Most first books tend to be filled with cautious, garden variety narrative and dialogue—good enough to be published, but not attention-getters. Andes Hruby, author of The Trouble With Catherine (Dutton), is a pleasant exception. Hruby''s narrative style might look a little familiar to Writer''s Digest readers. She won first place in the 1999 Writer''s Digest Writing Competition in the mainstream/literary short story category for her story Ruby.
Winning the competition was a huge confidence booster, she says. "I remember it so clearly, even though it was a couple of years ago," says Hruby, 33. "It just so happened that I was having a really bad writing day. The phone rang, I answered it and I started crying so hard out of happiness that when I put the phone down my husband had no idea if it was good or bad news."
The Trouble With Catherine gradually became a reality in the years after the competition. The novel follows the chaotic and often humorous life of a wholesale fish dealer named Catherine Lacey as she struggles with balancing her career and her upcoming marriage to her lawyer fiance.
However, according to Hruby, the hardest part of seeing the novel through to publication wasn''t writing it—it was finding the right agent.
Hruby, who finished graduate studies at Columbia University in 1996, was sure she wanted an agent before a publisher. "It''s the writer''s job to find the right person," she says. "Read the books, search for the agents and editors and people [who] might be good for you."
Because she moved to Vienna in April 1999, Hruby''s mother submitted her work to agents. "I told my mom to send my manuscript to Simon Green, and she said, ''Simon! Oh my God! He''s the one! I was just at Adopt-a-Cat, and I adopted a [cat named] Simon.''"
About a month later, sure enough, Hruby decided to work with Simon Green of the POM Agency. According to Hruby, Green took about a month to find editors at publishing houses-not just publishing houses themselves-who would be really interested in the book. There was an immediate connection with Laurie Chittenden, Hruby''s editor at Dutton.
"She stepped right up to the plate," says Hruby. As it turned out, Chittenden was the perfect editor for a book about a female fish dealer. Her father is an ichthyologist, a zoologist who specializes in fish.
The biggest surprise for Hruby was the importance of her agent and editor. "I had no idea that they could bring so much work by asking me questions that I hadn''t thought about for the character," she says. "It''s a huge team effort. I feel like they''re my coaches. A good coach pushes you, works you and makes sure you go to the limit, but he''s also there to make sure you don''t get hurt."
Despite being shielded from the bumps and bruises of the publishing process, Hruby says the revision process was endless. Nevertheless, she is happy with the final result. "I wouldn''t give up one second of rewriting. ... Going back in and sweating through it again was tough, but there''s nothing that can replace what they did for me."
In The Trouble With Catherine, many of Catherine''s "troubles" stem from her inability to be comfortable with herself. For Hruby, one of the hardest things about being a writer is being comfortable as a writer. "It''s always a fight along the way to find out whether you''re doing the right thing," she says. Hruby, who at various times has been a school teacher, yoga instructor, bartender, chambermaid and professional closet cleaner, says that being a writer has proven a bit overwhelming for someone who considers herself a blue-collar kid at heart.
That''s not to say that being a writer doesn''t have its downside. Hruby-who still lives in Austria, and recently became a new mother-believes there are quite a few benefits and drawbacks to writing outside the United States. "I''m lucky that I live in another time zone," she says. "By the time everyone on the East Coast is waking up and getting to the office, I''ve already gotten in my day of writing."
Hruby, whose influences include Ernest Hemingway''s short stories and the essays of Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem), says she is most interested in hard, gritty stories of people in transition in the streets, trying to work themselves to the top.
"When I read a book, I love not feeling alone," she says. "If my book says to one person that [she isn''t] alone with [her] problems-not alone with [her] sadness, not alone with [her] conflicts-then I have achieved a greater purpose, but I don''t set out to do that."
For Hruby, one of the most surprising moments in the book came when the protagonist, Catherine, took on a will of her own. "She is so concerned with trying to be the perfect woman for her fiance instead of working on being happy with herself that, after one of their fights, she stacks up all her bridal magazines into a pile and she squats over them to urinate. In her drunkenness, she falls over laughing and spills her drink on them.
"It was a moment where I was no longer in control, and my character was at her edge." As far as Hruby is concerned, there aren''t any boundaries that shouldn''t at least be questioned as a writer, but crossing them is a matter of taste. "I think when you start growing up and becoming adult you need to ask the question, ''Why? Why is it like that and what can I do if I don''t like it?''"
Her advice to struggling writers is to find the balance between believing in yourself, and being egotistical and stubborn. Her other piece of advice: Don''t take rejection personally. "I had one professor who always said, ''When you''re feeling really lost, put some hope in the mail.'' He got us as young writers to enter competitions long before we even had any chance. He wanted us to understand the balance of rejection and hope as a writer."
Although The Trouble With Catherine is described as "contemporary women''s fiction," Hruby hopes that men will relate to Catherine''s story. "I don''t think there''s any man who shouldn''t read it and can''t learn something from it. Even though there''s a lot of great women''s fiction, I make sure to also read my contemporary male counterparts because I know there''s a lot I can learn."
As for her next literary work, Hruby says she''s still too new to the scene to know what shape the next project will take. "I wish that I could say that I was so amazingly self-disciplined that I already have a big plan," she says.
If Hruby has learned anything from her recent publishing success, it is that you cannot constantly change who you are and what you write to get your novel published.
"I think the more things change, the more we learn to be who we are," she says. "For me, trying to make a career as a writer has been a lot about learning to be myself and to follow my dream without listening to my panic. When I say, ''my panic,'' I mean I come from a working family. "To say I wanted to grow up and be a writer was fine, but I also felt like I dished out all this money for education and I better have a good job, medical benefits and a 401(k) plan to show for my efforts. Socially, I felt I should have a job that''s official and reputable. So a lot of the change was about me coming up with self-confidence."
Both your short story Ruby and your novel The Trouble With Catherine have female protagonists who are vulnerable and strong at the same time. Is this a recurring theme in your work?
"It''s all the women I know: all my friends, it''s myself, it''s my mother''s generation and it''s that conflict between vulnerability and strength that I find the most interesting about trying to be a woman now. There are so many mixed messages for women and confusion about what we should do. Should we be moms and homemakers? Should we feel guilty because we really like cooking? Should we feel guilty because we''re great litigators and we love dragging people through court? I could write a whole book about those two words, and I think I did. That theme will always run through me, and now that I have given birth to a daughter, I''m sure that theme will be very important to her."
This interview appeared in the March 2002 issue of Writer''s Digest.