Matthew Olzmann is one of a handful of poets I know that can win over those who think they hate poetry. He wins over the haters because he is funny, but also because the poems have doors that open and invite you inside.
In March, I interviewed Miah Arnold about her debut novel Sweet Land of Bigamy. I found this book about a Utah woman who marries two men to be deeply fascinating, and I appreciated the way she upturned expectations and engaged the themes of love, marriage, loyalty, and what it means to do the right thing.
Our first interview focused on the story and questions of polygamy. However, we also talked about the writing and publication process. Miah was candid about her experiences—she talks openly about devastating surprises, and the resultant bouts of shame—and I think her answers are a must read for all aspiring and working writers. I also think her responses are revelatory for anyone who likes to peek behind the literary curtain.
Has any reader response surprised you?
Yes, I am surprised when people are furious at Helen for having married two men, and when they talk about her like she’s the antichrist, but then they go home and feel sorry for poor Tony Soprano, or poor housewife of Miami, or whoever it is. I find it baffling. I did not expect people to be so mad at her. Some readers are annoyed at her indecision, which I understand. I would understand if they found flaws with the book structurally – I think it starts a little slow. But blind fury at Helen for getting married twice seems outrageous to me in the context of what else our society puts up with.
What startled you most about the publication process?
Everything about writing a book is the hardest part. Writing it. Revising it. Revising it. Revising it. Then writing query letters. Getting rejections. Finding an agent. Finding a publisher. However, once I’d gone through all that, I thought my book would have a fair chance in the world to be noticed even though it’s unusual in terms of what novels today are like. It’s a funny, easy read, but strange. It’s told from multiple viewpoints, from characters that rarely see the light of day in literature. I’d shown it to a large and diverse number of people, however, and they were excited about it. My blurbs were extraordinary from writers as different as Adam Zagajewski, Mat Johnson, Ruben Martinez, Jacquelyn Mitchard, and Antonya Nelson. I felt like it probably wouldn’t be a blockbuster – I didn’t expect it to change my life – but I expected it to live the normal life of a literary novel.
But then Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist all ignored the book. I thought the worst thing would be getting a bad review – that was my worry ahead of time. That you could put in so much effort, and so much work, and then have it trashed. But that isn’t the worst thing that could happen: worse is that despite miracle after miracle it took to get it into print, three organizations could make it disappear, in a sense, by ignoring it. In my head that looks like three guys in tortoise shell glasses and Mr. Rogers sweaters shrugging and turning on Ira Glass. I don’t know why I have to single out poor Ira, whom I’m sure would have at least given it a star. But because of these fellows, the bookstores across the country look to these reviewers to decide what to buy, and reviewers find out about new books from them, as well. No notice rendered the book invisible, and my publisher and agent sort of began talking about the novel in the past tense as soon as this happened. I mean: before it even launched. Because the reviews come out before it launches, and newspapers rarely write reviews after the launch. So it felt like the novel had died, or was a stillborn, and I felt a kind of rage.
I felt a lot of shame – like the publisher and agent and all the people who had liked it were crazy, and it was the worst book ever written. And I felt this right as it came out, I didn’t take a day to just bask in the wonder of having a world I love and care for rendered into print.
But then, in the next weeks, my publisher fought hard to get it out to as many readers as he could, and my agent pushed me to get a publicist, which I did. I had a few interviews on NPR and some very bizarre AM radio interviews, and it helped me calm me down. In a sense, I remembered the book that I loved. I went on an old-fashioned book tour just because I wanted to celebrate the love of having gotten something into print – it was my family’s summer vacation. This was all rewarding for me: a lot of strangers read and gave the book pretty great reviews on Amazon. I think right now it’s at four stars, and only a few of them are my father using pseudonyms. A few people hate it, but after what went on with the big reviewers, I feel really lucky the haters took the time to rage against the book, which is a kind of knowledge worth having.
The whole publishing process is complicated and exact, and I think I learned how much I didn’t know the first time around. I learned how much I care that what I write is read. At the core of a writer is somebody who wants to share an idea or a story, and I hadn’t really thought of that before. The publishing process is filled with know-how, timing, and luck. I hope I’ll be savvier the next time around. I think I learned this process isn’t the same for any two people, or any two books. I learned that for every door that shuts you become more creative in finding a different entrance to the place you need to get to.
What has been the best reward, to-date, of the publication process?
I like hearing what people think the book is about. People read their own situations into the plot, and so whatever is going on in their own life reflects directly on how they think of the characters in my novel. So my friend who has been separated from his partner because they’re gay and his partner is Canadian (they can’t marry for citizenship) sees this as a novel about how when you stop listening to your partner, especially when there’s a large distance between the two of you, your life starts spinning out of control. Another woman I talk to thought it was a novel about second chances, and the risk it takes to secure them. Some people find Helen incredibly cruel, and others find her compelling. My husband thinks it’s a national allegory, a novel about the struggle between “blue” and “red” America, and that the novel and its characters tries to have it both ways. What I like about all of these ideas is that I can hear in them people trying to figure out something about their own lives, and their own happiness – and I like being a part of these puzzles.
After writing this novel, do you see relationships differently? Have you gained any wisdom? Or do you have more questions?
The giant sub-relationship of this novel is between Helen and her mother, Carmen. If I say my readers read the novel through what’s happening to them, for me, what happened even as my novel was being printed, was that my stepmother Helen, who raised me and taught me to write, died of liver failure. So if I say I think the novel is about a woman who returns to her hometown and rather than dealing with the painful reality of her drunken mother, she starts an affair and eventually becomes a bigamist, you’ll understand why this relationship is so central to me. I loved the real Helen very much, and I loved my aunt Jeri who died near the same time. Carmen is a collage of several women, but very much parts of Helen and Jeri. But loving them was painful. This novel allowed me to give them the fairy tale ending life wouldn’t allow. That was important to me.
What does your husband think about your writing about a woman in love with two men? (Has he wondered if you want a second husband?)
Raj writes nonfiction mostly so I’m the one who has to watch out. His joke whenever we tell somebody about one of the characters being a skinny, Indian activist is, “But he’s not based on me at all.” The truth is that Raj is as much the model for Larry as for Chakor in this novel. He is moral, slightly judgmental, stabilizing, and reliable, like Larry; he is idealistic and naïve like Chakor. In my head Chakor is freedom to Helen, whereas Larry is responsibility: Raj has been both those things for me. In the novel all these qualities are magnified into becoming people of their own.
I don’t think I could handle two real husbands, though. Raj might laugh at me if I suggested it. If I were younger maybe. If we were going to radically alter our lives, I’d go for more women in the house before more men, though even that seems like it’d be a lot to handle.
We spoke with poet Jericho Brown, author ofPlease, about his relationship with the “we”, about sitting on beds in street clothes, and the poems he’d read to all of Shreveport, Louisiana if he could. Brown will read with Khadijah Queen, Rachel Sherman, eteam, and DJ Lady DM at the 2012-2013First Person Plural Reading Series season finale on April 1 at Shrine.
When do you feel most “we”? When Al Green gets played in a public place….
From tonight’s Renegade Reading Series in Crown Heights. There to see Miah Arnold read. Enjoyed everyone though.
Just a few pix from AWP 2013 in Boston. And for a write-up of the exquisite FPP panel readers, please go here: http://www.firstpersonpluralharlem.com/2013/03/10/spellbound-at-awp-2013/
I’m late. This was my Literacy Across Harlem March 1 #rockthosereads. Memoir doesn’t get better than this. I’ve read other excellent memoirs (*The Liars’ Club* comes to mind) but I can’t say I’ve read any that are better than this one. A true classic. I still maintain that if the film based on the book, *Being Flynn*, could have kept the original name, it would have been a blockbuster.