Lindsay Hunter's excellent second novel, Eat Only When You're Hungry, is centered around a road trip, as Greg, an overweight, middle-aged, divorced father, rents an RV and goes looking for his drug-addict adult son, GJ, or Greg Junior. Hunter, whose first novel, Ugly Girls, was published in 2014, talks about how writers move through their careers, and how publishing the second novel compares to publishing the first.
Right before my first book came out—a collection of flash fiction titled Daddy’s—my publisher told me I should have something in the hopper for when the big houses inevitably came asking. Specifically, it should be the makings of a novel. I chafed at the idea, the same way I used to chafe sitting in church on a Sunday and thinking You don’t tell me what to do. A novel! Come on. What’s wrong with just writing stories forever and ever, amen? And who was going to come around asking me, a nobody? Well. The day Daddy’s came out I got emails from big houses and prospective agents. Show us what you got! Do you have a novel? Surely you have a novel!
I didn’t have a novel. Not even close.
I lied and said I did, though. Fake it until you make it. I think Socrates said that.
Still, I hemmed and hawed for years. I started a novel about a murder during one caffeine-fueled bender week after Christmas, holed up in my drafty guest bedroom. Then eh, I abandoned it. I kept writing stories. That’s what I wanted to do! I linked arms, psychically, with other short story writers who’d never caved to the pressure of writing a novel. I ended up with another collection of stories on my hands.
Secretly, I worried I could never write a novel. I didn’t have the attention span, or the chops, or the Big Idea, or even the right-looking workspace. I didn’t even have a desk lamp!
Finally, I caved. I decided it was a new challenge, something that would scare me. Being afraid is an essential part of my process.
But! How to go about it? I’d written a “novel” in grad school, but it was pages and pages of the same scene over and over. Jesse stares at his childhood home. Jesse enters his childhood home. Jesse has a tension-filled conversation with his father using about seven choked words apiece. Jesse exits his childhood home. We all die of boredom.
When I write short stories, my heart races and I can barely sit still. My fingers fly and the story knits itself in double time. (To an outsider, there’s a lot of staring and hair-pulling too.) I needed to capture that feeling when writing. And also! I needed to write something genius, groundbreaking, LIFE-CHANGING. I’d be a debut novelist! That’s a hot commodity!
I gave myself a daily word count, which was roughly the same number of words as a flash piece. I sat at my desk until that word count was met. I tried to scare myself every day. I reminded myself to keep it moving. Sayonara, Jesse! Doggedly, I built a book in a way that felt doable and fun for me.
Then it came out! People liked it! People hated it. Then other writers’ books came out. I had a baby. Time grapevined endlessly across the dance floor.
What if that was it? I had written a novel. My first novel had come out. It was not nominated for any awards, which is always my secret dream. What next?
I decided I’d write another novel, and I’d fix a lot of mistakes I felt I’d made with the first one. For instance, I’d allow for more hope, or at least more grace. I’d keep a daily diary of intention, to keep me focused and serious. Here are some sample entries!
April 17, 2015
I DO NOT KNOW
April 30, 2015
2,531 words today. Took me a long time but was for the most part enjoyable. I’ll take these days of relative calm.
May 13, 2015
Probably only about 1,400 words today. I wrote a knife fight. Good God I’m worried about this book.
Life is a highway!
Perhaps most importantly, I decided I’d write what to me felt like a departure from everything I’d written in the past. One can never escape oneself, so there are lots of the same themes in Eat Only When You’re Hungry that you can find in everything I write, even back to the book I wrote in fourth grade (Sisters, which was basically about how my sister was a real B). Those themes being: loneliness, desperation, yearning, humanity-within-bizarre. But I gave myself permission every day. This is such a normal book! I’d quip to anyone who would listen, which was my way of dealing with my fear that what I was writing was banal, boring, Jesse-ish. Let yourself write the normal book, I told myself.
Let yourself, was my constant mantra.
I followed the same method I’d used with Ugly Girls, using my daily word count and attempting to capture the rush of writing a flash piece, but this book felt different as I wrote it. It felt more wholly mine. And perhaps that’s because the promise/threat of the Debut Novel no longer loomed. But also, looking back, I was a bit stronger, the way a clay bowl is stronger after it survives the hot roar of the kiln. I was a mother. I had written three books. People loved and liked and hated my stuff. I had a daily choice to make: keep going? Why?
Well, because I want to.
When Ugly Girls came out, I’d have days where I felt it was brilliant, and many more days where I worried it was a scourge I was bestowing upon unlucky readers. Why can’t I write like everybody else? I’d think, in some of my more insane moments. Just write friggin' Gone Girl, is that so hard?! When Eat Only came out, there wasn’t that violent swinging. There was actually excitement, and pride, and hope. In my first journal entry, I say I’m writing a love letter, which makes me laugh now. But hello, love letters can be whatever! They can be written in blood on a Kleenex! They can be a short novel about what it means to be a parent and a child. This, my beloved second novel, is not a book for everyone, and that’s okay. Some of my favorite books are both loved and despised by different readers. But it’s a book that’s a whole life. To you, from me, with love.