We are thrilled to have Rachel Howard as our guest author this week at The Debutante Ball!
Rachel Howard’s novel THE RISK OF US, described by Jenny Offill as “an emotionally complex and amazingly suspenseful novel about love and fear,” will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 9th. Rachel earned her MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College and is the author of a memoir, The Lost Night. She is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and her fiction, essays, and dance criticism have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Waxwing, and elsewhere. She lives in Nevada City, California.
THE RISK OF US: When the novel opens, we meet a forty-something woman who deeply wants to become a mother. The path that opens up to her and her husband takes them through the foster care system, with the goal of adoption. And when seven-year-old Maresa—with inch-deep dimples and a voice that can beam to the moon–comes into their lives, their hearts fill with love. But her rages and troubles threaten to crack open their marriage. Over the course of a year, as Maresa approaches the age at which children become nearly impossible to place, the couple must decide if they can be the parents this child needs, and finalize the adoption—or, almost unthinkably, give her up.
For fans of Jenny Offill and Rachel Cusk, The Risk of Us deftly explores the inevitable tests children bring to a marriage, the uncertainties of family life, and the ways true empathy obliterates our defenses.
Devi: The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
RH: Oh! Many twists. So, I actually wrote The Risk of Us in just eight months, but in a way the writing took 10 years. This is my debut fiction, but my first book was a memoir, which I wrote on my own, or more accurately with the tremendous support of a great writing group in San Francisco. After the memoir was published, though, I knew that if I wanted to write fiction I needed deeper apprenticeship. That’s when I went to the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, which I found because a member of my writing group, Natalie Baszile, was attending. She would give me rides from group and ask to listen to recordings of the lectures from Warren Wilson residencies as we drove, and the lectures were a level of spiritual discussion about writing such as I had never heard before—I thought, I want to experience that.
At Warren Wilson I began what became a philosophically convoluted 400-page novel. I had an unbelievably supportive mentor, Frederick Reiken. But while Rick believed in that novel, no one else did. I wrote and rewrote that novel for the next seven years. It never quite worked. I got married. My husband and I adopted a child out of the foster care system, so I was in the foster care world, and the tensions inherent to it fascinated me. Then one day I saw a brochure put out by a foster services agency advertising for “Families that take risks.”
I thought, That’s a strange thing to advertise for. It seemed to me the brochure was basically saying, Yeah, you need to be a little crazy to try this. In what other context would anyone say a child needs parents that take risks? I realized I had seen memoirs about adoption—mostly about adopting babies from overseas—and I had seen novels about foster children, but from the foster child’s point of view. And there’s good reason for that—the foster child is the most innocent and vulnerable person in the situation. But I thought if I could write a novel from the foster parent’s point of view—and to do so felt somewhat subversive—that it could create a triangulated space for the reader to inhabit the adoption experience in a new way. And I could see the shape of the novel. I knew it would begin when the child moved in with the family, and the turning point would be whether or not they finalized the adoption.
The upside was that when the idea for The Risk of Us came to me—and it came in a flash, a lightning glimpse of the whole such as I rarely experience—I knew I had the skill and technique to write it. Those seven years on the failed novel, I’d put in all the practice.
I was really worn down by all the rejection up to that point, though, and feeling guilty about all the time I was insisting on for my writing. My husband and I are 50-50 breadwinners, and his job isn’t lucrative, and my writing wasn’t bringing any financial support. So at that time, I was working on a totally different book, a memoir, thinking it might be saleable, and then in a fluke moment I told an agent about my idea for The Risk of Us, and she was highly interested. I desperately needed that catalyst. That’s how I was able to write the novel so quickly—I had the vision, and then the bait of someone who was interested, and so I wrote it getting very little feedback along the way, really just showed my current writers group the first 40 pages, then drafted the rest, the whole book. I felt I should just let it be what it was in my imagination, whole.
When I was done, I took it back to the agent who’d been the catalyst. And the response was, “Oh, Rachel, you’re a beautiful writer, but . . .” Then she laid out an entirely different idea of what the novel should be. And I just—I loved the book I had written, it felt right to me, and I couldn’t even begin to work with her suggestions. I was devastated. And I saw a whole road of rejection stretching ahead once again, with this book that to me felt like a miracle, and I lost all heart.
Fortunately a few weeks after that devastation I saw my friend Frances Stroh at a writers conference. And I told her about The Risk of Us and how I didn’t have the heart for more rejection, and she insisted that I send it to her agent anyway.
Frances’ agent, it turned out, was the passionate, brilliant, and incredibly kind Rob McQuilkin. His assistant at the time, now a wonderful agent in her own right, was Lexi Wangler, and she immediately got the book and loved it and within two weeks of my sending the manuscript we were all a team. Lexi worked with me on fleshing out a few key elements of the husband’s character, especially, and Rob worked his mind-blowingly attentive line-editing wonders. Within two weeks of Rob and Lexi sending it to publishers the novel sold at auction.
DEVI: When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
RH: I thought I would be a flag team instructor. I had wanted to be a writer since age 10, and I constantly read and wrote stories and journals, but I was living in Fresno, California, and the only magazine in our home was People (no offense to People readers!), and it just didn’t seem possible to choose to be a writer. I was on the high school flag team and loved it, so figured I’d find a way to keep being part of that activity. I didn’t even know if I would go to college. As it happened, my senior year I spotted a flyer for a statewide writing competition on the statistics class bulletin board. I entered and I won. The contest was sponsored by UCSB’s College of Creative Studies, which then waived my bad GPA to admit me and gave me a scholarship.
DEVI: Talk about one book that made an impact on you.
RH: Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys. I read it for an undergraduate literature class and recognized myself at that time, which was both comforting and troubling because everyone else in the class hated the main character. I wrote about this experience at Fiction Writers Review. I didn’t just love the book because I related, though. Sentence by sentence, it is perfect. Dark and difficult, but heartbreaking and perfect. I still re-read it at least once a year.
DEVI: Talk about one thing that’s making you happy right now.
RH: Women representatives in Congress shining with authenticity and good faith and strength, calling out hypocrisy.
DEVI: What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
RH: I worked six years as a naked artist’s model (I prefer the concept “naked” to “nude,” per fiction writer/critic John Berger’s thoughts on the terms, which I highly recommend in his Ways of Seeing.) I took modeling work so that I could scale back on journalism assignments and focus more on fiction. It ended up being the best job of my life. I’ve written about it in an essay published by Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. Actually, it looks like next month I’m going to start art modeling again. I’m so glad. It’s a spiritual practice and so complementary to writing.
GIVEAWAY DETAILS! Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter and SHARE the interview for a chance to win THE RISK OF US! For extra entries, comment on this post by Friday, February 1st. We’ll choose and contact the winner shortly afterwards.
“An emotionally complex and amazingly suspenseful novel about love and fear.”—Jenny Offill, author of Dept. of Speculation
“Rachel Howard has given us a portrait of family-building and attachment that is at once beautiful and painful, serious and funny, page-turning and insightful. I was deeply moved by this novel, a powerful reminder of the risks we take on whenever we love anyone.”
— Belle Boggs, author of The Art of Waiting
“I’ve never read anything so beautiful about the intricacies of adoption—the process itself, and the seldom-talked-about aftermath. The prose is elegant and compressed; I often had to stop reading to catch my breath. Anyone who has ever loved a child, in any capacity, should read this book.”
— Jamie Quatro, author of I Want to Show You More and Fire Sermon
“The Risk of Us is a spare, poetic, and fearless narrative that explores the question of what makes—and keeps—a family together. Be prepared for an absorbing, unflinching chronicle of the formidable difficulties and vast rewards of love.”
— Krys Lee, author of How I Became a North Korean and Drifting House
“Rachel Howard’s The Risk of Us (so accurately titled) is a novel of deep pain yet also laughs—lots of them. Nothing is easy in this book, and that’s as it should be. With risk comes a kind of awesome grace. A wonderfully written and candid examination of what it means to be a family.”
— Peter Orner, author of Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge and Love and Shame and Love