What would happen if, for one year, you said yes to everyone who asked you on a date? In THE YEAR OF YES, Maria Dahvana Headley decides being choosey has gotten her nowhere, so she says yes to everyone, setting aside her former notions of who is interesting and who is attractive. Does she find true love? You’ll have to read the book for the answer.
What kind of child were you?
Out of control weird, like just about every writer I know. When one has no social skills, books make awesome companions. For most of my childhood, I meowed instead of talking. Initially, this was because my dad raised sled dogs in the desert of Southern Idaho – the cat sounds were a sort of rebel war cry – but then I got addicted to the meow. I suspect that if I were a child today, I’d be swiftly medicated for OCD, ADD, and a slew of behavioral issues, but given that this was (a) the early 80’s, and (b) rural, rural Idaho, they just worked hard at trying to make me right-handed instead of left, (they failed) and put me into both Special Ed and Gifted & Talented, unable to decide if I was autistic or bright.
Boys competed to sit next to me, to prove their manliness. I’d pinch the boys until they bled, and then welcome my next victim. They had a betting pool to see how long each of them could withstand me. Can you see how I ended up the person who did a year of yes? My relationships with the opposite sex were warped from the very beginning.
In between mutilations of boys, I read 1950’s pulp fiction books I’d stolen from my parent’s failing antique shop. I was always the smallest girl in my grade, and so I had to do something to prove myself. I told everyone I was a witch, brought an herbal numbing ointment similar to Tiger’s Balm to school, and had everyone smear it on their upper lips. I was briefly popular, and then the whole class started crying and drooling. This didn’t go over well. It was a religious community. I’m lucky I wasn’t burned at the stake, or strung up as a scarecrow.
In third grade, when we were asked what religion we were (separation of church and state didn’t exist at this school, but public paddling did…we were retro) the columns on the blackboard read Mormon, Catholic, and Maria. The only other kid I bonded with was this poor guy who was the Fat Kid (everyone gets a title in places like this) whose mom put him on a diet of kiwis for all of fourth grade.
Cat Girl and Fat Kid traded lunch every day, and no one was the wiser. I got littler, and he got bigger. At some point, as a project, we did an audio reenactment of the shooting of JFK. He was Jackie O, and his high-pitched scream was spectacular. I bet Fat Kid’s a writer now, too. (And yes, this is what my second book is about…when you’ve got a childhood like this, there is no other option but to write about it.)
[Oh my God, do I love Maria! Sorry, had to throw the editorial comment in there. I have a feeling I’m not the only one laughing this hard and hoping Maria’s second book comes out very soon!]
Describe the person you were before the year of yes, and after.
I’d moved to NYC sight unseen, straight out of Idaho. My family was pretty freaked out by New York City – my parents had each been there once, my mom in 1969, during her navel-baring hippie period, when she promptly got lost in Harlem, and my dad at around the same time during his Naval-uniform-wearing military period, when he took the train up and down NYC, never leaving the subway, but getting some definite grief anyway. Neither was a fan, so when I moved, they had a lot of wisdom to impart. My mom: “Never take a taxi–they’ll charge you hundreds of dollars and drop you off miles from where you’re supposed to be.” My dad: “You’ll hate it. You’re a small town girl.”
I, of course, loved it immediately, but I immediately went into a life at NYU that was again, pretty sheltered. I mostly pretended I wasn’t really there. My favorite word was “no.” My body language implied ‘no’ as well –I didn’t talk to strangers, for the most part, and as for going out with the random people who talked to me on the street, again, a definite no. I guess the best way to describe myself pre-year of yes was as a person who was totally missing out on the diversity of the planet. There are so many incredibly different people all over the place. It was a great thing to be able to spend a few hours, days, months, in some cases, with a wide spectrum of them. I don’t pretend to understand everyone –for damn sure –but I do feel like it’s part of my mission as a human being (and as a writer) to try to get into a lot of different people’s minds and see what makes them tick. Talking exclusively to people who are just like me is not the best way to spend my time.
Do you and your husband have similar taste in books?
He’s a screenwriter and playwright, so he reads all the time, but a lot of it is work-reading. I read because if I don’t, I wilt. When I fly, I carry a purse that almost outweighs me, because I feel compelled to bring at least 5 books on every flight, just in case of disaster. If anything nasty ever happened on a flight I was on, I could take any malefactor out with one purse-blow to the head. The combination of hard-cover books, issues of the New Yorker, Harpers, Tin House, and big fat home decorating magazines (I’m addicted to them…largely because I’m trying to find a better solution for where to keep my books…right now, they’re in piles everywhere. We keep buying shelves, but it’s never enough…), and the fifteen or so tubes of red lipstick I also feel the need to carry everywhere I go, would be pretty lethal.
Robert does a lot of adaptations, particularly historic stuff. For the last three years, our house has been immersed in WWII on his end, and every memoir ever written on mine. When I love a book, I’m unable to shut up about it until he’s read it too. He moans about his bedside table, because I keep adding to it. I’ve recently given him Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The United States of Arugula, a book of Peter Orner short stories, a fat volume of Czechlaw Milosz’s poetry, and my most favorite, Up In the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell. I also just read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (I grew up on apocolit, and smily-faced as I am, there’s a special place in my heart for stories about nuclear winter) and Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family – a wonderful, surreal, memoir about the author’s family in Ceylon. I’m about to start reading The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, because I met the author, Steven Rinella, at the Texas Book Festival, and he was dead funny and smart. The best thing we’ve both read lately – the thing I think everyone should buy, and not just cause one of my dearest friends, the genius hilari-ist (yes, I’m making up words) Alex Steffen edited it – is Worldchanging: A User’s Guide to the 21st Century. It’s hip, it’s hopeful, and it’s all about changing the world, now. Yeehaw!
Did your year of yes change anything about your writing process?
I think it made me better at dialogue. Weird, I know. I was already a playwright when I did the Year of Yes–I was in my second year at NYU in the Dramatic Writing Program there –so dialogue was obviously already something I was interested in. My main failing as a playwright, though, the thing people always complained about, was that all my characters sounded like me. Not too surprising. I am an opinionated voice, when it comes to writing, and shocker, I’m that way in life too. I think I’ve gotten better at dropping into other kinds of voices, both in my nonfiction and in my fiction, and since I think that the way to make a piece of writing compelling is to be able to get into and feel compassion for all the characters in it, this is a skill I really needed.
A lot of the people I write about could go either into caricature or complexity, and I’d rather they be complex. I don’t know if I always succeed with that, but that’s the goal, anyway. It also made me more interested in writing prose –a lot of the events that took place during TYOY were recorded in vignettes I was writing for a class at the time, and when I went back to write the book, some things were already written, or at least their bones were. As a writer, I think my big problem is that I get too gnarled in my own head. The Yes Year, odd as this is, helped me a lot with that. Now I go out into the world to absorb some of everything that isn’t me, and then I go back to my desk. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing about –the next book, for example, is totally my own memory, my childhood, my voice. It still helps to go out and talk to different kinds of people, look at places through different people’s eyes.
My dad grew up in Seattle, where I now live, and he’s a major character in this next book. I don’t know a lot about his growing up years, and he passed away two years ago, so it’s been helpful for me, when writing about the things I do know, to walk around Seattle absorbing a bunch of maybe’s. Maybe he walked down this street, maybe he went to this bar. Even when you’re writing nonfiction, I think there’s a place for maybe’s, particularly when you’re writing about someone that has components of mystery in his character–and really, who doesn’t?
Writing this book has been like emptying an enormous bag of puzzle pieces onto the floor, and trying to put together a puzzle without any idea of what the final picture will be. That’s the deal with nonfiction. You only get the pieces you have, can’t add any more, but you do get to choose how much of the puzzle you’re putting together, which details you’re going to focus on.
Tell me about the Memoirists Collective.
The Memoirist’s Collective is one of the coolest things I’ve ever been part of. It’s a group founded by Josh Kilmer-Purcell, Danielle Trussoni, Hillary Carlip, and yours truly, to promote both our own work* and the work of emerging writers.
We were all lonely out in the world alone with our books. The MC enables us to run everything by people who care. I got three new best friends overnight – we met online, and bonded almost immediately, and ever since, they’ve been my first point of contact for issues ranging from contract negotiation to publicity snarls.
We’ve run a few contests for emerging writers as well – our feeling is that someone took a chance on each of us, in order to publish our writing, and it’s our commitment to do the same thing for other writers. We hate the culture of people stomping each other to get to the top. It’s not our thing. We think that as much can be accomplished by helping one another.
Our contests have had as prizes things ranging from a read from a William Morris agent, to a read from each of our editors at 3 different publishing houses. We asked ourselves what writers really want when they enter a contest, and we decided to offer something that was more than just a web-publication. We’re offering the chance to start a career. Basically, a prize in one of our contests uses our personal connections to open a door. The rest is up to the writer. We all know how hard that door can be to open, though, (god knows, it was for each of us!) and we’re really happy we can help out in that regard. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get going. We’re talking about holding a new contest soon, so stay tuned!
*We get the occasional bit of grief about that, but promotion is a real part of modern publishing, and anyone who denies that is living under a rock. You have to promote to sell books. It’s not the same thing as writing, but it is very much part of being a writer. It’s just the deal. This a way for us to make it fun, and give something back at the same time.
You’ve described judging writing contests as both fun and traumatic. How so?
It’s fun because there are tons of great writers out there, going at their stories with a wide variety of techniques, and for a compulsive reader/story sponge like me, what could be better than getting to read such a wide range? It’s traumatic because there are tons of great writers out there”¦and some of them are definitely going to sell more books than I am! Well, ok, that doesn’t traumatize me, actually, I’d be thrilled to discover a writer who was really extraordinary, and help them start a career.
Really, it’s traumatic because it’s so hard to pick a winner, particularly in the memoir field, for me anyway. Sometimes people have incredible stories, and don’t quite have a handle on a way to tell them. Conversely, sometimes people are incredible writers and don’t have a handle on what their story should be. And then, of course, there are all the people who have both components. How do you pick a winner from so many great, and wildly diverse entries? You’re constantly comparing apples and crocodiles, because you have comic stuff, you have tragic stuff, hyper-commercial stuff, hyper-literary stuff, and the publishing landscape accommodates all those things.
It’s also really hard to judge, because you can’t read the whole manuscript, or at least, we can’t in the Memoirists Collective contests. We’d never write again. In judging our last contest, we each read about 300,000 words in the first round, and then another 30,000 or so words in the finals. We also gave pretty extensive feedback, and now I’m reading some of the finished manuscripts and proposals that came out of that, and out of our first contest. Even though that wasn’t part of the deal, the winners and finalists were all books I wanted to read, so I’m reading them. That makes me feel better, because I get the whole story. 1000 or so words is a painful but necessary limit in a contest situation.
Tell me about being on the road – some ups and downs of your book tour.
I talk to Hillary (Carlip) who it seems has been to every city in the country on her endless tour, and I’m amazed. She has more energy than anyone I have ever met. And she juggles! If I were Hillary, I’d be dropping balls all over the place.
I only went a few places. Though touring is generally fun for authors – well, giving readings is fun, anyway – every writer I know has had the reading where they sell exactly one book, to someone they already know. One book sold doesn’t justify the amount the publisher spends on getting you to a city and putting you up, so I do understand why publishers are always looking for new ways to get a book out into the world.
I did tons of press, a lot of TV – I was lucky, in that my book was pretty easily pitchable in that key 15-second window (seriously, 15 seconds, that’s what you get) – and I went to NYC, LA, Portland, Seattle, London, and Austin. I had a great time everywhere I went, particularly at book festivals, (I did the Texas Book Festival, Wordstock, and Bumbershoot) because you get a more random audience there. People wander in who’d otherwise never pick up your book, and I think that’s really terrific, because a lot of those people have really enjoyed it. I’ve gotten more guys to read it that way, and guys tend to like it, though it feels like a girl-book conceptually. It’s not as much a girl-book as people think it is. I was listening to Tom Waits the whole time I was writing it.
So, the oddest reading was at Bumbershoot – it was a panel of me, and an expert on Weimar Berlin, who brought a dancer to do a dance called “Morphine.” We ended up getting rather more graphic than I’d normally get in a Q & A, because Weimar Berlin is WAY sexier than The Year of Yes.
At the end, a woman in the audience asked me to address the issue of sexual violence. Not very fun to have to deal with that topic in a 2 minute window, but I think every questioner deserves an answer. Even the 16-year-old kid in California who leapt up in his seat and asked me if I’d sleep with him. (No.) This was during a talk I gave at CalArts. It was trippy to look down at all these 16 and 17 year old writers, and have them come up to me, acting just like I used to act when I was their age. One kid had a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches (90 degrees outside), and he told me that he was “well-versed in the classics, but vague on contemporary fiction.” Oh, I remember being that kid. So strange to be the author they were trying to impress with references to Updike. It was great though. The kids were so smart and inspired. (Even the one who was trying to get laid – at least he was honest…sometimes that’s half the battle!)
Tell me about MacDowell.
It’s heaven. If you’re a writer, you should apply immediately. Basically, it’s you and your work and no interruptions for a dedicated span of time lasting from 2 weeks to 2 months, depending on what you request. I used to be intimidated about applying to places like MacDowell – it’s competitive, and there’s a judging panel…gulp – but I’ve decided that it’s ridiculous to let neurosis keep you from applying. Bottom line, there’s only one way to move forward as a writer, and that is to get over your hangups about strangers reading and judging your work.
The best thing about MacDowell, aside from the quiet and time to work part, is that it’s an interdisciplinary colony. There are artists of all kinds there, sculptors, filmmakers, poets, etc. I found that really inspiring. Dinner table conversation was insanely great – and people were very generous with suggestions for how to punch up a narrative thread, etc. I found it really helpful to have a lot of fresh ears and fresh viewpoints on the book I’m working on, because everyone close to me already has strong feelings about its content. The danger of memoir writing is that the people in your life already know what’s going to be in the book, and therefore, you end up with opinions that are weighted by things other than the actual text. I wrote 200 pages and change while I was there. It’s the best place I’ve ever been, writing wise. And, of course, they bring you a lunch basket. That alone might have been enough to make me fall in love.
What have you learned in this process of writing, publishing and promoting your book that you could pass on to others?
Hmm. Well, first off, treat your writing like a business. It IS a business, publishing. People work in publishing for love, but they also do it for money, and there’s nothing wrong with doing both, in my opinion. In fact, it’s the best possible outcome, because then you get to do what you love, and also get paid for it. I had to get over a lot of my illusions about writing and publishing pretty quickly –including the romantic idea that people should just work endlessly with me to develop my talent. That’s not the way it works, usually.
If you have a product that is saleable, people will be interested in working with you to sell it, and then to publish it. Book agents function, most of the time, as realtors. You’d never call a realtor and ask them to sell your house, if you had not already built the house. A lot of writers think they can sell an empty lot, and just call it a house. That doesn’t work very well. So, that was the basic early lesson: if you want to be a writer, you’d better be writing, and if you want to publish, you’d better have something ready to sell.
After years of being a playwright, I went to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, in Vermont with a collection of short stories. Aside from the fact that the conference is really fun, it’s also great networking. My goal, no holds barred, was to set my career in motion. I was assigned a meeting with a nonfiction editor. He was not at all interested in the short stories, so I started telling him stories from my life. He said, “That’s commercial. I’d buy that.”
That’s how The Year of Yes came to be. I wrote a proposal, got an agent, and sold the book in the three months that followed that initial meeting, all of it with advice from people I met at that conference. It sounds Cinderella-ish, but I’d been a writer for about 10 years before that happened. I just hadn’t found the right way in, and I hadn’t set a concrete goal for myself. When I did, I was able to move forward. It sounds silly, but setting that goal was the thing I needed to do psychologically in order to get published.
After I sold the proposal, I had about 4 months to write the book. Ask for 2 months more than you think you’re going to need. 4 months was just a little bit stressful!! Go over it with a fine-tooth comb, and get other people to go over it too. There will always be a typo, that’s just life, but you have a better chance of catching them if you have friends read the manuscript.
Ultimately, write the best book you can. It’s going to be out there forever, and once it’s published, you won’t regret the extra time you spent polishing it and making it better, even though, in the moment, you might be completely sleep-deprived.
As far as promotion, the best thing I did was hire an independent publicist. She was brilliant, and she made the process of getting on TV a lot easier than it would otherwise have been. She worked with my publisher’s publicist, and they divided the interviews, and responsibilities between them, so that no one went too insane. If I’d been keeping track of all of it myself, I think I would have had a nervous breakdown.
Some books, obviously, are more easily publicized than others. Mine was fairly pitchable, in part because, it just was — I got lucky — and in part because early on, I worked hard to develop a one-line pitch. Everyone who works on your book in the publishing world needs a way to describe it succinctly, because people are busy, and really, no one has longer than about 30 seconds to listen to a pitch. My book, luckily, lent itself to that. The title was memorable. The premise was easy for people to understand. It’s worthwhile to try hard to find something like that for your material too–for every writer. Sometimes it even helps with the writing, asking yourself the question, “what is the spine of this story?” Once you can answer that, you generally have a strong pitch, and that will help you every step of the way.
Maria, you’re wonderful! Thank you so much for being here.