Amy Shearn

On Secret Formulas to Write More, Writing the Book You Want to Read, the Epistolary Novel, and Her Novel ‘Dear Edna Sloane’

Cover of Amy Shearn: On Secret Formulas to Write More, Writing the Book You Want to Read, the Epistolary Novel, and Her Novel ‘Dear Edna Sloane’

I was sitting around a dining table filled with friends and our children, celebrating my first Seder and enjoying every minute of the culturally preserved, story-centered meal. The friends who were hosting are both writers themselves, and to no surprise, much of our conversations circled around some thread of storytelling. At one point I was asked what my favorite movies were and I instantly blushed. I confessed, as my husband recently pointed out to me, that the films I’ve historically watched on repeat are all about the writer’s journey, or rather, the writer’s fantasy: You’ve Got Mail, Orange County, Almost Famous. 

The writer’s fantasy varies for all of us, but it doesn’t stray too far. It’s a widely acclaimed first published novel! Ditching the land of “puff” pieces! Being sought out for your impeccable taste in books because “if she likes the book, it sells!” It’s embarrassing to me because it proves that I am guilty of the classic early writer’s first mistake: I think about writing more than I actually write. I also interview a lot of writers. My writing community in the last few years has grown exponentially—a dream come true, in large thanks to how accessible it is to connect with people online. But that accessibility can also be plaguing to maintain. After all, my best writing days happen when I am a digital recluse. 

When I read the premise for Amy Shearn’s fourth novel many, many months ago, about a young writer trying to affectionately (ahem, obsessively) track down a renowned writer and the interrogation of our cultural fixation with “the next big thing” and what that does to the landscape of literature, it was a no-brainer to add another writer’s journey to my queue. And I’m delighted to share that so much of what I encountered with this book was unexpected. I was frustrated by these characters, and for these characters, because in so many ways, I was these characters. I think every writer will feel this way while reading Dear Edna Sloane (Red Hen Press, 2024). The most pleasant surprise of it all, was my Zoom call with Amy. I felt I could talk with her for hours. And in that moment, I understood so much more about the book and its chosen format. About the spark that occurs when you put two writers together, no matter how different they are.  I encountered so many valuable reminders in our conversation about reconnecting with this shared love between us. The most important of them all being: just write. 

 

Ashley Rubell: This is a book about a missing author and the missing author’s famous book. How did you manage to flesh out a book within a book? Had you started a different project that inspired Edna’s novel An Infinity of Traces

Amy Shearn: Edna Sloane, who is the author in my book, had this famous book that came out in the eighties. It started off with my sort of fantasy of what the writer’s dream is. It’s incredibly well-received, it’s a bestseller, and it wins all these awards. It’s hailed as a modern classic and she’s the toast of the town. I mean, why write fiction if we aren’t going to imagine something that we think is fun to imagine? And then I realized that I had set up for myself this kind of impossible, incredibly arrogant project which is that now I had to create parts of this amazing, perfect book! Her book is actually a book that I couldn’t write, but would love to. It’s sort of like a very readable Nabokov. It’s a layered book that’s both literary and fun to read and also has this sort of puzzle at the center of it where you’re kind of unsure of what’s real and what’s not. 

Most of how we encounter her book in my book is through people’s reactions to it. I feel like that’s what you try to do when you write a character that another character is in love with, too. You can’t describe the object of affection head-on because everyone’s going to have a different reaction. 

AR: Yes, but there was so much to it! There’s a reading list based on what’s mentioned in the book and there are excerpts from the book. At what point in the drafting process did you get in touch with her novel? 

AS: Edna and Seth, the young editor who is writing to her, definitely came first. In a way it is a book that I wish I could write. The title of it, An Infinity of Traces, was on my brainstorming list for my last book Unseen City which came out in 2020. It was the weirdest thing—I was working in a writing space here in Brooklyn and was talking to this other woman who was working in the writing space, this was when I was revising Unseen City, which had been called The Keeping Room, and everyone involved was kind of like, that [title] is a little quiet. Which is literary for “boring.” So I told this woman I was brainstorming title ideas and she had studied Philosophy in college and said, there’s this phrase from an Italian philosopher that I’ve always loved and I use his quote in Dear Edna Sloane. It’s about all the history of our lives, and where we live, our families, our cities, our ethnicities and everything that goes into who we are leaves what he calls “an infinity of traces” within us. It is undeniable and unconscious to us and I thought it was so beautiful and so right for that book, but no one else liked it but me. I had it written in a notebook as a book title I might use someday. 

AR: Did you consider using it for this book, Dear Edna Sloane?

AS: No. This book was always called Dear Edna Sloane. I think this is the only book I’ve ever written that’s kept its title. The first brainstorming document I ever created was called Dear Edna Sloane and it’s never changed. My other books have gone through like, 52 different titles!

AR: Do you have relationships with other writers that mimic this type of epistolary exchange? Can you divulge what inspired the format for you? 

AS: The relationship between Seth and Edna is a strange one. They’re both sides of the same consciousness. They’re both parts of any writer. He’s the young, hungry, wannabe writer who’s like, ‘I’ve done all the right things! I’m trying so hard! Why haven’t I written a brilliant book?!’ And he just hasn’t written a book yet. He’s so impatient and hungry and a little obnoxious and a little full of himself, which I feel like we all sort of have in us, in a way. [Edna] is the writer who is older and wiser. She has a lot of integrity and she’s really focused on the art more than anything else. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I wish I only had that part. 

I think that aspects of her are borrowed from various older, wiser writers that I’ve encountered in my writing life. Particularly when I was in graduate school, and more of a “Seth” sort of palpating my mentors and professors with [questions like] ‘how do you do it?!’ and having them all say the same thing which is “just write.” Learn how to write and read a lot and write a lot. 

AR: Who have your writing mentors been? 

AS: When I was in graduate school—I went to the University of Minnesota—which was a wonderful experience. Anyone who has the luxury of doing a full-time MFA program should. It’s like a writer’s summer camp fantasyland for a little while. My thesis advisors there were Maria Fitzgerald—now that I’m thinking about this I’m like wow, combined, maybe they’d make Edna Sloane—she was writing this really heady, experimental,interesting literary fiction. The kind of novels that, especially now, I’ll read and just sort of feel like ‘WOW! What is a novel? What is language? Did I just understand all of that? Okay, I think I did,’ and [Maria] had me in this kind of novel writing boot camp where I’d be writing a draft and then picking it apart and then saying okay, what would happen if you did this to the form, or if you did this to the form. She had us reading David Markson and all these really experimental writers. In a way that was so fun and mind-bending. My other thesis advisor was Charles Baxter who is an amazing teacher, very beloved. He’s such a writer’s writer. Writers love Charlie Baxter. His writing style is so different from Maria Fitzgerald. Much more literary short stories and novels about people in the midwest figuring out their lives. He was really great at pushing me to think about story and character and ‘what’s the reader’s experience?’ They were so [avoidant around] talking about publishing or the marketplace. You were just trying to become a better writer. Which was really invaluable. Since then, throughout my publishing life, I’ve had the good fortune to be lightly connected in parasocial ways with so many writers. I feel like most writers are so supportive of each other and always there to send you that DM that says, “I believe in you!” 

AR: Right, which is so much of what this book felt like a type of homage to. That sensation of affirming none of us writers are alone. 

AS: Yeah, I felt like I wanted to talk to frustrated writers or not frustrated writers. Something I was thinking about while reading Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet, was, I wonder if I could write something to talk to writers at all different stages of their lives. Especially anyone who’s yearning and wanting and just trying so hard to do this thing, to make art, and feeling like we don’t get a lot of external validation in this world. 

AR: I love how this book confronts the romanticism of the publishing industry. Could you tell me about your perspective towards the industry and how that’s morphed throughout the years, as you’ve grown out of the Seth-like yearning?

AS: It is wild. My first book was published when I was in my twenties. It was 2008. It was a different world than it is now. I was looking back at how many reviews of the book there were and it was not a big book. It was kind of a quiet, literary release and was reviewed in a lot of major papers. I think there were just so many more outlets for book reviews at the time. That alone feels so starkly different to me now. I’d be really interested in talking to other writers that had their first time publishing in the mid-aughts because I feel it was a time when social media was so new and the publishing industry had changed a lot. It was [no longer] the heady days of late eighties and early nineties when publishers had a lot of money and threw a lot of money at advances to writers and then sent those writers on tour. 

I remember doing a reading with an author whose first book had come out I think in 1990 and he was like “Oh we bought an apartment in Carroll Gardens and we bought the apartment with that first book, you know how it is.” And I was like, I do not know how that is. He’s not a super famous author, it was just a little different! We were in this weird trough of time where publishers were like, I think you’re supposed to do something on social media, do you know what that is? And writers were like, not really! In a way it was lonelier because I was barely online, really. I wasn’t on any social media so the writers I knew were the four or five people that I was friends with from graduate school and I just remember moving to New York in 2005 and being like, where are the writers?! How do I find them?! Looking in the Village Voice for literary events I might go to. It just felt harder to access other writers and in that sense, things have improved vastly and it’s kind of wonderful that it’s easier to access the writing community. And to connect with readers. Readers have access to you in a much easier way than they did before the advent of social media. 

AR: Do you feel like there is a way for writers and readers to connect with authenticity outside of writing lengthy letters to one another? What’s the major mode of connection for you and your readers? 

AS: It’s interesting because I feel like many authors in that I’m very easy to find. Every once in a while I’ll get a DM somewhere from a reader about how [one of my] books affected them. A couple times I’ve published in the New York Times. I had an op-ed last year and a “Modern Love” column, and I feel like both of those had more readers than any of my books ever had. I got a lot of feedback from readers reaching out saying how things had affected them or often wanting to tell me their story. Those were some of the most satisfying reader emails I’ve ever gotten. Of course when you’re that available you also hear from people who really don’t like what you’re saying, which is fair. I think most writers are usually sensitive people, but that is a part of saying something publicly. You’ll hear from people whether they like it or they don’t like it. 

AR: I read in one of your newsletters that the process of this book was much more fun for you and more comedic than your other books. I found myself wondering if you were intentionally poking fun at the whole “missing white woman syndrome” ordeal? If that was in any way intentional?

AS: I do feel like the last book I’d written was very hard to write and I was dealing with all these weighty topics and doing all this research.After that I needed a breather and needed to do something fun. It seemed like a way into writing something that was a little funnier and a little lighter. Also, I was in a moment where I was having a hard time reading. I started writing this around 2016 and for some reason I was really drawn to light books that you could read in one day, or in one sitting, that could make you feel good. So that’s sort of where the form of it came in, and it’s sort of a satire of the publishing world, too. I was feeling a little frustrated with the publishing world, so sort of poking fun at that. On Seth’s pseudo-Twitter feed in the book someone comments like, “there’s so many more important things to be thinking about” and that “everyone loves a silenced woman” which I do think is true! I loved the idea of a woman who was silenced or who silenced herself because it’s a test case for what a lot of frustration and discouraging voices will do to a creative person. But then also we do just love a disappeared white woman. I amused myself in the beginning with Seth thinking there’s this mystery that he’s solving and he’s posting and people are saying ‘her husband is a murderer!’ but without giving too much away, the truth is so much more sad in a mundane way versus the flashy story of ‘she was kidnapped!’

AR: I read somewhere that one of your mentors in your MFA program told you, your character’s secret fears should reveal themselves in times of stress. Would you say that Edna and Seth shared the same fear and it was revealed at different times, or that they have different fears entirely? 

AS: I know that it was Charlie Baxter that used to say that. It’s such a good adage to remember in your head. Stories aren’t really that complicated when you think about it. Do you know what your character wants? Do you know what your character fears? I think both of these characters have a fear of being irrelevant. And a fear that this thing that they’ve cared about so much, that they’ve been working on their whole lives, actually just doesn’t matter, or that they don’t have the chops, or it’s just out of reach to them. They’re coming at it from different sides, but they both have that fear that I think a lot of artists feel. To make anything you have to work very hard and give up other things even if it’s just free time. You have to hypnotize yourself into believing that it’s worth it somehow. 

AR: When Seth finally hears from Edna, she says, “I’ve been here all along, it’s the world that’s moved on.” Tell me about a time when you felt this way in your writing career, if ever. 

AS: It’s been a bed of roses this whole time, what are you talking about? 

When I was writing this book I was having that feeling. I never had the Edna Sloane “you’re a big star!” moment. I feel like my third book, Unseen City, was the best book I’d ever written. I worked really hard on it. It was a more serious book than I’d ever written before and I had a really hard time finding a publisher for it, for various, complicated, boring reasons. I switched agents so I was kind of starting from scratch and just having a moment where I was feeling totally demoralized. The sales of my first two books were not great. I was not a debut anymore. So many authors kind of get stuck in that weird place. If you have a not great sales record it’s worse than having no sales record at all. It makes sense. I get that it’s business, I do. But as an author, it’s so mysterious to know what to do, or what you can do. It’s this weird thing where you’re sort of made to feel responsible for your own sales even though there’s only so much you as a novelist without a marketing background or the budget to pay a publicist can do. So I was in this moment of thinking my publishing career was maybe over. And apparently I was going to keep writing because I can’t seem to stop writing. I’m fitting in writing on my lunch breaks or my commutes, or whatever hidden little slots of time. Weirdly, there’s always so much overlap between writing and publishing and it’s often a very slow process. I remember I was writing a lot of this book after I had written my third book, but while it was with my new agent and she was submitting. She ended up finding Red Hen Press which is an amazing indie press and it ended up being the perfect home for Unseen City because it’s one of those books that’s kind of in between commercial and literary. Red Hen Press is a wonderful home for books like that. They’re often my favorite kind of books to read but anyway. That whole process was very slow. It felt like nothing was happening. It felt like I was kind of stuck. Then it felt like maybe things were happening but very slowly. In the end, I think all of that probably comes through in the book. 

AR: How did you know it was time to switch agents? 

AS: It was a mutual breakup… 

AR: Even mutual breakups aren’t necessarily easy to come to.

AS: I had a great experience with that agent on my first two books. He was the first agent I ever had. He took me on as a baby writer who had no publication credits and was fresh out of grad school with this really weird book and in many ways, my experiences with him were great. With the third book, the editor I’d worked with on the first two books had gone to a different house and was like, this book isn’t a good fit for this house. And that agent wasn’t really sure what to do with the book. You really need your agent to be in love with your book, and it’s not their fault if they’re not! It’s actually so much better if they tell you that because you need them to believe in it and have ideas for it. 

AR: I know you wrote this novel by sending notes and ideas to an email address you created for Edna. Given the epistolary style format, did you ever write any of this book by hand? Do you type throughout your whole drafting process? 

AS: I do write by hand sometimes. I don’t think I wrote any of this [book] by hand. I think often I write really, really early drafts—not even the whole draft, just ideas—[by hand]. I’m not very organized but I’ll go looking through old journals and find a phrase or a character description that ended up in a book years later and I had forgotten it started there.

AR: Talk to me about your revision process. When you have a draft that you know is ready to be organized, do you have the same questions you always ask yourself? Is there an arc or structure you’re always trying to plug into? What does that landscape look like? 

AS: I love revision. I’ve never been writing full-time so I’ve always been either working or taking care of small children and then sort of fitting in writing where I can. And I’m a big believer in the truth of writing for just fifteen minutes a day or an hour a day, or whatever it is. But that does create a pretty messy first draft usually. Especially because I’m pretty disciplined about keeping moving as I write.

AR:  You mean you’ll write from beginning to end?

AS: Yeah. [Otherwise] I can fall into that trap where I want every sentence to be perfect before I move onto the next sentence, which is a great way to never finish a draft. Which means that when I’m revising, I have a really big job. That [process] does not work in little bits of time. I need to carve out large chunks of time. Often it’s been a DIY writing retreat where I’ll borrow someone’s house for the weekend and either take a couple days off work when I’ve been in full-time positions or when I’m freelance I’ll carve out a week. I get myself to another location, I’ll have to print it all out, spread it all out… I usually have a big piece of paper with a map of what’s going on. That’s the big revision stage where it goes from a really crappy first draft to a less crappy first and a half draft. Some of the questions to ask oneself during revision are kind of the same questions I ask myself when I’m writing, but I ask again as a way of fact checking to make sure I did it: Do I know what the main characters want? What’s keeping them from what they want? Is each chapter or section of the book either revealing character or moving the plot? That’s the part I actually have to write down in a way that feels disgusting and sounds stupid, writing “the character is learning this” on a post-it note after trying to write it so artfully. 

AR: Do you think that every writer wants to disappear in some way? 

AS: I hadn’t really thought of that until I was talking to Kate Gale who is the publisher at Red Hen Press. She said, “In a way, you’ve just written the writer’s fantasy.” At first, for a lot of writers, the fantasy is what Seth Edward’s fantasy is. You publish! And people read you! And pay attention to you and tell you you’re great. And then I think as soon as you’ve published a little bit, especially in the contemporary publishing world as we were talking about, you feel this need and requirement to be a publicist for your book. In very few cases has the publisher decided your book is going to be the lead title and a lot of the PR budget is going toward supporting the book. In most cases you’re expected to do it yourself, which is sometimes really fun. It’s fun to do this, and to do readings and celebrate, and meet readers. It’s also a really different skill set than writing and most of us have no idea what we’re doing. A lot of writers are weird people who write because they express themselves better alone in a room with a notebook or a laptop. The public persona you’re expected to have has very little support. No one really tells you how to do it. I do think there is something that sounds very sexy like, what if I go off and live in the countryside and become a bog witch and just write and people would come and find me and ask ‘where’s your next book?’ and I’d say ‘here!’ and then I’d go back to writing. Some of that too is just being a woman in the world. You’re expected to do so many things, and to share evidence of it all online in a way that looks really good without looking like you’re trying really hard to make it look good.

AR: How do you reconnect with it all when you’re in a slump or feeling stuck? I know you write about that quite a bit.

AS: Yeah I write a substack supposedly monthly about getting unstuck as a writer. I work with a lot of private clients doing writing coaching and developmental editing and I feel like there are just so many people who find the starting is easy, but then you sort of hit a wall and get stuck for various reasons. And it feels very bad to want to write and not be able to write. It doesn’t go away. You can talk to someone who is 85 years old and saying, oh I always wanted to write a novel and I never did and I gotta do it right now. The itch doesn’t ever go away. And I’m always writing advice to myself, too! It’s the advice I need to hear. Especially things like, remember to take a break. When I’m feeling really stuck it helps me to take a social media break. Honestly, when you’re a writer and your whole feed is other writers, it can look like everyone’s just amazingly productive and showering in accolades. Really, as you know, and all other writers probably know, we’re all just nervous wrecks. Taking a step back from that and just interacting with the people in my real life helps. And then I try to borrow from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way with the artist dates, which is weirdly hard as a freelancer to say ok now I’m taking time to go look at art. The accountant in my head is like, well these are billable hours, you should be doing something else. But when you’re really burnt out you can’t do any work. So remembering to once a week go look at some art or take a walk or listen to a beautiful piece of music or be in nature, or whatever kind of feeds you. And reading a lot. Not the books I think I should read, not the books everyone else is reading. Just going into a bookstore and picking up a book you have no context for, you don’t know what it is but maybe you love that one sentence. Like, the way you read when you’re a kid, lying on the couch, kicking your feet up and loving a book so much you can’t put it down. Connecting with the joy of that. 

AR: What’s the best advice that’s been imparted to you? 

AS: Definitely when I was an undergraduate, I was trying to write a novel of course and was doing a creative thesis with Marilynne Robinson, and I remember saying to her that I just don’t know what kind of book I want to write, that I like reading so many different kinds of things and she said, you just write the book you want to read. So simple! It’s so simple and it’s so true. And in the end, it’s the only book you can write anyway. That’s the secret. 

AR: Is that the advice you would pass on to other writers?

AS: I’d say, any time you can be doing more writing than you are thinking about writing is good. I teach a lot of beginning writing classes and find a lot of writers are just thinking about writing a lot. Our current online world sort of encourages that. There are so many resources, which can be really useful, but it can also be overwhelming. People start to think they need to find the right software to help them write the book, or that there’s a formula out there to discover, or if they use a certain program. It all feels like procrastination. Just write. Spend that time writing a bad draft and messing up. That’s going to teach you so much more than studying a thousand things about writing. Although, they can be really helpful. It’s valuable the way knowledge about writing has become more democratized. You don’t have to spend years getting an MFA to get insider knowledge about writing or craft. You can go to Write or Die, or some other site. That is for the good. But remembering there’s not a formula or a way to crack the code. You actually just have to write. 

 

 

Amy Shearn is the award-winning author of the novels Unseen City, The Mermaid of Brooklyn, and How Far Is the Ocean From Here, as well as two forthcoming novels. She has worked as an editor at Medium, JSTOR, Conde Nast, and other organizations, and has taught creative writing at NYU, Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Gotham Writers Workshops, Catapult, Story Studio Chicago, The Resort LIC, and the Yale Writers’ Workshop. Amy’s work has appeared in many publications including the New York Times Modern Love column, Slate, Poets & Writers, Literary Hub, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Coastal Living. Amy has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and lives in Brooklyn with her two children.

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