The debut novelist I am featuring for the month of May is Joanne Serling. Joanne’s book Good Neighbours is Literary Fiction and was published by Twelve. (Twelve is part of the Hachette Book Group, who also publish, among others, David Baldacci, Jeffrey Deaver, Malcom Gladwell and Michael Connelly.)
“Joanne Serling’s ice-pick of a debut novel, Good Neighbors, centers of a group of four young suburban families….It doesn’t take long for [a] note of foreboding to play out in Serling’s minimal but web-taut story structure….Good Neighbors is first-rate suburbs-fiction….It’s a steely writing performance, the kind that will leave readers watchful for another novel from this author.”
—Steve Donoghue, Open Letter Review
“In Serling’s suspenseful debut, four privileged families in an upscale Boston suburb do their best to maintain the fiction that their lives are perfect…. Serling succeeds at dialing up a sense of dread: Nicole is far from a reliable narrator, and with all the other characters keeping their secrets close to their chests, much is left unrevealed. While many novels have tackled the subject of suburban secrets and unease, this one excels in particular at exploring the bonds among families.”
Let’s hear what it is about from Joanne
In an idyllic MA suburb, four young families quickly form a neighborhood clique, their friendships based on little more than the ages of their children and a shared sense of camaraderie. When one of the members of the group adopt a little girl from Russia, the group’s loyalty and morality is soon called into question. Are the Edwards unkind to their new daughter? Or is she a difficult child with hidden destructive tendencies?
As the seams of the group friendship slowly unravel, neighbor Nicole Westerhof finds herself drawn further into the life of the adopted girl, forcing Nicole to re-examine the deceptive nature of her own family ties, and her complicity in the events unfolding around her.
Where did you get the idea?
I originally wanted to write a short story about resilience and parenting. I was interested in exploring the ways in which children can survive all kinds of difficult circumstances and still grow up to be relatively stable and mature. But as I got further into the material, I found that I was as interested in the idea of community as I was in parenting in particular. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that I grew up with a single mom in a tight knit community in which we relied on our neighbors for just about everything. The book centers around a foreign adoption which was a bit of a literary device. I knew that Nicole, the main character, considered herself to be an outsider and I wanted her attraction to the little girl to be based on what she saw as a similar life condition.
No spoiler, but tell us something we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket.
The narrator, Nicole Westerhof, is a studious observer of human nature, but her hyper analytical mind jumps from thing to think with no rhyme or reason. She’s likely to notice someone’s unusually perfect teeth at the same time that she’s worrying about whether her neighbor is mistreating her adopted daughter. The staccato rhythm of the sentences is meant to reveal Nicole’s state of mind.
Tell us about your favourite character.
I couldn’t possibly write in the voice of Nicole Westerhof for so many years if I didn’t have a certain love and connection to her. She is a guarded yet vulnerable mother who is always watching, observing, and wondering if she’s “doing it right.” She’s far from perfect, but she has a big heart, and wants to do better, which is my favorite kind of character.
How long did you take to write this book? (You can share about the timeline from drafting to publication)
The first draft of this book came quickly–about two years. After searching fruitlessly for an agent and receiving some valuable feedback, I decided to add Nicole’s backstory to the novel and worked on the book for another nine months before sending out a finished draft. Finding an agent was the toughest part of this process. I spent another nine months searching tirelessly for an agent. I got lots of good reads from very reputable agents who praised the writing, but nobody wanted to take it on. I kept hearing how hard it was to sell a debut. Finally, Duvall Osteen at Aragi fell in love with the story and sold the novel fairly quickly after that.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
I read a lot about international adoption and steeped myself in the stories of adoptive parents. Some extol the pleasures of adoption, while other share the very real and sometimes insurmountable problems their children face. I wanted the book to be balanced, and to sow the doubt in the readers’ mind about the nature of the problems next door. Ultimately this is a book about community and imperfect parenting, and at the end of the day, I don’t think there are necessarily “right” answers, just more honest relationships.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m a little bit of both. I had a feel for the story I wanted to tell—troubled girl, well meaning neighbor—but I didn’t know exactly what direction it was going to take in until I got started. After about ninety pages, I realized I needed more direction so I got out a big white legal pad and wrote down some ideas for both scenes and a chronology that might get me to a satisfying ending. Most of those scenes evolved or were replaced with new ones, but it was a way to get me to think about the story in a linear way.
What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?
Finding the voice of the narrator and how she sees the world is like divine communion. The best writing days are when you surprise yourself by what you write and yet feel that it came from a deep, undiscovered place inside of you.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?
Probably the hardest part for me is tying loose ends together. If you see Nicole scratches herself early in the book, then it better mean something or lead to something important later in the book. Life is random but the world of the novel needs to make sense. Learning this and practicing this was the hardest part for me.
Can you share your writing routine? (e.g. How do you carve out your writing time? Where do you normally write?)
When I’m actively working a project, I work on it every morning after I go to the gym. I find that being physically active before writing enables me to come to the page fresh and unafraid. On the days when I skip working out, I am often restless and self-conscious. I always stop writing by 2 or 3pm to pick up my kids and begin the business of running my life.
Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?
I have definitely suffered from writer’s block and believe it’s usually tied to a fear or anxiety that I’m not yet ready to face. I don’t believe you can trick yourself out of writer’s block any more than you can trick yourself out of your fears. I try to be patient with myself knowing that eventually the thing I’m afraid of will surface and I’ll be able to deal with it rationally. Fortunately, my drive to write is always bigger than my fear of: (fill in the blank) failure, someone getting angry at me, or any of the other things that crop up when you’re a writer. I’ve come to understand that it’s part of the process, or at least my process.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Don’t take every piece of writing advice as the gospel. Listen, read, consider what others say, but evaluate what resonates with you and discard the rest. I spent much too much time worrying that I wasn’t working hard enough at writing when in fact, I was sometimes working too hard, putting too much pressure on myself when I should have been learning my own process. For me, writing three or four hours a day is usually just the right amount of time for me to be productive and still have some juice left for the rest of my life. Realizing that the rest of my life was important was key for me to continue to be creative.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I have three half-finished novels in my writing chest. The first was a story about two sisters, one who impersonates the other and discovers her own identity in the process. It was a fun story to write, but I didn’t have enough craft to pull it offThe second was written from the point of view of a Dominican immigrant girl and is a coming-of-age novel. The girl’s mother is a domestic in New Jersey and the girl lives with her abusive father in Connecticut. I loved the story, but felt self conscious about writing in the voice of a girl from another social class and culture. I didn’t think I was pulling it off well. After that I wrote a novel about a woman who falls in love with a man at a Marina Abromovich exhibit of naked people at MOMA in NYC. She doesn’t really fall in love, it’s more like lust, but figuring out how to get my character to realize that began to feel like a chore so I set it aside. I may go back to it at some point, but I have a feeling I may have lost my passion for that particular tale.
Tell us about yourself.
I started writing after leaving my corporate job at American Express. I spent about 8 years in an ongoing writing program and then set up a supportive writing group with some of my fellow alumni. We meet in NYC every 8 weeks to discuss work. It’s an incredibly gratifying and stimulating group of poets and fiction writers. I also worked as an Editor of a local lifestyle magazine while I was writing Good Neighbors. That job was a lot of fun and took the pressure off of writing. Now I’m offering my services to rising juniors who need help writing their college essays. I love the kids and shouldn’t say this, but I would probably do it for free. Helping students find their voice and tell their unique story is incredibly gratifying.
How did you get into writing?
I always wanted to write fiction but was too afraid to even take a creative writing class in college. Instead, I went into women’s magazines and later worked in public relations. When I had kids and we were in a position for me to quit my job, my husband encouraged me to go try my hand at writing. Shortly after my second son was born, I enrolled in classes at The Writers Studio in NYC and just fell in love with everything about it.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Like so many writers, I’m a huge reader. I read in bed, on the train, in line at the grocery store, in my car waiting for carpools. Besides reading, I love to be on the water, either swimming or boating. I also practice yoga pretty regularly, and generally prefer to be outdoors when I can—whether its skiing, walking in the woods or playing tennis (badly) with friends.
Apart from novel writing, do you do any other kind(s) of writing?
I started my career as a women’s magazine editor and still contribute features to local magazines. I also published my first essay for Romper in February and have a few more essays I’m working on at the moment.
Share something about you most people probably don’t know.
I lived and worked as an English teacher in Seville, Spain for a year after graduating college. I was horrible at learning Spanish in a classroom but was determined to overcome this deficit, which I gradually did, making friends with locals and having a great year working abroad. I speak Spanish proficiently now and love Spanish culture.
Which book influenced you the most?
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell had a huge influence on me as a writer. It’s an indelible portrait of a housewife navigating the changing American landscape between the first and second world wars. Besides loving the depth and simplicity of the writing, I was amazed when I read it by the similarities between the domestic world of Mrs. Bridge and modern American motherhood. I knew I wanted to write something similar. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Kate Walbert’s Our Kind, however. Her wonderful stories about a certain generation of upper middle class women, told in the first-person plural, were like a gateway drug for me. For many years and many drafts, I used a similar narrative style to help tell the story of Good Neighbors. Eventually, I switched the narrative to first person and relegated the large “we” narrator to the prologue and epilogue, but Walbert’s book was a huge inspiration.
What are you working on right now?
I am taking copious notes on a couple of different subjects, one of which is my own and my friends’ reactions to the #metoo movement. I grew up in a time when male attention was not just courted, but pretty much forced upon you, by men as well as well-meaning women, including mothers. I’m not sure what I’ll do with the material yet, but it’s definitely something that intrigues me.
What’s your favourite writing advice?
Write from a feeling, not an idea. If you can’t get in touch with a feeling, try using imagery derived from your senses. This advice, and much more, came from a terrific book about writing by Robert Olen Butler called, From Where You Dream.
What are you currently reading?
I’m currently reading Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee, about two sisters, one of whom struggles with a serious mental illness.
If you’re a parent and recently moved to the suburbs, then you are most likely friends with a whole lot people you don’t know well and may don’t even like that much. Usually, these compromises don’t really matter. But what if one of your “friends” suddenly started acting odd? What if you thought he or she were subtly abusing their child? What would you do? Good Neighbors forces readers to question the casual yet crucial friendships that are at the heart of modern parenting and life.
Joanne Serling’s fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in New Ohio Review and North American Review. She is a graduate of Cornell University and studied and taught fiction at The Writers Studio in New York City. She lives outside of New York with her husband and children and is at work on her second book.