"I'm Not Afraid of Writing Any Novel Anymore"
A Conversation with Annie Hartnett
Thanks to my 14-month-old’s shifting nap schedule, we’ve been heading out for a walk most mornings after the other kids leave for camp. The nice thing about babies is that you can strap them in a stroller and listen to a podcast and still feel like you’re giving them exactly what they need. You really appreciate that kind of low maintenance parenting once you have, erm, children of other ages who need more than the occasional smile and pointing out of birds and dogs while out of doors. The soundtrack to these walks where I pretend to be a young mother of one instead of the grizzled old shoe lady I truly am has lately been Here to Save You, a podcast by Annie Hartnett, Tessa Fontaine and Ellen O’Connell Whittet. All three are writers and parents of young children and so they’re interested in many of the same things that bring all of us together here. Their guests, including past WLAM interviewees Jessamine Chan and Katie Gutierrez, have been funny and interesting and inspirational. It’s a great listen.
I had already finished two episodes of the podcast when I got to speak with Annie, celebrated novelist and parent of the internet-famous toddler Leora. Annie’s second novel, Unlikely Animals, is about a dying man in a town ravaged by the opioid epidemic and it features a Greek chorus of dead people, so it feels weird to say that I felt cleansed and uplifted when I finished reading it, but it’s true. I think that’s in part a testament to Annie’s terrific sense of humor and the tenderness with which she treats her characters. And, luckily for all of us, she brings that same humor and tenderness to the podcast and to our conversation. Read on to find out how Annie keeps herself writing, why she started writing nonfiction, and what she plans to do in the face of the dreaded nap strike.
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This is your second novel but your first after becoming a parent. Did you write the whole thing after you had your daughter?
No, I started really writing it in earnest in January 2018, finished the first draft in October 2018, and got pregnant that month. I just put this in the podcast so it’s now public information – I conceived the baby the same day that I finished my first draft.
That’s so funny. Did that go into- not the conception necessarily, but the decision because you felt like you were at a place where I can do this? Was that part of the calculus at all?
No, I just think it's funny that it was the same time. I had wanted a baby starting that summer, that's when I started asking my friend Clare Beams about being a mother and being a writer. But no, it wasn't on purpose, it just happened that way. So I was pregnant through a lot of the editing process. I was at MacDowell when I was five months pregnant for a month and that was where I did the huge, heavy lifting. I was also teaching five classes and things were kind of intense but I did feel like there was a race towards the finish line. The plan was originally to submit it when I went into labor, send it to my agent, and then she was going to send it to Tin House because they had the first look. And so we did that, although it wasn't as dramatic as it could have been because she was so late and I was induced. So it was kind of like, I’m going into the hospital, nothing’s happening here.
But still, you're about to have a baby.
Right, so I sent it off and my mind was still so much in the book that as I'm getting the Foley balloon inserted, I was talking to the attending doctor about the book and telling him some of the history of this park that I was writing about. I gave birth in July just as the new interns start so the doctor who was inserting the Foley balloon had no idea what he was doing. He was like fumbling around, fumbling around, and I'm talking to the attending doctor about bison as this whole thing's happening. And finally, the little baby doctor said to the attending, um, can you help? I have no idea what I'm doing.
And those are great words to hear when you're having a baby. We love to hear that in the delivery room.
Yeah, exactly. Tin House liked it but we wanted to see what other publishers thought of it so I started editing it again when she was 10 days old up. I wanted to but it did feel really soon for her. So then I edited it up until she was about five or six months old and then we sold it when she was six months old.
I think about this all the time. Trying to write a novel, being inside of a long story, and having a newborn are such parallel experiences and to have both of those at the same time- they're both so intense and they both require your full attention in very different and weird ways.
Yeah, it was intense but I was very happy in that- I definitely romanticize it now but she would take pretty sizable naps, like two or three hours, so I had those stretches of time where- I mean, she did wake up two or three times a night but she never did the worst, horrible thing where babies wake up every 90 minutes. She never did that to me. We did get the Snoo, which for us seemed to work.
Some product placement, I love it.
I was happy to live in those two worlds because I was really in love with the novel at that point. I think it would be harder to do if I were at an earlier stage of writing something when I'm not deeply in love with the characters and I know them all already and I'm just trying to fit the story together. The harder part really came after the sun came out, the book sold, I suddenly had some money to spend on childcare and got a more regular babysitter and then COVID hit when she was eight months old. We didn't have childcare throughout the whole editing process, which was intense. My editor did want some big changes and this book is like a sweater that if you pull out one part of it, the whole thing falls apart. So it wasn't at all like editing Rabbit Cake that could be really changed and I could make those changes very quickly. This was like a really intricate puzzle and so it did take me more than a year to edit. We started in March and I remember the last big edits I made were on Mother's Day and I did all of that without- we didn't have a babysitter until June of last year.
That's really hard.
I would get up at three in the morning to have some space to myself. And I'm not afraid of writing any novel anymore.
And you're writing again now, you're working on new stuff, right? That's something I've learned from the podcast. So how has that process been, of starting from scratch with a kid?
I don't like creating new stuff but what I am actually driven to do for the first time is to write about her and my life. I didn't like writing essays about my life before her existence. I think it’s just that I'm acutely aware that I'm not going to hold onto a lot of these memories, the day to day stuff, the things that feel precious. Like, instead of saying happy birthday, she says happy to you and I just love that. You know, the things that, as she's learning language- I love language and I love like grammatically incorrect language. I'm not a lover of grammar so I just love the way that she makes things sound. Happy to you just sounds so wonderful to me. So I feel like I want to remember all these things and I want her to remember things in my life. And also just, I like to tell funny stories — to her eventually but just to people. And so I think that's a mix of pandemic feeling and motherhood is wanting to get all these stories together and share them. But I am also working on another novel. And I think going through that year of no childcare and doing a major revision process- it was really writing the book, none of it was tinkering. My agent compared the two documents at the end and I think she said something that is an exaggeration, but she's like ‘not one word is the same.’ So it was an overhaul and that's just how I work. It’s not that my editor necessarily wanted me to do that but when I'm editing something and I get a new idea, I really have to start from the beginning and tear up the carpet and then also take out the floorboards. But I have childcare now and so I do feel like I have room in my life to be creative, to do the part of novel writing that I don't like, which is the first draft. I'm in there right now and I'm also less afraid than I was before because I've been through this so I don't get as melodramatic about, like, how will I ever do this again or can I do this again because I just don't have that same fear I once had.
I love that the visual of pulling up the carpet and the floorboards and all that stuff because usually writers hate to, you know, destroy the homes that they've built. You may be the first person I've heard who relishes that. That’s really cool.
That's the part that I like, that's where the fun happens for me. I like to demolish the house but I hate to write the first house.
I've listened to the first two episodes of your podcast and I love it because, as you can probably tell, I love talking to writers about writing, and particularly writers who are parents. And through the podcast I learned about one of your writing hacks, which is writing a contract with another writer as an accountability tool. If I understand correctly, you email each other your goal for the day and then you say whether you got it done.
Yeah, it's based on this Aimee Bender essay. She and her friend did that, where you sign a contract and you come up with your own terms. So everyone can have different terms and I made all my students do this. Whether it's two hours a day, a thousand words a day, or I'm just going to write on Wednesdays, you come up with your terms and you commit to that. And that’s what my friend Tessa Fontaine and I did and that's why I know that the book really started in earnest in January 2018, because that's when we started the contract. Before that I didn't really have a book. I probably said I was working on something and I had scraps of stuff but I was also working in Scrivener, which, I know people love Scrivener and if it works for you, good for you. But for me, what happened with Scrivener is I was just invited to write a lot of different scraps of things and that is not how my mind works. So I had to realize, okay, the Word doc, even though it's clunky and ends up crashing a lot towards the end when you have a big book, that is how my mind works, which is that you're telling yourself the story. Someone else said this: the first draft is you're telling yourself the story. And Scrivener just invites me to collage scenes instead of telling myself the story.
Yeah, I can only really write in a Word doc, like not even in Google docs, I don't know. For some reason it's just not the same for me. Maybe I’m just old.
I think it's just, that's how we were trained, you know? Just like John Irving writes by hand and then on a typewriter and doesn't touch a computer. So maybe we just got stuck on Word docs.
In listening to your conversations on the podcast and in thinking about conversations I’ve had with writers, it seems like it’s often the case that a lot of writers have these moments where they could have given up or where they feel like they want to give up even after they already have a book written, whether it’s not selling or the book launch didn’t go the way they hoped, or whatever. And I think those moments can be even tougher when you’re a parent and writing is already so hard. And, conveniently, the name of your podcast is Here to Save You so what’s the fix for that? What do you think keeps writers going? Is it just that internal drive and some people have it and some people don't? Or is it something else?
I think for me, what has saved me and what I try to continue to rely on is what I have learned, which is that what makes me happy is not the stuff that's external to me, like the publication, the success of a book, a sparkly review. That feels good but it doesn't really have anything to do with my happiness and that the happiness actually comes from writing, that's where my life satisfaction, healthy mind- and reading Deep Work, which we talked about on the podcast, really changed my whole relationship with writing. It’s a book by Cal Newport and it’s not just for writers. He says that people think that when they are happiest is when they get to sit back and lie in a hammock and relax — and then I also add, and, you know, look at their iPhone and be filled with all the praise or whatever that you're getting — but actually, when people report that they’re happiest is when they're solving hard problems. And that is why I think I look back at those first six months of working with a newborn and the book fondly because I was solving the hard problems and that felt rewarding. And it felt like I was sort of keeping my brain alive.
That makes a lot of sense.
And so that's why I know not to quit now, for my own sake. Even if my career drops off and no one wants to publish anything else I write, you keep doing it for your own sake. I mean, I definitely want my work to be shared but I think, in the publishing process, you hear this with so many people, it's like a lottery ticket. I remember B.A. Shapiro, she published The Art Forger and people were like, ‘she's an overnight sensation’ and I saw her speak and she was like, ‘it was my ninth book and, you know, I wrote other ones before that and they weren't published and I went to like three different agents.’ And I think she had kids. And then she gets, you know, her lottery ticket. So she didn't quit. I just feel like the creativity really is something that I need to be happy.
Yeah, it’s a blessing and a curse, or sometimes it feels that way. Your new book is such a great read and now that I’ve heard more about how it came to be, I do want to know what changed in the rebuilding process. Did you always have that frame of the narration by the dead people in the cemetery?
That came about when I had finished the first draft and it had this like booming omniscient voice and my friend Lucas Mann said, ‘well, who's telling this story because this omniscient voice has too much personality and you kind of keep making jokes and I'm like, who is making this joke?’ And I just kind of told him to shut up because I wasn't ready to think about that. When I got to MacDowell, I had probably a couple drafts. My agent had given me some feedback and I had some notes but I knew that one of the main things that I had to figure out is who was telling the story. And it couldn't be first person because I wanted it to have this sprawling thing. And could I just flatten the third person to make it have less personality? But I didn't want to do that. And I'm at MacDowell and MacDowell is where Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town and so it just kind of hit me the first or second day there.
That’s so cool.
Yeah but I was scared to do it because Lincoln in the Bardo had come out a year or two before so it seemed like, oh my gosh, I don't want people to think I'm just like a poor man's George Saunders-
Jumping on the dead people bandwagon, just like everybody else.
So I tried it and shared it with a friend there and he was like, ‘this is all you and it's a long tradition, it's not like George Saunders invented the voices of the cemetery.’ And it made everything in the book make sense once I did it. Ernest Harold Baynes was already a ghost in the book. I was already playing with the old history and then the period of 2014 and so once I had it, it gelled everything together for me.
What an incredible moment and you were in a place where you could just do that…
Just focus on that, yeah,
…even though it was before you had a kid so maybe that meant a little less than it would now.
It didn't and it didn't because I had this crazy adjuncting schedule. When Rabbit Cake came out, I quit my job to try to just promote the book. I had a regular office job and I was originally supposed to take a leave and come back and then I didn't go back. But in order to make money, I had to scramble and so I was teaching like three different places, five different classes.
It's such a grind.
Yeah and I was editing a ton of freelance stuff. So that was the first time in a long time that I had that space just to not do- I didn't answer anybody's emails. I had one job interview. That was the only thing I did and that felt like, ‘ugh, get outta here’. And also, they don't have the internet in your cabin so I was off the internet. I didn't look at Instagram at all. There are so many things that are distractions in my life that I don't even necessarily realize are such distractions and they were all gone. You can get the internet in the library but I never went to the library. And so it was just this perfect balance for me of, I was able to socialize at night and then I was able to write all day. I didn't exercise at all. I just like cut out everything in my life that was not writing.
You were just like a brain, writing. So great.
Yeah, it was the best. I don't feel ready yet to apply to another one of those. I have thought about how old does she have to be before I get to go back for even just two weeks but I think she has to be five. I don’t want to wait too long.
What goes into that calculus of how old she needs to be?
I just need to be able to explain it to her, I think, a little more. She’ll be three in July.
I love that you gave some of the animals interiority. It reminded me of The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis, which also shares with your novel the idea that we're not as attuned to the natural world as we should be, and not just the natural world but things that don't make sense to our rational minds. We don't value the things that don't make sense to us even though maybe we should.
Yeah, in fiction I love the unexplainable. My husband has a PhD in neuroscience and now does artificial intelligence stuff so he's more computers now. But I would ask him, as I'm writing about the father who has brain disease in the book, you know, can this happen? Would this happen? Could this happen? And one day he was like, Annie, there is so little we understand about the brain, you can make up whatever you want. And so I always give myself this breathing room where I try to make it clear to the reader not to take anything too literally.
And you were vague about- it wasn't like he had an exact diagnosis.
Yeah, so that's exactly why I would do the things like, it's a mysterious brain disease, the doctors are not sure. I'm not really that compelled to try to make things true but I also then do the worrying of, could this happen? Can this happen? So it's a struggle with myself. But Drew's saying that to me really freed up a lot of space and that I think is where- many things in the book that end up happening are, you know, that’s based on a little truth and that's based on a little truth, but I love both like the ‘can you believe this happens in the natural world’ or ‘can you believe this happens in our more artificial worlds.’ But yeah, relationship to nature is something that also drives a lot of my writing, not that I even have- because I'm on my computer so much, the relationship to nature that I feel like I would like. But I do think a lot of my writing comes from my wonder about the natural world. And a book that's about death, you know, I look to the natural world for explanations.
Right, and death is kind of the ultimate thing that we don't understand. And I loved how there was another- like even the dead people are like, ‘well, there's something that happens after this, but we have no idea what it is’ and it never ends, that mystery and wonder never ends. I was delighted by that. Speaking of uncertainty, most people who subscribe to the newsletter are already parents and many are already writers, but I think there are some lurkers who are parents who want to write and then there are also some lurkers who are writers thinking about becoming parents and wondering how that's going to go. You already had a book out when you decided to have a child. What would you say to writers who are thinking about taking that leap, which obviously comes with a lot of anxiety?
I don't know if I would push people towards one side of the fence. I will convince anyone, if they're on the fence, like, definitely get a dog. I think if you want to have a child you're going to have a child anyway. I grilled Clare Beams. We were both at Sewanee Writers’ Conference that summer and I grilled her. She had two kids, they were young, and I wanted to know what it was like. And she was just like daycare, daycare, daycare. We have still held her out of daycare because of COVID so-
Oh, that was in a pre-pandemic world.
Yeah, so I haven't had that experience. That was kind of what I thought I might be walking into. Instead we have babysitters and she's going to go to preschool in the fall, but she'll be three. So it's been a long time of- we can only afford babysitters in the morning.
Does she still nap?
So this is the whole thing right now. She will not nap and I really need the babysitting plus nap plus evening. She hasn’t napped for two weeks so I feel a little insane. I’m just trying to stay the course until she breaks and not be the one who breaks first. If she doesn't nap, then I'm so tired in the evenings that I can't do anything so then I only have the babysitting to do everything I need to do. But with Clare, she was very encouraging and said daycare really makes it possible for her. I did not have that. And Clare obviously did not know the pandemic was coming. But I think you might change your relationship with writing that it's you just do it a little at a time rather than like- you may think that you have to have these really long stretches to write, that's not really true. You can get a lot done in an hour or even 20 minutes. I do plenty of writing when she's watching TV or I do the things that are easier to do, like, you know, answer the emails so that I don't have to do those.
Right, I think so much of it is figuring out what goes where in all those random spots to maximize efficiency.
With writing, I think whether you're a parent or not, you have to always be trying to reevaluate your routine because that’s how you commit and recommit and recommit. It's not like you figure out a routine that works and then that one works forever. I mean, some people do the 5 AM writer's club and they just do that. But for me, I have to go through periods of mini boot camps where I'm like, make a plan, like do three months of a thousand words. But I can't do a thousand words indefinitely. And so that’s my relationship with it that I'm always having to reevaluate, what's working and what's not working, and make little mini ways to get myself excited again about it. So that's not exactly advice other than I think if people want to become parents, they're going to.
Look at this perfect cover. You’re going to want to get a copy of Unlikely Animals here.
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