Part of the joy in reading Malena Watrous’ novel, If You Follow Me, was having a huge trip down memory lane. Like me, Malena worked as an Assistant Language teacher in Japan for two years. In her debut novel she captures key details of the expatriate life, while also weaving together a story that is unique and is about much more than a foreigner living in Japan.
If You Follow Me is the tale of Marina, a young American who moves to Japan with her girlfriend in order to teach English and escape the painful reality of her father’s recent suicide. The cast of characters in the town of Shika includes a quirky co-teacher of English who sings a mean Elvis on karaoke, a silent neighbor boy who is just breaking out of hibernation and the British expat who is attempting to become the next great foreign talent after his stint teaching English in Shika. As is true for many who live abroad, Marina is changed by her experience in ways she never could have anticipated.
A few months ago, I corresponded with Malena about her experiences writing If You Follow Me.
Please post your questions to Malena in the comments and she’ll respond over the next week.
When did you begin writing If You Follow Me? Were you still in Japan?
I had been back for almost a year when I started it. I’d never intended to write a novel set in Japan. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I just hadn’t thought of doing it. Now it seems so obvious (hindsight being 20/20). I was in Iowa City, in graduate school, living in a house I shared with passive aggressive note leaving landlords, who would alert me to the fact that I’d left the lights on when I left the house, or (true story) tell me to take my frozen bag of trash into the house for it to thaw. Being monitored by them (and by the general curious eyes of the Writers’ Workshop, a fairly nosy and competitive place) brought back memories of never being able to get away from public scrutiny while living in Japan, and that started me thinking of stories, some of which came from life and some of which I made up as I was drafting.
What was your process for writing the book? (E.g., do you freewrite, outline, workshop it with instructors/ a writing group?)
I tend to freewrite and then outline, then freewrite some more and then outline, then I go back and revise what I’ve got, then I try to keep moving forward–it’s a shuffle step. I have to actually write in order to figure out what I’m going to write about, so I can never make an outline until I’ve spent some time putting pen to paper. My outlines are usually lists of upcoming scenes that can have a sort of domino effect, where something that happens in one is going to affect or lead to the next, and so on. I don’t actually want to know everything that’s going to happen in the entire book, because for me the excitement of writing comes from figuring it out along the way and making surprising discoveries. But I do like knowing what my next few days of writing are going to look like, at least provisionally. I workshopped sections of the book, and I also had about 5 different friends who read and responded to the manuscript for me, in different drafts. I’d show a finished draft to one or two people, get their amazing, invaluable feedback, work on it through to the end again, show it to someone else, etc…
What advice do you have to people aspiring to write a novel?
I’d say that the first thing is to find the engine that’s going to drive the prose–make sure you feel a lot of heat and excitement behind the idea–and then spend a few months (to a year) trying to generate material on a regular (ideally daily) basis without worrying too much about what’s going to make the cut, or whether the opening is perfect. Someone once said to me that you don’t even know if you’ve got a novel on your hands until you’ve written at least 100 pages, and that seems about right. I think you have to do a fair amount of messy, exploratory, generative writing before you can even begin to shift into an editorial/shaping mindset.
Please tell us about your experience studying at Iowa.
In general it was positive, and I’m very glad that I went. I loved studying with Frank Conroy, James McPherson, Marilynne Robinson and Sam Chang. I like the approach to teaching writing there. We never once read a ‘how-to’ book on writing, we learned everything from reading and picking apart stories and novels–a real immersion approach that I think leads to a more expansive sense of what literature can be. I also made some of my closest lasting friendships, with people whose writing I look forward to reading for the rest of our lives, and these are some of the people I am fortunate to be able to entrust my own manuscripts to, so that is invaluable. The negative side is that it’s a small place with a lot of people with big egos, and sometimes it was less than a supportive atmosphere. I didn’t feel the worst of it, by a long shot, but I saw a few people get pummeled, sort of Lord of the Flies style, and I question whether the bullying approach benefits anyone or their writing. However, being able to handle rejection and criticism is certainly key to the writer’s life, and I definitely think that my own skin was thickened, for the better, at Iowa.
How do you balance motherhood, writing and teaching?
One word: preschool. No, actually, preschool and an only child. And intense and disciplined compartmentalizing. It’s not always easy, but I try to set aside a few hours each day for personal writing before lunch, and a few designated for teaching and criticism in the afternoon, and then to set aside the last few hours of the day, after I get my son, as our time together, plus the weekends, when I try not to work and just to enjoy being with him. I’m very lucky that I teach writing online, so I can decide when to do that work, which I like a lot. I quite often use a few extra hours, if need be, after my son goes to sleep, to finish up projects. It feels like a delicately balanced house of cards. If nothing goes wrong, and I’m vigilant, then it holds up. But one of us gets sick (like today) and everything sort of sails to the ground. I try not to beat myself up if I only write, say, 3 or 4 of the weekdays instead of 5. But I guess that’s why I’m not the fastest writer! (This photo is of Malena, her mother and son…taking a moment away from writing!)
Thanks, Malena, for sharing such a fine novel and for joining us at Motherlogue.