June 27, 2012

interview with the author of 'i couldn't love you more'

After giving 4.5 of 5 stars to I Couldn't Love You More yesterday, I am pleased to welcome Jillian Medoff, today. Jillian was good enough to share some insight into the story behind the story, advice for writers and reading suggestions for those of you looking for new reads.

Change the Word: How did you come up with the idea for I Couldn't Love You More?
Jillian Medoff: I received an MFA at NYU. While I was there, I took a master class with the very brilliant writer, Grace Paley who said, “Write what you don’t know about what you know.” It didn’t occur to me until a few years ago that this is exactly what I do. I’ll take moments from my own life, from my family’s life, from strangers’ lives and I’ll look at what would normally happen—what I know—and then I’ll consider everything I don’t know, the big “what if’s.”

I actually wrote an essay about the evolution of I Couldn’t Love You More, and about my writing career called “This is a True Story.” It’s available in both the print and eBook versions of the novel. One point I make in this essay is that I Couldn’t Love You More, like my other novels,Hunger Pointand Good Girls Gone Bad, evolved very much the way Grace Paley suggested. For instance, when I started to write I Couldn’t Love You More, here’s what I knew: I’m a mother and stepmother. I have three children. I love them each equally but all differently. I’ve always been a writer who tackles complex themes and risky subjects—I write about the things that people think but never say aloud. If a book has a predictable storyline or familiar situations, there’s little satisfaction for me in writing it. A woman deciding which man she’ll spend her life with? I’ve read that story a million times, but a stepmother deciding which of her children she’ll save in a freak accident? Now that’s a challenge. I had no idea how I would react if forced to choose between my daughters, and figuring that out became my obsession for the next decade. In fact, even though the novel is finished and published, I still grapple with the question. I mean, how can any of us know what we would do in that situation?

CTW: What kind of prep work did you do before writing? Are you more plotter or pantser?  
JM: Definitely a pantser—no question. I never do any prep work. I just start writing and see where the story takes me. I write the way I read, which is to have everything unfold as I go. At certain points, I have to do research and take stock of where I am—that’s when I might think more strategically about where I want the story to go and what I may have to do to get there, but ultimately, I like to work without a net—I’m way up there on the high wire, literally, making it up as I go along.

CTW:What was the biggest challenge you faced while writing the novel? How did you overcome it?
JM: There are challenges with every book—technical, artistic, personal—but honestly, my primary challenge with I Couldn’t Love You More was finding dedicated time to write. I’m very busy, and every single moment of my day is filled with activity. I’ve been in corporate communications since college, and now I work four days a week. It’s an anonymous, nine-to-five job—a career, actually—at a very conservative, very buttoned-up firm, but it gives my life a structure, which is important. The downside is that I have multiple commitments, which are compounded by my family—three daughters, two sisters, parents, husband—and a deep-rooted love of reading and watching TV. I’ve set up my life so that I can find time to write, but it is always a race-to-the-finish to get everything done.

CTW: The story deals with some tough themes. How did you personally deal with writing some of the darker, more serious sides of the story?
JM: This is an excellent question. My natural inclination is to balance dark material by using humor. I really didn’t start out trying to be a funny writer. In fact, I’d rather not. Over the years, I have tried very hard to write in a dark, brooding, noir-like voice, but every time I do it seems and false and unnatural and simply not me. I have a predisposition to finding the absurd in the everyday, that is, looking at ordinary random moments and seeing what’s funny about them. We are each absurd in our own way, and to accept that—to celebrate it—is critical to our survival. Think about it: we live and then we die. How dark is that? Therefore, we absolutely must find humor—otherwise life would be too depressing. Of course, my philosophy doesn’t lend itself to all literary subjects. You won’t find me writing about, say, the Holocaust or missing and murdered children. But family relations, sibling rivalry, true love, the devaluation of the American dollar—all of these are perfect opportunities for humor, even in their darkest moments. 

CTW: What is the best lesson you have learned as a writer?
JM: To never become too impressed with myself, to learn that there will always be someone more talented, funnier, smarter, and better-connected who will take home the big advance and the Pulitzer. To be a great writer, to truly reach beyond your grasp, it’s important to be humble as well as realistic. If I were too impressed with myself, my work would suffer. By being honest with myself, I can be honest on the page. A good writer, an honest writer, gets as close to the bone as possible. You have to be willing to take risks, which means writing as intimately and genuinely and deeply as you can, and if you’re caught up in an illusion of yourself or the world—or you care too much what other people think—your work will be as false as you are.

CTW:What books would we find on your bookshelf?
JM: My shelves are long and deep (and my Kindle is full)! When I really love a book, I will research the author and try to find everything he/she has written. Sometimes, too, I'll write a fan letter, which I know is corny. If I love a piece of writing, it will haunt me for days, weeks even, sometimes years. Here’s what you’ll find on my bookshelves: Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison), The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner), Then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris), The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien), anything by Philip Roth, especially American Pastoral and Patrimony, Anywhere but Here and My Hollywood (Mona Simpson). I also read a lot of non-fiction. I loved RandomFamily (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc), Wild (Cheryl Strayed), and Behindthe Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo), as well as countless books about history, such as the Robert Caro series on LBJ. We also have hundreds of YA books that my daughters and I have read over the years, such as The Penderwicks, the Hunger Games series, the Percy Jackson series, and so many more.

CTW: If you could meet one fictional character, who would it be and why?
JM: Holden Caulfield. I’d be interested to find out what he thinks of Facebook and the world of social networking.

CTW: What's next for you and your writing career?
JM: We actually sold I Couldn’t Love You More two years ago, so I’ve been working for almost a year and a half on a new book. All I can say is that it’s a corporate book—one I’ve been dying to write for years. It’s set in the HR Department of a small, failing company. The head of the group, an aging executive has a stroke, and then…

CTW: It sounds great so far. I'll look forward to reading it. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
JM: Read a lot—classics as well as contemporary fiction to learn how successful books are constructed, why writers make certain choices (point of view, setting, tone, etc.). Write the kinds of books you want to read otherwise you'll be less inclined to go back and revise again and again and again. My novels are never truly finished, even if they're published and sitting on the shelf. While I may no longer be interested in spending time with that particular set of characters, I can't help but think about all the ways the book could be different, the small, insignificant tweaks that no one but me would ever notice. (It's one reason why I never reread my books once they're bound and shipped.) Finally, consider trashing your outlines (see above: I call it “working without a net”). When I start a novel, I have a general idea of where I want to end up, but I never know how I'll get there. Part of what compels me to write day after day, chapter after chapter, is the discovery process, seeing the characters evolve as I get deeper and deeper into the story. It means many more revisions (I go forward and back, forward and back over a period of four years (at a minimum) for each book I write), but your novel will be richer and more honest for it.

CTW: Anything else you would like to share?
JM: I’ve had a very long and very difficult writing career. I'm not inspired to write as much as I'm driven, I need to write. That desire, that need, is as palpable and relentless as any junkie's craving, and it will possess me all day until I can park myself in a chair and do my work. I love it, I hate it; it's ecstasy when I'm writing well, it's despair when I'm not. I wouldn't wish this life on anyone, nor would I, could I, ever give it up. At this moment, though, I’m so grateful to have a third book in the world. I’m also grateful for readers, and I’d love to hear what you think of I Couldn’t Love You More, so drop me a line at jillianmedoff@gmail.com.

Read my review of I Couldn't Love You More here.

About the Author
The eldest daughter of a traveling salesman, Jillian moved 17 times by age 17, ultimately ending up in Atlanta, where her new novel is set. She has a BA from Barnard and an MFA from NYU, and is grateful for having studied with such luminary writers as Mona Simpson, Jonathan Dee, Robert Coover, and Alice Walker. She also attended Master Classes with Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Grace Paley. Although each author continues to influence her work in powerful and diverse ways, she suspects few of them, if any, remember her. A former fellow at the MacDowell Colony, Blue Mountain Center, VCCA and Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain, Jillian taught at NYU and the University of Georgia, but for only, like, five minutes.

You can read more about her books at www.jillianmedoff.com. She currently lives in New York with her family, and has no plans to move anytime soon.

Contact Jillian
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