By Ross Nervig
“There is, now, a literary term for a book that you can’t stop reading that makes you stop to think. It is ‘The Red Car,’” Daniel Handler gushed about Marcy Dermansky’s latest novel in his New York Times review of The Red Car. Elsewhere, Roxane Gay added to the chorus of praise: “I’ve been waiting and waiting for a new book from Marcy Dermansky and finally that new book is here. The Red Car is taut and smart and strange and sweet and perfect. I want to eat this book or sew it to my skin or something.” Since its publication in 2017, The Red Car has won a number of accolades, including Best Book of the Year by Buzzfeed, San Francisco Chronicle, Flavorwire, and Huffington Post.
Dermansky is the author of three novels, Twins, Bad Marie, and The Red Car, with a fourth novel (Very Nice, Knopf) coming out in the summer of 2019. Her novels circle the themes of sex, restlessness, escape, lost souls, and the dawning of self-awareness, with a galloping prose style that picks the reader up in the first paragraph and doesn’t let them down until the final page, changed by the experience and better for it.
Dermansky is serving as the judge for Bayou Magazine’s James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. She was kind enough to set aside the galley of her new novel and answer a few questions.
You are the judge for Bayou Magazine’s fiction contest. As a reader, what are you looking for in a piece of writing? Any surefire ways of making you sit up and say “Wow!”?
First of all, I am thrilled to have been asked to judge this contest. It’s my first time in this official capacity.
I always look for a good first sentence. It doesn’t have to be long, though it can be. Or super short. I strongly believe that an author can set so much up in the first paragraph, and there is no reason to wait. I also appreciate an actual plot. Things have to happen. And I want characters to surprise me. While there is no actual equation for Wow, the best short stories have a feeling of inevitability to me.
What do you look for in an idea? What makes one story worthy of a novel treatment versus a short story or just a passing thought?
Ideas are the hardest thing for me. One reason I love writing novels is that I can run with an idea for a long time. My most recent novel–Very Nice, which is coming out July 2019–actually started as a short story. I was done and did not know what to write next. Because I wanted to still be writing, I kept on writing the same story, switching POVS. I gave the girl a mother, and the plot took off. This is the first time I have ever done that — expanded on a story. Another trick, I suppose, would be to begin writing sequels, but so far I have been reluctant to take that path.
The truth is, I don’t know anything until I start typing. Maybe it will be a short story. Maybe a novel. If I type a first paragraph or a couple of pages and feel nothing good about the effort, I will abandon the work and hope for a better idea.
The Red Car and Bad Marie feature writers as main characters. Why do audiences return again and again to stories about the writerly types? We spend half our time sitting in front of computers!
I once taught at a writing center for adults, and they had this cheat sheet with rules to go by and one of them was: never write about writers. And I get that. I have seen movies where they try so hard to make writers look interesting. They show them typing away. Back when there were typewriters and crumpled up sheets of paper.
But we are also told to write what we know. And I know writers. I feel embarrassed to say I have a writer character in my new book, too. One thing I have an aversion to is when writers try so hard to not write about writers and instead make them painters or photographers. Writers, in general, are a little bit wacky and out of step and so that can make for interesting characters. When they aren’t writing. Like anything, you have to do it well.
Leah, the narrator of The Red Car, says: “Maybe I had been reading too many Haruki Murakami novels.” You also mentioned your adoration of Murakami in interviews. What is it about his books that captures your imagination?
Yes, I am a Haruki Murakami super fan. I love the way his novels (and short stories, too) contain both the quotidian and the way-out-there – protagonists who swim laps and shop at the grocery and then travel to the very end of Japan in search of a long lost friend who has turned into a Sheep Man.
My book The Red Car actually began as a writing exercise. I wrote an essay about this experience called “Marcy Blanche Murakami: American Novelist.” I was without a good idea (see above question, and my lack of ideas, which is still a problem), so I decided I would write my own Murakami novel. I reread a few of his books, and I jumped in. I had structure and a vision for an American female protagonist who would mirror his Japanese ordinary, but actually extraordinary, men. Suddenly, I was writing and writing. I had an idea that I could sustain. I had a book.
This was such a great experience for me and I highly recommend that writers give it a try. It doesn’t have to be Murakami, of course.
In Bad Marie and The Red Car, you throw a couple of sexual curve balls at the reader. What role does the unexpected encounter play when it comes to plot and characterization?
I think sex is one of the ways characters can show themselves at their most vulnerable. Naked, right: literally and metaphorically. And it’s interesting. Sex scenes can be really fun to write. And they can be, funny, too.
I’ve worked with writers who kind of go cut right when the action begins, but I think that is fear. You want to go there, see what happens. You want details.
Are there any words of wisdom you could impart to someone working on a first novel?
Try to write the book that you want to read.
It is easy to write pages because there is always the next day and the day after that, but your pages have to move the plot along in an interesting way.
When you get stuck, rather than despair, go back to the beginning. It always helps to revisit earlier pages. Go back, polish, tweak, and when you get to the blank page, chances are good you will know where to go from there.
Writers sometimes think they know how their book is going to end. But if your characters start acting up, doing things that change the plot – go with it. Honestly, that is one of the best parts of writing: surprising yourself. My character said that? Did that? If you are too in control of your work, you risk losing some of the wonder.