Q&A with author Peter Selgin

179 Ways to Save a Novel author Peter Selgin discusses writing advice, the publishing industry, agents and more in this exclusive Q&A.
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What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?

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There are two things, actually. Coffee (preferably espresso) and a lake or pool in which to swim. The espresso is the carrot that lures me to my writing desk. The lake or pool keeps me from suffering the fate of so many authors: chronic back problems!

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

No point of view, no story.

What are your thoughts on writing groups?

They impose deadlines and provide us with immediate audiences and feedback for our works-in-progress. If you consider writing a performance, as I certainly do, then having no audience—at least none in sight—makes it very hard.

But I’ve found that like dairy products writing groups have a limited shelf life. You find after a while that there are only one or two in the group whose feedback really matters to you, and/or whose work you read with interest and admiration. At which point you are tempted to simply meet with these people privately and dispense with what has devolved into a social gathering weighted with obligation.

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

Vivian Gornick drummed one question into our heads and that has served me well, namely, “What’s the point?” Scenes and characters, no matter how interesting or well rendered, won’t by themselves do: they have to serve a theme. For me it’s a vital mantra, since I tend to be seduced by surfaces/language.

What's the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?

Gosh—I’ve made them all, and am so intimate with my failings that choosing among them feels like choosing a favorite among your children. Perfectionism is certainly a mistake. If writers pay too much attention to their inner critics they will generate very little work. Move on; get it done. Stop “perfecting.” Let the next book (or story) be the perfect one. Voltaire said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Look at any great author’s body of work and you’ll see dips and lapses of all kinds. Now, on the other hand, the writer with absolutely no regard for perfection will produce a body of junk. Between the two extremes of anal perfection and schlock we need to find our comfort zones and work within them.

What does a typical day look like for you?

At first: chaos. I’m a great believer in lists. First thing in the morning I write a list of the things I must do that day. I start with my espresso bribe, and then clear the decks of only those things that absolutely cannot wait (the late email response to my department chair) before digging into creative work—that is, assuming that I have the luxury of some time for same; I don’t always. If I do, then I ignore everything else for as long as I possibly can. No phone calls. No tuning into the news. No doing dishes or emptying garbage. If I interrupt, it will be for a swim (I live on a lake now, so that’s easy); then back to work. I don’t count words. I just work as long and hard as I can and take what I get. I work on several projects at once, fiction and nonfiction, all at different stages.

If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?

The perverse emphasis on received wisdom on the part of book reviewers for national organs and the reading public they serve. I wish all would venture more often and deeply into unknown territory. Small presses get less attention than the Marijuana [Political] Party. I’ve found most of my favorite authors through small literary magazines and presses, obscure but marvelous works and authors. Would that these small publishers and their authors would gain the same attention that microbreweries have recently gained. Alas, the general public still guzzles the literary equivalent of Budweiser and is pooping the party.

In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve won a prestigious national award and had my work embraced by the finest journals. For that I give myself some but not all of the credit. I know that these things are capricious and that some very good writers go thoroughly unrecognized, while mediocre works get praised to the skies. I’m not sure which disturbs me more. But a writer should never assume that because their work isn’t recognized it isn’t worthy.

What advice do you have for writers seeking agents?

Agents need to eat, and so—idealistic though they may be—they depend on projects they can sell fairly easily. And what sells easily is last years’ success. Uniqueness doesn’t pay an agent’s bills. Neither does lovingly crafted prose (on the level of prose, most bestsellers are execrably written). I know authors who’ve written to the demands of the marketplace and have made their agents very happy (how much integrity they’ve sacrificed along the way we’ll never know). So—if securing an agent is your first or ultimate goal, hold your nose and go for it. Otherwise be one of the lucky ones who happen to write what happens to sell, or who finds one of those increasingly rare agents who is willing to jump in front of a bus for the sake of their Art.

What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?

I was going to say winning the O’Connor award—but I didn’t do that, really: Melissa Pritchard, that years’ judge, won it for me. My biggest accomplishment is not quitting, or being too dumb and stubborn to quit. V.S. Pritchett said of memoirs and those who write them: “It’s all in the art; you get no credit for living.” That’s true. But when it comes to writing generally you do get lots of credit for not giving up.

Any final thoughts?

We writers make lots of noise about how tough our business is, but it’s no harder, really, than being a nurse’s aid or running a successful restaurant or fruit stand. Anyone who sets out to do anything well and with integrity is in for a struggle. Add a dose of originality—to do things as no one has done them before—and you increase the struggle by an order of magnitude.

If we writers approach our task with the same masochistic zeal and determination with which the athlete sets her sights on the Olympic torch or the concert pianist practices his scales, at some level—at least at the level of the successful fruit stand operator—we can’t help but succeed. Perhaps not in droves, but people will buy our fruits and find them lovely, ripe, juicy. And they’ll come back for more.

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