Our guest today is Daphne Uviller, the author of the Zephyr Zuckerman Series—Wife of the Day, Hotel No Tell, and Super in the City—optioned for television by Paramount Pictures and Silver Lake Entertainment. She is also the co-editor of the anthology Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo. She is a former Books and Poetry editor at Time Out New York, and her reviews, profiles, and articles have been published in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsday, The Forward, New York Magazine, Oxygen, Allure, and Self, for which she wrote an ethics column. She lives with one husband, one dog and two children, and divides her time between the Hudson Valley and New York City.
You know how some people have a five-year plan? I tend to fly by the seat of my pants, and my writing is reassurance that this is working for me. I never set out to write mysteries – I’m still surprised that my books are considered mysteries — let alone a mystery series. The fact that I have three Zephyr Zuckerman books out reminds me that my biggest successes have been utterly unplanned.
Cuz Breaking Up is Hard To Do: The demons and delights of series writing
After my first novel came out, I was so over my main character. We were done. I loved Zephyr Zuckerman, but I had no intentions of being a literary monogamist. I had a contract for a second book, and it could be about anything I wanted, and what I wanted was to roam free, sow my oats. I mean, I considered continuing our relationship – I owed that much to her – but really, wasn’t there something a little presumptuous, a little unimaginative, even lazy, about writing a sequel? You’re assuming that readers enjoyed your characters enough the first time that they want to spend more time with them. And even if they assure you they liked or even loved your characters, it still risks being too much of a good thing. And then, of course, there’s the niggling sense that maybe you’re writing a sequel because you’ve only got one character in you, and she’s already all set up, with an insta-background and the legwork done.
Well, Zephyr had the last laugh, because I wrote that sequel. And then she had the last last laugh when those sequels morphed into a trilogy.
How did my heroine know what she and I needed better than I did?
Writing a novel, for me, is like making a savory stew in a crockpot out of otherwise unsavory leftovers. Whatever I’m working through in my mind or my life can be tossed in and, hopefully, made into something useful, tasty and tasteful, and entertaining. Although my books are hyper, high-octane kooky capers that are shamelessly besotted with New York City and Greenwich Village in particular, I actually am trying to explore certain universal themes through comedy: the struggle for professional identity, the question of why we have kids, and in my most recent book, how much place figures into identity. In other words, how much of where we are is a part of who we are?
Despite my attempts to break up with Zephyr, she has been the shiniest and most efficient vehicle through which to explore these themes. As is evidenced by my publishing timeline – a brisk two years between my first two books (I’ll produce a book every two years, said I, cocksure, to myself) and then a sluggish five years until the third – I put up more of a fight with this last one.
First, I decided I would write Serious Literature. Happening upon a small town’s historical society, I learned about the role of the traveling seamstress in 19th century New England. She’d stay with a wealthy family for a few weeks, sew their clothing for the season, and move on. Think of the steady flow of new situations, of the constant introduction of new characters! Delicious. I worked on that for about six weeks before I remembered that I loathe research and can’t be bothered to confirm factual accuracy. It’s a great idea and one of you should write it. I look forward to reading it!
In the meantime, what I’d come to call my geographic identity crisis was reaching its zenith. My husband and I had moved to the Hudson Valley from New York City and I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t a New Yorker. Cry me a river, right? A friend who’s a literature professor offered to put me on her Writers in Exile syllabus, right under Salman Rushdie.
Zephyr lives in New York City, a block from where I grew up, where she continues to live the unencumbered city life that I left behind. Plot lines kept bubbling up unbidden and finally I caved. (I’d moved on from the seamstress and was trying to write a book inspired by an organization for which I volunteer, but I’d come to hate one of the characters so much that I dreaded sitting down with her every day.) I was getting steadily more upset by the takeover of New York City by drugstores, banks, and billionaire foreigners, and I needed someone to vent to, a shoulder to cry on, someone who would help me shout about how much I missed the place I knew. And look who was there when I needed her most, ready to jump in, her sense of humor ready to go, her energy pumped for a new escapade.
Every relationship is different, but I can share a few guiding questions for you and your fictional partner about whether you should continue or break it off:
- Do you love this character or are you doing this because you’re afraid a new character will just be her in disguise? It turns out this isn’t such a terrible outcome; after all, the literature students studying your oeuvre will be better able to write papers about the similarities among your protagonists.
- Is your character aging from book to book? If so, how are her traits evolving? What is she outgrowing, but what is still fundamentally her? And what is a new development, yet still her? For Zephyr, part of that five-year delay was due to me trying to gauge what were lovable quirks and what were becoming annoying and arrested-development traits. When does cute become tiresome? When does hapless become just plain stupid?
- Are you ready to spend a few more years with your character? In real life, you commit to your partner for better and worse, thick and thin, frizzy and oily, etc. If s/he annoys you, you can’t make someone change. (Or so I’m told.) The brilliant thing about your protagonist is that…tada! You can make her change.
Zephyr and I, although we thought we’d broken it off, couldn’t resist running back to each other. Is it because we’re scared to move on to new relationships, because we know each other so well? Although that was my fear, I’ve realized that I love her and I love being with her and that there’s so much more I can still learn about her and from her.
I think this might be the continuation of a beautiful relationship.
Have you written or considered writing a series? What made you decide to continue (or break it off)?