Many years ago, I read an article that scorned the idea of the “debut novel.” The article said (and I’m paraphrasing since I read the article in the days before the Internet), “Why the pretentious title? Why not simply call it what it is? A first novel.” And I, a young naïve writer, thought, “Yes! Exactly! When I publish my first novel, I will call it just that: a first novel!”
Let’s skip ahead, oh ten or fifteen years or so: I have a novel coming out. My first novel. Or rather, shall we say, my first published novel. And I suddenly know where the phrase “debut novel” comes from.
My first novel to be published, MODERN GIRLS, is being released on April 5, 2016, by NAL/Penguin. I am beyond myself with excitement and joy. But I cannot kid myself. This is not my first novel. It’s not even my second novel. In my proverbial bottom drawer, I have a graveyard of novels. MODERN GIRLS is my debut novel.
Back in the 1990s, I earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington. I was lucky enough to have Charles Johnson—winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and a National Book Award—as one of my professors. His classes were inspirational. The man taught me to outline, and for that alone, he will always be one of my most influential professors. But what has meant the most to me is something he said, long after I graduated, at the 2012 Modern Language Association conference. An interviewer said to Johnson, “You’ve written four novels,” at which point he interrupts her.
“I’ve written ten novels,” Johnson said. “I’ve published four.” This quote is printed in big fat letters and positioned in a place of honor over my writing desk.
Most of my novels have never seen the light of day. The one I wrote as my MFA thesis that was little more than loosely linked short stories, the one I wrote that was a mildly disguised version of my own life, the other one that was a mildly disguised version of my own life—those no one has read and no one will ever read. You could almost say those don’t count, except that they were valuable practice novels, the ones that taught me the skills I needed to convey emotion, build scenes, and create meaningful characters. My fourth novel I tentatively brought into the world, and it got me my wonderful agent, Laney Katz Becker. We labored on it for a couple of years, but alas, it didn’t sell.
Which leads me to MODERN GIRLS. Seems like every time I open Poets & Writers or Publishers Weekly, I read about an author who had an idea for a book, wrote it, and immediately got a three-book deal. More power to him. For me, though, it didn’t come easily. Writing is a labor of love, emphasis on labor. MODERN GIRLS took me three years to research and write and rewrite and rewrite some more, not counting all those years spent on the “practice” novels.
The inspiration for my novel came from my own family. Hearing stories about my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents sparked my imagination. I’m a third-generation American; my great-grandparents all immigrated in the early 1900s from Eastern Europe. I always wondered what their day-to-day life was like, how they made their decisions, what fueled them. When I learned that my own great-grandmother had an unwanted pregnancy during the Depression, immediately I toyed with the idea. How did a woman deal with an unplanned pregnancy? What were the consequences? My great-grandmother was married; what would it be like for an unmarried woman? I pondered this as the story for MODERN GIRLS unfurled, and I will confess that I stole shamelessly from my family’s stories, unabashedly appropriating them and reshaping them in ways that made sense for my characters. My novel touches on issues that I am most passionate about: the immigrant experience, reproductive rights, friendship between women, Jewish life, mother-daughter relationships.
Writing for me is something I’ve always done. I’ve been fortunate to have been employed as a writer and editor, as well as published short stories and creative nonfiction essays in literary journals along the way. But the novel is what entices me, what excites me. MODERN GIRLS is my fifth novel. It will be my first published novel. It’s also my debut novel. And I couldn’t be more proud.
I look forward to sharing this year with you, my year as a debut novelist with all the adventures that entails, here at The Debutante Ball.
Latest posts by Jennifer S. Brown (see all)
- The New Debs: Please Welcome the Class of 2017! - Saturday, September 3, 2016
- The Fat Lady’s Singing: The End of My Deb Year - Tuesday, August 30, 2016
- A Rock Star Year as a Debut Author - Tuesday, August 23, 2016
- Lisa Alber Talks Sophomore Slump, Genre, and What Makes Her Laugh (+ a Giveaway) - Saturday, August 20, 2016
- What You Should Be Reading - Tuesday, August 16, 2016