Sandra Newman is the author of seven books, most recently a novel, The Country of Ice Cream Star, which was long-listed for the Folio Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her other novels are The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done and Cake, and she is also the author of a memoir and three books of non-fiction, including How Not to Write a Novel (co-authored by Howard Mittelmark).
Nergal Malham (Oyez Review): Your post-apocalyptic novel, The Country of Ice Cream Star is written in a slang-style sort of speech. Many a writer has tried and failed to write, even just dialogue alone, in a slang or patois. How did you begin tackling this obstacle?
Sandra Newman: As with most fictional tasks, most of the answer is just in the years and years you spend working on the same problems until you figure them out. The particular language of Ice Cream Star also involved years of studying other languages and understanding something about how languages evolve over time. Not that I intended to write this book all along, just that since I happened to have studied languages before, it was possible to write this book, which otherwise would have been a non-starter.
So that’s a way of saying that, really, once I had the idea for the language, I just sat down and started to write it. All the building blocks were already in my head, and it was a lot of fun to put them together. After a very short period of time, the whole world of the book became very real to me, and the character of Ice Cream was very real to me, so writing the language, from my point of view, was just like trying to hear what was already there. Most of the work was in making sure the language would be comprehensible to other people.
NM: The most memorable part of How To Not Write A Novel for me was the “We’re Going To Need a Bigger Closet” excerpt. In grade school, we read A Separate Piece and all of the kids were absolutely convinced the main character was gay because he was checking out the ass of another boy. Our teacher tried to convince us that he only did that because the boy had an exceptionally flat ass. I still don’t believe him to this day. What part of the book comes back to you the most?
SN: At this point, with How Not to Write a Novel, what I mostly remember are the jokes Howard made me cut with some flimsy excuse, and then replaced with his own far inferior jokes, or the jokes he made which were better than my jokes. Like, I often think about his joke, “This is called deux ex machina, which is French for “Are you fucking kidding me?” That’s a really good joke, and it still upsets me that it was Howard who made it. And what was also great was that a timid editor at HarperCollins made a note on the joke, drawing an arrow to “deus ex machina” and saying “Pretty sure this is Latin.”
NM: A writer I follow on Twitter mentioned one day that their credit card information had been stolen because someone had used their autograph to make fraudulent purchases. It never occurred to me that this could be a problem for anyone with a relatively well-known signature. Has there been anything about the author life that has surprised you?
SN: The main thing that’s surprising about the author life (and almost everyone finds this) is that, when you’re young and looking forward to being an author, you fantasize about being interviewed, and in the fantasies somehow it’s great to have people interview you, and you’re really enjoying explaining your views on everything. In real life, being interviewed is just embarrassing and nerve-wracking, and then afterwards you think about all the stupid things you said and suffer the torments of the damned and wish you had gone to medical school. But then, if no one is interviewing you, you panic about the fate of your book, and worry obsessively about whether anyone will buy it, and suffer the torments of the damned about that. Generally, the author life is mostly about wishing you had gone to medical school.
NM: You mentioned in a previous interview that you turned down a potential large offer because you didn’t want to write The Country of Ice Cream Star in ‘regular’ English. How would you tell other writers to balance preserving their artistic vision and taking and applying the advice of oft-villainized editors?
SN: The truth is that editors are almost always right. But sometimes they’re hazardously wrong, so it’s a little terrifying. The agent who wanted me to change the language of Ice Cream Star was right about the commercial aspect, and I knew that at the time. I just had a vision of the book I was going to write, and it was worth it to me to sacrifice the money, because the book he wanted me to write might have sold more copies, but it wouldn’t have been a particularly good book. I don’t think it’s psychologically possible to deliberately set out to write a mediocre book, when you think you have a great book in your head.
But more generally, ignoring editors can be treacherous because often you just don’t want to hear what an editor is saying because it hurts your feelings, in addition to involving a lot more work. And sometimes you really do have a great idea that needs to be protected but it isn’t coming across. So in both these cases, you have to listen to the editor and figure it out through both your hurt feelings and your natural dread of all the work it will take to fix the problem.
And then occasionally the editor is just wrong on all counts. Even in these cases, you have to listen carefully (the editor is a reader, after all, so everything they tell you is information about a reader’s reaction) but it is a good feeling when you make the decision and go ahead and ignore them.
NM: What was the last thing you read that made you go “Oh, fuck this!”
SN: I had to review a recent much-hyped novel. Its author is genuinely talented, but he was just losing control all over the place, writing insane passages of purple prose, and then forgetting to write purple prose and writing sub-standard pulp fiction. The book contains the word “octoroonish”. Cockroaches are referred to as “six-legged forest creatures”. It’s 1000 pages long, and I think I must have thought “Oh, fuck this,” 1000 times.
NM: Thank you again for your time!
SN: Thank you!
Nergal Malham is a MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University and serves as a reader/editor for issue 44 of Oyez Review. She earned her BS in Accounting from Northeastern Illinois University in 2014.