"It’s magic, almost." Marcy Dermansky '91 on Writing Fiction
Author of the recently published Hurricane Girl, along with other novels, Marcy Dermansky '91 answered questions about her writing process and being an author.
As a recent L.A. Times review of her latest novel, Hurricane Girl, observes, Marcy Dermansky specializes in “female characters behaving badly.” Her first novel, the twisted coming-of-age story Twins (2005), follows a pair of identical twin sisters (who get matching tattoos at 13) as they struggle with love, sex, drugs, self-absorbed parents, and forging their own identities. Bad Marie (2010) chronicles the exploits of a morally suspect nanny. The Red Car (2016) focuses on a Haverford College dropout (with an unusually racy Honor Code violation) who leaves her husband to drive to San Francisco to retrieve a sports car she has inherited. And in Very Nice (2019), a mother and daughter become romantic rivals.
Along with wonderfully transgressive heroines, Dermansky is also known for getting consistently rave reviews for her blackly comic novels. And, her latest, Hurricane Girl, is no different. A New York Times review praised its “offbeat humor and spare prose” and called it “a wickedly entertaining read from first to last.” The “hurricane girl” of the title is Allison, who flees an abusive relationship in L.A. and buys a beach house in North Carolina, only to see it destroyed by a storm. Erratic behavior and odd choices ensue—all of which may be the result of a brain injury (for which she undergoes surgery). Or maybe not. A classic unreliable narrator, Allison is uncomfortable with her past and her family history, and her efforts to reclaim a life—the life she wants—are the center of the story.
In September, to celebrate the publication of Hurricane Girl, Julie Min Chayet ’91 moderated an online discussion with Dermansky, who talked about the joys and challenges of the writing life. The following is excerpted from that conversation.
Her process: When I start a novel, I don’t have an outline and I don’t even have a character. The character sort of comes to me as I’m writing. Hurricane Girl started with the idea of having a house and losing it. As I discover the character, I go back and I flesh her out. And usually by the time I get to the end, it’s all there.
What I really love about writing is I really don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes that can lead to disaster, but when I write, everything that happens is an “Aha!” moment. So writing is really fun for me because my brain is surprising myself, and it’s magic, almost.
A question writers get asked all the time is, “Do you write every day?” And the answer is, “When I’m working on a novel, I write every day.” And that means I write on Christmas. I work on weekends. But when I’m not working on a novel, I don’t write for months at a time, which is really an unhappy place for me to be because I really prefer writing.
Writing what you know: In nearly all of my books, the main characters are all women—except for Very Nice, which has five different points of view and two are from men. It was almost like I was proving, “Yeah, I can do this.” But in general, I do what comes easier. I think that what comes easier is actually what’s better for art. It’s not like going to med school. In art, sometimes the less hard you work and the more things flow, the better things turn out. So I write about women.
Things fall apart: I think that in fiction, a novel rarely begins with a character who has it all together—a retirement plan, a steady job. And let’s say that the main character does. It has to fall apart because there is a necessity for a crisis in fiction for it to be interesting. There has to be a reason for you to turn the pages. I mean, it’s with film and with all genres of storytelling. There has to be something that happens that propels the story forward, and that’s usually something not so great.
The shelf life of books: There’s a funny thing about being an author: The worst thing that can happen to you is you go into a bookstore and your book isn’t there. It’s really a sad feeling. And if you’re not [Wild author] Cheryl Strayed, it happens a lot. If a book is a bestseller, it can be in stores for years, and other books will just disappear in a month or two months. It’s so fast.
On the three-month anniversary of Hurricane Girl coming out, I decided to visit my book. I went to four stores [in New York] and it was in all four. At the Strand, which is a really iconic bookstore, they had 15 copies and I signed them, and a person who worked there took a little video of me. That was a great day.
I love independent bookstores and the people who work there. They have a limited amount of space, so it’s really curated— they put books out on tables and say “read this,” and you make discoveries that way. But I’m also a huge fan of the internet because if you want any book, you can order it today and get it soon. And it’s not just Amazon. There’s bookshop.org, which is a website that hooks people up with independent bookstores. You order the book there, and the closest store will send it.
On what’s next: It takes close to two years between when you sell a book and when it’s in bookstores, and that’s a whole beautiful chunk of time when you could be working on something new. But it’s a big commitment, writing a novel. I started something, and I realized that it was the wrong commitment. I didn’t want to be writing that book.
One of the things I like to do as a writer is I tend to write open endings. The ending isn’t entirely clear. So maybe I should write a sequel to Hurricane Girl. Or it could be a prequel. Aren’t all the movies doing that?
Painting is an alternative creative pursuit for her: Writing takes a long time, but you can make a beautiful painting in half an hour and then you can just mail it to a friend. It’s so satisfying. I paint a lot of cats and flowers. Right now, the flower is zinnias because I bought a house a year ago, and I planted zinnias from seeds and my whole yard is filled with them.