Guest Post: Shifting from Nonfiction to Fiction
[box type="note"]Note from Sooz: Rachel did a guest post on running tips over on the #YARunsA5K tumblr, and can I just say? Great advice! I totally followed them, and for the first time in my life, I'm actually enjoying jogging. Needless to say, I was delighted when Rachel agreed to do a guest post about writing over here on Pub(lishing) Crawl.
To celebrate having Rachel stop by, we've got a giveaway running below for her debut novel, On The Road to Find Out.[/box]
In high school and the first part of college I used to justify bad, outrageous, or downright dangerous behavior by quipping that I was simply collecting material for my novel. Hitchhiking by myself through the south of France, going into Ed Koch-era Central Park at night to make out with a boy, riding an untrained horse, drinking way too much grain alcohol and Kool-Aid—surely I’d be able to put those experiences to good fictional use some day.
The truth is, after a couple of years at Yale I felt so small, so undereducated, so dull and untalented that I knew I would never have the guts to do something as audacious as write a novel. By the time I began working in publishing I no longer wanted to be the center of attention. While I loved reading fiction, I felt I understood how nonfiction worked. When asked if I ever wanted to write a novel I’d respond by saying that I have no imagination.
And that’s still true. I am not a hugely imaginative person. As an essayist, I’ve learned be an astute observer, at least of some things. My BFF will tell you that I’m visually stunted and simply don’t notice most things that require eyesight. I flew over Mt. Everest and didn’t see it. The only thing that makes me feel okay about this deficit is that John McPhee, one of my nonfiction idols, has said the same thing about himself.
After a dozen years I left publishing, went downwardly mobile, and got an entry-level job in undergraduate admissions at Duke University. Working in admissions I realized I loved hanging out with teenagers. Around the same time I started running and experienced things I wanted to write about—my first published piece was on sobbing my way through the Race for the Cure. When I left admissions (do you detect the restlessness, the need to move from the known world?), and felt kind of dirty because the process is so brutal, I wrote about book about that.
Then I wrote a memoir that my agent sold with a pitch that went something like this: “Rachel gets an animal (mouse, rat, dog, cat, horse, donkey, pig) and starts dating a man. The animal dies and Rachel dumps the man. And this happens over, and over, and over again.” That’s not precisely what the book does, but it’s close enough.
Just before the book came out I joked that after it was published I was never going to get another date. She put her hand on my arm, scrunched her face up with concern, and said, “Rachel, that’s true.” For a few years, I dated men who couldn’t read.
In my early forties I went to grad school, scored a great teaching job, and nabbed a contract from a good university press for a collection of my previously published essays about running. Easy! Just what I needed for tenure! I asked four of my undergraduate students to read the manuscript, figuring I would make them feel good about themselves. They told me that it wasn’t a book. I cursed them for 27 seconds and I started again from the beginning and wrote a book that could explain to my mother, who was then dying of cancer, why I loved running so much.
When I thought about a next project, I could not bear to write about myself again. I was sick of the first-person personal. I was sick of myself.
The obvious next step for me was a book about rats. (See above, under zig-zagging paths that don’t really make sense). I did a ton of research and worked for a year on the proposal. Finally, my agent sent it out. We got an early offer that I wasn’t crazy about and interest from a huge commercial house. I wanted to write a book that looked at the ways bigotry and prejudice require ignorance to thrive; I wanted to showcase all these cool things I’d learned about rats; I wanted to look the serious—and still hotly debated—question of whether animals have emotions.
The editor and her publicity and marketing team asked me questions and got excited.
They said, “We could make rats the new ‘It’ pet.”
I said, Um….”
They said, “Do you have a rat?”
I said, “Um, as I said in the proposal, my rat Iris died.”
They said, “Can you get a new one by the time the book is out?”
I said, “Um, I have a dog with a strong prey drive and I’m not sure—”
They said, “Can you borrow a rat when the book comes out?”
At that moment I had visions of myself going on Stephen Colbert with a rat on my shoulder and him saying, “Plague?” I didn’t want to become the crazy rat lady. I had to figure out if I was willing to write the book they wanted. I wasn’t.
At the same time I’d gotten an email from an editor at FSG who’d just read my running book and wanted to know if I’d ever considered writing a YA novel about a teenage girl who decides to start running.
I told him I couldn’t write fiction.
He convinced me to try. I did.
Having worked in publishing, I know how important it is to have a platform, and how you need to grow and cultivate a readership. I haven’t done a very good job at that. My writing career has been, at best, non-linear. The professor gig allows me to try new things and not rely on book sales for income (which is a good thing, because there were years when I ate popcorn for dinner). If I didn’t have tenure, I’m not sure I would have been brazen enough to try to write a novel.
The amazing thing is how much fun this whole ride has been. Writing fiction and nonfiction is similar and completely different. In the MFA program where I teach (nonfiction) people like to say that the fiction writers are the ones who write about themselves and their real lives and the nonfiction writers make shit up. Like many things people like to say, that’s both true and an exaggeration. I’m not a nonfiction writer who’s ever been comfortable making shit up. With my second book (the one about loving animals and men), my agent would say, “What if this happened?” I’d say, “That would be great for the narrative, BUT IT DIDN’T HAPPEN!” When you’re writing about real people, you just can’t do that. With the novel, my editor would say, “What if this happened?” and I’d say, “Cool!” or, “That’s not quite right but I could do this, which would serve the same purpose.”
It was great fun to put some of my personal predilections into my characters’ heads (a preference for all things mini, an explanation of the hierarchy of “pocket pets,” a rant about the ways that shape affects taste in things like candy or pretzels) and also explore ideas and things that I don’t really cotton to (being a basketball fan or playing golf).
One of the real pleasures of writing this novel was being able to introduce nonfiction elements into it. One of my fiction colleagues says he likes stories that “bring the news.” Me too—I love to learn things from novels. I wanted to write a book that would help students and their parents think through the whole college admissions process, would let me use some of my rat research, and would inspire—I hope—girls and women who don’t think of themselves as athletes to lace up some running shoes, pull on some jeggings, and go out for a run.
The novel allowed me to use parts of my three previous nonfiction books to tell a story that feels more important to me than my own life. It may come off as preachy or sentimental and some people won’t like my sometimes-annoying main character Alice, won’t relate to her struggles, or might not understand how a person could be in love with someone the size of a hot dog bun. But the truth is, I wrote the book I wanted to read.
Thank you SO MUCH for stopping by Pub(lishing) Crawl and for giving us your sage advice in the #YARunsA5K fundraiser.
Now, for all you readers out there, don't miss the giveaway! Just fill out the Rafflecopter form to be entered. :)
RACHEL TOOR is a prolific running writer for magazines like Running Times and Shape, and she is also associate professor of Creative Writing at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers in Spokane, the graduate writing program of Eastern Washington University.
On the Road to Find Out is her YA debut, about a high school senior who faces real rejection for the first time in her life and reaches redemption through running.