Interview: Marcy Dermansky, Author
A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers, Marcy Dermansky has compiled an impressive list of credentials in a relatively short period of time. She won the 2002 Smallmouth Press Andre Dubus Novella Award and the 1999 Story Magazine Carson McCullers short story prize. Her work has been published in a number of prestigious literary journals and she recently published her first novel, Twins.
Dermansky’s initial foray into novels was met with widespread acclaim. Twins was an Editor’s Choice pick for the New York Times Book Review. The review called the novel “a brainy, emotionally sophisticated bildungsroman-for-two.” New York Newsday said the novel “will bruise your heart and make you laugh out loud all at once.” And the Library Journal bragged that the “portrayal of the difficulty of growing up and raising children in today’s world rings true.”
We were lucky to chat with Dermansky about her writing background, the cost of living in Hattiesburg, midget love tragedies, and the development of her novel.
Slushpile: Your bio says you wrote stories in elementary school about a “sensitive standard poodle and a rebellious goldfish who wanted out of his school.” What was the best plot you devised featuring these two characters?
Dermansky: The best one, really, was about an African elephant at a zoo who was so lonely he learned to read and write so he could communicate with his elephant trainer. I don’t think the story about Leonard the poodle really went anywhere and I gave up after ten pages.
Slushpile: After graduating from Haverford College, you moved to San Francisco and worked a series of temp jobs and then full-time administrative gigs. What was your worst assignment?
Dermansky: Probably being a receptionist at a Facilities Management office. When it was a temp job it was fine, but as soon as I was offered the position full time, with benefits and a gym membership, I got depressed. I answered the phone: light bulb out, sink leaking, floor temperature too hot, floor temperature too cold, toilet clogged. I spent a lot of time entering unnecessarily complicated requisition slips into the computer. People in the elevator used to accost me with their building complaints. A lot of times I couldn’t pretend to care and this made people angry. I once got yelled at when I ignored some one’s complaint because I was on my way to lunch. It is always unpleasant to get yelled at, especially if you deserve it. Later, I had better, less demanding office jobs where I could do my own writing and prepare short story manuscripts for submission.
Slushpile: When you decided to pursue an advanced degree in creative writing, you chose the University of Southern Mississippi. What made you chose this institution over the rest?
Dermansky: One reason: I got in. I was rejected from eight of the ten programs I applied to. Second reason: they offered me a fellowship. But honestly, USM was my first choice. In my first fiction class at college, I was given a story by Mary Robison to read. I loved it, and after that, read all of her books. And when I learned about the program at USM, I also started reading Frederick Barthelme. I had a feeling my sensibility as a writer would be appreciated there. And it was. I made a good decision.
Slushpile: Moving from San Francisco, CA (population 7,000,000 in the Bay Area) to Hattiesburg, MS (population 50,000) had to have been quite a change. What was the biggest adjustment you had to make?
Dermansky: It’s funny, because most students complained about living in Hattiesburg, but I loved it. I rented a small red house for $350 a month. I had a front yard and a back yard. A washer and dryer, a bedroom and an office, a wonderful cat that came with the house and that I still miss. In a way, that’s as luxurious as living has ever gotten for me.
I did have to buy a used car (and re-learn how to drive.) The restaurants in the area were less than good, the café and movie scene non-existent. I was prepared for that.
Slushpile: While at USM, you studied with Frederick Barthelme and Mary Robison. What is your favorite memory of those teachers?
Dermansky: Favorite? I have lots of good memories. Mary Robison met with me a couple of times at the IHOP on Hardy Street to talk about my writing. Rick Barthelme once walked around workshop on two crushed Diet Coke cans. Another time, he embraced me in the hallway for absolutely no reason while saying, “Don’t hug the students! Don’t hug the students!” It was nice.
Slushpile: There are always fantastic stories/legends floating around each campus about the creative writing professor. What’s the most outrageous story you heard about Barthelme?
Dermansky: The most outrageous story about Rick Barthelme was pretty public at the time. You can read Rick and Steve’s memoir Double Down about how they gambled away their inheritance at the Mississippi Gulf Coast casinos. That was all happening while I was studying there.
Slushpile: The effectiveness and validity of a creative writing degree is always a controversial topic. Some people feel that creative writing programs provide invaluable instruction to aspiring authors. Others claim the programs are cash cows for universities, teaching little or nothing, and churning out cookie-cutter writers in the process. In what ways did you benefit from studying in a creative writing program?
Dermansky: The most basic thing a writing program gives you is time. I got to quit my full time job and take myself seriously as a writer. I had been out of college for five years, so it was wonderful to return to school and live life at a different pace. I’d guess every program is different; the Center for Writers is relatively small which I think must be a good thing.
I don’t think you can teach writing, but you can learn from example. And pick up specific things. Mary once cut the last six lines from one of my stories, and I couldn’t believe how much better it made it. Rick taught me I could start setting up a story in the very first line. I am grateful for that.
Slushpile: What criticisms do you have of creative writing programs? What could they do better?
Dermansky: In a way, writing programs don’t make you write enough. There were too many students turning in stories they had written in previous classes. Sometimes, the workshops themselves could be a little painful; there is definitely competition between writers and that often comes out in ways that are less than helpful. I have talked to writers who have gone to other programs and I think that’s the same everywhere.
Slushpile: Often, a young writer struggles in their first few classes. Then, at some point, they write a story where a light-bulb goes on and they say “hey, I understand this now.” Did you have a similar epiphany with a story? Was there one story where you felt like you had broken through?
Dermansky: I don’t think, sadly, I have ever had an epiphany. I do think the last story I wrote at USM, Adults at Home, turned out to be my best. Which leads me to believe that I was steadily getting better, or at least finding more confidence in my craft.
Slushpile: Looking back now, what story embarrasses you the most from your creative writing program days?
Dermansky: Maybe the love affair gone bad between a midget and her temporary employee who wanted to get a window desk.
Slushpile: You’ve published stories in McSweeney’s, Alaska Quarterly, The Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, and others. What was your very first publication?
Dermansky: Gulf Coast was the first—after years and years of sending out stories. Once I made the first hit, the others started coming. That first publication felt almost impossible.
Slushpile: What story publication makes you most proud?
Dermansky: I’d have to say the Alaska Quarterly Review was particularly satisfying for the simple reason that it was the first time I had ever been paid for a piece of fiction. The story, Hat Shop Girls is also fairly outlandish; it felt meaningful to me that I could write a very off the wall story and find an audience.
Slushpile: Your novel, Twins, was published by William Morrow in early fall 2005. Tell us how this idea grew in your head and changed over time.
Dermansky: It all started with the idea of twins getting tattoos. I liked it. I wanted to play with that idea. I started typing, which is how all of my ideas sort of come into being. I had started several novels before that, but never felt like the material was working for me. I did not know until I had written about one hundred pages that I was going to switch voices. Once I did that, the process got exciting.
Slushpile: How long did it take you to write the novel?
Dermansky: A little less than two years.
Slushpile: Many aspiring authors reach a point in their writing when they question the validity of the story. And then many of them quit working on the project. Was there an instance where you wondered if you should continue writing Twins? If so, what got you through this roadblock?
Dermansky: Like I mentioned above, I had already abandoned a couple of novels. I didn’t have that roadblock with Twins. I felt like it was time to stop indulging myself in quitting and finish something. I definitely had moments when I did not know what would happen in the plot. Sometimes, in desperation, I would throw in another character – suddenly Yumiko comes to the house for Christmas – and then I was rolling again.
Slushpile: At what point during the writing of Twins did you get an agent?
Dermansky: My wonderful agent Alex Glass contacted me before I had finished Twins. He had read Adults at Home in the Indiana Review and wanted to know if I had representation. I did not. We exchanged emails for more than year. I didn’t send Twins to him until I had what felt like a clean, finished book. He was excited about the book. We decided to work together. I know so many writers who struggle with this part of the publication process. I feel grateful that this was not the case for me.
Slushpile: How long did it take for your agent to sell the novel?
Dermansky: Alex and I spent a month together editing the manuscript before he sent it out. This was a surprise to me, as I did not know that agents could serve as editors. Once he sent Twins out, it took about a month to sell the book. Which sounds short in retrospect, but felt like a very long time while it was happening.
Slushpile: Many aspiring authors focus so much on getting an agent, or getting a book contract, that they don’t even think about what happens after the book is accepted. Tell us about your experience working with your editor and what happened after the deal was done.
Dermansky: I kind of loved having an editor. I have never had someone work with me so closely on a line to line level to make my work better. My editor Joelle Yudin stated straight off that she would not make me change anything that I did not want to change. Twins went through two revised drafts. I added a new scene early in the novel introducing Chloe’s voice–something which I knew always needed to be done. For the most part, Joelle asked me questions on the page, and I answered them.
Later on, a copy editor tried to correct some of the quirks of my prose, condensing several one-line paragraphs into a single paragraph and getting rid of some of the repetitions. These changes upset me, and I consulted with Joelle who backed me up.
Slushpile: The novel focuses on two teenage identical twins, Sue and Chloe. Each chapter is told from one of the twins’ perspective and the character’s name is presented at the beginning. The title-names are displayed in both plain text and italics. For example, a chapter that is narrated by Chloe is titled “Chloe.” Was this something you intended or was this design decision made by the publisher?
Dermansky: The name as title was me, the italics were my editor’s idea. I like the italics, very much.
Slushpile: For most of the novel, Chloe is the “perfect” daughter while Sue is the “troublesome” child. At times, Sue can be quite exasperating. Did you have any fear of making Sue too bitchy and irritating your readers?
Dermansky: I might have gotten lucky. I wasn’t worried about my readers while I was writing.
Slushpile: The twins’ parents are also pretty difficult to take. I wanted to strangle them both. Were you concerned about making the parents too irritating?
Dermansky: Really, I didn’t want to have parents in the book at all. I wanted Chloe and Sue to be free to do whatever I wanted them to do. Reality kept bringing in the parents; you can’t be teenagers without parents and so I devised a way to get them out of the house. I think of fairy tales or The Catcher in Rye or even the Peanuts; the parents are not part of the picture. I was very much aware of the bad parenting going on in Twins, but I had no idea how much it would upset my readers. Now that I’ve gone back and reread the book, I’m surprised by how oblivious I was. But I am also surprised by how incredulous some readers are. There are some really bad parents out there.
Slushpile: Both of the previous questions speak to a concern over balance. On one hand, aspiring authors are generally told to present fully-formed characters in order to be realistic. We’re constantly reminded that even monsters have something nice about them. But on the other hand, sometimes a young writer doesn’t do a good enough job of conveying a character’s negative qualities. I’ve written stories where I tried to be nuanced and write fully-formed characters, with both good and bad traits, but readers were unable to really cheer for the heroine and jeer at the villain. How do you make a character reprehensible enough to be noticed, but not too much?
Dermansky: I don’t think it’s interesting to write a flat out evil character. Before I wrote Chloe’s voice, I believed everything that Sue said about her twin sister. I hated Chloe for wanting to be popular, for wearing pink, for befriending Lisa Markman. And then, as soon as I gave Chloe a voice, I heard her side, and of course, I came to love her. My sympathies switched.
Lisa Markman was an interesting character for me. She was a definite villain in my mind, a composite of all the awful girls I ever went to school with. Yet, she becomes Sue’s girlfriend. Before the book ends, she is reading Alice Walker and Salman Rushdie. I had no idea she would undergo such a transformation.
I think your question goes back to the reader. How to make a character palatable to a reader. One of my biggest problems in graduate school, in fact, was the knowledge that every story I wrote for workshop would be discussed. I could hear the criticism as I was writing. I think it might be a good thing not to think about the audience – at least in the first draft.
Slushpile: Basketball plays a large role in Twins. Who is your favorite ballplayer?
Dermansky: Michael Jordan. I tried to imbue some of his superstar qualities into the character of Rodney Markman.
Slushpile: What caused you to use basketball and not tennis or swimming or field hockey or softball or any number of other sports?
Dermansky: Basketball was a fortunate accident. Lisa Markman was tall; her father was a basketball player. Before I knew it, Chloe was playing basketball. I had played a little when I was younger, but never on a team. I started watching games on television and took out books on basketball from the library.
Slushpile: Did you do any research into the lives and natures of twins in preparing for this book?
Dermansky: I did. I worked through a couple of very hardcore science books about twins, some more readable psychology books, and also a book about Josef Mengele and his experiments on twins. I also interviewed one twin which was very helpful as she confirmed some of my basic assumptions. It also worked for me that she had had a difficult relationship with her twin for as long as she could remember.
I’ve gotten some nice letters from twins who have read the novel, saying that I really captured parts of their experience.
Slushpile: Twins is a literary novel that isn’t a bestseller and it’s not overly-intellectual and “artsy” either. Much has been made about the shrinking mid-list in the publishing industry. What do you think the future holds for novels, like Twins, that are good, insightful stories but aren’t bestsellers, celebrity tell-alls, or conspiracy novels?
Dermansky: This part of the publishing industry fills me with dread. The sales, the marketing, the business end. I wrote the novel that I wanted to write and it was published. That’s very lucky. I think the publishing industry tries to decide what the public wants, but also knows that they can’t really know, so they will keep on publishing small good books on the off chance that one of them will hit big.
Slushpile: In addition to writing fiction, you are a film critic for About.com. Reviews of any medium are tough to write because space is limited and personal writing style is often removed by editors. What do you try to accomplish when writing your reviews?
Dermansky: Reviews are tricky. I only review foreign and independent films. I love being able to champion small films that otherwise don’t get much attention in the media. Not many people, for instance, know about Isild le Besco’s performance in Benoît Jacquot’s A Tout de Suite. I find that I worry much more about my reader when writing reviews. I got a good deal of hate mail for my negative review of Brokeback Mountain. It’s important to be careful when judging another artist’s work and not to get too carried away with your own cleverness as a writer.
Slushpile: Who are your favorite writers?
Dermansky: Russell Banks, T.C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, Frederick Barthelme, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Flannery O’Connor, Mary Robison, Graham Greene, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Antonia White, Joy Williams, Banana Yoshimoto.
Slushpile: What writer do you wish more people knew about?
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Dermansky: To write a lot. To write constantly and stop worrying all the time if it’s any good. That is not to say a writer should not worry about the quality of their work. I am speaking from my own experience where I paralyze myself early on, judging the work before it’s written. I think it’s better to write more, faster, and then have the actual text to edit and play with and improve on.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors trying to break into print?
Dermansky: To send out their work. Too many good writers I know never sent out their stories. To send out a lot of stories. To take yourself seriously as a professional.
To find out more about Dermansky’s outstanding work, please visit her website.
To order her novel, click on the book below: