They finish each other’s sentences with such ease and humor that they could be mistaken for family, but for two Boston-area writing groups, the closeness among group members stems from a bond forged helping one another bring their books to publication. The results speak for themselves.
Since the Chunky Monkeys and the Book Squad formed in 2012 and 2015, respectively, their members have written 12 forthcoming and published titles. Along the way, they have created places where members are not only expert advisers on manuscript development but also provide essential support for nearly every aspect of navigating the world of publishing as an author today.
Wanting to Bring Your Best
In 2012, Jennifer De Leon had completed an MFA and run out of classes to take at Grub Street, a Boston writing organization where she was also an instructor, and so she asked her husband, writer Adam Stumacher, about forming a writing group with the other Grub Street instructors. Not long after, the Chunky Monkeys—which now consists of 11 writers—met for the first time. The group’s most sacred agreement is that everyone has to commit to being present at meetings, even if they do not have work to share. Christopher Castellani, author of Leading Men, took the rule so seriously that he opted out for years, only joining recently when he was certain he could commit. Initially, anyone who failed to deliver work was required teach a workshop as a penalty—though the penalty later changed to providing baked goods.
A deep bond quickly emerged among the self-styled “Chunks,” and for many, they learned as much about living as writers as they did about writing. “There is a way that they normalize things like getting Fulbrights or going on research trips,” De Leon said. “As the first writer in my family, a woman, and a person of color, it’s incredible.”
Though the group was welcoming, there was also an ingrained sense of commitment that created a sense of obligation. “There is a healthy balance between feeling that the group members love me no matter what and also not wanting to waste their time,” said Sonya Larson, whose story “Gabe Dove” was published in The Best American Short Stories 2017.
Members Chip Cheek, Calvin Hennick, and Grace Talusan each had fears entering the group. Hennick started his first draft for the group by email in order to manage his anxiety about sharing his work. Talusan said she believed that once she shared her work, the others “would know what I thought and experienced and wouldn’t like me anymore.” Cheek thought the sexual subjects of his fiction would not be seen as legitimate. Those fears proved unfounded; instead, they found support.
Responding to Hennick’s first draft email, fellow member Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere, sent a GIF that read, “You can do it.” Hennick pushed ahead and will publish Once More to the Rodeo with Pushcart Press in December. Cheek’s novel, Cape May, was published by Celadon in April. Talusan’s first workshop went so well that she completed her manuscript for The Body Papers, which was published in April by Restless Books.
Stumacher, a fiction writer, even started writing in a new genre after seeing what his fellow Chunks brought to the workshops. He composed four essay drafts and brought them to the group, which picked one for Stumacher to pitch. “The Man Behind the Metal Detector” was published in the New York Times in 2017.
“There’s a way in which the group gets to know the project and carries what the project could be, even when the individual writer is having trouble living up to that,” said Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, who published The Fact of a Body in 2017 with Flatiron Books after workshopping it with the Chunks.
Marzano-Lesnevich now lives out of state, as do Creek and Becky Tuch, but all three said they cannot separate themselves from the group. “I Skype in,” Tuch said, and Cheek, who now lives in Los Angeles, is contemplating flying back for meetings.
Historians Get Real
Kevin Levin got his first taste of having his work reviewed by the historians in the Book Squad as they finished their obligatory postdinner course of mint chip ice cream. “It took me a little bit of time to pick my ego up off the floor,” Levin said. Despite the intensity of the critique, Levin (who is a faculty colleague of the author of this article at Gann Academy) came to depend on the process for writing Searching for the Black Confederates (Univ. of North Carolina, Sept.). “I don’t think I would have finished the book without it,” he said.
The Book Squad first gathered when Liz Covart, host of the history podcast Ben Franklin’s World, wanted to create a writing group to motivate her to write. Levin signed on, as did historians Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.
The group began meeting monthly at each other’s houses in 2015. The host is responsible for dinner and a piece of writing for review. For Georgini, who was completing her dissertation and converting it into a trade title, the group offered an opportunity to share her work with published writers.
“We didn’t do the traditional fetishizing of the person’s work with comments like ‘I really love what you did here,’ ” Georgini said. “We went straight into it.” Her Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family was published by Oxford University Press in February.
In one instance, Heather Cox Richardson told Nelson, “You went the first 18 pages of this chapter before you had a single color.” Nelson, whose The Three-Cornered War will be published by Scribner in February 2020, said the advice has stayed with her, and as a result, she often thinks about ways to bring a more vivid sense of place into all of her writing.
After each session, each member sends written manuscript edits to the author who presented that night, which Silber said was invaluable as she finalized her edits for This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, which was published by UNC Press in 2018.
For Silber, who is an academic, working with the group was challenging at times. “Being in the group, I thought a lot more about how to make my writing lively and engaged and compelling,” she said. “But it was very hard for me to tell this as a story and not add a lot of analysis.”
Silber’s struggle reflects a wider issue. “We’re in this moment where historians are torn between writing for an academic audience or a trade audience,” Georgini said. “What does it mean to write for both? So a lot of these conversations in the Book Squad were about these readers who we were imagining and also the readers we hoped to attract. That was some of the richest dialogue we had.”
Megan Kate Nelson believes the workshops quickened the pace of publication for the participants, citing Levin’s book as an example. By the time it went to an editor, Nelson said, “the manuscript had been vetted by people, so it was in polished shape.”
The speed of publication is just one facet of the shared knowledge the authors gained about publishing by working together. “Feeling the pacing and the heartbeat and the pulse of the publishing industry alongside everyone, and being able to talk about the industry standards and where they are negotiable, was a boon,” said Georgini. “There’s nothing too big or too small about the editorial apparatus that we don’t pull apart.”
The same is true for the Chunks, who regularly send questions about reviews, edits, and contracts to one another. Before touring, Marzano-Lesnevich and Ng both turned to the group to help them practice answering questions.
For Whitney Scharer, author of the 2019 novel The Age of Light (Little, Brown), support has been central to the group’s success. “There’s this implicit ‘we’ve got your back,’ ” she said. “It’s support for the process of the writing and the craft, but it’s also—as you go into the world and you face all of the challenges as a writer—we’ve got your back.”