Julie Myerson

On Not People-Pleasing, Learning from Criticism, and Her Novel ‘Nonfiction’

Cover of Julie Myerson: On Not People-Pleasing, Learning from Criticism, and Her Novel ‘Nonfiction’

A few years ago I found myself compulsively refreshing my feed on the site formerly known as Twitter, completely engrossed by a drama between writers. A summary: A female writer was being called out by one hundred or so people for writing about a former friend of hers. The friendship hadn’t ended well, or maybe it hadn’t ended at all, but people certainly didn’t think she should be writing about the friend in the way that she was (i.e. revealing). They were quote-tweeting a post she’d shared linking her work and the commentary included words like atrocious, unforgivable, disgusting, etc. I don’t remember the author, nor do I remember the work in question, but I do remember seeing the initial inflammatory post popping up at the top of my feed for days with more and more comments further admonishing the woman for daring to write about her experience which also included the experiences of the friends. The details are blurry in my mind as they so often are with things I read on that site because it seems nearly every week I witness writers attacked (usually by other writers) online for the things they write about (their children, their jobs, their spouses, their exes, dead people, people they love, people they hate, and so on). I’ve also found that I no longer care to refresh the feed to see people fiendishly vying for relevance via hot takes. An astonishing observation I’ve made over the years of witnessing this kind of behavior is that the people doing the admonishing have often not actually read the work, but object to it on principle based on a set of moral principles which they believe all other writers ought to prescribe to. Or, worse, they object to it (even without reading it) because it seems the morally trendy thing to do (one ought not go against their fellows for fear of being rejected oneself). As a writer still new enough to publishing, this phenomenon of online aggression scares the hell out of me. The thought of being criticized in such a public (and often cruel) manner can sometimes make me nervous to write what I want to write at all (or if I do, I keep it to myself). As a writer, the thing I most aspire to is to learn to write without fear of perception (more accurately it might be to get rid of the desire to be liked at all). The writers I am most drawn to are the ones who seem to have learned how to do this, the ones whose work feels totally honest in a way that I think self-preservation makes it hard to be. Writers who have such a clear devotion to the writing, regardless of how it will be perceived.

Julie Myerson is one of these writers. She has written work that has made her the target of criticism and yet she continues to produce absolutely honest work. Her newest novel, Nonfiction (Tin House, 2024), is about motherhood, infidelity, and the solipsism of writing. To some extent (maybe because it is partially written as a 2nd person address to a child in the depths of addiction) it feels like reading something meant to be private. I read it ravenously in two days and then immediately started reading it again. It begins “There’s a night—I think this is in the Middle of June—when we lock you in the house. We don’t want to do it, but—or so we tell each other—we seem to have no choice… we lock all the doors and leave you with a hammer, so you can smash a window in case of fire. Your father doesn’t think this is necessary, but I think it’s necessary. I don’t want you to die in a fire. Or, I don’t want to have to sit through a dinner party on the other side of town, while all the time worrying that you might die in a fire.” The rest of the novel continues on, equally as urgent, alternating between addresses to the child, accounts of an affair with a married man, and observations on the merits of writing. While Nonfiction deals with similar subject matter as Myerson’s previous memoir, The Lost Child, it is, despite its tongue-in-cheek title, a work of fiction reminiscent of Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Kate Zambreno’s Drifts. Like most of my favorite novels, it reads as a confessional, but in its construction, the words eat the truth and all that’s left is fiction.

I spoke with Julie via email about criticism, writing what you want to write, and her new novel Nonfiction. 


Shelby Hinte: I heard in another interview you gave that you never share your work with a reader until it’s finished. Why is it necessary to your process to keep the work private?

Julie Myerson: I honestly don’t know how any writer CAN share their work until it’s finished. For me, the process of writing and dreaming up a book is an intensely, almost excruciatingly, private one and—crucially!—a place where I’m allowed to make some pretty embarrassing mistakes. So it’s partly just that I’d cringe to show anyone anything that I suspect doesn’t completely work. But I also do it for me: I can only believe in the magic of a work in progress if I know the outcome can remain secret and private till the very last minute. For me, that’s a very exciting part of the whole process. As long as things stay secret, then anything is possible! The novel I’m writing now, for instance, it’s a whole secret world that I dive back into when I’m working on it and if I told a single soul about any of its details it would collapse like a cake that you take out of the oven too quickly (not sure where that metaphor came from as I haven’t baked a cake in years!).

SH: When do you feel ready to share your work with a reader?

JM: Literally when I consider it absolutely finished. When I am excited with the result. When there’s not a word in it I feel I need to change (though that doesn’t mean I’m not open to editing, of course, I am), when it all works perfectly and—strange, but true—when it almost feels as if someone else could have written it. 

SH: How long did it take you to get to the point of having a draft you felt you could share and what did the revision process look like after?

JM: It differs with every novel, but with Nonfiction it took me about three years (at least! I forget exactly how long) to deliver a novel to my agent which, even then, I kind of knew didn’t quite work. We both agreed it wasn’t right—a very dispiriting moment—and I went away and more or less wrote a whole different novel. Or at least anyone else would think it was different, but for me, because I know where they both came from, I knew it was just a different expression of the same novel. Once I finally delivered Nonfiction as it is now, nothing really changed except for the tiny (i.e. grammatical or continuity) queries that a good copy editor always sends you. Copy editors are a heroic part of the publishing process! 

SH: At one point in the novel you write:

“I’d always been writing with the sense of people looking over my shoulder—husband, editor, agent, family, whatever. It didn’t matter who it was, I was always thinking ahead, curbing and filtering myself, wanting so badly to get it right—as if that were possible—so very desperate not to upset anyone, as if I hadn’t earned the right to say what I really felt about anything—”

I so related to this thought the narrator has and I find that as a writer, and even just as a person, it can be so difficult to resist self-editing to what I think is “acceptable.”

How do you work through the fear of perception to write what you want to write?

JM: Well I actually put those words into the mouth of another character—a writer that the narrator meets at a party. And that scene is actually based on a real conversation that I had with a real (and fairly famous) writer at a real party! BUT the content of our conversation wasn’t that content—I made all of that up and yes, it does touch on a lot of things that my narrator, and even to some extent I myself, feel. So it was based on something real and also entirely made up (rather like the whole novel in fact!).

Although I’ve had to fight against being a people pleaser all my life, I don’t think it applies to my writing. In my writing, I am my true self and that self can be pretty bolshy and brave.  I don’t think I’ve ever written anything in order to please other people. When I wrote my first novel Sleepwalking 30 odd years ago, I realized I was never going to be able to write anything unless I forgot about pleasing people and just wrote what—to me anyway—felt like the truth.

SH: There is this moment early on that stuck with me where the narrator is thinking about her work with a student writer of hers who she sees as having a valuable job in mental health:

“If I was being honest with this girl—if she was paying me to tell her the truth rather than to teach her how to write—I’d say, why bother trying to make up stories when in your real life you can do a job like that, understanding and managing real people and their families with their very real crises…in my view she should value and concentrate on her real work and forget all about the frankly solipsistic artifice which is writing a novel.”

I grew up with a mother who was an ER/ICU nurse, and so I am always thinking about these questions—What is the value in this? Who is this helping? Sometimes the answer feels obvious to me, but other times it is so elusive. What do you think the value of writing/literature are? Do you agree with your narrator that novel writing is a solipsistic artifice?

JM: No, I don’t really agree. That’s my narrator talking! But I do think that any novelist worth their salt probably harbors an awareness of how—I can’t find the word—unreal their job is. And, to a certain extent, self-absorbed. To sit pulling stuff out of your own particular and personal head while elsewhere people are doing so much more viscerally important jobs. Who hasn’t thought about that? But all of the arts are of course vital as they’re a way of processing and coping with the world. And I passionately believe that we need to share our lived experience—there’s a real generosity and sometimes bravery in doing that. And not everyone knows how to do that.  I used to want to be a vet (aged about 9!) and then later—more seriously—a midwife. I think I’d have loved doing that job, but could I have done it? Who knows. But writing was so clearly the thing I knew how to do, even from an early age, and there’s something strangely useful about doing the thing you were born to do?

SH: I know you received backlash for your memoir, The Lost Child, and people were quite cruel. How did that response impact the way you write? Did it change your process at all?

JM: An interesting question! No, it didn’t impact the way I write—or I don’t think so. But it impacted my health, mental and physical, in many boring ways which I won’t go into. But part of the reason Nonfiction took a long time to write is my energy is different these days and so, to a certain extent, is my self-confidence. So all right, yes, I suppose you could say it did impact my writing a little—not so much the way I write (I still don’t try to people-please in my work!), but more: Do I have I any right to be writing at all? What’s it for? Who exactly are we when we’re writing? All questions, of course, which I’m trying really hard to address in Nonfiction. I should add that I don’t think this slight loss of confidence or questioning of yourself is necessarily a bad thing. The experience I had with The Lost Child was very bruising but that was mainly because it involved and affected others close to me, the people I love and especially my kids. I felt extremely responsible and that hurt. But I actually think it’s good for writers to be criticized and challenged. I’ve always been up for that! And you can be certain that when people are hard on me, they’re still nothing like as hard as I am, and always have been, on myself.

SH: I personally harbor some fear of ever writing something that could be attacked (and yet I don’t want my work to be boring). It feels like such a precarious place to be as a writer/person—the desire to write what we want to write while also protecting ourselves as human beings (and our families). What about criticism do you find useful and how do you work through it to get on to the next project?

JM: Well—and I say this partly because I’ve been a critic too and often reviewed other writers’ work—I think as a writer you have to be up for being criticized, in the normal way, I mean. Some people are going to love and get your work and others just aren’t. That’s all part of the process. I’ve had some pretty negative reviews in my time. I cope with those by telling myself that I try to push through some boundaries in my work. I don’t do ‘comfortable’ and not everyone is going to think that works. Sometimes—ok, not that often but sometimes!!—I’ve actually learned from my negative reviews. You always know somewhere in the pit of your stomach when someone is (kind of) right. But the attacks I suffered for The Lost Child don’t fall into this category. Partly because the attacks were so personal and (sometimes) malicious, but mainly—and I can’t remember whether I already told you this—because almost none of the people who criticized the book had actually READ it! (it wasn’t out or in proof at the time). I admit that part hurt. Any writer is, I think, up for being criticized for their work. But to be attacked for what people IMAGINE you might have written?!

SH: The novel regularly shifts between various narrative threads, some of which feel directly linked to the larger narrative arc around the daughter’s drug use, while others appear to be doing a quieter type of work around mood and emotional processing. How did you decide on this structure for the novel? 

JM: Ha. I never do any ‘deciding’! I just write and see what comes and then examine it very hard and ask myself: Is this honest? Is it interesting? Does it bring some kind of forward momentum? It really is so hard to describe the actual process (though of course I understand why the question’s interesting. I would LOVE to know about other writers’ actual processes, but basically I always structure my novels instinctively. I just know what feels right. I suppose the only thing I try consciously not to do is have any boring bits. Those clever novels which you enjoy but you kind of skim half a page because you can tell it sort of diverts from the main event? I’ve tried extremely hard all my career never to write like that!!

SH: I love this talk of boringness and trying to avoid it. What do you think makes for boring writing and what books/writers do you feel are the opposite of boring?

JM: Perhaps boring is a personal thing. A book I might find boring could be loved by everyone else. There’ve been books that have won major prizes—I won’t name them—which I’ve found incredibly plodding and dull! But for me personally, ‘boring’ is when I am not convinced. There are plenty of authors who can string a fine sentence together, but that’s all it is: writing. Too much writing in a book just makes it baggy and unlikely (for me). I don’t care whether the sentences are fine or beautifully constructed, or whether the author feels they have stuff to say about the world. I just want to be on the very edge of my seat, gripped and enthralled and believing every word. Two (very different) writers who recently had this effect on me are Brett Easton Ellis in his latest novel The Shards. It’s such a daring, scary, deeply entertaining novel. I couldn’t believe how frightened I was in places and I couldn’t work out how he was doing it either. The prose seems so guileless, so real and his narrator so weirdly likable. I adored that book. And then recently I read a tiny novel by Jo Ann Beard called Cheri. Based on a real life story of a woman with breast cancer who decides to have an assisted death. Every single sentence was so real and without artifice. You were taken straight to a certain place and kept there, pinned down almost. It was a devastating experience. I’m in awe of her talent. When I read novels like these—novels that have no boring bits!—I feel so exhilarated and excited. I just want to sit down and write!

SH: Some of the novel is written as a second person address from the narrator to her daughter, and I found those sections especially impactful because you really get to see (or I saw) the pain of a mother trying to connect with a child who seems to be moving further and further away from them. What drew you to writing these sections about the daughter in this voice?

JM: It took me ages. It was never an actual decision (see above!). But I tried writing it in so many different ways and this was the one which, when I found it, lit me up and took me forwards, so I stuck with it. Certainly for me—and I bet for other writers too—it’s not so much that you have this wonderful range of options to choose from in some kind of artistic and leisurely way, it’s more that you’re slicing around crazily in the darkness trying and trying to make the words come alive and then suddenly you stumble on a way of doing things—in this case addressing the daughter as ‘you’—and you cling on hard because it seems at last to allow you to write the book.


Julie Myerson is the author most recently Nonfiction: A Novel (Tin House.) She is the author of ten previous novels, including the bestselling Something Might Happen and The Stopped Heart, and three works of nonfiction, including Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House and The Lost Child. As a critic and columnist, she has written for many newspapers including The Guardian, the FT, Harper’s Bazaar and the New York Times, and she was a regular guest on BBC TV’s Newsnight Review. She lives in London with her family.

Share this