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Alison Espach Wants You to Write the Story You Want to Write

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The Adults cover
The Adults
by Alison Espach

Buy this Book
at Amazon.com

 

An exlusive Authorlink interview
with Alison Espach

By Ellen Birkett Morris
July 2011

 

 

 

Alison Espach was in the middle of a novel about a group of men in Missouri running a copper theft ring when she decided to stop working on the book. Instead, she began a novel that detailed the coming of age of a young woman in Connecticut in the midst of family divorce.

“When I decided to write The Adults, I wanted to write what I was interested in. . .”
—
ESPACH

“When I was in my MFA program I tried to write things as far away from my own experience as possible. When I decided to write The Adults, I wanted to write what I was interested in and not care if it was treated as chick lit or literary fiction,” said Espach.

Like Emily Vidal, the protagonist of The Adults, Espach grew up in Connecticut and was familiar with the conversations that went on during backyard barbeques and the drama inherent in family life.

The Adults starts with Emily and her best friend Mark discovering their parents in an embrace and follows the strain that puts on their relationship.

It also details Emily’s desire to become an adult in a world where her parents, and a teacher with whom she becomes sexually involved, are all too eager to treat her as one.

Espach has written since she was a child and applied to the MFA program in creative writing at Washington University in Saint Louis at the suggestion of a college professor.

“It was the first time I considered writing as an occupation,” she noted.

The program helped her learn how to share her work with others, gave her the structure she needed to stay motivated and helped her read her own work more critically.

Since completing the program she has learned to rely more on her own instincts about her work.

Espach works in spurts writing “obsessively” for a period of time then taking a break. During the break she mulls over questions about her work and finds that when she returns to the computer she knows what she wants to change.

“Since I’ve written my whole life I never get scared of not writing,” said Espach.

She began The Adults with a conversation that was stuck in her head and let the dialogue drive the characters and built the story around that.

“I rarely begin with a fully realized plot. It is more fun to figure that out as I go along,” said Espach.

The book is divided into five sections: Everything Was Like My Mother Said; The Other Girls; This Is an Example of a Warning Sign; In Plain English; and Everything Was Like My Mother Said. Each section, explained Espach, offers a look at a different phase in Emily’s life. The first and last section, which have the same title, were Espach’s way to signal Emily’s shifting tone toward her mother from the contempt she has for her early in the book to the respect she gains for her as she realizes the challenges her mother faced.

The book was written in two years and Espach spent another two years revising it.

“I cut the book in half and got rid of 50 percent of it and wrote a new second half. What I ended up with is very different from the first draft. I really enjoy revising.”

Then she worked with editor Alexis Gargagliano in a yearlong process that involved 3 or 4 more manuscript revisions.

“It was a long process. Initially the suggestions I got were structural.”
—ESPACH

 

 

 

“It was a long process. Initially the suggestions I got were structural – expand this, cut this in half, more of the character Mark here, more Janice here. It got more specific as we went along including things like ‘don’t say this word three times on this page’.”

She was also asked to leave out some of the humor from the book. “The editors said we want to feel this moment and the joke here doesn’t help us do that,” said Espach.

As a teacher of writing, she encourages her own students to write about what they are most passionate about. “Writers have a fear of not being taken seriously, but I encourage them to write about what they want to write about. The best writing is the writing that is most authentic to you. Most students find that their writing really takes off when they aren’t imitating Chekov or Flannery O’Conner.”

Espach found her agent Molly Friedrich when she was reading Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. She was looked up the name of Smiley’s agent and then spent six month crafting a query letter.

In a fit of courage she sent the letter in the middle of the night. By morning she had an e-mail requesting the manuscript. Two weeks later she was signed on as a client.

“People don’t think of agents having their own tastes and styles they prefer, but they do.”
—ESPACH

 

 

 

“Look at who an agent’s authors are and if you like the list that is a good place to start. People don’t think of agents having their own tastes and styles they prefer, but they do,” said Espach.

With The Adults on bookshelves, Espach is finishing the first draft of her second novel, a story of a girl who becomes an unlikely celebrity after her brother dies unexpectedly.

 

About Alison Espach

Alison Espach received her MFA in Fiction from Washington University in St. Louis, where she taught creative writing. Her short fiction has appeared in McSweeney's, Five Chapters, Del Sol Review, and Sentence. She is currently teaching in New York City. The Adults is her first novel.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.