After completing The Sweet Far Thing, the third book in her trilogy about Gemma Doyle and the girls of Spence Academy, author Libba Bray has started a new project—a film about how she works.
Now that you’re done with the trilogy, how closely does the finished product stack up with your original vision?
Oh, that’s rich. You’re assuming I had a vision! I can’t even find matching socks.
But you had always envisioned it as a trilogy, right?
I did, but I had no idea what I was doing. All of it took me by surprise. It was an exciting and fun and arduous journey.
Were there moments of despair?
It’s a shame Barry isn’t here [Bray is married to literary agent Barry Goldblatt]. He would howl in the background at that question. The moments of sunshine were few. It was like a pregnancy. Twenty pounds [gained], problems sleeping. I would drop [son] Josh off at school and work for the next 14 hours. A break for dinner, throw some laundry in the machine, remind Josh I was his mother, read the bedtime stories and then get back to work at 9:30 p.m., when what I really wanted to do was just watch some bad TV. Once, I fell asleep with my hands on the keyboard. I pulled two all-nighters.
Because of the deadlines from your draconian editor, whom I see you have christened St. Wendy of Loggia in the book’s acknowledgments?
I love Wendy. And I love Beverly [Horowitz]. They are very smart and they know me well. It was like in Rocky. They had me in the corner and said, ‘We’ll just slit your swollen eyelid now and you get back up there and fight.’ They knew I just needed to power through, that I had no compass anymore. Fear. My fear was substantial. They smelled it.
That’s a really ugly image, Libba.
It wasn’t pretty. But have you ever met Wendy? She is Valium in human form, the Zen master. She never gets flustered. She’d have me on the phone after I had blown yet another deadline and in these dulcet tones she would say, ‘Let me show you how the dates back out.’ Very calm. Dulcet tones.
Is this experience still too raw for you to talk about?
You can’t see this over the phone but I’m holding my son’s stuffed raccoon and I’m petting it. I sent Wendy the first draft [of book three] on Sept. 15, 2006. It was 540 pages and it was just wrong. It’s like when you take something out of the fridge and it looks fine, but you know it would be a mistake to eat it.
So I got a 12-page revision letter from Wendy. She was able to distill that I had started in the wrong place emotionally. I had constructed it so that, halfway through, Gemma had all the power [of the Realms]. Well, there’s not a lot to build to from there, if you’ve already got all the power.
It was October and I was doing a lot of traveling so I just held on to that letter, and it wasn’t until December that I realized what the solution was. What if Gemma has no power? This power that she’s cursed from the start, what if now she would do anything to get it back? That was a much more interesting place to start. In hindsight, I realize Gemma grappling with this power had a lot to do with my feeling about being able to write, with my real fear of falling on my face.
So I changed that one thing and the rest of the novel fell apart. Basically, I started over in December and in March turned in the second draft—a 900-page manuscript. It was at point, Wendy said, ‘I think we have to move the [September] publication date.’
It was not a pretty process. There’s a great line from Little Big Man: “Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.” There are books where everything falls into place easily and others where it is really tough going. Maybe if I had started with a vision I wouldn’t have found myself standing in the corner with a paintbrush saying “How do I get across this freshly painted floor?” But there were moments of fun. I found I had left myself clues. THANK YOU, UNCONSCIOUS!
So do you now have a better idea of what to do next time you write a trilogy?
I would never rule it out but right now it’s like asking a woman who’s just given birth when she’s going to have her next baby.
Plus, right now you have to concentrate on promoting The Sweet Far Thing, for which you were making a promotional film about life as a writer. Did you finish it?
I did. However, I will not be on YouTube. When I watched it, it reminded me of that episode of Friends where they show a video of Courtney Cox’s character at her high school prom and she’s quite heavy. She says, ‘You know, the camera adds 10 pounds,’ and Chandler says, ‘How many cameras did they have on you?’
Is anybody going to get to see it?
It’s had its maiden voyage in Charlotte [N.C.]. It’s 23 minutes long. Maybe that was too much to ask. There are parts that captured [the students'] attention but I think shorter might be better.
So your intent was not to make something you could post on the Web but something you could use during school visits?
Right. It’s so daunting to walk into a classroom or a school auditorium. It’s like the world’s weirdest blind date. I know all the students are thinking, ‘Who is this tool standing up in front of us?’ And they’re right. So I did the film to sort of break the ice with them. You know, when you live in Brooklyn, if you throw a rock you’ll hit a writer—Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster. And the gang on the couch at the Tea Lounge.
Why are they on the couch?
Because it’s near the [electrical] outlets. As a writer, you feel so isolated. So you create an office environment, other people you can chat with for five minutes.
Do people really give you enough space to write in public like that?
I have found that there are people who are very respectful and others who are not as good at picking up on the social cues. Headphones are a wonderful thing! It’s hard as a southern girl not to be gracious, but I give them a pained smile that translates into ‘Leave me the hell alone.’
Is all this in the film?
The baristas are. It’s like my match.com profile. The whole thing about writers is ‘show don’t tell,’ so I thought, ‘Let me show you what I do.’ ”
Did you hire a crew?
A friend [Geri Cole] who’s been a production assistant on documentaries, she filmed it and edited it. I’m a techno moron. I need help just to plug in my video camera.
So how are you spending your free time with the book and the movie done?
At the moment I’m helping Josh with his homework. And going to the Tea Lounge—to interrupt other people.