chaotic too-muchness: an interview + writing exercise from novelist Erin Flanagan
raising the stakes, divorce as a life hack for writing, & why counting is sexy
Happy pub day to Erin Flanagan, whose new novel, Blackout, is out today! Blackout is a great summer read—right in that sweet spot of being a fun, twisty thriller with complex, well-developed characters. (You so often don’t get both!) Publisher’s Weekly describes it as a “gripping psychological thriller.”
I’ll share just a little snippet of the jacket copy before turning the newsletter over to my interview with Erin:
Seven hard-won months into her sobriety, sociology professor Maris Heilman has her first blackout. She chalks it up to exhaustion, though she fears that her husband and daughter will suspect she’s drinking again. Whatever their cause, the glitches start becoming more frequent. Sometimes minutes, sometimes longer, but always leaving Maris with the same disorienting question: Where have I been?
Erin’s first novel, Deer Season, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2021, won the 2022 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author and was a Finalist for the 2022 Midwest Book Award in Fiction. She teaches at Wright State University and lives in Dayton, Ohio.
I read Blackout early and wrote to her to tell her how much I’d liked it. We bonded via email over our shared love of sociology and sociologists, our interest in writing process, and our shared admiration for writer and scholar Charlotte Hogg. (Hi, Charlotte!) I thought I’d ask her here for an interview to share some of her insights about structure and novel-writing.
Blackout hits on so many really relevant, in-the-news issues, in such a smart way–college sexual assault, the way the criminal justice system often protects white men from wealthy families, the additional challenges women often face in the tenure process, working motherhood and the tension between family life and ambition, women and drinking. (Two notes on those topics: I’d recommend Lara Bazelon’s new book, Ambitious Like a Mother, to anyone who feels guilt or ambivalence about working and caregiving, and you mention Holly Whitaker’s Quit Like a Woman as a resource for people struggling with drinking, especially if AA doesn’t feel like a good fit.) How did you land on that nexus of topics?
Thank you so much! And I will absolutely check out that Bazelon recommendation. When I started Blackout, I knew I wanted to talk about women and drinking along with rape culture, two things that seem to go hand in hand, and it wasn’t until I really started digging into these that I realized just how much these issues expand out in Maris’s life. I couldn’t talk about her drinking without talking about the other pressures in her life that make drinking so seductive, but once I started talking about those things—her pressure to succeed, the expectations that are put on women as mothers—things just kept getting bigger and bigger, and yet also more and more tightly entwined. I worried at some points that it was starting to seem like a big, hairy mess with too many issues, but I wanted too to use that to my advantage. That kind of chaotic too-muchness is something I think a lot of women identity with and I wanted to capture that.
I also started this book about a year after the Kavanaugh hearings. That was still really raw in my brain, watching him say how much he liked beer and how adamantly and emotionally he denied Ford’s allegations. Kavanaugh is a few years older than me, but reminded me so much of the men I went to college with that I think something there clicked to also bring these issues together.
Blackout has a slightly complicated structure, since it has the pacing of a thriller, but with an additional narrator. Could you talk about your process for writing Blackout?
This was my first time trying to write a thriller, and I have to say, I’m kind of hooked. It was so much fun to really put the pedal to the metal. Anytime I felt myself get bored I’d think, I’m on the wrong track, and I’d back up and try something else. There were many stops and starts but with each scene I tried to remember Tiffany Yates Martin’s great advice from her book Intuitive Editing (which she actually credits to the creators of South Park) that each scene should be joined to the next with a “but” or a “therefore,” meaning each scene flows naturally to either a complication in the next scene (“but” this happens to throw things off course) or a natural causation (that happened “therefore” we get this scene). It really helped me think about stringing scenes together and raising stakes.
One thing I really learned with this book too was how much I love collaborating with editors. A wonderful editor is the biggest blessing because someone is really in the trenches with you, helping you figure out how to shape the book and story. My editor at Thomas & Mercer, Jessica Tribble Wells, was the one who encouraged me to explore a second point-of-view, and I’m so glad she did. I think that character was pretty flat in earlier versions and I didn’t fully understand her motivations, but by the end I had another exploration of some of the same thematic issues that Maris is dealing with in the novel.
You shared in an essay for Catapult, How to Pivot from Writing Short Stories to Novels, that you wrote 4 novels before Deer Season, your debut novel that was so successful. (I love when people are willing to share the projects that didn’t come together. It’s such an act of generosity. Chloe Benjamin talked about that when I interviewed her.) My theory is that writing something as big as a novel and seeing it all the way through the end is valuable, even if it doesn’t get published. If nothing else, you’ve learned that you can finish a whole book, and you learn something about the size and scope of a book, as distinct from a short story or an essay. What did you learn from writing those novels?
Oh, I absolutely agree with you! I am always telling my students that the value of writing is its own reward, and that it’s not just about publication but about the apprenticeship.
I think with those novels I learned that I could survive writing a novel, and that I would continue to try and write novels regardless of whether someone would publish them. The puzzle-solving of it all, the largeness. I really wanted to understand the form.
Someone asked me recently if I knew when I was writing Deer Season that it was the one that would break through, if I could tell that it was a better novel than the others I’d attempted. The honest answer is both heartbreaking and also somewhat uplifting: no. I loved and believed in those other books just as much, and I doubted myself with Deer Season just as much. I don’t think you can work that hard on something if you don’t believe in it and knowing I put my all into those books means something if only to me.
I did realize with Blackout that I was dealing with something bigger in a new way, something more complicated, and I wondered if I was up to the task. I had an editor friend say to me, Deer Season was like a hundred-thread tapestry and Blackout is a thousand. She was warning me it was going to be that much harder to weave, but that much more rewarding when it was done.
There’s so much pressure in our culture to just do more and more, and I think writing can sometimes feel like one more thing we’re trying to do on top of everything else. What are the things that you don’t do to ensure you have time and mental space for writing? (I don’t garden or have an interestingly decorated house or volunteer at my kids’ school or or or . . . maybe I’ll stop there. But I always want to know what other people are saying no to so that they can say yes to writing.)
I love this question so much, and realize how much my answer is based in privilege. I gave up cleaning my house and hired that labor. I cook to get dinner on the table most nights rather than for the pleasure of cooking. I leave gaps in the weekly menu knowing at least two nights a week I’m going to say, screw it, and order out. But like, those were easy to give up—who wants to clean a toilet, right?—and yet I realize I was incredibly lucky I could afford to do that. I’m also married to a guy who is wonderful and extremely supportive, so when I say I need a weekend to write or time alone he’s like, how many brownies should I get you?
But here’s the biggest reason I can make time to write, and I don’t think it’s one women talk enough about: I’m divorced and I have my child halftime. In the beginning, being without my daughter was absolutely devastating, but over time it’s also allowed me days free to myself to write and create and pursue my own life. Her father is a fantastic guy and I know she’s safe and happy and loved at his house as well as at mine, so when she’s there, I can work uninterrupted.
I honestly think divorce is the greatest life hack for women who want to have it all. I would not be able to do this without a husband who gets it or if I’d had my daughter at home the whole time she was growing up. I’m not saying it was worth not having her here, but I’m saying it as a fact.
[ed. note: Lyz Lenz, who writes the great newsletter Men Yell at Me, would agree about divorce as a life hack! She wrote a great essay, It Took Divorce to Make My Marriage Equal, on just that topic, and I believe her next book, This American Ex-Wife, tackles this as well. I’m not saying you should get divorced, but I’m also saying your husband shouldn’t make your life harder.]
I like to keep the newsletter practical and encouraging. Could you share a writing exercise or a trick that helps you when you’re feeling stuck?
This might not automatically seem like a thing that will help when you’re stuck, but I swear, it does: I am a big one for setting goals and tracking my progress. It might not be the sexiest answer, but the longer I’ve done this, the more helpful it’s become. Every Sunday I sit down with my planner and try to figure out how many writing hours I can get in based on my work schedule, meals, the family appointments, and so on. Monday might be out, but could I squeeze in an extra half hour on Tuesday?
My bestie, the writer Charlotte Hogg, and I have for years tracked our writing in a cute color-coded google doc she made, keeping track of both time and task. Thanks to that data, I have a rough idea how long it takes me to write a thousand words or a book review or even a novel (Blackout took, I believe, 497 hours). So on Sundays I figure out how many hours I have available and I try to figure out then how much I can do—maybe write 5k on a rough draft, or edit twenty pages. I don’t always reach my weekly goal, but I get much more done than if I didn’t set it.
So much of writing seems magical to me in a way my virgo brain doesn’t like, so thinking in terms of time and goals makes me feel much more grounded. Again, not sexy, but tracking for me has been a game changer. And maybe here’s the really embarrassing part: my virgo brain actually finds it a little sexy.
I hope you’ll check out Erin’s new book! You can buy it from Bookshop or anywhere else books are sold, or request it at your local library. And you can find Erin on twitter and instagram (@erinlflanagan on both).
In the meanwhile, what are you reading? How is your writing going? I’d love to hear from you! You can always reply to this email, comment below, or find me on twitter (@nancy_reddy) and instagram (@nancy.o.reddy). If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter, I’d love it if you would share it online or send it to a friend.