Those of you who frequent this blog know that my favorite moments here are those where I get to introduce a debut novelist. This week, Jan Ellison – whose writing chops include an O. Henry Prize as well as stories short-listed for Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize – is blogging for me about the path her debut novel, A Small Indiscretion, took to publication by Random House. Booklist calls it “a deftly crafted, absorbing novel that peels back the layers of Annie’s character as it reveals the secrets of her past and present.” I picked up a copy at Kepler’s last night, and am loving it already. And P.S.: Don’t miss the very charming photo at the end of Jan’s post! – Meg
Jan Ellison: A Novel in the Drawer Finds Light
Nearly ten years from the day I began writing it, my first novel, A Small Indiscretion, was published last week by Random House. I’m a mother of four, so it wasn’t the only thing occupying me during that time. But my novel was on my mind every single day for a decade, except the year and a half it lay in a drawer and I never thought of it at all.
Back in 2005, when my youngest child turned one and my mind emerged from its fog, I set out to write a coming-of-age short story set in London. I’d published a few stories by then, the first of which had miraculously won an O. Henry Prize, and I thought that longish short stories must be my calling. I hoped to write enough of them to publish a collection. But within a few months, the material blew past story length, then blew past novella length, too. Four years and hundreds of pages later, it had evolved into a novel set in Europe in the early nineties which had characters and movement, but no cohesive plot.
One morning, I was at Starbuck’s reworking a segment of the novel set in Paris. My narrator, twenty-year-old Annie, had found herself in a penthouse with her much older British boss, his wife, and his wife’s charming young Irish lover. As I wrote, I found the narrative suddenly shifting; the narrator was no longer Annie at twenty, but Annie at forty, examining this unlikely foursome from a distance of two decades. I followed this older Annie as she began to recount her experiences in Paris not in first person, or third, but in second. All at once, the book I was writing had become a letter from an adult Annie to her son, Robbie, who after a terrible car accident lies in a hospital in a coma.
I wrote at Starbuck’s that day as long as I could. I wrote when I was waiting for my kids to climb into the car after school. I dictated notes to them as we drove. I scrawled on a yellow pad while I made dinner and on my napkin as we ate. I wrote long into the night. I put 10,000 words on the page that day; they weren’t brilliant words, but the story they advanced was a story demanding to be told.
I had just read (then re-read) Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and the shape of that book seemed to give me permission to move forward with an ambitious structure involving multiple layers of time. But permission is not the same as ability, and I floundered. I couldn’t find the right voice for the adult Annie because I didn’t yet understand her trajectory as a character; I didn’t know how she’d ended up in San Francisco married to a doctor named Jonathan and mother to Robbie and two little girls. I needed to get to the end of the Europe story-line to find out, but I couldn’t, because the voice for telling that back-story was now in flux. I wrote in circles for two years.
In the fall of 2010, a mom at my kids’ school told me a moving story about confronting her ex-in-laws many years after her first marriage ended. It had what seemed a perfect short story arc, and I wanted to write it down. But in a bizarre repeat of history, a week of work on that “short story” turned into a month, which turned into a year and a half. Twenty pages grew to eighty, then to four-hundred, and I was knee-deep in a brand new novel. I had not made a decision to abandon Annie’s story; I had forgotten about it. My first novel became the boyfriend I pushed aside because I’d fallen in love with someone new.
A friend encouraged me to join her at the Taos 2012 Summer Writer’s Conference for a novel workshop. Manuscripts were due in June. In March, my mother and my husband took over my household and sent me to the mountains for ten days to finish a first draft of the new novel. Somewhere around day four, I remembered a paragraph from what I had begun to think of as my “novel in the drawer” that I wanted to re-use. I opened the file for what became A Small Indiscretion—which I hadn’t touched in a year and half. I started reading, not as a writer but as a reader, and I found that the story engaged me. I wanted to find out what happened, but when I reached the end of the file, the plot was just hanging there, unfinished. In five and a half years of steady writing, I had never reached the end of the story.
I have a clear memory of lying in bed that night in the rented cabin in the mountains, buried under blankets because the heat only worked in the main room. I spent a sleepless night shivering and staring at the ceiling in the dark trying to resolve the complex plot I’d unintentionally laid down. In the morning, I opened the file again and took up where I’d left off, determined to finish it.
By June, I had a rough draft. In September, I signed with an agent. On a Monday at the end of January, 2013, eight years after I started writing the novel and ten months since it’s rediscovery, I sent the finished manuscript to my agent. Two days later it was sold to Random House, and last week, it finally made its way into the world. – Jan