few palindromes, several overly symbolic anagrams, sixteen clotheslines, another visit to a purple apartment that may change the course of a book. It also involves a small, insignificant mountain with a giant horse on it.
How many of you have I lost already? I hate to think of it.
There’s a real intimacy about it; we feel in on Fictional Yuvi’s secrets, like a best mate. Was it a conscious choice to write in such an personal manner?
I won’t lie about it: when I started this book, I had no idea what the hell I was doing with this raw, naked, exposed, intimate voice. I was just desperate to connect with a reader, and this naked manner was the most direct way I could think of doing it. I was thrilled to find out that this sort of intimate storytelling actually was having an affect on readers in my various writing groups. It saved a lot in therapy costs. But the next step was much harder: to tame this voice enough to avoid making the reader too annoyed or claustrophobic while following along this fictionalized, pantsless Yuvi. I also had to learn how to fine-tune the voice depending on where we were in the story. I can’t tell you for sure that I achieved it, but I can say that I spent many many many hours on those last few drafts trying to make this voice succeed within this story.
Q: Do you see yourself continuing in this vein for future brilliant works?
In my next novel, I’m experimenting with several voices that fluctuate between a similar sort of intimacy and something more detached. I’m even confronting the third person. I’m hoping to still achieve a similar sort of nakedness at times, but not as blatant as with this first book. In fact, I’m embracing the radical notion of NOT naming my main character Yuvi Zalkow.
But I may return to this Yuvi character down the road…
Q: So about that… Why did you decide to name your character after yourself anyway? Was there a method to this seeming madness?
Maybe not a method, but a madness. :) Actually, there are two possible answers. One answer is that some of the pieces were originally really non-fiction essays that I fictionalized. But a more complete answer is that calling the character Yuvi was how I got myself to spill my guts as powerfully as I could on the page. For some, this tactic could bring their guard up further. But for me, it just didn’t let me hide behind a fictionalized character. I mean, the fictional Yuvi story is heavily fictionalized. But the feelings he was feeling were ripped from deep inside of me and I needed that trick to get me there. By the time I finished the book, I experimented with renaming Yuvi for public consumption, but then something felt detached and dishonest about it. These other non-Yuvi names kept feeling forced. And so I decided to leave Yuvi be, and give the reader the feeling of truth that I felt while writing. The risk I run of course is that it can confuse/annoy readers trying to make sense of the book’s ‘truth’, and I’ve heard some say that already. But I still feel like the decision I made was a good one for this particular book.
Q: You mentioned your writing groups; can you talk more about them? How did they help to shape your novel? In what ways did you find them valuable? And did it take you a long time to find a group (or groups) that felt right for you?
I think it is about as hard to find a good writing group as it is to find a good spouse/partner/lover/roommate/therapist. It took many years for me to find a great group (as you can tell from my writing group video), and at different times different groups served me best. The group that helped me get the storytelling voice right for this book was a group that didn’t focus so much on the plot of my story. It was more about whether I was telling the story in an emotionally honest way. We would read our writing aloud. And just listening to them laugh and sigh at certain parts was so valuable for me to understand how my story could impact people (and when it didn’t go far enough, or when it went too far). I also had a few great mentors along the way.
I was most surprised at how amused people were at various parts that were so emotionally fragile and difficult for me to write. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It wasn’t a mean sort of amusement, but just perhaps a surprise from hearing someone reveal so much about their absurd worries and fears. After about a year in this group, I think I learned how to react to my own writing in a way closer to how a (desired) reader would react. Does that make any sense?
It does to me. I’ve long believed writing like a pantser can lend itself to a sort of self-driven therapy. You learn about yourself, you have moments of enlightenment, and then you can move on.
Q: A Brilliant Novel in the Works is unconventionally structured. There are stories within stories. There are stories that reference other stories. The book twists around in ways that aren’t always chronological. Can you talk about how you put it together?
There’s a scene in the book where the main character, in a sort of desperation, puts up his entire novel, page by page, on clotheslines across his living room. I really did that. There were many periods in the writing of this book where I thought it would just be too complex for me to confront. Too many stories. Too many layers. I used many tricks (both on the computer and in the physical world) to try to manage all the pieces. I did use Scrivener — a program I evangalize regularly — but much of this book was written before I discovered Scrivener. And there’s something to be said about the old-fashioned process of making a mess of your living room to make sense of your novel.
I had to come up with a few rules to help figure out what to put where and how to make the transitions gracefully. These rules weren’t too rigid but allowed me to decide what to keep, what to trash, and what to tweak. (Y’all are just lucky that the story of ‘fictional’ Yuvi masturbating into torn underwear didn’t make the cut!)
Q: I’m going to make an assumption here and guess you love a good metaphor, since you used many of them to show fictional Yuvi searching for life’s answers, hoping they might be in anything—everything—from dying horses to rectal passages. Do you love them as much as you seem to? Talk to me about the use of symbology in your novel.
I’m actually honored to be asked a question that has the phrase “from dying horses to rectal passages” in it. Love it. I’m definitely a sucker for a metaphor. But even more so I like to take common metaphors and screw them up or subvert them or flip them around. But I should say that nearly all the metaphors spilled out on me without much thought on the first draft. (You’ll probably see a common theme with my writing style by now…) I didn’t plan them in advance. And in the later drafts, I cleaned up the ones that I liked (I mean, who doesn’t like a good intestinal metaphor!?), and removed the ones that didn’t work. My editor was also effective at calling me on the ones he didn’t buy. Usually, he was spot on. Occasionally it just meant that I had to work harder to make them work.
Q: The front story is written in first person present tense for the most part and the back stories / side stories / italicized parts are mostly written in first person past tense. Can you talk about why you made that decision?
At first I was working on two separate projects. The first project was this first-person present tense story about a guy named Yuvi working through all his fears and worries. The second project was a series of personal essays (or sometimes fictionalized personal essays) written by someone who was reflecting back on events of his childhood. I forgot when it happened, but at some point, they began to blend together and I realized that the Yuvi character in my first project was writing the essays in the second project. It took a lot of work to stitch this together organically (and many pages got thrown out along the way), but it made for a natural separation between these two sections, which have slightly different writing styles in addition to the tense shift. At some point in the book, the two worlds blend together, but that’s a different story…
Q: In your book trailer you say that you were rejected by twenty-nine agents. Can you talk about that process?
When I first started sending this story out, I was sending it out to big shot agents and big shot agencies. I just planned to work down the list until I found the right sort of representation. The interesting thing was that I was a getting all sorts of intriguing rejections. Not just, “No thanks,” but things like, “I love this voice but the publishers I work with wouldn’t know what the hell to do with this book.” There was also some concern about writing a novel about someone with the author’s name as well as other concerns about the loud voice of the storyteller. Pretty soon, I realized that I would need to find a publisher (and/or an agent) who was comfortable with the unusualness of this book. You may remember that I published that book trailer here at WU as a joke before finding a publisher. In fact, I was ready to put that book in the closet for an indefinite period of time.
It was the same week I release the book trailer that I got both representation and a publishing contract. These were from people I had spoken with over the years; they had always had strong (positive!) feelings about the book, but it just happened to all come together that week.
Both my publisher and my agent hadn’t seen the trailer when they approached me. I find it a good sign that they both enjoyed the video when they did see it.
Q: What one thing do you wish you’d know about the industry before your contract? Has anything surprised you?
I guess I had trouble understanding (as I often do) that one person’s perspective is just that: one person’s perspective. It’s not that I ignored everyone who had something critical to say — I responded to some feedback from other editors, other agents (and other writers & readers, of course). But it’s important to disregard the feedback that doesn’t truly sit right with you. I got several unkind and off-target rejections before finding an agent and editor who wanted to stand behind this book. Of course things aren’t always so clear cut, but still worth remembering during the more crooked periods.
Q: What piece of advice would you pass along to aspiring novelists?
Never pretend like you know what the hell you’re doing. Keep stumbling.
Thanks for a wonderful interview, Yuvi!