Polly Dugan’s stunning debut collection of linked short stories, So Much a Part of You, is being released by Little, Brown (an imprint of Hachette) this week.
Ten stories feature the intertwining lives of three characters, Anna, Anne, and Peter Herring, who has relationships with them both. Polly’s luminous prose is equal parts ache and elegance. It’s the kind of writing that’s beautiful and measured, allowing heady emotions and sparks of connection between the stories–and the characters–to flash beneath the surface.
So Much a Part of You reads like a classic piece of literature, each story taut with meaning, striking the universal chords of human longing, and loss, and faith, in a way that’s unexpected and deeply resonant. Polly has harnessed such explosive power in quiet situations, such as a boy delivering newspapers, a girl taking horseback lessons, and two people beginning to date. It’s not exactly a coming-of-age collection, but we do see the characters open their eyes more as they grow up, and with that comes a particular kind of grief, but also forgiveness. The stories shift from being about flaws, and how the flaws of the parents are imprinted on the children, to those children growing up and moving through the world themselves.
I met Polly in 2012, right before I founded Forest Avenue Press, and she gave me the huge gift of listening and encouraging me to pursue starting a small press. We launched a homegrown craft anthology, Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, through the Powell’s Espresso Book Machine, because I loved the idea of printing books inside a bookstore, removing the middle steps. Polly worked there, tending the machine–and the dreams of writers and publishers like me. I was elated to hear she had found an agent, and even more excited when I heard about her two-book deal, and now, it’s such an honor to feature her on the Seven Questions Series.
For those of you in Portland, Polly will be reading from So Much a Part of You at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 19, at Powell’s City of Books. Let’s have a huge hometown crowd cheering for her success, okay? If you don’t live nearby, consider buying Polly’s book online from Powell’s, since Little, Brown is an imprint of Hachette, which is in a headline-inducing ebooks rights fight with Amazon, where Amazon is blocking delivery on Hachette titles. It seems crucial for readers, and writers, and people who love their indie bookstores, to support debut authors like Polly so they don’t get inadvertently penalized by Amazon’s practices.
Sherman Alexie gave Powell’s a huge shout-out recently on the Stephen Colbert Show as a non-Amazon place to buy books, which apparently then resulted in a glorious flood of unexpected business. He also mentioned how anti-author this particular Amazon campaign is. So please, support Polly, and other debut authors like her. You can also find So Much a Part of You at your local indie bookstore through Indie Bound by entering your zip code. Amazon doesn’t care about these authors’ careers, or how long it took to get their books written and published, but we do. We have to care, as readers, and as writers, about Polly, and all the other Hachette authors with titles launching in the midst of this intense battle. Their books shouldn’t be the battleground, so let’s take that power back from Amazon and support these authors as best we can.
1. Tell us about So Much a Part of You.
The book is a collection of ten linked stories that take place from the Depression to post 9/11. The stories primarily revolve around Anna Riley, Anne Cavanaugh and Peter Herring, the lover the two women have in common, and extend to the lives of their friends and families. Seen through the specific lens of Irish Catholic characters and culture, the stories grapple with faith, mortality, the posterity of alcoholism, abortion, infidelity and the losses of friends, parents and children.
2. Why linked stories, and not a novel, or a collection of disconnected stories? Did the form give you permission to accomplish certain things with your characters? What were some of the challenges in working with this form? Did you cut out any of the stories, or decide to add any, in shaping the collection?
When I started writing these stories, a book was never the end goal. That didn’t seem remotely manageable or attainable. “Masquerades” was the first story I wrote, in 2006, and in hindsight became, and really is, the backbone of the collection. It’s the first story in the book in which the book’s three main characters appear together and quite honestly, the connections and how they developed were driven by the stories themselves. After writing the first story it seemed natural and worthwhile to pursue the circumstances of Anna, Peter and Anne both forward and backward in time from “Masquerades.”
I had the idea for writing that one story, which was a manageable and attainable goal for me. Writing one story at a time, over time as I did, they started to add up. I don’t remember making a conscious decision to make them linked—there was no precise moment or revelation—I only wanted to continue following and writing about those first three characters. But interestingly, after an early reader of mine, a dear friend, read “Masquerades,” she said she thought it was the beginning of a novel—an idea which I promptly rejected because, again, it seemed neither manageable nor attainable. Yet I recognized that story rather demanded a sequel, or companion, if you will, so I wrote the “Legacies,” but not until late 2010. In the years between 2006 and 2011, within each story I wrote, I was able to find threads that connected the narratives. Threads that made each story have a relevance and life beyond itself, while still standing on its own.
The form did allow me to accomplish many more things than I was consciously aware of while I was writing each story; it’s interesting to look back and add them up. For one, I got to play with cause and effect in a controlled way that I had to make authentic. We’re all a sum of our own experiences, and our interactions and relationships result in our ‘sums’ and other people’s ‘sums’ impacting each other. When I wrote “A Matter of Time,” I remember thinking, What happened to John Riley to make him this kind of father?, which led to the preceding story, the first in the book. Then “So Much a Part of You,” a significantly renovated story that I wrote in college, seemed like not only a natural continuation of Anna’s story—with a break of years in between—but also served to raise the stakes for her conflicts with her father. I was also able to explore points of view without feeling like I had to be confined by a certain consistency; each story is part of a greater whole, but a part that stands alone, so I was able to write from more than one close third point of view: children (both male and female), a teenage girl, and men at different ages and stages in their lives, as well as the stories that are close third female POVs.
The other thing, and this may be my favorite, was having the latitude to expose the complexity and duality of the characters’ moral compasses, most specifically that of Peter Herring. The first time readers encounter him, I expect they’ll form some sort of an opinion about him, and perhaps pass judgment, but none of us is one-dimensional. So while the subsequent stories in which Peter appears may or may not change readers’ first impressions, they do make it harder to stereotype or pigeonhole him. He’s complicated; the best characters are. Along with characters’ interior dualities—an enemy under certain circumstances may be a loyal friend under others—the stories illustrate another duality or doubleness or replacement model; the way characters repeatedly land in the same cycles until they get their lessons ‘right.’ For example, young John Riley, named after his father, Jack, is destined to repeat the ‘sins of the father’; then, despite the teenage Anna’s struggles with her father, John, she is attracted to a boy named Jean; Peter’s relationship with Anna follows the one he had with Anne; and there’s more than one character named Peter.
I didn’t cut any stories and none were cut in edits. I added a tenth story, “Blackball,” following my mentorship with Meg Storey at Tin House in 2012. Prior to the working with Meg, there were nine complete stories and her general suggestion to add one more gave me another chance to expose shifting moral compasses and hopefully strengthen the thread that was already working.
I think the biggest challenge for linking the stories was that I wanted the connections to be authentic and plausible; I didn’t want any of them to seem contrived or clever. I wanted to strike a balance that for me, made the linked nature satisfying and compelling without being distracting and confusing. From the early readers’ feedback that I’ve seen, there are differing opinions: I either accomplished that or I didn’t. Taste is so subjective, I think the form works for people or it doesn’t.
4. You’re one of the few authors I know who is living the dream—a savvy, top-notch agent (Wendy Sherman), and a two-book deal with a major New York press (Little, Brown). What does it feel like at this moment in your career? How are you planning to celebrate?
The past year has been really incredible, beyond any expectations I had or predictions I could have gambled on. I’m beyond lucky to have such a wonderful team: starting with Wendy, and my wonderful editor Judy Clain, and everyone at Little, Brown who’s worked on the book and changed the course of my journey as a writer. Because there have been so many milestones—small, huge and everything in between—over the past twelve months, closing in on the pub date feels like just another step in the process but also the very big beginning of a new phase. While I’m so thrilled the book is about to enter the world, the most predominant feeling I have is that the book doesn’t ‘belong’ to me anymore, it’s about to belong to everyone who makes the time to read it, spends time with and invests in these characters. Knowing that’s about to happen is extraordinary for me. My family and I are planning on spending the summer celebrating in numerous ways—a special dinner with friends and a party are what I know of right now.
4. The feud between Amazon and Hachette has been in the news constantly for the past few weeks. As a debut author, coming out with a title on the Little, Brown label, which is owned by Hachette, are you tracking the debate and worrying about its potential impact on your book?
I’m following what’s happening and have been, trying to fully understand the complications of the dispute and hoping for a resolution. Of course I’d prefer this wasn’t affecting the publication of my first book but because of how Hachette is handling it, the unifying support from other publishers, writers, and bookstores, and Stephen Colbert’s endorsement for Powell’s to name a few of the overwhelming, positive responses to the dispute, I’m proud to be a Hachette author. And, I think if someone wants a book or product badly enough—whatever it is—people are tenacious, they’ll find a way to get it. The dispute is particularly unfortunate for customers who rely on Amazon as their only means, or preferred means, for buying books and other products, but suggestions and options for alternative online outlets (Powell’s, Barnes and Noble and others) have been promoted everywhere since this has been going on, and I hope people are turning to those resources.
5. You’ve been a regular attendee, and champion, of the Tin House Summer Writing Workshop. I’d love to hear a little about why you’re so passionate about this program, how it’s impacted you as a writer, and whether you’d recommend such programs to other writers.
Right. Because I live in Portland, it’s been incredibly convenient for me to attend the workshop 2010-2013 inclusive, and I’m effusive about the program because it’s where I’ve received my exceptional education as a writer. I don’t have an MFA, and from what I’ve heard from other attendees who do, or have been enrolled in those programs and withdrawn, what Tin House offers rivals MFA curriculum.
The first year I worked with Joy Williams, whose work I’d studied in college, and it was remarkable to spend a week with a writer of her caliber, working so closely and in such a concentrated way in class and then privately too (she made herself available to meet with her students if they wished) which was marvelous. And it was the same with Steve Almond and Elissa Schappell, who were both also incredibly generous with their time and the attention they gave to each student’s work, and what they gave of themselves all workshop week beyond class: lectures, panels, readings, the willingness to be accessible to and visit with writers at all different stages of their careers. Likewise my mentorship with Meg Storey in 2012 (which took place during the workshop week) resulted in my getting the collection in the shape it needed to be for me to query agents.
I think the other thing that struck me in 2010 and has every year, is the collective genuine humility of the faculty—they’re all tremendously accomplished writers—but they’ve all lived the struggle, the uphill battle of writing, they know that the road to publication is paved with rejection and they readily share their stories of how they got where they are. And in turn, because they are invested teachers, after spending an intensive week with their students, they become supportive mentors. There’s just tremendous chemistry. And it’s not just necessarily exclusively true for the writer a student workshops with; I’ve gotten so much support and direction from writers I’ve been able to talk with during the week. Have lunch, dinner, a drink. It’s just an exceptional program. Plus, I’ve made so many good writer friends who are peers: other fiction writers, poets (I gravitate to the poets), non-fiction writers. It’s a place where lasting connections are made. We’re all cheering each other on, sharing accomplishments and setbacks. A good writer friend of mine who I know from attending in 2010, who is also represented by Wendy, just signed a significant deal with Dutton and her novel is coming out next year about the same time as mine. We’re both so excited. And, plain and simple, the workshop week is just a ridiculously good time. I think writers owe it to themselves to apply. If you get accepted, go.
6. When we met, you were helping authors and small press publishers get their work into the world as a Powell’s Espresso Book Machine staffer. Between that experience, and now working with Little, Brown on creating a successful book launch, what are some tips you have for debut authors, wanting to spread the word about their words?
It was great working to help launch Brave on the Page and have a part in your establishing Forest Avenue Press. For me it was significant to contribute to the local literary scene and witness the founding of an independent press, which you’ve made so successful.
I think every author has to pursue her writing and her goal for her writing to the fullest, in all the ways that feel like the best fit, and by that I mean a lot of things. The outlets to choose for submitting writing to—which magazines and journals, which agents to query. Also the education side of it, to get an MFA or not. Which conferences to attend, apply for, take part it. I’m so fortunate to have an incredible team at Little, Brown working on my behalf and the behalf of the book. My publicist asking for my input and also finding out what I’m available for as far as travel, contributing essays. There isn’t a travel budget for this book so together we’re working on the best strategies for travel in the northwest and possibly along the west coast that work with my family’s plans for the summer.
I don’t know that I have any groundbreaking tips, but what I do think is important no matter if an author is published traditionally by a big publisher or an independent or a university press—where there is a team working on the book’s behalf—or pursues self-publishing, that you have to be the first, best advocate of your work, even if it’s only in spirit while someone else is working to promote you. Be available and game for whatever opportunities there are, even if it’s outside your comfort level; take advantage of every chance for exposure and coverage. And, it’s so important, early on as you make connections and network as a writer, to cultivate your role as a good literary citizen. If the world is a small town, certainly the publishing community is. You meet the same people on the way up as you do on the way down. It’s so important to support and be vocal on behalf of writers you love and your friends’ achievements and milestones. We all have to do that for each other; and when it’s a writer’s time they deserve to be celebrated. For years, we’ve all worked hard, paid our dues, resisted quitting, spent more time alone with our ideas than the average person could stand. Being a good literary citizen is one of the best first ways to take care of your writing and your role as a writer.
7. What are you working on now?
After writing and working for the past 12+ months, since March 2013, in March of this year, I finished my novel, The Sweetheart Deal, which will be published Spring 2015. Right now I’m in the various stages of editing, which I love. I’m excited about promoting the collection; there are so many great things coming up in the months ahead. And I’m playing with ideas for the third book, getting some new writing done when I can, letting it simmer. For me, that’s how the process starts.
Thanks so much, Polly, for participating in the Seven Questions Series! I learned so much from reading your thoughtful answers, and I am rereading the book right now, so it’s a fun opportunity to have this knowledge of how the stories came together.
Find Polly Dugan at her website or on Twitter. So Much a Part of You is available at Powell’s Books, through your local indie bookstore, or if you must, on Amazon. And read this just-released interview of Polly on The Rumpus, conducted by Steve Almond.