Debut Author Interview: Ryan McIlvain, Author of ELDER

This week’s debut author interview and spotlight is with 2013 success story Ryan McIlvain, author of ELDERS (March 2013, Hogarth).

ELDERS is literary fiction. Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here, said, “Elders is a refreshingly earnest, clear-eyed, and self-assured debut by a young writer to watch. McIlvain wrestles with sturdy themes, conflicted characters, and big ideas—the stuff of classic literature.” Author Ryan McIlvain was born in Utah and raised in Massachusetts. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many journals, including The Paris Review. A Stegner Fellow at Stanford from 2009 to 2011, he currently lives with his wife in Los Angeles.

(The skinny on why to sign with a new/newer literary agent.)


Elders-novel-McIlvain         Ryan-McIlvain-author-writer


What is the book’s genre/category?

Literary fiction.

(Meet literary agents who seek and represent literary fiction novels.)

Please describe what the story/book is about.

ELDERS is about two young Mormon missionaries in Brazil and the mental binds that their friendship and faith enforce on them.

Where do you write from?

I write from my kitchen table, mostly, or sometimes my couch, or my bed, in a quiet apartment in West L.A.

Briefly, what led up to this book?

I was writing semiautobiographical short stories about doubters, people working hard at faith and having little to show for it. When one of the longer ones appeared in The Paris Review, I got excited about the stories and cobbled them together into a novel. You could see too much of the mortar, though; the workmanship was shoddy, impatient. I didn’t recognize that then, of course. The novel would cost a lot more time and effort than I imagined at twenty-five.

What was the time frame for writing this book?

It took me six years, all told. From the first groping attempts at a book to the edited galleys of one. When I was at Stanford I told my friend Maggie Shipstead that I thought writing a novel was an almost spiritual experience. She said, “Hold on while I barf into my shoes.” I laughed, but I’d meant what I said, albeit in the rather dark, Calvinistic sense of “spiritual.” The successive drafts of my novel, and the tough reads from friends, had taught me that I was a fallen and deeply imperfect writer. All that mattered anymore was the product, the thing itself: I learned to slash whole chapters if they didn’t work, my tender ego be damned.

How did you find your agent (and who is your agent)?

I met PJ Mark at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Vermont and through the introduction of another friend, Stuart Nadler. Bread Loaf is a great place to network and talk writing and maybe even do a little of it. It’s also stark raving beautiful up there.

(Review a list of writers conferences and events.)

What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?

People tell you there’s a lot of finish lines to cross, but you don’t really believe it until you’re on your fourth or fifth or sixth one. I used to be skeptical when I heard about writers tossing complete drafts and starting control-N new, but now I’m less so. I still doubt that anybody truly trashes whole drafts in the age of hard drives, but to start from a blank page and with all the terror that entails? I believe it. I’ve done it myself.

Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?

I’d like to think it’s mostly been my obsessive dedication to reading a lot, writing a lot—I do believe that. But I’ve also been fortunate to snag a few lines on my résumé that call attention to themselves. Hard work, then, and luck.

On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?

I think I might have saved two years of my writing life if I’d done the control-N new draft upfront—this instead of trying to cobble the short stories into a novel. I wanted a novelly novel, after all. I wanted arc and causality and all that good nineteenth century stuff; I just didn’t want to sacrifice the work I’d already done.

Did you have a platform in place? On this topic, what are you doing to build a platform and gain readership?

Platform! Readership! These words haunt my sleep; who knows how it all works? My publicist and editor and agent and I have all put our spoons into the alchemical brew. We’ll see what happens.

(How long should a book be? Word counts explained.)


Best piece(s) of writing advice we haven’t discussed?

From the essayist and polymath Pat Madden: “Just keep on keeping on. That’s the game.”

Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?

I have renounced the semicolon.

What’s next?

Another novel I don’t want to jinx; some essays, perhaps, à la Marilynne Robinson, whom I love; a formal apology to the semicolon.


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One thought on “Debut Author Interview: Ryan McIlvain, Author of ELDER

  1. vrundell

    Ah, the semicolon; she’s a sly minx and will indubitably woo you back.
    As one who has Control-N’ed, I salute you.
    Best of luck with this project and the next.


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