Q&A with Malena Watrous

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.

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11 Responses to Q&A with Malena Watrous

  1. Jenni says:

    Malena,

    Thank you for giving us a window into your writing process and history–it’s so encouraging to get a peek behind the scenes of the creation of your book, especially with a preschooler!

    I love the phrase “intense and disciplined compartmentalizing.” I often chastise myself for not being a more disciplined writer but the idea of compartmentalizing makes it sound more doable, somehow. Though you say it’s a house of cards, it seems like you’re able to get down to work when all goes as planned. Will you tell us a little bit more about your commitment/path to being a disciplined writer?

    Liz, thank you for introducing us to another wonderful author!

  2. Jan says:

    Hey Liz,
    Loved the interview.

    Malena,
    I’m in an essay class currently and still battling the “show not tell” concept. Do you have any general tips you tell your students? Is it easier to show and not tell in fiction?

    Thanks.
    Jan

  3. Julie S says:

    Thanks for sharing your writing process. It is always so helpful to hear how other writers (and moms) find the time to write without allowing it to become all consuming. Best of luck to you and your book! I look forward to reading it.

  4. Joanna says:

    Thanks for the interview and your thoughts on process, Malena. I love hearing how novelists work.

    The house-of-cards visual is very apt. As a work-from-home writer, I struggle with this also, but I’ve realized all working parents do. House of cards until kids actually leave the home (mine are 10 and 13 and it’s no easier, just different).

    Thanks again. I look forward to reading your book.

  5. It’s thrilling to hear from people. Let me offer a few replies here in order. (I don’t know how to answer below each comment, so hopefully this works for people and isn’t too confusing).

    Jenni–I think that one of my strengths as a writer is that I have stamina, and long-term focus, but one of my weaknesses is that I don’t have a very long attention span. This might sound contradictory, and maybe it is, but what it means is that I like working on a project over a long period of time, but not necessarily for endless hours in a row. For me, this means that I get the most writing done if I can do 2-3 hours per day, 5 or so days per week. One thing that it took me a while to figure out, and that I’ve learned both from my own writing and from teaching and mentoring others in their writing, is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to writing. I remember Elizabeth McCracken, a writer I love, saying that she was almost destroyed, in graduate school, when she tried to follow her instructor’s advice to write 4 hours per day, every day, because she was someone who wrote in a much longer burst than that, but only when she was inspired, and that forcing herself to sit every day didn’t work for her. I advise people to pay attention to what has worked for them in the past, to try different strategies, and to see what conditions lead to interesting writing (and finished stories or chapters), and then to try and replicate those conditions. In terms of what else has been helpful on my path toward becoming a writer, I’d say that workshops were invaluable. I got hooked after I took a night class workshop when I was in my 20’s and living and working in New York. I found friends who loved fiction as much as I did, and whose writing excited me. I couldn’t wait to share my writing with them–I was almost writing *for* them, sometimes. It’s been more than a decade since I took that class, but I am still close writing friends with a woman I met in it, named Ghita Schwarz, whose first novel, Displaced Persons, came out last month. (A little plug, yes, but it’s a terrific book). Early workshops persuaded me that I loved writing and that I had a LOT to learn, and also that I wanted more time than my day job was affording, which led me to apply to MFA programs. For me, that was a great decision. I know that moving to the country to study writing isn’t something that everyone can do, but now there are some great low-residency programs and online workshops.

  6. Hi Jan,

    That’s a great question. I do think it can be easier to “show” in fiction, since fiction is built of scenes (with some summary mixed in) and scenes “show.” But I think that all strong narrative writing seeks to evoke emotion in the reader, and one way to do that is to make the reader work in a way that’s rewarding. You need to provide vivid sensory detail–and to engage all the senses, if possible–so that the reader can put herself in the piece. But try to avoid overstating how you (or a character, in fiction) feel, and instead evoking that feeling in the reader through descriptions of gestures or mannerisms. In an essay, which usually reaches some kind of “point,” try playing around so that instead of stating that point, you use scene or image to point the reader (so to speak) in the intended direction, so that the reader can infer the message you are trying to convey, but there is a little mystery. I hope this helps. It’s definitely a tricky concept that sounds so simple: Show Don’t Tell! In fact, I think all writers are constantly seeking that balance between the explicit and the opaque. Some readers like things more spelled out than others.

  7. Thanks, Julie. I really appreciate your message and I wish you all the best, too.

  8. Joanna,

    As the parent of a three-year-old who is currently having trouble at school for biting, I feel compelled to say congratulations–that your kids have successfully neared (and reached) adolescence! Writing is hard. Raising kids is hard. Writing is joyful and exhilarating. Raising kids is joyful and exhilarating. I’m so glad that I get to do both, and yet sometimes they both make me want to tear out my hair. I think every writing mom would probably agree, but it’s a comfort to hear from others. At least they both teach us to tolerate, even to love, imperfection. This is what I thought about when coming to terms with the final edits on my book. It’s not perfect, but no human creation is, and I’m still proud of having given it that last push into existence.

    warmest,

    Malena

  9. Thank you, Malena.

    Your response helps a great deal. It’s tempting not only to compare my writing to that of authors I like, but to compare my process, too. I love the story of Elizabeth McCracken and the 4-hour blocks of writing. I’ll hold onto that one. And ah, yes. MFA programs are on my radar but, as you know, things get much more complicated when kids are in the picture (mine are 3 and 7). But those low-res programs look enticing and somewhat doable. Maybe someday. In the meantime, I’m glad there are so many online classes and workshops.

    I’m looking forward to reading your book. Best wishes

  10. Sarah says:

    Thank you, Liz and Malena! I appreciate the insights about process and showing vs. telling, and I look forward to reading this novel!

  11. Liz says:

    (From Malena)
    Hi writethejourney,

    I don’t think I would have enjoyed the benefits (or simply enjoyed) an MFA program now, when I’m focused on raising a small child as well as writing. I used to call it “writing camp.” Just like summer camp, it was a universe onto itself, where the rest of the world seemed to vanish–for good and bad. It seemed like the people who came in with families were stressed, and it was hard on the families too. I do think that summer residencies (especially ones that offer one week stays) can provide a short-term “writing camp” feeling (the good parts) without asking too much of you and your family, and are worth considering.

    In my college magazine, a writer recently wrote about how she has written 3 (published) young adult novels by working on them every week, all day, on Sunday. Goes to show that you don’t have to do the 4 hours per day method, although I do think that if you have a long project you want to get finished (aka a book) it’s a good idea to chart out your time in some fashion. If you’re someone who could write 5 pages a day, every Sunday, that would add up in not too much time.

    I’ve really enjoyed being part of this conversation. If anyone has any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

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