In 2003, my friend John wrote a book about a maniacal doll tycoon named Happy. It was a good book, but some people got mad about it, and the book stayed unpublished until now. You can read a description of Happyland here on good reads. (Be my friend if you want, I just joined!) I emailed John some questions and he answered them.
1. In the novel, Happy Masters visits a tiny fictional town in New York. She decides to build a kind of living dollhouse/tourist attraction out of the place, thus effecting the lives of many of the shop owners who live there. I liked especially Dave the on-the-wagon bartender and Janet the lesbian college student in love with Happy. It’s quite a thing to encapsulate a whole town in a book. I wondered if it took courage, if it was ever too hard and you wanted to give up. Is it an especially long book? I wasn’t sure because I read it on kindle. (Most cursory of research after the fact reveals the book to be approx. 325 pages.) The scope reminds me of Preston Falls by Richard Russo and maybe some other books as well. What were you reading and thinking of at the time you were writing this epic saga and just who do you think you are in general.
I’m your worst nightmare, missy, that’s who I am. Seriously though—I think this is a little longer than the novels I’ve been writing lately, but I must say that it was incredibly fun to write. I’d set out to intentionally create a set of extreme personalities and stage a bunch of over-the-top drama for them to suffer through. I think the problem with trying to evoke an entire town in a novel is to make it seem populated by more than the people and things that are the focus of the story—to give the place an overall personality above and beyond your immediate literary concerns, and without cluttering the whole thing up. The first draft was extremely different—it had an art professor, and The Oldest Man In The State Of New York, and a ghost, and a little crowd of precocious children, and no real narrative drive. I’d just been amusing myself, really, in the hope that a novel would emerge. It didn’t, not right away. For the next draft, I basically kept the first 20 pages and started over, and the result is more or less what was published.
2. More about the characters. Did you have some kind of model in mind when figuring out the combination of personalities? For example, it seems to me that Kevin is a classic “chaotic neutral” if you’re into Dungeons and Dragons. I think I read you say somewhere that the ineffectual apple orchard keeper/mayor is akin to Colin Powell.
The characters aren’t strictly allegorical, though I did think of Happy as an expression of Karl Rove’s politics, and yeah, Archie as Colin Powell, the man doomed to commit sin after sin of omission. Mostly, though, the characters grew out of the other characters. What kind of person would Happy really hate? An old-school feminist like the librarian. What kind of man could Happy humiliate? A sexually insecure bundle of nerves like the college president. Who would worship and desire Happy? Someone shy and malleable, like Janet. Once I had the major players I could invent secondary characters designed to vex, tempt, or otherwise ruffle them. And yes, I am into Dungeons and Dragons.
3. I don’t want to give too much away, but do you think any of these characters found redemption? Is Happy Masters a better person by the end or has she just learned how to be more cunning?
I wasn’t really aiming for redemption—I think everyone stays more or less who they were at the beginning of the book. Except for Janet, I guess—Janet is the character who finds herself, or invents herself, or at least appears to have done so in the coda. I didn’t have any real goals for this novel other than to wind up these people and watch them bumble around. It was a challenge to tease a plot out of it all!
Time out for a personal anecdote about me as it relates to the American Girls dolls:
When I was a kid my grandmother gifted me the Molly book series, for obvious reasons. Like me, Molly was in the third grade, but in 1942 with a father away at war. She had stringy blonde hair in braids and glasses, and worst of all, a neurosis to match my own and I didn’t like that. I didn’t know I was cheated out of a doll until a girl in our class brought in her Samantha doll for show and tell. She asked the class to note how much her and Samantha looked alike and it’s true, they were both very pretty. For three years I needed glasses and pretended I didn’t because I didn’t want to be a nerd like Molly.
4. Which character do you feel most closely aligned with? Whose story do you think this is? Which of these characters are you most romantically interested in if you liked girls? If you liked guys?
That’s a thoroughly bizarre question, the sexy part anyway. I’m most aligned with Happy, of course—I’m the guy pulling the strings! She’s playing the role of a villain, of course, but I find her pretty sympathetic, ultimately. She is just completely impatient with anyone or anything getting in the way of what she wants, and this is an impulse I am always tamping down in my own personality. I mean, there’s a Happy in me always fighting for dominance. She usually loses, but she’s in there. As for romance…is it narcissistic to love one’s own characters? I guess it is. That said, Happy and Janet could be said to represent extremes of the two types of women I’ve tended to date—brash, socially confident self-actualizers and demure aesthetes with hidden strengths. I married a Janet, ultimately, but count a few Happys among my best friends.
Interviewers note: Kevin and Dave are the sexiest men characters in this book because they work with their hands and/or own a bar.
5. Did you feel hopeless and upset when you couldn’t get your book published back when you first wrote it, or did you have a system in place for dealing with crippling rejection and disappointment? When do we let go and put our precious in a drawer?
I’ve got some novels in drawers, for sure, but they aren’t very precious. This was different—a book everyone agreed was worth publishing, but couldn’t be published because of obscure and unreasonable fears. I was enraged at the time, of course—I ground my teeth at night and cursed the day various people were born. But the experience has taught me to detach myself from others’ regard and accept rejection and disappointment as the norm. Every writer has to eventually, even, I’d imagine, the wildly successful ones.
6. Have you ever tried to write a screenplay? Should I?
The screenwriter Michael Caleo and I have written a TV pilot and we’re gonna try to get a series made. Fingers crossed!
7. What question do you wish people would ask you about the book and what’s your answer to this question?
Q: Are you going to do ensemble social comedy again? A: Yes!
8. Seen any good movies this year? Books?
I haven’t been to many movies, oddly. Breaking Bad was the best piece of filmed entertainment I saw this year—I think Walt and Jesse are extraordinary characters, legendary ones, even. The writing on that show was amazing. And maybe I’m just thinking visually this year, but lots of my favorite books were comics—Anders Nilsen’s BIG QUESTIONS and Adam Hines’s DUNCAN THE WONDER DOG are standouts. I also loved a couple of new poetry collections by my friends Ed Skoog (ROUGH DAY) and Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers (CHORD BOX).
9. I need you to speak to me now like a sage and an elder. I want to start a book and finish it in a relatively quick amount a time. I’m a full time dog walker, but the grind isn’t so bad. I have a fair amount of free time. What’s a reasonable goal for getting a first draft done? Is that an insane way to look at it? I feel that I need a plan and a goal.
No system is insane, however artificial it may seen. Whatever gets the shit done. Before I taught full time, I could finish a first draft of a novel in nine months—these days it’s more like a year and a half. I tend to do a lot of work in revisions, especially now that I’m older; I’m more willing to ignore what I thought I was trying to write and accept what I discover during the process of failing to write it. When I’m doing a first draft, I try to work on it every day and crank out four or five pages in three or four hours. I just want a pile of pages I can give to people so that they can tell me what’s wrong with them. As for your plan—yes. Set goals. Meet them. Don’t worry if it’s not awesome. It can’t be awesome, it’s a first draft.