How'd She Do That: One Author's Success Story

Jody Shields, whose first novel, The Fig Eater, has received international attention, tells how she wrote a best seller.
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There's nothing easy about writing a best seller. No secret trick to make the process go a little smoother. No magic formula to follow that makes the words flow effortlessly from mind to paper. Jody Shields, author of The Fig Eater (Little, Brown & Company; March 2000) spent more than a year writing her first novel. And the effort certainly paid off; the book was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award and optioned by Miramax.

"I didn't do anything else while I wrote this," she says. "I stopped answering the telephone and wrote about 12 hours a day. It was hard. You get up and think 'Oh my God, how can I write again today, it's so awful. I only got one page done. I hate it.' But I was running out of money, so that was a big motivator."

Making her task a bit more difficult was the fact that Shields was writing an historical fiction novel based on one of Sigmund Freud's most famous and well-documented patients, Dora. Freud used the case to publish his theory on female hysteria and its association with sexual repression.

The book proved to be quite a leap from Shields' two previous nonfiction fashion books (both now out of print), and though she had written a few screenplays—none of which was produced—there was nothing in her past that guaranteed she'd find success as a novelist. But it was a risk Shields says she willing take—and one that clearly paid off.

Set in 1910 Vienna, The Fig Eater delves deep into the mysterious murder of the 18-year-old Dora. And while the skeleton of the book—the central families and their relationships—is based on Freud's case history of Dora, the two ensuing murder investigations, one led by the fictional Inspector (whose first name is never given) and the other by his Hungarian wife, Erszebet, come from the imagination of Shields. "I think D.M. Thomas' The White Hotel set the precedent for me," she says. "I took the case history and sort of speculated on what provoked the murder. Another person could take the same outline and write a completely different story. You feed it your own particular case history.

"It's funny, but after you write historical fiction, you can kind of see the author's footprints in ways that you weren't aware of until you tried it yourself."

And Shields insists all the historical customs in the book are true, including the wide array of superstitions and folklore adopted by Erszebet. Originally seen as a secondary character, Shields says Erszebet's presence in the book—and ultimate impact on the story at large—was shaped mainly by material she found while researching the time period.

How She Sold It

"I already had an agent. But since I hadn't written a novel before, there was no way someone was going to buy it unless it was finished. In October, my agent said, 'Well, we have to get it in before Thanksgiving, because no money will be around, people will be on vacation, it's the holidays. This is the deadline.' So I sped through it, got it done on a Tuesday. I gave it to her Wednesday, and she Xeroxed. On Thursday, she called people and said she was sending them a manuscript and wanted bids on it next week. On Friday, the UPS man came and she sent out I think about 10 copies to different editors. And Monday morning at 10:15 we got our first offer, which was in the six figures, and she turned it down. She said we're going to do better than that. Of course, at this point, I was broke, but I thought well, OK. And she was right. So many people wanted the book that we ended up auctioning it off the next week and sending out more copies. It was a wonderful dream come true. So people should be encouraged—these things do happen."

"As I started researching Hungarian superstitions, I became so interested in that, that Erszebet's character grew and grew and grew, because the information was so fascinating. She's a scary person."

But as Erszebet's presence grew, that of the titular fruit decreased. While Shields continued to use the fig as a central tie throughout the novel, the story's botanical slant was decidedly lessened. Shields admits that some readers may be disappointed by the "erotic" object's increasingly decreased presence, but she says the book's focus simply shifted as the story progressed. "I'm sure this happens to other writers, but as you research something and other facts come to light, it changes the direction of your book.

"I know some people sort of coughed about that," she says. "Some people really wanted to know what happened to the fig, so I actually put it in the last scene, but it just seemed so fake that I took it out again. That last scene is so intense, that you can't have one of the characters pop up and say, 'Well, where's the fig?'"

As for the murder investigation itself, Shields turned elsewhere for motivation—and found it in the most auspicious of places. Instrumental in The Fig Eater's direction and tone was Sytem der Kriminalistick, a criminology book written by Hans Gross and published in 1904—a book Shields came across at a flea market. Written in a form that closely mirrored Freud's own technique of psychoanalytical detachment, the book was a perfect match for Shields' subject matter. "I just happened to find that book while I was toying with the idea of writing the Dora case history as a novel. And when I discovered that it was published at exactly the same time, it seemed like fate."

Fate indeed. The book contributed greatly to character development, with the Inspector adopting much of its ideology as his own and often quoting the book. The criminology book's endless amount of information created only one problem for Shields: deciding what to use.

"I had to find just the right excerpts, put them at just the right places," she says. "But I thought that (Gross) was just an amazing writer. His work is so succinct and intelligent. And he's writing pre-Freud, which is astonishing." Shields drew on her previous experience as a contributing editor for Vogue and House and Garden and as a design editor for The New York Times Magazine to establish the story's third-person point of view. Having written for magazines for most of her career, writing in the first person would have been "completely unnatural." Third-person point of view also allowed Shields to create a sense of distance between readers and the story, a distance she says parallels the tone of Freud's original work.

"If you read Freud's case history, the language is not sensationalistic at all," she says. "And when I wrote the book, I tried to make it as restrained and minimal as I could, which sort of mirrors the case history language. "As a writing style, the case histories are sort of overlooked as an interesting way of describing an intense emotional experience."

And as she prepares to write her next novel, Shields certainly will draw on the lessons she learned the first time around. "I guess I had the assumption before I wrote the novel that it was easier for people other than me, which isn't true.

"So, I guess you just have to accept the fact that it's difficult. It's just part of the package. It's torture for everyone, I guess. But even if it was torture, probably people would lie and tell you the opposite because you want to hear a writer say it's really easy."

This article appeared in the Guide to Writing Fiction Today.

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