Looking Back on Early Pages Moved Maggie Pouncey Forward

February 24, 2011
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Perfect Reader cover
Perfect Reader
by Maggie Pouncey

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An exclusive Authorlink interview
with Maggie Pouncey
author of Perfect Reader

By Ellen Birkett Morris
March 2011

Maggie Pouncey knew she wanted to be a writer before she could physically write. After all, Charlotte, of the beloved book Charlotte’s Web, was a writer.

No surprise then that her first novel, Perfect Reader, centers on the challenges faced by Flora Dempsey when she is named literary executrix for her late father, critic and poet Lewis Dempsey. In the process, Flora discovers her father’s poems, which he gave her to read before he died, are inspired by a girlfriend that Flora didn’t know existed.

The book’s title comes from Lewis Dempsey’s remark to his daughter that she was the perfect reader for his poetry manuscript.

“One of the pleasures of reading is feeling that I really get what the author is saying.”
—
POUNCEY

“The idea of a perfect reader is a fantasy of sorts. One of the pleasures of reading is feeling that I really get what the author is saying. But that feeling of knowledge and ownership may be misleading. Flora discovers that all of the things she thought she knew about her dad she really didn’t,” said Pouncey.

The book emerged from two short stories both set in the fictional town of Darwin that Pouncey wrote while pursuing her B.A. and M.F.A. from Columbia University.

One of the stories focused on a young girl’s experience of her parents divorce and the other on a woman in her twenties returning to a college town to serve as her father’s literary executrix.

“It brings up questions of how well a child can really know a parent, and how well should they know them,” said Pouncey.

The novel includes these events and puts Flora face to face with the parents of an old friend, provides her with a new love interest and forces her to confront her own prejudices and future.

Pouncey said her stories spring from a particular character placed in a particular predicament.

The funny and carefully drawn college town of Darwin, where the novel is set, is a place where political correctness is a must and where residents sport t-shirts that read “Paris, Athens, Rome, Darwin.” Pouncey grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts and lived on several college campuses. She used her memories of those places as a springboard for imagining Darwin.

“So many academic novels tend to be comic, even satirical. Those towns are made up of a group of like-minded people with strong shared convictions. I wanted to explore this without the town being a parody of itself.”

Pouncey wrote the novel over the course of three years. She recommends developing a workmanlike attitude toward writing, working every day, if only for short periods of time.

Pouncey wrote or revised seven days a week, including making notes on a hard copy on Sundays. “Keeping the book really present and alive in my mind meant working on it even when I was away from the computer,” she observed.

“I found the process of writing a first novel terrifying. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it.”
—POUNCEY

 

 

 

“I found the process of writing a first novel terrifying. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. I didn’t work from an outline and at times I wished I had,” said Pouncey. She found that setting constraints, such as deciding to limit the time frame to one academic year, was helpful. It also took her a while to figure out how to end the book.

 

“I’d go back a lot and read from the beginning. I had to go back to go forward. I read the first 100 pages 1,000 times fiddling with things and reworking them,” she said.

 

She also found that reading aloud helped her pay closer attention to each sentence and helped with making small revisions.

 

Once she had a workable draft, she sent it to writer friends to read and critique. Pouncey noted that while she didn’t feel that her M.F.A. was a requirement to becoming a novelist it “sped up the process of teaching her about her own writing” and provided her with a community of writers, who still share work and offer each other constructive feedback.

 

Deborah Garrison at Pantheon Books edited the book and helped Pouncey simplify the structure at the end of the book.

 

Pouncey found her agent Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency when Carlson served on a panel of editors and agents at Columbia.

 

“She seemed smart and kind so I filed her name away,” said Pouncey, “Be patient. The long haul begins with finding the right person to represent you and your work. Take the time to find the person best suited to you.”

 

When the going got tough, Pouncey read the work of other writers on the act of writing including George Orwell and Joan Didion.

“It was great to read these intelligent voices lending humor to the struggle of the endeavor . . .”
—POUNCEY

 

 

 

“It was a comfort to me when I felt finishing the book was impossible. It was great to read these intelligent voices lending humor to the struggle of the endeavor,” said Pouncey.

 

Since writing Perfect Reader, Pouncey had a baby. She is now making notes for her second novel.

About Maggie Pouncey

Maggie Pouncey was born in New York City and grew up there and in Amherst, Massachusetts, and New Haven, Connecticut. She received her B.A. and M.F.A. from Columbia University and has taught writing at Columbia, the Bard Prison Initiative, and the New York City nonprofit Girls Write Now. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

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.

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris