The ProsenPeople

The Failed Drafts Behind the Novel

Friday, June 09, 2017 | Permalink

Margot Singer has been blogging for the Visiting Scribe series this week about her debut novel, Underground Fugue. In her final post, she gives us a look into the process of novel-writing, explaining what happens when first (and second) drafts go south--and how she got out of her writing rut. 

In the fall of 2006, I won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and traded the money for the following semester’s leave from teaching. I’d just completed a collection of linked short stories (The Pale of Settlement) and was excited about the prospect of tackling a novel. I had a gift of fifteen weeks. If I wrote roughly three to five pages a day, I figured, I should easily be able write a couple hundred pages—a first draft. People were cranking out entire novels in the month of November during NaNoWriMo. Hell, high schoolers were doing it! I was sure that I could too.

On January 3, 2007, I took my laptop to the faculty common room at the college where I work—a pretty, quiet space equipped with a coffee machine and lots of natural light. From then on, I went there every day. Before long, I’d accumulated a folder on my desktop filled with dozens of Word documents, each file named by different date. I had 45 files in the folder and a 50-page draft completed by the middle of March. But something—I wasn’t sure exactly what—didn’t feel right. So after spring break, I started over. At the end of May, I’d produced a second, different, 50-page draft. I shared it with a writer friend. Her smart and generous feedback confirmed what I already knew: I was stuck.

*

“Everybody writes shitty first drafts,” I routinely assure my students. But I hadn’t written a shitty first draft at the level of technique. There was nothing much wrong with my sentences or scenes. It was the story that I couldn’t figure out. What was I supposed to do about that? “Take all the furniture out of the room and put it back in again one piece at a time,” a friend recommended. I made lists of questions. Start earlier? Switch point of view? Where do they live? What do they do? I spent weeks reading for inspiration, doing research. I cut out clippings of articles on neuroscience and urban exploration and the Holocaust. I free wrote. I drew diagrams. I sketched out scenes.

One thing I kept coming back to was a story I’d heard on the radio about a man who’d turned up on a beach on the southern coast of England late one night in April 2005, soaking wet, dressed in a formal suit. He carried no identifying marks or papers; even the labels had been cut out of all is clothes. The man couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak, but played the piano like a pro. A bulletin was put out on the Missing Persons Helpline and thousands of people from around the world had called in, thinking they recognized him, but to no avail.

The image of the lost man fascinated me, but it wasn’t even really a story. Where the story should have been, there was nothing but an empty space.

I took few more desultory runs at my draft that summer and following year and then gave up. I felt awful. I’d spent my NEA grant money and an entire semester’s worth of time off from teaching and accumulated well over a hundred pages—but I had nothing to send out, nothing to show for all my work.

*

In October 2011, on sabbatical, I spent two weeks at a writer’s residency in Wyoming and gave myself permission to start again. The new draft opened with the image of that unidentified stranger wandering along the beach. It still felt like the same project—but virtually everything had changed: the characters, the events, the point of view. Most importantly, I’d found a structure in sections narrated from four alternating third person perspectives. Slowly, the pieces of a new draft started to fall into place. Slowly, images coalesced into patterns. Slowly, the characters began to come to life.

Now, looking back, the idea of a man without an identity—without a story—feels like a metaphor for my own struggle to find the novel’s plot.

My novel, Underground Fugue, asks what happens when you leave a life behind. Who do you become when you flee across a border? How does the memory of what’s been lost shape the experience of the present time? How do you forge human connections in a new language, culture, place?

On the first page of my oldest notebook, dated August 2006, I find a simple scribbled list of words: borders, history, memory, journey – return. Connections—how we yearn for human connection, how we fail. Almost none of the material I wrote in those early years made it into the final draft. But the themes were all there, as it turns out, right from the start.

Margot Singer won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award for her story collection, The Pale of Settlement. Her work has been featured on NPR and in the Kenyon Review, the Gettysburg Review, Agni, and Conjunctions, among other publications. She is a professor of English at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Her debut novel Underground Fugue is now available from Melville House. She will be guest blogging for us this week as part of our Visiting Scribe series.

Header photo credited to Drew Coffman.

The Art of Hate

Wednesday, June 07, 2017 | Permalink

Margot Singer, author of  Underground Fugue, will be guest blogging for us this week as part of our Visiting Scribe series.

My grandparents on both sides of my family escaped from Nazi Europe in 1939, almost too late. My father and his parents left Czechoslovakia for Palestine thanks to exit permits and entry visas obtained from one of my grandfather’s cousins, a doctor whom the authorities had barred from emigrating. My mother’s father, also a doctor who had arrived in the United States in the mid-1930s, brought his parents and siblings over from Lithuania thanks to a grateful patient who signed fourteen immigration affidavits.

I come from a family of refugees, but I never thought of it that way when I was growing up. “Refugee” wasn’t a word we used. My relatives seemed like ordinary immigrants to me. My father’s parents, whom we often visited in Israel in the summers, spoke German with my uncle, Hebrew with my cousins, English with my brother and me. My grandmother cooked wurst and wiener schnitzel and baked fabulous Viennese cakes. She told happy stories of skiing in the High Tatras and picking mushrooms in the forests near Brno. The places she talked about seemed as distant, and as benign, as the images in the few faded pre-war family photographs we possessed. By then, Czechoslovakia was sequestered behind the Iron Curtain and Lithuania impossible to find on any map. The world they’d left behind had disappeared.

For a long time, I assumed the anti-Semitism that had driven my family out of Europe had been left behind as well. But by the early 2000s, reading about the threatening anti-Semitic rhetoric of Iran’s Ahmadinejad, the virulent anti-Zionism of the European left, and the far-right conspiracy theories claiming that the 9/11 attacks had been carried out by Israelis and Jews, I felt unmoored.

In 2005, I came across a New York Times Magazine piece about an exhibition of anti-Semitic cartoons to be displayed in a London museum. The show juxtaposed medieval drawings of Jews as child-eating spiders, Nazi caricatures of the monstrous, hook-nosed “Eternal Jew,” and modern anti-Israeli images based on the same anti-Semitic tropes. A 2003 cartoon from the British newspaper, The Independent, for example, depicted Ariel Sharon with a bloody Palestinian child dangling from his jaws. (The caption read, “What’s wrong…you never seen a politician kissing babies before?”) The collection was controversial. Did exhibiting anti-Semitic images neutralize them—or give them renewed strength? Was it better to remember or forget?

I started working on a novel whose main character was a Jewish collector of anti-Semitic cartoons, modeled after the owner of the collection displayed in the London show, a British physician and Orthodox Jew. I imagined my character as a man obsessed with figuring out what could motivate and sustain that kind of hate. In 2004, the U.K. had experienced a record 532 anti-Semitic incidents, including damage and desecration, abusive behavior, and violent attacks. The phrase Jews are evil had been painted in large letters on the walls of a London Underground station. A London man’s car had been daubed with a swastika and the words Kill all Jews.

My working title was The Hate Artist. The first, horribly over-written sentence read: “I am not an angry man, not any more, at least. But the world is a hate-filled place, now more than ever, red and seething, alive with hidden fangs and horns, scaly surfaces and molten depths, charred carapaces, the malevolent glint of gold.”

Over the next few years, however, nearly everything I thought I knew about the novel changed. I made the main character an American Jewish woman, Esther, not a British man. I scrapped the first person narration and replaced it with a third person narrative from multiple points of view. I cut the references to the art of hate.

In my novel, Underground Fugue, anti-Semitism stands in counterpoint to the anti-Islamic sentiment that has arisen in the wake of multiple terrorist attacks, the War on Terror, waves of migration, and the European refugee crisis. On her deathbed, Esther’s mother, Lonia, remembers her escape from Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939, while her elderly British friends fret over the anti-Semitic climate of London in 2005. Meanwhile, as the 7/7 terrorist bombings on the London Tube draw near, Esther begins to suspect that the boy next door may be involved in radical Islam. The novel asks, How does fear drive us to betray the ones we love? The question of what it means to be hated is less important than the question of what it means to hate.

As always, writing is an act of discovery. Writing this novel made me reconsider how my sense of self has been shaped. The old story of Jewish persecution has been replaced by the more complicated question of how we act on the legacy of that history we carry with us to challenges of the present day.

Margot Singer won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award for her story collection, The Pale of Settlement. Her work has been featured on NPR and in the Kenyon Review, the Gettysburg Review, Agni, and Conjunctions, among other publications. She is a professor of English at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Her debut novel Underground Fugue is now available from Melville House. Check back on Thursday to read more from Margot Singer.

Header photo credited to Paul Gustave Doré.


Short Story Giveaway Project and More

Tuesday, May 11, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter


Thanks to Erika Dreifus for a few updates from around the web:

1)As a part of Short Story Month the Fiction Writers Review (FWR) (at the suggestion of Erika) is hosting a multi-blog “Short Story Collection Giveaway.”

To participate, visit Erika’s blog here and add a comment, telling her about (or at least the name of) a collection you love or one you’re looking forward to reading.

At the end of the month, Erika will do a drawing from those comments and the winners will receive a copy of Margot Singer’s The Pale of Settlement and Susan Perabo’s What I Was Supposed to Be.

You can read the full details about the project here (and you can participate either as a “commenter” or as a host blog). Or, you can visit Erika’s blog here.

2)Erika also shares the latest literary news from around the web:

PJ Library’s positive impact on Jewish children’s book publishing

The Moment Magazine Guide to Jewish American Literary Sites

As Seen on Twitter…link round-up