The Next Big Thing



Jeffrey Condran, publisher of Braddock Avenue Books as well as author of the forthcoming story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated, asked me to participate in this chain blog series, The Next Big Thing, where writers discuss their recent or forthcoming works. You can read Jeff’s post here.

Shout-outs to two other writers who also asked me to participate, super talented multi-genre artist Aparna Das, who discusses her project Snake Ate the Moon at her blog, and the awesome Will Kenyon, who discusses his novel, The Survivor of San Guillermo.

Please check out the two other writers I tagged at the bottom of this post, who will also be participating in this series:

**What is your working title of your book?

Instead of discussing my short story collection, Margins of Tolerance, here, I thought I’d talk a little bit about my completed first novel. Right now it’s back to its original title, Valhalla. It was called Admissions for a while, which I think is a better title, but there’s a book out called Admission that might be a bit too similar in subject matter.

**Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’m an SAT tutor in NYC, so the initial idea came from personal experience. But really, very little of my actual experience with tutoring shows up in the book. Real life (at least not my real life) isn’t juicy enough for a book. The book has two main plotlines:

Gabrielle Levy is intent on seeing her Arianna enrolled at Princeton. She attempts to bribe the one classmate she perceives as competition: Mandela Robinson, one of the few African Americans at Arianna’s exclusive high school. But what starts off as a simple deal becomes far more complicated when Gabrielle’s connection with Mandela forces her to face her buried past and failed ambitions.

Legion Cartwright’s father gives his teenaged son $50K to play the stock market and “earn” his college tuition. When Legion loses most of it on bad investments, he struggles to find another way to prove himself to his dad, which means getting into the Ivy League all on his own. When Legion encounters Randall Miller, a frustrated would-be novelist and SAT tutor, at a book store, he sees his way in: he will seduce the older man and convince him to take the test for him.

**What genre does your book fall under?

Normally I’d say literary fiction, but I think it’s pretty commercial so…commercial literary fiction? General fiction is another category it could fall under, but to me general fiction sounds insipid.

**Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Back when I started writing the book, Annette Bening would have been a great choice for Gabrielle, the nouveau-rich UWS mom who desperately wants to send her daughter to Princeton. Now I guess it would be Tilda Swinton. Neither of them are remotely Jewish but both have a certain flair for expressing equal parts exuberant self-confidence and self-torturing doubt. Randall, the tutor, is 28 in the book but looks a lot younger, and he’s a bit nebbish and neurotic and somewhat ridiculous, so maybe Jesse Eisenberg or Paul Dano. Zosia Mamet (from “Girls” and “Mad Men”) would make a great Arianna, Gabrielle’s overachieving daughter.

Or we can just have Meryl Streep play all the characters.

 **What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Some NYC kids (and parents!) will do just about anything to get into the right college.

 **Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

While I cannot currently discuss the status of the book, I will say it won’t be self-published, and it’s not represented by an agency.

**How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I wrote the first chapter of the book back in 2000, and believe it or not, it has withstood the test of time and remains almost the same in the 2013 version of the book. The first draft took me about seven years and was 216,000 words (730 pages!!) I then cut it down to 187,000 words (613 pages) and now it stands at 141,000 words (450 pages) I’m mulling a 110,000 word version of the book, but would prefer not to cut that much out. We’ll see.

 **What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Darin Strauss read an early draft of the novel, and I still remember how floored I was when he compared it to “The Corrections,” a book I love. Thematically it’s not the same at all, but structurally there might be some similarities. Any book that has multiple rotating points-of-view might make for a good comparison: Jennifer Egan’s “Look at Me” or Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.” (Clearly I’m delusional to compare my novel to any of those great works!) In terms of subject matter, there are a few college-admissions-related books out there, but the one I enjoyed was Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl.

**Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It’s easy to say that I just followed the age-old maxim of “Write what you know.” But that would be pretty misleading, since I don’t really know any of my characters and they weren’t inspired by real life people. Back when I was getting my MFA I thought I didn’t have the attention span to tackle a novel. I thought I would solve this problem by writing a novel with multiple POVs, this way if I got tired of one character/POV, I could just move on to another. When I began writing, the issue of affirmative action in the college-admissions process was a hot-button issue, and it still is now. As for the tutor-student relationship, I knew that would prove a bit scandalous and also fun to write. It was.

**What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

While tightly structured, the book is playful and funny. Arianna’s chapters all appear as journal entries, some of the other chapters are epistolary, and a few of the minor characters get their own POV chapters later on in the book. There’s also a meta-fictional aspect to the novel that I won’t elaborate on because I don’t want to ruin the surprise. In general, the book tackles controversial subject matter in what I hope is a gripping, candid, darkly humorous way.

This week and next, please check out some other fantastic writers who will share their projects with you:

Sian Griffiths writes about her forthcoming novel, Borrowed Horses, coming out from New Rivers Press in October 2013. Borrowed Horses is a retelling of JANE EYRE set in contemporary Idaho. I can’t wait to pick it up!

Merridawn Duckler will be writing about one of several of her upcoming projects (Will it be the mash-up with Found Poetry Magazine? The visual art show here in Portland based on all-text based memoir essays? The chapbook of Modern D’var Torah? Tune in to see!)


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