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"I Don't Think I'm Producing Anything Good If It Doesn't Feel Good to Write It"
A Conversation with Julia Fine
I just spent three days at Lit Fest and therefore had the rare opportunity to sit around with other writers and engage in our most passionate shared pursuit: complaining about writing.
It was the usual stuff – imposter syndrome, endless revision, trying to keep an entire book in your head – and it ended in the usual way, a crying-laughing chorus of why do we do this to ourselves? This in turn reminded me of a recent Craft Talk post by Jami Attenberg, “Why We Write,” which arrived in my inbox during a ten-day trip-not-vacation with my kids earlier this month. I didn’t write a thing that entire time and in my single, solitary idle moment found myself thinking, what if this was just my life? What would it be like be like to have no expectations of myself beyond raising children and doing the work that pays our bills instead of waking early and staying up late to work toward some amorphous and elusive goal? I wonder about this the same way that I wonder how many books I could have written in the time I'be spent organizing the playroom or making meals that 50% of my kids refuse to eat anyway. Jami had a bunch of answers to that question of why we write and most of them were mine too but the main answer, the reason I, personally, do this to myself, is that I don’t know how to be any other way.
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Neither does Julia Fine, President of the Twitter Mom Club, whose third (!) book, Maddalena and the Dark, which she once described as “my Faustian Little Mermaid fever dream,” published last week. Julia has yet another answer to Jami’s question: chasing the feeling she gets when everything hits just right, when the writing is powered by an idea as much as a story. Maddalena is about two ambitious girls at the Ospedale della Pietà, a convent/orphanage/music school in 18th century Venice but it is also very much about female desire — what it means to want something as a young woman, and what it takes to get it. Read on for our conversation about research in a pandemic, putting good ideas on hold while the kids are little, and always trying to write something different.
Julia, you’re so prolific.
I appreciate you saying that because right now I have nothing in the works and it feels like I should.
Well, when last we spoke, The Upstairs House was about to come out and we talked about how you wrote that book while your first child napped. But then you had whole other child and there was also a global pandemic, so I’m wondering how you pulled this one off?
This book, let's see. I think I got the idea and sort of started it in November 2019. I was thinking about it and taking notes and thinking around it, then I pressed pause on it for a year in terms of actually writing. Although I was reading, I was sort of like, if this is still what I want to do, there's so much research to be done. So I was definitely reading, although sort of interspersed with other things. I let myself read other things. I had a newborn then because my daughter was born June 2020. But yeah, I was definitely reading for a good year and a half before I started writing. And then, when I did sit down to start drafting, it went very, very quickly. But I think part of that was because I had been thinking about it for such a long time without putting pen to paper.
All the work of writing that’s not writing.
I had been able to do a lot of that sort of subconsciously, even in terms of just ironing things out and storing information. But there was a good active period of probably a year of research after. I wrote most of the book right after The Upstairs House came out. It was probably in March or April 2021 that I really buckled down to work on it. I didn't have any writing time during the day because I had two young kids and neither of them were in school at that point. But because I had been teaching in the evenings and the class was over, I was like, oh, okay. I'm clearly capable of doing something in the evenings, what if I spend this time writing the book? And so that turned into just sort of a five or six month period of just being really antisocial, even from family, and writing, which I think the pandemic made possible in a way that I think it would be a lot harder now to do.
I've been thinking about that a lot lately, because the last couple months have finally felt to me like a real post-COVID period.
It's back to normal.
Yeah, with birthday parties every week and just all of the extracurriculars and all of the obligations that fill up your life and take time away from writing. And there was something about the time period where all of those distractions disappeared that was bad for most things but kind of fruitful for writing, or thinking about writing.
Absolutely. And it was right in that spot of vaccines had just become available but not for children. And so we were still being very, very cautious. It was cold out, and it's Chicago, you couldn't really do anything outdoors with people in February and March. The release of The Upstairs House because of the pandemic just felt a little bit underwhelming. I had thought that by the time we got there, things would be opening back up and I'd be able to go to bookstores and see people and sort of celebrate but I wasn't able to. So I was like, I don't want this to be my last time that I publish a book. I guess I had a little bit of drive there, and I think I was very burnt out from being with my kids all the time, but also really craving some sort of intellectual stimulation and also just something I could do for myself for pleasure. And this particular book, too, the fact that it was 18th century Venice, felt very escapist. And so I think it fit nicely in into what I needed in that time.
That's so interesting. I was going to ask what came first? Did the historical lens come first? Or did the focus on teenage friendship? Talk to me about the genesis of the idea.
When I was as a child, we had a series of these cassette tapes called Classical Kids. And they introduced young children to classical composers. And so the most famous one that I think got made into either a movie or a TV show is Beethoven Lives Upstairs, if you've heard of that. It’s really well known but they had Bach and they had Mozart, and one of them was Vivaldi. And so they told these kids' stories, kids who would've interacted with the composers. And so for Vivaldi, clearly, what kid would've interacted with him? Somebody who's at this school. And so I knew that he had written music and been a music teacher at these sort of Ospedales in Venice and stored that in the back of my mind. And then when I was thinking of where to set a book and what I wanted to write about, and I had sort of started down a few different paths in terms of ideas for what I wanted to work on, and something listening to Vivaldi or seeing something about Vivaldi, I was like, oh yeah, wasn't there that school? And so when I read more about it just felt like, oh my goodness, this is so perfect. And it is a way to encapsulate all of the things that I'm interested in – making art and women and female relationships. You have all these young women on top of each other competing for the same thing: what does that look like in a friendship? And so fairly early, I knew I wanted to have two girls from very different backgrounds who have different experiences and view the same things differently. That was about where I was in March 2020 where I had written a few paragraphs, I had an idea.
You were like, ‘Oh, I'm going to totally do this. Nothing can stop me now.'
And then it all was on pause. But obviously I could read and I could tailor my reading and do more research and sort of be like, do I want to do this? Maybe. And the more I read, the more I was like, oh, it's a real thing, it could go this way, it could be a real book to the extent that finally I was like, all right, I'm going to invest and start actively working on this.
This is so interesting to me because I feel like I read a lot of interviews or hear people talking about how they know what their next book is, and maybe it's a question of finding the time to write it or whatever, but they have the idea. And I'm interested in that experience of, ‘well, maybe I'll do this, maybe I'll do that.’ How do you decide when to commit? At what point are you convinced that it’s a real book and that you’re going to write it?
I'm lucky enough to have a really strong relationship with my agent where I have sent her a hundred million different ideas and she either says, ‘eh,’ or is really enthusiastic. But sometimes she's really enthusiastic and I get started- I had an idea after I'd already written Maddalena and I started reading and I realized very quickly the research would be almost insurmountable given the other obligations I have in my life. It was something that was so foreign to me that it just wasn't going to happen right now.
Was that hard, to know that you have a really good idea but can’t make it happen right now?
Yes. But also it sort of feels like it's just not the time for it right now. That's why I'm not saying anything about it, always have it on the back burner.
It’s in your pocket.
I'm not giving any more details, it's in my pocket. I could spend 15 years doing this, eking it out now, or I could wait until my kids are older and I have more dedicated time and can travel more. And the other thing, too, is I can slowly start to familiarize myself with some of these things that I don't know. If there's six or seven things that I'd have to research in depth, I can slowly, for pleasure, over the next few years, just sort of pop in and out as opposed to saying, this is my project now. But that said, I have another project that I'm have done a ton of research for and I'm working on, and have written a decent amount of, but don't yet know if it's the one. It’s a feeling of having tapped into it and feeling like this is something that I'm excited about and is saying something, I guess. I think that what I've written so far-
Is it a sense of urgency?
Yeah, a sense of urgency and a sense of being- I don't know, I want to feel like I have something to say. I guess that's more than just telling a story. I don't think the strength of my work lies in the fact that I'm an amazing plotter. I think it's more like I'm trying to talk about a feeling or an idea and sort of figure out the story around that. And so I think part of it is, is the idea strong enough? And so I have to see what happens with it because I think it could just be a matter of approaching it from a different angle. But I definitely think there was something with both The Upstairs House and Maddalena, it felt like I had caught the wave, almost, in a way that I have not yet. What people call the muse coming to you, I don't really think it's a thing but I do think you can get to a point where what you're working on and what you're interested in, you get caught up in the moment in such a way that writing is really, really fun. I honestly don't think I'm producing anything good if it doesn't feel good to write it, which isn't to say that there aren't difficult parts and moments where, you know, end up having to write something that is not fun to write for the sake of the project as a whole. Not everything about it is going to feel good, but if it isn't fundamentally enjoyable, even if it's like, ‘oh my gosh, this is a painful emotion that I'm excavating,’ even that feels good in a way. There has to be something about it and if that's not there, just even if conceptually it's very cool, I just don't think blood's going to be in it.
I want to get back to the research because some things you can do it in a pandemic. You can read in a pandemic. But was any of it impossible given the constraints?
Because I had a new baby, I was going to be sort of confined anyway. It wasn't like I could jet off to Venice in that particular moment. So the fact that there was a pandemic, it almost was a convenient time to be- I was already going to be sidelined. And there's so much available. I think even 10 years ago it would've been really, really difficult but because now you can go on YouTube and you can watch master classes with world renowned violinists teaching Julliard students in a way where there is no other way to have access to that. Even if you know people, you still can't get that.
You can’t get in. But we all have access.
But we all have access. You can do it, you can watch it online. People did GoPros in the Venetian canals and get in a canoe and paddle around. Obviously you can't have everything and you have to triangulate in terms of, oh, what would it smell like? Or what would it feel like here? But in terms of getting to know a place or a feeling or an idea that you're not physically in, it's never been a better time. And obviously, the history- Venice is unique in that you go there and it's a lot more similar to what it would've been 300 years ago than a lot of other cities, but it still is a modern city. So reading the history, it's going to feel the same wherever you are. And then by the time I did get to go to Venice, once things were easier for travel, which was- I went in March of 2022, so it was on the tail end of the Omicron wave, and I had to push it back. But it ended up being sort of perfect because I had the book written.
You already knew what you needed.
I knew what I needed and I knew I could walk through as if I was walking through the book in a very cool way. So it ended up working out. I mean, in the same way that everything was stressful in those years, it was stressful. But timing wise, it did not matter as much as I feared it would that I couldn't be in Venice at earlier points in the process. And I was pleasantly surprised by how accurate my triangulation of my own personal experiences in other sort of canal cities and other parts of Italy and my reading and research had been. There was a lot to add but there wasn't that much where I was like, oh, this is totally wrong.
I want to talk about “the thing” of this book because it did feel to me like it was powered by that ineffable thing where I'm like, ‘this writer feels something and wants us to feel it too.’ And it had something to do with desire and female ambition and what's possible for women in 18th century Venice. But it also felt very applicable to our own moment. There's one line that I wrote down because I loved it so much: “she was playing notes written for her on an instrument she'll never own." And I was thinking about this idea because I think that this book falls into the Faustian bargain genre.
And I was thinking about the gender dynamics of the genre. When men strike these bargains- Faust, for example, wants great power. He wants to be the smartest and the most powerful and he goes around flexing, bestowing all these impossible things. And for women, often what they trade for is just basic humanity? I was thinking about The Little Mermaid because I know that was in the mix for you when you were thinking about this book.
And it’s obviously this great transformation, mermaids don't usually get legs. But from our perspective, all she wants is to be a regular woman. You know what I mean? She doesn't want to be a powerful queen or anything like that. And in Maddalena, the stakes are kind of survival in a very basic way. And it felt like it was in conversation with our moment in a way that I don't know that I can necessarily articulate.
I think so. And from the moment between when I started writing the book and to now it has become even more relevant, in terms of just the Dobbs decision and watching women's bodily autonomy take major steps backwards in our country. But yeah, I think something I was really interested in is the way women, specifically young girls, are socialized to compete against each other in a way. I mean, I think you could argue that boys are too in certain ways, but there is something that dates all the way back to this idea of competition for a husband where your role in the family is to nab the most ideal suitor.
There’s not enough for everyone.
Literally in Venice there were not enough men and there were all of these women, and it just sets you up to compete and in a way that really is giving a lot of power away to these noble families, particularly the men in these noble families. Because there's no unionizing noble daughters who are like, ‘we don't want to go to nunneries.’ There's no doing that. And I think the same is true for artists a lot of the time too. And for musicians. If you're playing in an orchestra, there is a sense of, the competition makes them better. They're competing against each other, but they're also a family. And that was really, really interesting to me. I wanted to take that idea of competition and look at: can it coexist with other feelings? The age that I was most interested in is those early teenage years.
Those are hard.
The combination of hormones and socialization and desire and all of it is just swirling around and is so interesting. And the way that I remember it was, friendships are really, really hard because you feel almost like you're competing with your friends and you don't quite know how to feel about your friends, and you don't know how you feel about yourself. I was interested in a mix of all of those things, and how it has operated historically.
Right, that love and competition are always-
They're just so intertwined, and jealousy too. Envy sneaks in so easily and gets in the way of other things. But then also when you have it in these high-stakes situations where it's not just like, ‘oh, I feel bad,’ but ‘oh no, you're taking away any opportunity I have to X, Y, and Z.’
The stakes are definitely higher but it made me think about whether girls are still socialized to understand that there's not enough for everyone. You know what I mean?
I think so. I really think so.
Enough of what, I'm not sure, but it feels like an ambient thing.
I think it is. I think that the way that power structures are set up for women, even if you think about the #girlboss model, it's the one person at the top. We just have been taught that there's only so much of it to go around for women And so you can either take it or you can share it and not have it. And it does feel, to me, a particularly gendered thing. Obviously, there ARE intersectional aspects here where a person of color has a vastly different experience in all of these different fields and places. But I do think, particularly white men, there's never not enough for them. There's never a shortage of opportunity.
You can be a CEO and you can also be a CEO.
Yeah, and you can be really dumb and still be a CEO. But I feel like for other people, there’s one spot. And that's trickled down into a cattiness among specifically teenage girls. I don't know, it could be different now, I don't have teenagers. I have a three-year-old girl, so who knows if they're socializing differently. But what I remember of specific middle school and early high school is that it feels like you're in this weird race/pageant of who gets the boys or the girls or the love interest or the lead role in the musical. And so that's a dynamic that was really, really interesting to me because it is so toxic and ends up doing such a disservice, I think, to anyone who is caught up in it.
Right. And so, thinking about Faustian bargains the deal that Maddalena makes, was it important to you that she doesn't know what she's trading for, or she knows what she's trading for, but she doesn't know what she's giving up?
Yeah, I think so. Because I think the other thing about being that age is this level of confidence that you have, even when you are not confident. Teenage girls’ self-esteem can be super low, but their confidence is still really high in this weird way. The two things can coexist and it just leads you to make really stupid decisions, which to me sort of defines the teenage years of: you're motivated by really dumb things, you have very little, low self-esteem and so therefore anything you're given can sway you in these bad directions. And you think you know everything because you're just at that age. So therefore you get yourself into situations whether fantastical or real, where, I don't know, I can think of all of these situations where I just look back now and I'm like, ‘Oh, how stupid. Just ask for help or just take a step back.’ And I think that's the case here. And then things start to snowball and you get to a situation where the dominoes have begun to fall, and here you go. And that's sort of how the book ends.
And what an ending. Speaking of Faustian bargains, over the last decade or two, the writing life has become very much intertwined with, and arguably dependent on, the internet. Obviously that's not the case for everyone but you’re one of many writers who have built an audience on social media. And not just an audience, but a kind of community of writers who are moms.
Oh yeah, Annie Hartnett has deemed me the Twitter mom, I think because I wrote a book about parenting and tweeted about it. I think it was Annie who gave me that title.
That sounds right. That I knew I saw it somewhere. But Twitter is now kind of slowly imploding.
Oh, Twitter's so sad now. It's really sad.
How has that been for you? Is it stressful?
I feel like I luckily got in and made friends and then connected with people through other outlets. And so now it isn’t like, oh my gosh, Twitter is gone, suddenly I'm cut off. It's like, oh, I guess I'll text you. But I mean, there's definitely been a change in just the way that the algorithm shows you things. And so unless you go actively seek out this person, you don't know what's happening with them in a way that before it did feel like social media working the way it ideally would work.
Right but from a platform perspective.
It's frustrating because I do feel like Twitter was where I had built what felt the strongest community in terms of really having curated my Twitter presence and feed, I guess, to something that really was working for me. And then all of a sudden it was not working anymore. Maybe I'm jinxing myself but I have not in experienced, to the extent that I think some people have, the super trolly alt right, Nazi, terrible stuff, partially, I think because I've been very strategic in my blocking. But as a promotional outlet, it is not what it was, especially from a trying to sell books perspective, which is annoying.
It feels like to be a writer right now is constantly having to change.
Oh yeah, you have to be very nimble in terms of how to get out there. I'm lucky in that I think as a novelist, it just becomes an issue of promoting my book as opposed to people who are more dependent on freelancing.
Right. So, three books in, how has your writing or your writing life changed? Do you feel a shift in either the kinds of stories you're drawn to or how you approach the writing?
Yeah, I mean, a lot of it has coincided with parenting young children whose needs sort of change. We will finally have five days a week childcare for both kids next year but it's still just going to be mornings for my daughter because she's starting three-year-old public preschool. But until next August whenever the school year starts, my primary job has been and still will be caregiving, which means that my time is not my own. Although I do really feel like, as I was saying before, when the spark is there, I can make the time. I can run on adrenaline in the evenings if it's something that I'm really into, which is the way it worked with Maddalena. I wrote it all after they went to bed and it was there. So I think that with my first book particularly, I was much more just sort of floating around, la-di-da. I was younger, I had fewer constraints. My work schedule allowed me to just have these long periods of time where I was just working. But I don't know that that was conducive for a really cohesive book. I think there's something about the constraints that makes the work better. I have higher standards for myself, I think, than I did starting out, which makes drafting maybe a little bit harder.
You mean on the sentence level?
Not on the sentence level, but I want to feel like I am going in a direction that's working. Right now I'm sort of 30,000 words into something, and I feel very much like, maybe I'll just throw it all away, in a way that I don't know that I would've done previously. Because I know that I can do better. I know what it feels like when it's working. But I would say the best part is having sort of the idea that even if, say, I write a book and it's not commercial at all, even if I can't sell it to a major publisher, I still feel like, oh, there will be people, I've got a community now of people who will read it, even if it isn't a big five publisher, in a way that until recently, it's been sort of like, well, maybe this is just going to be me and my thing. So that feels very cool, and I feel very confident in my agent having my back for even something that's ridiculous. I think if I said it's important to me, she'd support it, which is nice, career-wise. It feels more secure, although, I mean, there's always the sense, too, of is this the last thing?
That never goes away.
Maybe this will bomb and nobody will want it, and no one will want the next one. Or, oh, I won't have any other ideas, or can I do it again? I think that's normal, though, for anybody. It doesn't go away. I don't know, maybe you reach a certain level where you're like Stephen King. But for most people the anxieties around publishing have not changed. Although I do think that the work is getting, to me, it seems that I am getting better as a writer, and so presumably can continue to get better, although who knows.
Stands to reason.
I also feel like I want to do something different every time. I think if you're someone who has a massive hit book, New York Times bestseller, Today Show, book club- I would love to have that kind of success but a way that I have spun not having that kind of success is that nobody is expecting me to do it again in a way that opens up a lot of creative opportunity for me. I think part of why my current project feels stalled is it's too close to what I just did and I need it to be different. Primarily, I'm trying to entertain myself. It's got to work for me.
Order your copy of Maddalena and the Dark here.
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