An exclusive Authorlink interview with Yona Zeldis McDonough
Author of In Dahlia's Wake (Doubleday, April 2005)
By Doris Booth
In Yona Zeldis McDonough's second novel, In Dahlia's Wake, the author explores how one couple attempts to rebuild their lives after losing their only child, Dahlia, at age seven. McDonough's first book, Four Temperaments, was also published by Doubleday in 2002. She has also published a nonfiction work, The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty and All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader.
Her latest work dramatizes the inner conflicts of her seductive, mismatched characters, Naomi and Rick, both retreating from each other to find a remedy for their emptiness. The author explores how grief can consume, damage, and reveal the passions, desires, and dreams the pair are unable to express until tragedy strikes.
Here, Yona talks about the development of In Dahlia's Wake, and her publishing journey.
"I don't really come up with an idea. A voice just starts talking to me. "
AUTHORLINK: How did you conceive of the idea for the novel?
YONA: I don't really come up with an idea. A voice just starts talking to me. In this case, it was Naomi. She was telling me about the agony of losing a child and how she was trying to deal with the experience.
A lot of people ask me why I wanted to write about such awful things. People respond to things that frighten them. My husband was even upset since our daughter was, at the time, roughly the age of Dahlia when she died. For me, I felt inoculated, retreating. It was necessary for me.
In my first novel, I heard the voice of Oscar Kornblatt telling me a different story. When my writing is going well, the process is not so much like inventing the story, but more like transcribing it. I'm the conduit. It doesn't happen all the time. I have to work at it in a conscious way.
AUTHORLINK: When did you first notice that you wanted to write?
YONA: I didn't have a conscious sense of it as a child, except that I loved reading. I think I became a novelist while playing with my Barbie dolls. I played with them passionately, developing complicated stories that, like soap operas, went on and on for weeks. I have always been interested in stories and narratives. I, like most writers, am a big reader. I am powerfully affected by a story and what it can do.
AUTHORLINK: When did you first get serious about your writing?
YONA: I went to undergraduate school at Vassar, majoring in art history. It was exciting. Then I went to Columbia to begin graduate work. It was a big, impersonal institution. The nurturing environment I had had at Vassar was absent at Columbia. I remember that all my classmates seemed to have briefcases so I too bought a briefcase, but all I ever carried in it was my lunch. It was a halfhearted effort.
Then I had the chance to take a fiction writing course in the School of General Studies. Right then I knew that writing was what I wanted to do. I decided to opt out of the Ph.D. program and just settle for an M.A. Though I knew I wanted to write, I didn't know how to go about it.
AUTHORLINK: What were some of your early efforts at writing?
YONA: My very first published piece was a review of an art book which appeared in a feminist newspaper. I had a series of unexciting jobs, but I was writing al the while, developing a freelance life, and writing fiction too. My writing career is a mosaic. It began taking shape little piece by little piece. In 1987, I quit my part-time job to devote all my time to writing. And I have never looked back.
AUTHORLINK: Wasn't that scary?
YONA: I suppose it was a little scary. I had a good friend who told me if I was ever going to do it, that was the time. I was married and had no children. We had a low overhead and no mortgage. So, I did it.
AUTHORLINK: To sell your first book, did you have an agent?
YONA: I had four or five agents along the way before finally finding someone who's right for meSuzanne Gluck, co-head of the literary division at the William Morris Agency. The agent-author relationship is a little like falling in love. You can't blame either party if one or the other isn't comfortable in the relationship. That's life. My agent for the nonfiction book, The Barbie Chronicles, wasn't enthusiastic about my fiction. Though I liked the agent, I knew she was not the right one to handle my novel. So I left. In this business, enthusiasm for a book project is very important to making a sale. I had a friend who knew Suzanne socially and she asked if I'd like her to show it to Suzanne. Of course, I did.
"I think we all need lessons on hanging in there. It may sound like a cliché, but I believe you have to have faith and fortitude . . ."
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take for Suzanne to sell your first novel?
YONA: It only took a couple of weeks. Actually she sold both of my novels in a two-book deal.
AUTHORLINK: How did you feel about that?
YONA: It was the greatest phone call I have ever gotten, and the offer was for more money than I had anticipated.
AUTHORLINK: In what formats will Dahlia be released?
YONA: Doubleday released both of the books in hardcover, and Ballantine plans to do both in paperback. Doubleday and Ballantine are both part of Random House.
AUTHORLINK: What was your most discouraging moment before you found a publisher for the fictional works?
YONA: My former agent offered my first novel to the editor who had published my nonfiction, The Barbie Chronicles. She and I had had a terrific relationship and I know she would have liked to work with me again, but she didn't buy it. I felt that if she didn't buy it, who would? But I persevered.
AUTHORLINK: What did you learn from the experience?
YONA: I think we all need lessons on persistence. It may sound like a cliché, but I believe you have to have faith and fortitude if writing and publishing is what you want to do. There's a wonderful story that illustrates my point. For years and years, a woman named Beverly Coyle sent stories to an editor at The New Yorker and got rejected every time. One day Beverly got a call from out of the blue. The woman on the other end of the line said, "I have left The New Yorker and moved to another publisher. Now I can offer to publish all of those wonderful stories as a collection." Beverly, of course, agreed. So you always have to maintain a positive outlook.
AUTHORLINK: What was your highest moment on this publishing journey?
YONA: My highest moment was when my first novel sold.
AUTHORLINK: Tell us about working with your editor?
YONA: My editor at Doubleday is Deborah Futter. She's very hands-on, prompt, respectful, gracious. She's great to work with and she has a real commitment to my books.
"Few of us have the luxury of long unbroken time. You don't have to have long blocks of time in order to finish a book."
AUTHORLINK: What are your writing quirks? Or do you have any?
YONA: I have two children, so I don't permit myself to have any quirks. I write when they are out of the house. Having anyone around while I am writing makes me grouchy, so I shape my days around my kids' schedules. Their school day is my work day.
I can't write with any real intensity for more than a few hours a day. When I was working on Four Temperaments, I was also doing other freelance assignments. So I worked on the novel, writing two pages a day. That added up to 10 pages a week, and 40 pages a month. When I needed a break, I would work on the freelance projects.
AUTHORLINK: Is the revision process difficult for you?
YONA: I work quickly, then I revise. Some people like to work slowly. I need to get the story out fast, particularly when I'm approaching the end. At that point it's as if I am no longer working on a keyboard; I'm working with a hammer!
AUTHORLINK: What will your next book be about?
YONA: It's the story of a nice widowed real estate agent in her 40s who lives in Brooklyn. She's raising her son by herself and planning for his enrollment in Harvard in the fall. He gets his girlfriend, an Italian exchange student, pregnant and she insists on not having an abortion.
AUTHORLINK: What is your best advice for someone trying to break into publishing?
YONA: Few of us have the luxury of long unbroken time. You don't have to have long blocks of time in order to finish a book. You can write in small increments. For me, that one discovery was liberating. While writing The Four Temperaments, on some days I could write intensely for a long time, and on those days when I couldn't, I'd put the novel aside and work on something else. The distance from the book actually gave me a greater perspective on the work. Distance gives you objectivity.
Write two pages per day. Keep writing. You must keep writing. Keep going even when you are rejected. Every time your manuscript comes back, send it back out again within 24 hours. That's what I call the 24-hour rule. Make a promise to yourself to do it.