DOUBLE TROUBLE: HAVERFORD ALUM'S FIRST NOVEL, TWINS, TELLS A TWISTED COMING-OF-AGE TALE
The budding novelist in Marcy Dermansky '91 landed her in trouble with her fourth-grade teacher when her 20-page epic about her standard poodle was deemed too long for the class book-binding project.“My teacher told me to handwrite it,” she recalls,“because otherwise it was going to be too much work for her.”
Imagine if that teacher had been presented with Dermansky's latest work: her first novel, Twins, the 295-page saga of adolescent sisters which was released by William Morrow in early September. As the book opens, the title protagonists, Chloe and Sue, are turning 13 and offering vastly different perspectives on their relationship. Defiant, manic Sue is obsessed with maintaining her longtime closeness with Chloe:“She was the better twin. She had the better name, and I was desperate to hold on to her.” Chloe, whose voice alternates chapters with Sue's, is making new friends and striving toward independence, and is tired of being defined by her twin status:“Everyone took for granted that Sue was my best friend and that I was hers. We were considered the same person, indistinguishable, even when Sue threw pens at boys or hopped through the halls like a kangaroo. But I was not Sue.” As Chloe tastes the beginnings of adolescent popularity, Sue lashes out, manipulating Chloe both physically and emotionally and eventually breaking the nose of one of Chloe's friends. Throughout their high school years, both girls experience the roller-coaster highs and lows of teenage life as they struggle with their peers, their outrageously self-absorbed lawyer parents, and their search for their own identities.
Since childhood, Dermansky harbored dreams of writing a novel but buried the ambition for years.“It was a scary prospect,” she says,“especially since I didn't have a practical career choice to fall back on.” She majored in English at Haverford, and received her only 4.0 in four years when she took creative writing her senior year. After graduation she headed to San Francisco on a friend's encouragement, and discovered she was just one of many young, female aspiring writers come to seek inspiration in the City by the Bay.“Whenever I went to a party,” she says,“everyone else there was also a writer. I was a walking clichÃ©.”
She spent a few years working odd jobs before heading south to pursue her M.A. in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi:“I knew at that point that I didn't want to spend all my time supporting myself. I just wanted to write.”
Just as Dermansky was leaving graduate school, her first short story was published in Gulf Coast, a literary journal produced by the University of Texas' fiction program. In the ensuing years, Dermansky's stories appeared in such journals as McSweeney's, The Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Indiana Review. In 1999 she won the Story magazine Carson McCullers short story prize, and in 2002 she received the Smallmouth Press Andre Dubus Novella Award for“Maleka, My Angel.” As her writing received recognition and praise, the notion of writing a novel became less of a faded dream and more of an imminently achievable goal.
Before Dermansky had thought any further beyond the basic premise for Twins, she wrote the third scene of the book, when Chloe and Sue set off to get matching tattoos for their 13th birthdays.“I loved it, and I knew I could develop it into something,” she says. She herself is not a twin, and claims that the book is in no way autobiographical, yet she tried to put a little of herself into both of her narrators.“Which one did I identify with more?” she asks rhetorically.“It depended on which chapter I was writing at the time.” The twins' selfish parents, she says, are pure fictionâ€”a fact that put her own parents' minds at easeâ€”and other characters combine traits from friends and enemies Dermansky has known throughout her life.
Twins took two years to write, and another two years to publish. Dermansky was luckier than many first novelists in stumbling onto an agent. A young man at a new agency wrote to her expressing admiration for a story she'd published in the Indiana Review, and asked her if she had any plans for a full-length novel. She didn't at the time, but contacted him later as she was finishing Twins. Her experience working with an editor at William Morrow was also surprisingly positiveâ€”surprisingly, she says, because“I'd heard that editors don't actually edit.”
Reviews of Twins have been overwhelmingly favorable, even glowing. Publishers Weekly calls the book an“entertaining debutâ€¦a moving and well-written story;” Booklist hails it as“a beguiling story of the powerful ties between identical twins;” and the Village Voice proclaims,“Dermansky excels at depicting extreme emotional states and how we rationalize them.” Dermansky was particularly excited by Kirkus Reviews' praise: Twins was one of their starred reviews, unusual for a debut novelist.“Sometimes despairing, sometimes blackly humorous, always engrossing and thoroughly original,” Kirkus praises.
Dermansky is pondering her second novel, but says it's too early to hint at any plot. She continues to review world and independent films for About.com, which she's been doing for four years with her husband, fellow author Jurgen Fauth. The couple lives in Astoria, New York. Her film reviews, short stories, and information about Twins and upcoming projects can be found at her Web site, www.marcydermansky.com.
In the meantime, one of her biggest thrills as a newly published author comes from seeing her book displayed in local stores.“I always want to stand around next to it, and see if any customers recognize me from the book jacket,” she laughs.
â€”Brenna McBride, staff writer