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Anatomy of a Relationship: Lott’s Novel Captures Nuance and Beauty

The Rest of Us by Lott
The Rest of Us
by Jessica Lott

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Anatomy of a Relationship: Lott’s Novel Captures Nuance and Beauty
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Jessica Lott
Author of The Rest of Us

 

By Ellen Birkett Morris

December, 2013

In her book The Rest of Us, Jessica Lott explores the resumption of a love affair between Terry and her former poetry professor Rhinehart. The book explores the changing dimensions of love, the struggle to be an artist and the challenge of saying goodbye to the illusions of youth. Lott offered her thoughts on the creation of the book and cultivating the skills needed to craft a novel. .

 “In a sense, though, the title is multivalent—it can signify the rest of a relationship that feels unfinished…”
—LOTT

 

 

 

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the title. Who are The Rest of Us?

LOTT: The Rest of Us as a title came later and was a collaborative effort between myself and my editor. For me it emotionally echoes Carl Phillip’s beguiling book of poems, The Rest of Love. In a sense, though, the title is multivalent—it can signify the rest of a relationship that feels unfinished, or a group of people who aren’t like others, who have artistic aims or unusual ambitions. The word “Rest” also resonates in a book that begins with an obituary.

AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of the book develop? Where do stories begin for you? character? plot? image? first line?

LOTT: Novels tend to develop organically, and so slowly, you don’t even know what they’re about until years later, if then. This one began with a conversation that I heard in my own mind: two people who hadn’t seen each other in a long time, Rhinehart and Terry, talking awkwardly in a hallway of a rented house that was cluttered with umbrellas. That scene never made it to the final version, but it was the starting point that allowed me to envision the rest of the book. I like Nabokov’s metaphor for this in Speak, Memory: writing is like a lamp that when turned up brighter allows more of the room’s contours to be illuminated, and the objects in them revealed.

AUTHORLINK: This book is, in part, about second chances. How has Terry changed in her approach to Rhinehart this time around? How is this a second chance for him in terms of love and reclaiming his past?

LOTT: This is something that fascinates me actually, the idea of taking a tragedy and turning it into something beautiful. When we are in the midst of a painful situation it’s usually the most ardently wished for thing: what if the obituary is a mistake, what if the breakup isn’t final, what if we separated for a little while, and then, when we ran into each other again, we were able to recapture the sensation of falling in love? In the case of relationships, reuniting holds the promise of an earlier, more generous and exciting stage, while also having the grounding and stability and comfort of a longstanding association. In Terry and Rhinehart’s case, I was interested in how their dynamic shifted as their ages changed, in particular with Terry—you are a very different person at 19 than at 35—and their artistic careers developed. They are meeting each other at a radically different point in their lives, yet there is still something magnetic and in a sense, inviolate, drawing them to each other.

“To write a novel you need a lot of time and space to think through things…”
—LOTT

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing The Rest of Us and how did you overcome them?

LOTT: To write a novel you need a lot of time and space to think through things, to research, to dream. You have to be able to live inside the book for long periods of time, undisturbed. New York, where I was living, offered an incredible amount of visual, linguistic, and emotional material and creative stimulation but also competed with that quiet space. I eventually had to leave the city to write about it, and went to Spain for several months to complete the book.

AUTHORLINK: This is your second novel. How has the process of writing changed for you as you have gained more experience?

LOTT: The Rest of Us actually feels like my first novel, since the one before it, Osin, was a novella of about 120 pages and is quite different in shape and structure. I guess, in a sense, I try and remind myself that I’ve written a novel (and over those 8 years it often seemed sort of touch and go), so if I did it once, theoretically I can do it again. So there’s that. But that’s pretty much where it ends, because the thing that I’m realizing, in working on the second novel (or third, depending on how you count), is that you just continue to heap on challenges to make it exciting for yourself. There are new things I want to explore: group dynamics, Barcelona history, experimental structural and narrative techniques, so I feel I’m back to wondering whether it will all work out in the end, which is great. The worst thing you can be is bored with your own project.

“I don’t write linearly, but rather in a more episodic fashion . . . “
LOTT

AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this novel. How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes?

LOTT: I don’t write linearly, but rather in a more episodic fashion, writing the same scene a bunch of times until my characters and character motivations seem clear. I also write by hand and in notebooks, for years, usually, working out the story before I put it onto the computer and begin to shape it. That’s usually a scary point in the process. It’s where I am right now, in the book I’m currently writing about an artist collective outside of Barcelona in the early 1990s. From there I begin to refine the story, filling in the research I need to do and writing through the important scenes. I didn’t have any readers for The Rest of Us, I just began sending it out to agents. This time, though, I want to bring in other writer friends earlier in the process to have them read the book and give feedback. Once it’s in the publication pipeline there is a lot more revision as you work with your editor to refine the book. So it’s years of revision. Which I generally enjoy, although it can get sort of excruciating at the end, when you feel thoroughly tapped out on your own work and fantasize about creating something new.

AUTHORLINK: Are there particular habits that you would encourage writers to cultivate – habits of the mind or attitude or work habits?

LOTT: Developing the qualities of a very keen observer is important, not just a visual observer, but an emotional observer, developing the capacity for compassion. The best writers, in my opinion, take a genuine interest in other people, their lives, experiences, thoughts, and feelings, and have a pressing desire to explore the human condition, to translate those experiences into language in the most authentic way possible. That is the second part, the development of language, methods of storytelling, and for that you must read and read widely, in unfamiliar genres, across time periods and subjects, and especially literature in translation. I’m always working on expanding myself as a reader—it’s crazy how quickly we can just fall into familiar patterns.

AUTHORLINK: You have two master’s degrees, one in creative writing and the other in English literature. Why two degrees and how did each degree move you forward as a writer?

LOTT: I was in the PhD program in English Literature at Washington University before I entered the excellent and very intensive graduate program in Creative Writing at Boston University, where I studied with Leslie Epstein and Ha Jin, and I’m very thankful for both of these programs, and that I did them in that order. The PhD program gave me a more comprehensive education in literature, I read and studied authors I wouldn’t have otherwise, and also learned how to write critically, with intelligence and precision, and how to research. At BU, I learned how to construct a story, and also became aware of my own linguistic glitches and faults, some of the avoidance maneuvers I’d constructed to get out of writing scenes that were more difficult.

AUTHORLINK: What elements of creative writing can be taught? Which can not be taught?

LOTT: Desire can’t be taught, passion, and the dedication to creating something of value. The willingness to sacrifice for it. It must be something you want. The techniques for structuring a short story, however, can be taught, or at least explained, and through that knowledge and exposure you can develop a more sophisticated understanding of the mechanisms of prose and storytelling, and how to use and play with them.

“I didn’t submit to her right away, as I thought she was out of my league…””
LOTT

AUTHORLINK: How did you connect with your agent Lane Zachary? Any tips for selecting the right agent?

LOTT: Serendipity, which is usually how it happens, and Lane is fantastic and perfect for me, as she believes so strongly in this book. I didn’t submit to her right away, as I thought she was out of my league and didn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. But as she represented my professors at Boston University, Leslie Epstein and Ha Jin, I finally sent her a query letter, and she accepted the book off the first 100 pages. She was thoroughly confident in her ability to sell it and in the end she was very right. Before this there were many rejections and more than one agent said the book wasn’t saleable, so the key here is perseverance and belief in what you have created. Every writer has had a ton of rejection—it’s in no way a reflection on your ability. Because the agent who is right for you will recognize your book, and have a keen understanding of how to represent it. If you have put time and energy into creating a piece of work that resonates and contributes, then it will eventually be picked up. But you must keep knocking on that door until it opens.

AUTHORLINK: Advice to new writers on staying encouraged and focused on the right things?

LOTT: Consistently finding places of inspiration for yourself. Constructing your life in a way that supports your writing, through classes, or writing groups, or artist residencies.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on next.

LOTT: Right now I’m in Barcelona, researching my second novel, and working with two photographers and an architect from Romania, South Africa, and Montreal, on a collaborative community project “Making Neighborhoods” about the way Barcelona is structured; we’ve been spending a lot of time talking with LGBT refugees seeking asylum, African immigrants, and local residents of the Gràcia district, and shown the city in many different ways. It’s been exciting and very fulfilling, and I feel as if I’m forming my own community here in the process.

 

About the Author

Jessica Lott is the author of Osin, which won Low Fidelity Press’s Novella Award. She has an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University and a M.A. in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. She writes for Art21 and her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Frieze, and New York Arts. She lives in New York City.

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.