Debra Jo Immergut: Five Things I Learned Writing You Again
From Edgar Award finalist Debra Jo Immergut, YOU AGAIN is a taut, twisting work of literary suspense about a woman haunted by her younger self. Booklist calls it “a furious page turner” and Kirkus, in a starred review, says it’s “a profound meditation on love, fate, ambition, and regret.”
I write best when my novel feels like a Rubik’s Cube
You Again began with an unsettling vision. One day in New York City, I pushed my son in his stroller past the old tenement building I’d lived years earlier, when I was a 22-year-old party girl with secret, fierce aspirations to be a novelist. I had the strangest sense that, if the old wooden door swung open, my younger self would come striding out. What would she think if she saw me, married woman, pushing this toddler around, and no novel to show for it? Would she be furious with me?
It felt so real. I never forgot that vision. A few years later, I found my way back to writing in a small way, and I decided to explore the idea of a woman meeting her younger self. How would such a thing happen? And why? What would the results be? How would it change her?
These were really thorny questions. I challenged myself to provide some plausible explanations for this twisting of time–while not over-explaining it and draining off all the mystery. I found this challenge completely absorbing. It nearly broke my brain working it all out but I’m really proud of the result, and now, at last, I know how to get my ass in the chair and stay there for hundreds of hours and hundreds of pages. Embed a puzzle deep in it the story’s heart. I’ll be under its thrall until I figure out how to solve it.
My red is not your red
When I was working on the first complete draft of the novel, I was lucky enough to spend a month at an artist’s colony–which was like a luxe sleepaway camp for obsessive creative oddballs. I met an artist there named Franklin Evans (super talented, look him up) and though he was rather retiring and reticent, I wheedled my way into the studio he’d been given, a spooky old stone building in the woods. I told him I was writing a book about a painter and that it would help me at that moment to smell his paints. Poor guy! He agreed. While I was just soaking up the orderly chaos of his workspace–he was piecing together brightly hued works from art tape and bits of small paintings–I asked him about his favorite art-related books. He named two. One was a biography of Matisse. The other was “Interpretation of Color” by Josef Albers. I bought them both. The Matisse was fascinating–but the Albers was like the keys to the kingdom–I instantly knew that my main character, Abigail, would have used this book as her bible. In the book, Albers methodically demonstrates many surprising and mysterious properties of color, and how it’s all about context. I learned that, because the inner structures of eyes are as individual as our fingerprints, no two people seem the same hues. Your red is not my red. This became one of the controlling ideas of the novel—how we are ruled by our very personal perceptions of reality.
Some part of me wants to smash things
I lived in Berlin in the 1990s, just after the fall of the Wall. In certain parts of town, I’d see these black-clad wildlings who were always calling for some “aktion” or other, often protesting the eviction of squatters from the ruined buildings that had been left to crumble since the war. Every May Day, the antifa would battle the police in certain parks and streets, and both sides seem to relish this ritual. I found it fascinating, especially since I come from an American generation that didn’t do much street-marching or protesting. I’d rarely seen such things up close. In recent years, visiting Berlin, I actually sought out a few demos, just to observe them. I wondered: could this European strain of antifascism–which began in earnest in 1920s Italy during the rise of Mussolini–ever make inroads into the US? I suspected the answer would be yes–and then Trump’s inauguration happened, when the American Antifa threw its first few really resonant punches. While working on You Again, I decided that Abigail’s 16-year-old son, Pete, might be attracted to this rising movement intent on destroying the status quo, given how unhappy his parents seemed with their status quo. Without endorsing them, I have to admit that, as a writer, I found their passion, their chaos, and their boldness to be powerful narrative fuel, and introducing this element changed the course of the novel.
Secondary characters are the tastiest treats
Do other writers feel this way? Secondary characters bring me such pleasure. While my central characters are busy questing for answers to the great puzzles of their lives, the secondary characters are just busy being their bad selves. They tend to be big personalities. Quirky, angry, goofy, egotistical. They make me laugh. They mouth off in ways that surprise me. In my first novel, The Captives, I adored writing the scenes that centered on my side dishes–a feckless teenage junkie, a Russian gang moll. In You Again, I came to understand that the secondary characters are where I get to indulge in off-kilter dialogue and weird humor. I really enjoyed inhabiting my ultraglam art-world queen, my shady Brooklyn import-export dealer, and my magenta-haired Antifa girl. I have to restrain myself from overpopulating my books with minor characters, I love them so fiercely.
Truly serious sweat must be broken
This is a lesson I have been learning every day since I made a determined return to fiction writing after being laid-off from a fulltime job five years ago. Yes, inventing imaginary worlds and concocting imaginary humans–especially those tasty secondary characters–is deeply satisfying fun. You can’t force the flow, uou don’t want to inhibit the stream of emotion and imagination. You must allow it to bubble forth with ease and gentleness and some degree of joy.
That’s all true for first draft writing, when you’re just seeking to tap the wellspring, that mysterious deep source of the best raw ideas.
But then, it’s time to bring the hammer down. I took me many years to understand how much harder I would need to work on later drafts. How ruthless I needed to be, as I examined every character, every word, every plot turn, the beginnings and endings. If I didn’t feel painfully stretched to the limits of my abilities, the end result wasn’t even going to be close to good enough. We’re asking so much of our readers–listen to me blather on for page after page after page!–so if I’m not committed to the project with ferocious and unceasing effort, then I don’t deserve to be read. That’s been a tough lesson to learn, and it’s taken many years to really sink in, but I now feel its truth deep in my bones. All too often I fall short, but at least I understand how high I have to reach.
Debra Jo Immergut is the author of You Again, forthcoming from Ecco/HarperCollins in July 2020, and The Captives, a 2019 Edgar Award finalist for Best Debut Novel by an American Author, published in the US by Ecco and in over a dozen other countries. She has also published a collection of short fiction, Private Property (Random House). Her essays and stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Narrative, and The New York Times, among others. A recipient of Michener and MacDowell fellowships, she has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in western Massachusetts.
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