Jenny Milchman Talks About Persistence and Tenacity

Jenny's second novel,, comes out in April, and she's already filling up the car.
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Jenny Milchman's journey to publication took thirteen years, after which she hit the road for seven months with her family on what Shelf Awareness called "the world's longest book tour." Her debut novel, Cover of Snow, was chosen as an Indie Next and Target Pick, reviewed in The New York Times and San Francisco Journal of Books, and nominated for a Mary Higgins Clark award. Jenny is also the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day and chair of International Thriller Writers' Debut Authors Program. Jenny's second novel, Ruin Falls, comes out in April, and she's already filling up the car.

Loren Kleinman (LK): It took you 11 years to publish your debut novel. Can you talk about that period in your life? Did you think you'd never publish? What did you keep telling yourself throughout the time you wrote the book to when you finally published?

Jenny Milchman (JM): I have to offer a few more numbers in addition to those eleven years. It took me three agents, fifteen almost-offers, and eight books before my debut sold. During that time, we were always living on the cusp. I was lucky enough to have the support of an agent during most of that period, and we were always t-h-i-s close. In fact, I remember that at the beginning, my husband and I were of an age when concerned grandparents-to-be start to murmur about dropping fertility rates. I said to my husband, "Should we start trying?" And he responded, "But you're going to be published any day now. And then who will have time for a baby?" Those babies were five and seven by the time I got published. What was it like? Humiliating, demoralizing, and draining. By the time "It" finally happened, at the eleventh hour, with the longest of long shots, I was so numb that it didn't feel real. It took months to sink in. As for what I told myself to keep going...well, that's my husband again, who kept quoting Will Smith: "There is no Plan B."

LK: You mention that a year into your book's release you felt like you were a "Real Live Author at last." Do you think that you need to be published to be a real author? Is this distinction or label something that is personal and intimate and not exclusive of all writers?

JM: It's definitely something personal and intimate. Everyone probably has a different definition of what being an author or a writer means. I lead a forum on my blog called "Made It Moments" where over 300 writers have answered the question -- how did I know I'd made it -- and every single one is different. At the same time, Stephen King says that an unread story is like a circle unclosed (or words to that effect). As long as my stories weren't being read by readers I felt a sense of deep incompleteness.

LK: When it comes to writing, I consider it a discipline, not mastery. I don't think one ever masters writing. I do think that writing does change with time (as do you). Does your writing improve with time, or is it that your changes influence that writing?

JM: Oh, goodness, I hope so. To both. My first published novel went through twenty-two drafts, and my next one "only" nine, if that's any indication. But I would make a distinction within the distinction you're making. There are the elements of writing we can strive to master, or at least improve. That's craft. Plot, structure, dialog, characterization, those kinds of things. And then there are the elements we have very little control over. They come out of some deep, unspoken part of us...or perhaps they come to us. Voice, theme, the type of story we decide to tell, need to tell, over and over and over. And these things don't improve -- better or worse aren't relevant concepts here -- but I imagine that our own changes influence what they are and also what they become.

LK: Talk about a time when you experience great doubt in regard to your writing. I mean, talk about a time when you were about to give up. What made you stay the course? Writing is a marathon, right?

JM: I experienced a lot of doubt about ever getting published. But to tell the raw and naked truth, I have a bit of hubris when it comes to writing itself. Especially during the birth of a new book. I suffer from this perseverative delusion: that I am writing the world's first perfect first draft. It is a heady, wondrous time. Christmas morning, my birthday, meeting my husband, having the kids after the painful part was done, all rolled into one sprinkle-covered cupcake. Seriously, I'm in bliss. Doubt is as far away as Africa. Then, I hand out that first draft. To my husband, a few other trusty readers, my agent, and ultimately my brilliant editors. And they get back to me with their red ink and their questions and they have all the doubt I got to be free of. I plummet back down to earth, and trust me, it's a painful fall. If it wasn't perfect, then what is it? That's when the doubt besets me. I never believe I can make it any better, and revising is a very painful process for me. Shouts, sobs, steam coming out of my ears.

LK: Your next novel Ruin Falls is due to release soon. Terrified? Thrilled? What are the emotions you experience upon the release of a book?

JM: Both. I don't have a lot of experience anticipating a release -- well, exactly two now -- but it doesn't seem like it gets any less terrifying. Possibly more. Whatever Cover of Snow did, whoever liked it, you want to meet the expectations of those people. And whoever didn't like it -- whatever it didn't do -- well, maybe the second one will. Hope springs eternal, right? But the fear sneaks in like smoke. What if you're a not-even-one-hit-wonder? What if everything's over before it barely started? There are realities of the industry -- each book needs to be better than the last or else your position is very precarious -- and the realities of readers. I know that I watch a second book from an author very carefully. Can they do what I loved so much again? I have such empathy for all those authors with second books now. You did it, guys! Don't worry.

LK: In The War of Art Steven Pressfield writes, "If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), "Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?" chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death." Agree? Why? Why not?

JM: I think real artists are both. I think they -- we? -- swing between those poles. There's the process I described above, which I realize isn't everybody's. Some writers go from thinking their first draft is a diamond to believing it a lump of coal within the very same page. But I think if writers don't have at least some of that almost cockeyed optimism, at some point, then we'd never get through a draft. And by the same token, if we never came down, then our quite decidedly not perfect first drafts would never become what they're capable of being, what we meant them to be all along. I don't find myself agreeing with Red Smith who said, "Writing is easy. You just sit down and open up a vein." I think there are some days that this is the easiest, most joyful job in the world -- hardly even a job at all. And I think if we can find that sense of joy, of pleasure, in what we're creating, then our readers will find it, too.

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