The Debs are thrilled to have a Q & A with veteran author Elinor Lipman! Elinor’s newest novel, THE FAMILY MAN, has just hit the shelves, and if her previous ten fabulous books are any indication of things to come, we should all RUN, not walk, to our nearest bookstores to buy it.
Your first novel, Then She Found Me, was “published to more attention” than you’d expected. What had you expected and how did the reality differ?
I expected very little because three years earlier, my first book, a short-story collection, had come out with no fanfare and sold in the low four figures. Very low. THEN SHE FOUND ME was widely and favorably reviewed. Not that it flew off the shelves, but it did help me in the very small province that is publishing.
How does publishing the 10th book differ from publishing the first?
I’m much calmer. Part of that is knowing that one can only do so much, that success of the best-seller kind is a fluke and cannot be a goal. Most books just slip into the world unheralded, and the author can’t have any expectations. As Tracy Kidder once told me before my first book came out: There’s the writing, and there’s everything else. “Everything else” means reviews, sales, prizes. You have to concentrate on the writing–and have something else in the works when your book hits the stores.
You are famous for the help you’ve given to new authors. What advice do you have for the Debutants and those of our author friends who are still new to this business?
Write the very best, smartest, and most elegant book you can. By “elegant” I don’t mean set it in the English countryside. I mean elegance of language. By which I don’t mean that you should prettify–don’t pick “cerulean” when you mean “blue”–but don’t fall prey to writing that is too easy. A smart friend once described that lazy kind of writing as “I looked across the yard and saw them making out.” Ugh. Henry James railed against “weak specification.” Rewrite your sentence, add texture, enliven. The goal is to write sentences that don’t make the eyes glaze over. An editor of mine once said, when asked what she was looking for in a novel–vampires, submarines, knitting, missing children?–and she answered, “I’m looking to fall in love on the first page.” Your question might have been in search of a more nuts-and-bolts answer. People often run their query letters by me. I almost always have to write back and say, “You want it to be short, modest, informative but not brash. No predictions on how your book will storm the market. Say what you’ve published, where you’ve taught or with whom you’ve studied. And if you can, make it a little charming.” That’s for fiction, and pretty much goes against what the how-to-get-published books advise. And know that editors and agents are always looking for wonderful books.
What advice do you have for those of us hoping to have our books made into movies?
Oh, I know I’m supposed to know some trade secrets, but every time a book of mine has been optioned it’s been through no help of my own. Agents who handle that part of the business figure out who should read the book, then pitch it. There have been times when my phone has rung and it’s some producer who’s just come upon the book in a book store, and is calling to find out if the rights are available. But again that’s just random luck and p.s. they never follow through. Any time I’ve sent a book to an actor I think would be ideal in a starring Lipman role, I never heard another word. The good news is, Hollywood keeps a close eye on what’s being published, and of course there are spies who get hold of your manuscript a year before it comes out.
We’ve been blogging this week about Deb Eve’s book, FIRST COMES LOVE, THEN COMES MALARIA. Do you have anything you want to add to the conversation?
YES! I loved this book. First, I love memoirs. Second, I love a fish-out-of-water story. Unlike many memoirs, FIRST COMES LOVE has a first, second, and third act, so there’s tension–will she or won’t she. Won’t they? Also, I was fascinated with the food: termites! Guinea pigs! Best of all, many moments and whole scenes have stayed with me. I think about it and talk about it. There’s real drama, real people, real danger–all told without preening. Best of all, real humanity.
THE FAMILY MAN is on its way to stores now. Can you tell us what prompted you to write about such wonderful and slightly unusual characters?
You might mean that Henry, my protagonist, is a middle-aged gay man. He just came to me, which is not a very interesting answer, but pretty much how all of my characters evolve. I loved making him a great, adoring, tightly wound, doting father to a 29-year-old woman whom he comes back into contact with after a long absence. It’s my first book set in Manhattan, so I think that contributed to the characters’ development and story. Thalia the daughter is an actress-hopeful. Henry’s therapist is right around the corner. I fix him up with Todd, and that took off, unexpectedly. It’s really fun to create an annoying character, so I put his ex-wife on Park Avenue, a quick ride on the M72 crosstown bus.
Thank you, Elinor. It’s always such a treat to have your sage wisdom and good company!
Thank you for having me. I’ll be traveling a bit for the new book (www.elinorlipman.com for dates and cities) and would love to meet any of you along the way.