Adam Wilson’s first novel, Flatscreen, will be published by Harper Perennial in Februrary, 2012. He is the Editor of the international online newspaper The Faster Times. His writing appears or is forthcoming in many publications including The Paris Review,The Literary Review, Bookforum, and The New York Times. He is reading at Fiction Addiction in November and answers a few questions for me about publishing his first novel.
This is your debut novel and it’s coming out with Harper Perennial. First: Congratulations! Second: Can you tell me a little about the process of selling your first book?
The toughest part for me was finding the right agent, or any agent. I had met with a few different agents while working on the book, but it didn’t work out with any of them for a variety of reasons, mostly relating to “artistic differences.” When I finally finished a draft I was ready to send out, I queried many agents, most of whom rejected my novel. I was told it was too “vulgar” and that I had an unlikeable narrator. These criticisms hurt because I’d thought of my narrator as so lovable! But eventually my manuscript got into the right hands, and I found an agent who was really enthusiastic about the book, though she told me it would be a “difficult sell.” As it turned out, the book sold very quickly, and I was beyond thrilled.
How long has Flatscreen been in the works?
A while. I first started a draft of what would become Flatscreen in early 2006. I finished the first draft in late 2007. Then I wrote about ten more drafts. It went through many incarnations.
How much did it change in the editing process? Was it essentially the novel you had foreseen or something only tangentially related?
It changed a lot, though the story and characters stayed essentially the same. It took me many drafts to iron out the voice, and another many drafts to come to its current structure. At one point the book was much longer. I decided to cut about a hundred pages, mostly back story and flashbacks, because it felt like they were slowing down the narrative. I replaced them with the mini-chapters that are speckled throughout the book. These short chapters hopefully do the work that a lot of the back story stuff was doing, but in a speedier and more entertaining way. I always knew what the story was, but it took me a while to figure out how to tell it.
What were you reading as you wrote it? Or, were there specific books that inspired it?
I wrote the book over a five year period, and read literally hundreds of books during the process. A few were really instrumental in helping me think about my novel: Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison, Sound on Sound by Christopher Sorrentino, and Homeland by Sam Lipsyte.
Everyone says that a writer’s first novel tends to be autobiographical. Is this the case for you? How autobiographical is Flatscreen?
I’m going to do that cop out answer and say, sort of. The fictional town, Quinosset, is very much based on Newton, Massachusetts, where I grew up. The characters aren’t based on particular people, but are composites of many people I have encountered in my life. The narrator, Eli Schwartz, has a lot in common with me, but he is also very different.
What jobs have you worked to support yourself as you completed this or perhaps other writing in the past? Is there one you have most enjoyed?
The worst job I had involved holding up a giant orange arrow at a highway exit ramp in Austin, Texas. The best was working at a bookstore, Brooklyn’s Bookcourt
. I’ve also spent the last few years as a freelance journalist and critic, which I’ve really enjoyed.
Where/when was your first story published? What was your experience publishing short fiction in various journals vs. an entire manuscript to a publisher? Was one easier/harder, more fun/satisfying etc?
My first story was published in the first issue of the journal Gigantic, which was started by a bunch of my friends from graduate school. It is a very short, and rather pornographic story. It felt really good to be published by my friends, and to feel like I was part of a movement of young people trying to do new things in literature, as pretentious as that sounds. My first story published by people I had never met was a long, but also pornographic story, that appeared in the journal Meridian. I still think it might be the best thing I’ve ever written. It was really thrilling to be published by people I’d never met, and it continues to be. I had many stories rejected from journals for a long time, and then suddenly it seemed like I started getting a lot of acceptances all at once. My hope is that my stories got better, and people noticed. But who knows? I find all publications super satisfying, no matter if it’s a tiny journal or a giant publishing house. I put so much of myself into everything I submit for publication, and it’s always a huge relief and thrill to know that at least someone finds the work worthwhile.
Are you working on a second novel yet? Or do you plan to?
I’m deepish into a second novel. It’s the first thing I’ve written that’s set in New York (where I currently live), which is terrifying. It’s about the Wall St. crash, the rapper Eminem, and an epistolary love affair between a New York advertising exec and a death row inmate in Texas.
Last, but not least: Why do you write?
I really like reading novels and short stories, and always have. The next logical step was to write my own. Also, I enjoy having a world that I can control. The real world seems very out of my control. On good days, the fictional world doesn’t.