Writing Minds

Three first time novelists, one in her 20s, one in her 30s, one in her 40s- talk about why they write, what inspires them, and why their stories aren't for eveyone 

Our introduction to Julie Davis is innocuous enough: “…Another young, tallishly attractive girl in a fur-lined leather coat walking across Broadway.” The protagonist of Amy Koppelman’s first novel, A Mouthful of Air, could be your best friend, a next-door neighbor, a woman applying lipstick in the reflection of a store window. But Julie lives in a world where buying peaches consumes the entire day, a trip to the park is a near-disaster, and neither therapy, medication, nor the love of a devoted husband and children can penetrate her solitary shell of depression.

But for Koppelman, 33, A Mouthful of Air is a book of hope. “Julie made the wrong choice for herself, how she defined being a good mother,” Koppelman says, sitting cross legged on the grass in Central Park while children, tourists and newlyweds scramble by. “But the reader has the chance to make the right choice…to look for those tiny little happy endings in the world.”

A Mouthful of Air has none of the hallmarks of a happy ending— it’s probably the most distressing piece of fiction you’ll read all year. The writing, spare as an empty attic, reveals Julie’s anguish with disturbing clarity. Though Julie struggles to understand and overcome her fears, her scarred wrists belie an equally lacerated soul. The monologue she carries in her head—”If you look happy, then you are happy”—”I have become a Cosmo article”—”You are going to fail”—show that she is far from breaking the surface of the debilitating illness that envelops her.

Koppelman started writing fiction in elementary school. But it wasn’t until 1994 that she decided to take a writing class. A few years later, she was accepted to Columbia University’s graduate writing program.

“The Columbia MFA program is the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Koppelman. “It was a way I could say to my mother and my mother-in-law, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do 77 errands for you, because I have to do homework.’ It was always much easier for me to say ‘homework’ than to say ‘writing,'”

She wrote A Mouthful of Air over a period of years, using the closets in her house as office space. “It’s always an uphill battle,” she says of her writing process. “You never know if you’re going to be able to string another sentence together.”

As if writing the novel weren’t hard enough, finding someone to publish it was an exercise in frustration. “Every agent I wrote to said, ‘This is too dark and depressing for this publishing climate,'” she recalls. One Hollywood agent told her she ought to put the novel into a drawer and forget about it. “He said, ‘You want to write a book? Write Bridget Jones’ Diary!” recounts Koppelman, laughing at the memory. “And I said, you know, I’d love to write Bridget Jones’ Diary. But you can only write what you hear.”

And it is precisely the difficult subject matter of the novel that has earned it such an overwhelming response. Reviews from The Boston Herald, the New York Observer and St. Petersburg Times signal the book’s courage and honesty in its portrayal of post-partum depression— an illness that many women endure but few feel able to discuss. Koppelman knows she’s touched a nerve.

“I always thought that the person who would champion the book would be a woman editor, and that it would be a woman’s book. But it turned out that a 32-year-old heterosexual guy bought it.. .Maybe it didn’t scare him about himself,” she says.

She stops talking for a moment to watch a gauze-veiled bride float though the park, camera-toting family in tow.

“In my heart of hearts,” she says, smiling at the bride as she gingerly makes her way across the grass, “I still believe that every once in a while, one of them might be happy.”

“There are a lot of people who don’t know what fiction is,” says a bemused Dara Horn, sitting in her exquisitely decorated apartment a stone’s throw from Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

“People would come up to me and say, ‘So, do they (the main characters) adopt children?’ As if it were a documentary about these people’s lives and I know the inside story.”

That the characters live beyond the pages of Horn’s deftly crafted first novel, In the Image, is one of many signs that the book has left its mark on a steadily growing audience.

But Horn, 26, was surprised by its broad appeal. “You imagine your readers being like you, and I found they weren’t at all,” she says. “I did a reading in Florida, and a woman said, ‘Make sure you read the part about Costco.’ Then I went to Los Angeles and they said, ‘It would be great ifyou read this part about Holocaust movies.’ Then I went to New Orleans, and they said, ‘Make sure you tell people that your book is about a hurricane.’

“You see a range of readers in terms of what interests them.”

Horn speculates that the common thread that binds her characters also weaves through our own lives. “The experience of immigration, of struggling with tradition… if you’re from a religious family—of any religion—these kinds of challenges are something that you’re probably familiar with.”

Horn never wrote any fiction herself until In the Image, composed when she was 22 during a fellowship year at Cambridge University studying modern Hebrew literature.

“During the interview for the Cambridge scholarship, they asked me if I would ever consider writing fiction, and I said no, because I was incapable of making things up,” she says. Her summer jobs—at Time, Newsweek, and The New Republic—were part of her goal to become a journalist. But alone in England, with a notebook she had kept for years brimming with ideas, she started to write.

In the Image begins with the story of Leora, who has recently lost her best friend in an accident. Her self-imposed solitary existence is disrupted when her friend’s grandfather, Bill Landsmann, invites her to his home to show her his slides.

“I would like to welcome you on a tour,” Bill Landsmann announces to his guest. “A tour on which you will see the many sites of the Hebrew Bible, appearing in images around the world.”

The slides begin at the beginning—literally, from Genesis —and soon the images take on a life of their own, propelling Horn’s story through time, across generations, beliefs, and fateful encounters.

“The idea of this man going around the world documenting everything,” Horn says. “It reminded me of these medieval Jewish travelers, like Benjamin of Tudela, who would travel around the world for their work.”

Horn’s family also traveled extensively—she estimates she has visited 45 different countries in her reasonably short lifetime. “My brother and sisters and I always thought our parents were spies,” she laughs. “There was no other reason why you would bring four kids to Cambodia.”

Horn cites her family as her primary influence and inspiration. “We were always encouraged to perform,” she says. “For Passover we would act out the whole Seder, with show tunes and elaborate skits. Every time someone had a birthday. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, we would do these very long poems.”

The four Horn children have pursued their creative streak into adulthood. Horn’s 23-year-old sister is putting out a book next year, her brother is inking an animated pilot for a TV series—a collaborative project, with Horn as script-writer— and her other sister, a lawyer, is also an accomplished writer.

Now a Harvard Ph.D. student in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Horn has no plans to curtail her fiction writing. She divides her time between her thesis and her next novel, part of a two-book deal with W.W. Norton when In the Image was published.

“My one-sentence summary of it is, ‘It starts with an art heist and ends in Paradise,'” she says tantalizingly. “And to find out what happens in between, you’re just going to have to wait and see.”

There’s an unmistakable sense of deja-vu in Nina Solomon’s debut novel, Single Wife.  Two years after Solomon and her husband were separated, she attended Thanksgiving dinner with her family. Friends of her parents, who didn’t know she was divorced, asked if her husband was at work.

“I didn’t want to embarrass them,” Solomon says. “So I said, ‘Yeah, he’s working.’ Then the fantasy and denial took on a life of its own.”

In Single Wife, this same condition afflicts Grace Brookman, whose husband, Laz, leaves one morning after breakfast and doesn’t come back. At first, there’s no cause for alarm—Laz would often disappear for days at a time. But when he doesn’t return, Grace sows the seeds of an elaborate ruse, duping everyone into believing he is still around—the maid, the doorman, her parents, even herself Grace treads the mushy terrain of maintaining appearances until she realizes that throughout her life with her husband, she has pretended to be someone she’s not.

Inertia, denial, fear of loss—the impulses that motivate Grace to spin such an elaborate web of deceit are painfully familiar to anyone who has suffered the demise of a relationship. This might explain the novel’s widespread appeal.

“Younger and older generations are responding,” Solomon says. And in a telling commentary on male-female dynamics, she notes that men and women react differently to the story. “Men are jealous of Laz. But women don’t think he’s great. They hate him.”

If the novel’s themes are somewhat familiar, the story of how Solomon’s novel was published is almost unheard of “I sent it around to some agents and a week or two later I heard back,” she says casually, seeming unaware of the thousands of would-be novelists desperate to see their stories in print. “Several were interested and I just picked one.” She chose Algonquin, a small literary publishing house, where she felt she would get more attention than at a large company. Single Wife is not only Solomon’s first novel, it’s her editor’s first novel as well.

Though Solomon has been “writing since before I could write,” she never dreamed of becoming a novelist. Her father, also a writer, used to sit her on his lap at the typewriter and help her tap out short stories and poems.

She earned a Master’s degree in English at Columbia University and became a teacher. But her love of writing led her to join a writing group, which she credits with giving her the support she needed to finish the novel. “I showed them the first three chapters, and they said, ‘Keep going,'” she says.

At 41, Solomon is aware that many first-time novelists tend to be younger than she is. But she is clearly undeterred.

“When a dream comes true it doesn’t matter when it comes,” she says. “And I don’t think this novel would have happened any sooner anyway.”

“All aspects of your life have to be in balance, then the rest just comes.”

Solomon was brought up in “a Jewish home with atheist parents” in New Jersey. “No religion was ever mentioned,” she says. “I always thought I was missing something. I felt a yearning for spirituality. My parents found it in music and literature. I wanted something a little more tangible, somewhere I could go.”

To hear her describe her writing, you suspect she has found her place.