What Publishing 'Friday Black' Taught Me
The following is adapted from a discussion held December 6, 2018 at The New School University, as part of CLMP’s annual LWC}NYC Literary Writers Conference. The panel, “The Author and his Team,” examined the journey of Friday Black from author to reader. The conversation included literary agent Meredith Kaffel Simonoff (Defiore & Company), senior editor Naomi Gibbs of Harcourt Houghton Mifflin, and HMH's director of publicity, Taryn Roeder. Shaun Randol (The Mantle) moderated. You can listen to the entire conversation here.
The oldest story in Friday Black is probably about six years old, at this point. But I often say it took me 27 years to write it, because I feel like that's the real truth.
I had to come to terms with being okay with operating in different modes—potentially very different modes—in one book. I had to work through that. But when I wrote the last story, “Through the Flash,” I had already allowed myself to be more than one thing, and feel that the stories could still be a cohesive collection. Then I felt like: “You know, I think I got something here.” That was toward the end of the second semester of my MFA, which was 2015-ish.
After that, I worked on it with George Saunders, my thesis adviser at Syracuse. He gave me some line edits. By some, I mean a lot. And we talked about it, we worked through some things. Then I went to Colgate on a fellowship and I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out again, like what kind of book this was going to be. I did some stuff with the order of the stories. I did some editing and revising of each of them.
I remember at Colgate specifically doing this thing where I asked every story a question, like it's a person. “Where is your heart?” “Why do you think you are funny? I don't think you are that funny.”
On Working With an Agent
I eventually got to the place where I thought I could query an agent or I felt really confident that somebody would like it. I went to one of those things that list agents. I found Meredith Kaffel Simonoff’s name and then I did a lot of like background research on her, like her interviews and I went through a lot of her Twitter. I'm really into secretly doing a lot of research on people, if I am going to end up doing anything with them. After we had actually connected, I talked to someone else she represented. So, then it made me feel pretty good about ending up and working with her.
Meredith put together thoughts on every story, and her thoughts about generally what it may look like to represent me. And you know, it was just a very moving kind of letter, because of the amount of work that had already been done. Something that jumped out at me is that in that letter, she was like: Even if you never write a novel, I would like to represent this. Which is big for me, because I had heard the opposite all the time. You hear the opposite all the time, from a bunch of different people.
There were several months that I felt like we had a...I don't know, creative compatibility. There were stories that were a little under-cooked. I think it was two specific stories, the two stories that Meredith pointed out in that letter, which again to me was kind of bold to do, you know: “I want to represent you but these things need work.” But I am the kind of person who appreciates that.
Because of the kind of book I was writing, the kind of books I plan to write, Meredith was also very clear about understanding the limits of her own experiences. And that was it, a plain thing—and that’s okay. Me being a black man in this world and Meredith being a white woman in this world, we have different experiences. Trying to pretend that's not the case is dumb or bad. That wasn’t the case with Meredith. I just appreciate that so much, because, even if I would have never worked with her, the book would have improved from her feedback. That was really important for me.
On Working With an Editor
I remember the call with Naomi Gibbs happened on my 27th birthday. And I remember I was at Colgate, and it was my first time speaking to an editor in that capacity—which is a big deal for me. I don't know if I had time to do a bunch of secret research on Naomi, but I think I knew a little more than maybe I presented, I guess, just from what I learned from Houghton Mifflin.
I really liked some of the things Naomi said about the urgency she felt in the book and a desire to push it out into the world. I don't know if we talked about which stories we’d have to work on, but I remember the way she engaged the subject was always about making this more clear or more precise, and never ever content-changing or content-diminishing or shifting or whatever. To me, that's an automatic cancel. I was listening that whole conversation and thinking about that.
I felt a general enthusiasm. It felt…nice. It was kind of hard because for me, it's this dream come true. Just to even have a chance. But then you have to totally close that part of yourself down, because you don't want to do it wrong.
Working with an editor feels a lot like an arranged marriage, all of a sudden. Because now you're in this place where you sort of figure each other out and then see where you guys are the same and what the relationship will be. And you don't know in the beginning, but you do have a good indication. And for me, I had a really good indication that Naomi was going to aim for clarity and not ever try to change the heart or content of what I was trying to do. This was important.
On Publicizing the Book
I was very ignorant about the reality of all the things that make a book go. Out of all the people here, I'm for sure the weak link on the team. I had no real understanding of all the legwork from so many different people, from so many different angles, all quarterbacked by my agent, editor, and publicist. I didn't have an idea. I have been pretty ignorant about a lot of that side of publishing. I'm sort of grateful for that ignorance, at some level.
There's been so much news about the book and we have been so lucky with all that stuff, that if I think if I understood it all, it would be bad for me. All this craziness is happening, I'm just kind of like, “Okay, good.” And then, later on: “Oh, that was a big deal, I guess.” I was pretty ignorant about a lot of the stuff that was outside of me, outside of writing the book.
On What I Learned About Myself
So, what did I learn about myself? I learned I'm much more easily overwhelmed than I thought. But also, kind of tougher too. This semester I taught two classes at Syracuse. I programmed and directed a writing series up there. In the middle of the tour somewhere, I was thinking, “Oh, there's no way I'm going to do this! I'm just going to drop out or something.” But you don’t. You learn to figure out the different things that feed you. You learn what to block out. You learn what matters to you.
The New York Times review is a big deal to me. Not because it's the Times' review, but because what's been said is really meaningful, and I really feel grateful that Tommy Orange thinks that about my work. Before, I thought just having a Times review would have been great. But it doesn't work like that. I did learn that just being congratulatory for congratulatory's sake does not appeal to me. It doesn't feed anything in me.
I like people who engage with Friday Black on some kind of meaningful level. They don't have to say they loved it—just saying they got something or they felt something from it. That's also important to me and I guess maybe I knew that on some level, but I felt it really in a non-theoretical way over the last couple of months. There is a lot that I've learned.
I think I'm a different person. Like pre- and post-tour. I learned that, maybe too much of my identity had been about that aspirational narrative. I'm trying to be distinct. “Who are you?” Almost like you're not a person until you get this thing. And now, every time they ask me “What is your advice to students?” I tell them, “Don't wait for anybody, any editor or publication or magazine to tell you: Now you get to be happy. Now you get to be something. You can be a good person all the time.”
I’d rather be a great person than a great artist. That is more important to me. And that wasn't the way I was living my life prior. I had a kind of insane, sort of psycho-crusher energy about trying to become a writer. And I let go of some of that, in a way that I could still be just as committed to the craft and to the work and doing something.
I wanted Friday Black to exist, even if my name wasn't attached. But on some level, I still want it, at least for me, to feel like: I finally deserve to have that thing. And now, again, now theoretically I know: No one can give you that thing to make you feel like you're finally a person. And that is very great, but that's also kind of a tough pill to swallow.
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