Publishers Weekly Q&A (full text)

Howard Mittelmark
Oct 9 · 7 min read

PW ran a Q&A with me when they reviewed my new novel, Written Out (starred review, btw, not that I’d bring that up), but I wrote about five times as many words for them as they actually used, so I’m posting the entire thing below, should anyone want to hear more from me.

Where did the plot come from?

I’d initially had an idea about a suburban hitman who specialized in elderly, ailing parents who stood in the way of their impatient, adult children’s inheritance. At the time I had a couple of friends who were in difficult situations with their parents, and there had been some articles around then about the generation caught in the middle between adult children who needed financial help and parents in decline, and it seemed pretty zeitgeisty. (The initial, provisional title was Boom! but the characters are actually Gen X.) Then I had the experience Roger does, when my wife handed me the first few chapters of the book that became The Country of Ice Cream Star, and I realized it was better than anything I had ever written, and possibly better than anything I would ever write (this is neither false-modesty nor low self-esteem; it’s a professional assessment, and I’ve been doing this for a long time), and I thought it was an interesting situation, particularly for a guy with one foot in the twentieth century and the other in the twenty-first, and I wanted to play around with that. It also gave me a backstory to get the whole thing going, and some more moving pieces in Sarah, her new boyfriend, etc. From there, once I got him to the first death, it was mostly a matter of pointing Roger in whatever direction seemed to have the greatest potential to put him in a funnier/worse situation, and then, after a certain point, coming up with ways to get him out of it.

How did you make use of your own advice from How Not To Write A Novel in writing this book?

There were certainly moments when I’d find myself writing something that recalled some part of the book, something we had specifically warned against, and I’d have to decide if I needed to change it or if it was just an irrelevant echo. For example, early in How Not to Write a Novel, there’s a passage that has a guy on a train looking out the window and reflecting on his life for fifty pages, which we put in there to warn against spending too much time giving us a character’s history before starting the actual story. It was impossible for me not to notice that my novel begins with a guy on a train reflecting on his life, but it’s only a couple of pages, and I’m going to go ahead and say it works. Ultimately, though, most of the advice in How Not to Write a Novel comes from things I’d internalized long before we wrote the book, so while I do use the advice all the time, I’m not thinking about it, it’s just how I write. My copy editor thought I used too many exclamation marks, though, so maybe I should be thinking about the advice more explicitly.

Did writing it lead you to consider revising any of that advice?

Writing it reminded me throughout of the one piece of advice I’ve wanted to revise almost since the day How Not to Write a Novel was published. At the end, there’s a sidebar about self-publishing that reflects a very twentieth-century perspective. Things had started to change by the time we wrote the book, but not enough for me to realize that self-publishing was no longer mostly about vanity presses taking advantage of authors. (I’m taking responsibility for this mistake; my coauthor signed off on it, but I wrote this section.) I’ll never give up on traditional publishing, with editors and slush piles, in part because it’s a tradition I love (see below), but it’s obviously no longer the only way to get a good book to the right readers; sometimes, depending on scale and specificity, it’s not even the best way. If we ever do a new edition, the first thing I would do is rewrite that.

Does Roger’s cynical attitude about publishing differ in any way from yours? If so, how?

I’m pretty sure my attitude about publishing isn’t cynical at all. I’m still a little thrilled every time I start a new editing job, because I get to make a living turning manuscripts into books that people are going to buy and read and put on their bookshelves (or in their ereaders). That’s not to say that I love everything I work on, or that I don’t get bogged down and start daydreaming about becoming a bike messenger, but I’ve wanted to be part of the world of books since I was a kid who thought books came from a spinning rack in a store in a strip mall, and I am. It’s no small thing, and I don’t take it for granted.

And to defend Roger a little bit, after he left Random House in his twenties, his position in the industry put him in the middle of deal after deal that was about nothing but big money and big egos. Darius, the dominant force in this career, with whom he’s worked for decades, is directly descended from The Sweet Smell of Success. Of course Roger’s jaded, of course he thinks he’s knows everything and that anybody who doesn’t know what he knows is a rube, but he still cares enough about books, and writers, and literature to recognize Sarah’s talent, and to respect her for what she did with it.

How has the book business changed since you began in it?

It’s changed in more ways than I can possibly recall or fit in here if I could think of everything; most of it’s probably invisible to me at this point. I had my first book publishing job in the eighties, at a literary agency where I typed on an IBM Selectric, and ten years or so later, I remember when people started looking things up on Amazon instead of in the Web3-sized Books in Print, and feeling a little guilty about it (“Web3-sized” itself being a reference that dates me). The internet has changed everything about publishing, just like it’s changed everything else, and not just in terms of tech and communications and infrastructure. Without the internet, we wouldn’t be publishing a lot of people who were once overlooked, and we’d be overlooking a lot of the objections that can now prevent a book from being published. It’s exactly the same as it is with politics. On the one hand, everybody has a voice, but on the other hand, everybody has a voice.

But I also have to say that from another perspective, the book business hasn’t really changed at all. My first job in the book business was working at the Strand, and the Strand is still there, staffed by people who I assume hope to someday be writers and poets and etc, just like the people I worked with. There’s also never been a moment in all that time when there weren’t more good books for me to read being published every year than I will ever have the time get to, and I don’t see that changing. For those of us who make a living doing it, the how is important, but as far as the world is concerned, it’s about getting books to readers, and it doesn’t matter what the publishing model is, or how much we’re getting paid, as long as there are books.

How would Roger’s attitude be different if this was set in 2005 or 2010, rather than 2015?

I don’t think it would have been. While lots of things have changed, including who writes high-profile memoirs, and which novels make a splash, the fact of them hasn’t changed, so he would have been doing the same work and having the same experiences at any point during that stretch of years.

And why 2015, and not 2019?

I could have figured out another way to do it, but it’s largely because I didn’t want to write Gawker out of the plot. Also, though, the longer ago it was, the more plausible that Facebook or Twitter isn’t a part of Roger’s life. Those things exist in the book, but honestly, at this point, if it were somebody else’s book and I was editing it, there’d be a note about providing the reader with a reason to believe somebody in the publishing industry isn’t on social media.

Do Roger’s thoughts about free will mirror yours?

Well, if the mirror broke and you were only looking at a couple of shards, sure. I’ve thought the things he thinks, but I think about free will a lot (almost as if I’m compelled to). Like a lot of people, I don’t see any way we can have free will, given what we know about the physical world, but it sure feels like I have free will, and it’s hard to reconcile my experience with the idea that we don’t. I’m pretty sure I was reading Blindsight, by Peter Watts, when I was writing that part of the book. He proposes a species that evolves intelligence and achieves space travel without ever developing consciousness. So, I was thinking a lot about that and philosophical zombies at the time.

Finally, a mandated question — what’s the last great book you read? Please explain in three to four sentences.

The Rift, by Nina Allan, is both a great book and a Great book, I’m pretty sure. It’s about a girl who disappears as a teenager and shows up twenty years later with a story about having spent that time on another planet, and it might be science fiction, but maybe it isn’t. At one point I thought, “Well of course it really happened. Nobody could make this up,” but of course Nina Allan made it up. There’s a wonderful strangeness to it, and it stays with you after you’ve finished it, makes everything you look at seem to be at an angle that hadn’t existed in the world before you’d read it. It’s one of those books that you’d bring to court if you were making the case that there’s no actual distinction between genre fiction and literature.

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