As I write this lede, it’s the second week of New York’s social distancing mandate. I’m wearing a t-shirt I slept in, woke up in, slept in again, and woke up in once more; a pair of besmirched jeans; some questionable socks; a battered cotton bra; and no panties. Rumpled, mussed, probably more than a little fragrant, I am wearing the clothes of the classic scribe.
Writers, curled like commas around our laptops or notebooks, tend not to think about what we’re wearing when we’re working (there are the oddballs, Susan Sontag in her bear suit; Maria Dahvana Headley, who sometimes writes in sequined ballgowns; Rachel Syme who believes in the life-changing power of outfits). But don’t misunderstand me — writers’ slovenly, negligent sartorial choices are a de facto power move. …
One hot night in June 2011, I went to a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s not my neighborhood (and only occasionally my milieu) but my friend Katelan Foisy was reading tarot cards, and I hadn’t seen her in four months. I’d been living in Italy. I was heartbroken. I’d fallen in love with a beautiful, cruel, stupid Italian man, as one might do, and I’d fallen in love with Italy, as one will do. Neither, I felt, loved me back.
Even more heart-wrenching, I was at a creative loss. For six giddy, wild, reckless, and inspired years, I’d kept a blog, pretty dumb things, where I’d documented my life in excruciating, slippery detail. I had started writing for two reasons: I was blocked in writing my dissertation in eighteenth-century literature, and a man with a sex blog had first seduced and then summarily dumped me on his sex blog. My blog, pretty dumb things, was motivated by a keening need to write something, anything, but mostly to write it better than that jagoff.
But a half-decade later, I’d lost that blogging feeling. The thought of dredging up digested bits of myself, my thoughts, and my sex life and feeding them into the gaping yawps of a faceless public left me nauseated, so despite having nurtured a daily habit of writing for five years, I was once again not writing. I had nothing, I thought, and I despaired.
The question I laid in front of Katelan was this: what do I do?
To be clear, I am not a very ooh-wah chick. I consider astrology on the level of Buzzfeed quizzes — entertaining, ego-validating fluff. Beyond swabbing my floors with Florida water or burning the occasional sage stick after unpleasant people leave my apartment, I am not given to random acts of witchery. I am of the Scullys of the world, my flat feet in sensible shoes anchored to the decidedly round earth, and, I suspect, short of an alien impregnation, that’s unlikely to change.
Which is both to say that on that sticky June night I was desperate, and that I trust Katelan entirely. Unlike me, Katelan’s body hovers somewhere above this earthly realm. Her head swims with stars, and her hair is braided with coins. Katelan is, however, a force for good. She’s one of those rare humans who manages to withhold personal judgement as she listens with her entire being. Feeling road-rough and red-ragged as I was, I wanted nothing more than for Katelan to cup my shredded life in her palms and tell me that it’d be okay.
Katelan and I sat outside the bar, and she began turning cards, one after the other, layered like a fresco. “You’re done writing about yourself,” she told me. “That’s over.” No shit, I thought. Flick-flick-flick went the cards. Katelan paused. “You have two projects inside you right now.” Flick-flick, more Rider-Waite tiles in my life’s fresco. “Both are good.” Flick. Flick. Katelan’s eyebrows shot up. She smiled. “And they’d do well. Really well.” Flick-flick-flick. A slight scowl, like a tiny cloud, and a toss of Katelan’s head. “They’ll bring you to dark places.” She smiled. “But you’ll make money.” Flick-flick-flick. “You’ve got choices,” Katelan said as we reached the end of the deck. “It’ll take longer than you want it to, but you’ll be okay.”
The sun had begun to set, the Hell’s Kitchen gay bar had begun to fill with happy drinking men. Katelan had to start her gig for the night, reading tarot for the bar’s patrons. We kissed good-bye, and I walked down 9th Avenue to my Chelsea apartment, where, for the first time in weeks, I fell asleep almost as soon as I hit my bed.
That summer I knew only two things: I had to get back to Italy, and I had to rewrite my Italian narrative, quite literally. Whatever Italy had given to me the first time, I had to return and find something new. I had a friend who lived in a seventeenth-century villa in the middle of Montalcino, the Tuscan town where Brunello is made. She invited me to come and spend October and November with her, hatching plans of vineyard visits, drinking with winemakers, cooking in the villa’s giant kitchen, and generally taking tiny Montalcino by storm. I made my plans and bought my tickets — and then she emailed to tell me that she’d fallen in love with a Piemonte winemaker and would be moving north. I was welcome to stay in the villa, she said, but I’d be alone.
Here’s a thing about living off-season in tiny Italian towns: it sucks. Imagine The Shining but with grape vines, or imagine “The Lottery” but with medieval parades, and you’ll get the idea; it’s an alienating, faintly malevolent environment that should be idyllic. Off-season Italians have little appreciation for Americans with bad Italian skills. Small-town Italians are wary, watchful people who don’t entirely trust women who live or, worse, eat alone. In the off season, small-town Italians have just weathered eight months of wine-guzzling foreigners tromping their flagstone streets, and they want to be left alone with their Italianness.
I was lonely, there in that absurdly romantic seventeenth-century Italian villa. I was alone, I was lonesome, and I was cold. I spent my time huddled in front of a tiny fireplace, writing and rewriting a scene that would be the pivotal chapter of the work that would become my novel, A Certain Hunger, an Audible Exclusive as of fall 2019.
I wish I could say that I wrote this book in a blissful unrolling of creative energy. I didn’t. Those stories of people writing their book in three weeks of fervid, fevered scribbling? This is not that. It took me six agonizing years filled with self-doubt, stops, starts, tears, guilt, and, ultimately, ten months in 2014 when I devoted every weekend, most evenings, and my entire paid two-week vacation to finishing the fucking thing. Which I did because one day shortly after New Year’s, I woke up, looked at my 51-year-old face in the mirror, and knew I did not want to die without having finished a novel or without having revenged my ravaged heart on the men who hurt me. (There had been more men, of course. The stupid-beautiful Italian was not the last, nor was he the worst; they all had to die, if only on the page, if only in my heart.)
Look, when you get down to the nitty-gritty of writing, you find your inspiration where you can, and you find your discipline when you can. In writing A Certain Hunger, whose elevator pitch is “Eat, Pray, Love meets American Psycho,” I got my inspiration in wanting to eviscerate all the fuckboys I’d ever loved before, and I got my discipline from the knowledge that someday I’d die. In January 2014, I contacted Kat Howard, a Twitter acquaintance and a writing coach, to keep me honest about my commitment to finish. I paid her for the privilege of turning in about 50 pages every few weeks, which I did for about six months.
By June, I found I had written actual chapters of something that looked like an actual book. So I shyly asked a few friends if they wanted to read it. To my surprise, they did, and I would send the group, about four women friends, each chapter as I finished it. The chapters were out of order, and they needed revision, but there was a clear voice, a narrative arc, and something approaching a plot. It was wild to me, this bloody, gross, coruscating novel born of my brain, slick with my anger, shiny with a foreign gleeful cruelty, and beating with a hot, moral heart I borrowed from a friend. I began to think that even if it never sold, I’d be happy enough.
That, of course, was a lie.
After finishing at some point in October 2014, I had to find an agent. Easier said than done, despite the ridiculous number of connections my famous writer friends made for me. I could name names, but suffice to say that multiple best-selling writers put me in touch with their agents, and while I met with people I liked (and ended up signing with two of them, but that’s a whole other story), it was a shit show whose low points included one agent giving me notes that made me want to burn the manuscript and another agent quitting the business.
In May 2016, Jen Udden, agent at BG Literary, rescued me. It was love at first read for her, and it was joyful relief at first sight for me. Despite Jen looking at my manuscript with heart-money eyes, I dallied with revisions, and Jen finally sent the novel out to publishers in June 2017. But even Jen’s passionate, unadulterated, pure love for my gross, sexy, drippy book wasn’t enough to sell it, and the novel languished on the market for almost a year and a half. I got rejected because my voice was too “voicey.” I got rejected because I was “too good at writing gore.” I got “enthusiastic” passes, and I got nondescript passes. I got rejection, in short, so much rejection.
Time passed. I got engaged. I got married. I wrote a lot of nonfiction and got a nonfiction agent. I gave up on the novel ever selling. And then, magically, Jen texted to tell me that Audible was interested, and this Halloween, while sitting in a hotel room in Vardø, Norway, I had a very expensive phone call with Audible editor Andrew Eisenmann, who loved my book with his whole gooey heart. Soon, I had an offer. It was all happening, almost seven years to the date that I had sat on a shabby chic couch in a freezing ancient villa, imagining my awful Italian boyfriend gutted, his split body suspended on a guardrail, his intestines glistening.
TL;DR: No writer’s path is the same as any other writer’s. You don’t have to write every day. …
This Halloween, I took myself to Vardø, the “witch capital of Norway.” I’ve desperately wanted to visit Vardø for about three years, ever since I stumbled across pictures of its Steilneset Memorial: a bifurcated monument to the 91 people burned at the stake during Vardø’s seventeenth-century witch panic. Co-created by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, the memorial was Bourgeois’ last public work, and if you need a reason to get to Vardø (spoiler alert: you do), it’s a good one.
I had a secret second reason to visit Vardø, which was that I wanted to research it for my next novel. (I say “next” because, while I’ve yet to publish a novel, I’ve written one. It’s on the market, and fingers are crossed.) So between the Steilneset and the busy, busy workings of my febrile imagination, I was going to get to Vardø, hell or high water. I pitched a travel piece to The Outline, who bought it. …