Zibby Owens: Hi, listeners. I am so sorry. I did something wrong. I don't even know what I did. The sound quality on Lauren Mechling and Marcy Dermansky’s episodes is not quite up to par with my normal episodes. Honestly, I've done close to 150 episodes. This is the first time this has happened. I am so sorry. I'm not a technical wiz. I guess I did something wrong. Please listen anyway. It’s just not perfect, which bothers me. Now is also a great time to read the transcripts of these interviews on my website, zibbyowens.com/transcript, which has all the transcripts for all my episodes including a link to audio, a link to buy. It’s another great way to get to know the authors. Again, I'm really sorry. Please listen anyway. It won't happen again. Thanks.
I'm really excited to be here today with Marcy Dermansky who’s the author of Very Nice: A Novel. Her previous critically acclaimed novels are The Red Car, Bad Maire, and Twins. Her short fiction has been widely published and anthologized in McSweeney’s, the Indiana Review, and many other publications. A fellowship recipient from the MacDowell Colony and The Edward F Albee Foundation, Marcy graduated from Haverford College and received her master’s in arts from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. She currently lives with her daughter in New Jersey. True? All good? [laughter] Welcome, Marcy.
Marcy Dermansky: Yep. Thank you, Zibby. It’s so nice to be here.
Zibby: It’s so nice to have you. Can you please tell listeners what Very Nice is about? What inspired you to write it?
Marcy: I'd love to. Very Nice, this is a literary soap opera. I started this because I wrote a short story for Lenny Letter. I wanted to write about a student-teacher affair, which is something that I haven't done. I've just always found it --
Zibby: -- [laughs] That was going to be a question.
Marcy: I know, we’re still going to do it. I've always been so interested in it. It was material that other people wrote about and I was jealous about. I was like, maybe I could write it anyway even though I haven't had this experience. That's what one of the pleasures of fiction is. You can make things up. Once I had this affair, which starts in the very beginning of the book -- the daughter takes her creative writing professor’s poodle home for the summer, a standard poodle. Her mother falls in love with the standard poodle. Then when the writing teacher comes to pick up his dog, it becomes really complicated. The mother looks at the professor and she's interested in him too, and so a lot of melodrama. It’s set in contemporary America in the new administration. I had so much fun writing it.
Zibby: It’s really fun to read. It was awesome. Seriously, I really, really enjoyed it. You mentioned early on that the professor, Zahid -- am I pronouncing that right?
Marcy: Yes. I think you are.
Zibby: This fictious name, did I get his name right?
Marcy: You got it right. I made a joke about how it sounds like a superhero’s name. I think it does sound like a superhero’s name.
Zibby: I like that it starts with a Z. I feel like [indiscernible].
Marcy: Oh, a Z? [laughs]
Zibby: Yeah. That's why, or just randomly I have a thing for zebras. He has written a book in the beginning of your book which had received a lot of literary acclaim and attention. People throughout the book are like, “Oh, my gosh, your book. I wonder what his lentils taste like.” What I thought was really interesting is you said that to read it, the sentences were so long and dense that the mother Becca had trouble reading it. Other people are kind of ashamed to admit that it was a little bit dense for them. Your book had very short, punchy, quick sentences. Did you do that on purpose?
Marcy: Actually, that is how I write. I've always written in this style. It’s not unusual. I like short sentences. I like repetition. I will have short sentences that often reflect back what was just said in the sentence before. Sometimes people are like, “Huh. She did that again.” It was on purpose. [laughter] I also do feel like in the literary world that the more complicated something is, the denser it is, the longer the paragraphs, even the longer the book, people just think, “Oh, this must be good.” Maybe that's almost a chip on my shoulder. I feel like if you write that way, that's how you're going to win awards. You're having praise. I do mock the writing world a little bit in this book, which is sort of funny because I want to be part of it and I love writers.
Zibby: It’s true. I feel like there's a disconnect almost between some of the hyper-literary productions and the people who read them. Unless you have endless amounts of time, it can take a while to get through some of these.
Marcy: It’s really, really true.
Zibby: You’re supposed to love them.
Marcy: I know. You're not supposed to admit when you don't love them. You just buy them. You have it on your shelf. You can say that you've started to read it. That's all you need to do. [laughter]
Zibby: You told the story from alternating viewpoints. A soap opera was a perfect analogy. I was going to say it’s like watching a movie. How did you decide to structure it from all those different viewpoints and to add in all these little coincidences throughout?
Marcy: The funny thing about how I write is I don't have an outline. I don't know what I'm going to do before I do it. Everything just happens. I basically wrote the short story. I had so much fun writing it. Then I'm done. That's the problem with short stories. You write fifteen pages, and then you have to start something new. I hate starting new things. I have a friend who teaches writing. She’s like, why don't you just write from another perspective? It was like she gave me an assignment, so I wrote from the mother. Then when I finished the mother’s, it’s like, I’ll write from the professor’s point of view. That was fun. Out of nowhere -- I still don't know where she came from -- I ended up writing from the writing professor’s subletor. She's so random. [laughs] How does she fit into the story? Once she was there, I wanted to keep her. I kept making coincidences to make her belong so that Chloe, the subletor of Zahid’s apartment -- suddenly, we find out that she's working for his student’s father. Later on, we find out that the woman that she's had a crush on her whole life, her babysitter -- her babysitter is Zahid’s editor.
It gets more and more entangled. The story just developed on its own. One thing for people who are aspiring to write, when you write alternate points of view, you instantly have a structure. You suddenly realize, I have these four characters. I have an order. Once you finish one point of view, you go to the next character and the next character. The story builds because you're jumping to what's happening to them. I did cheat a little bit in this book in that the father comes in, and he only has his POV twice. The good thing about writing fiction as opposed to building a building or science or chemical structure is you can break your format a little bit and it still works. It held together.
Zibby: Totally. What was funny in the beginning was how when Rachel comes home for the summer -- Rachel is the daughter, the professor’s student. She wasn’t expected to go home for the summer. She decides to go home. Her mom Becca has recently been left by her husband. Her dog has recently passed away. She's not in the best mind-set and was mentally prepared to have the summer to herself. Then Rachel all of a sudden shows up on her doorstep. She's not sure how she feels about it. She says later, “I felt happy now that Rachel was home. I had thought I might resent her presence, but I didn't. I genuinely liked my almost-adult Rachel. I had been allowing myself to fall into a lazy kind of depression, left by my husband, dog dead. And then Rachel came home with her laundry and this constant need to be fed the minute she walked in the door. And I got to mother her. And I liked mothering. I always had.” Tell me more about this feeling that she had.
Marcy: It’s a funny thing about mothering. You're not supposed to admit to, I don't think, “Oh, my god. I don't want my daughter home for the summer.” There's all these contradictions where you love your child so much. Then they go off to school, and you're so grateful. You're like, they're gone. I was really playing with that in this book. I have a nine-year-old daughter. In the novel, Rachel’s much older. She's nineteen. I feel like I can still understand what it would be like to have an older child. I also used my mother as a model because I know there are weekends where the family comes over. The grandkids come over. She doesn't say so, but I feel like she would really rather be alone today. I'm using all this material from my life and my experience, and watching mothers and daughters, and then kind of writing a truth and giving it another character.
Zibby: Have you ever asked your mom?
Marcy: [laughs] No. It’s just obvious.
Zibby: Is it definitely obvious?
Marcy: It’s definitely obvious.
Zibby: Sometimes I think that my mother thinks things. She like, “You should've asked me because actually, that's not how I felt.”
Marcy: That's also true. That's interesting too. I love my mom.
Zibby: I love my mom.
Marcy: [laughs] We love our moms. If my mom listened to this, she will let you know. Sometimes she just doesn't want you to come over because she might be a little bit depressed like this mother might be or just having a bad day. Then when you appear, you can change your mind. People are so complex. Do you know what I mean?
Marcy: I think it’s both. There's this idea that you have a child and they never grow up. You're like, oh, my god. Aren't I going to be done taking care of them? What if you were done taking care of them? You would really miss it. It’s a pleasure to still be able to baby your adult child. I think it’s both. I was really playing with that.
Zibby: That's great. There's this whole other element where a student has a gun and takes the gun out on Becca, the mother. This happens before the story is set. I'm jumping all over with your plot here.
Marcy: That's fine. That's what the plot does.
Zibby: Then Rachel ends up working at a day camp for the summer. The would-be shooter’s sister is one of her campers. She goes to dinner at their house one night. That mother -- I'm sorry. This is sounding so convoluted. Let me just ask this question. The mother there is talking about what if her son had actually killed Becca and how horrible that would be. You wrote that she thought, “‘What would our lives be?’ Amelia’s mother said. She was having trouble sitting on the barstool in their perfect kitchen. She slipped off. She was crazy drunk. ‘We would be ruined,’ she said, her arms waving. ‘That’s for sure. How could you come back from such a thing? We would not be allowed back into the tennis club. That is for sure.’” I couldn't believe you had her say that. I had a totally different image of what his family was like until that sentence. Tell me about them.
Marcy: Gosh. Sometimes you're not supposed to say that. You're not supposed to say, “We’re not allowed back in the tennis club.” When you're in somebody's own home, you can say whatever you want. Of course, Rachel is their witness. Then our readers are in the witness. I don't think she means it. She does mean it. If your child does something that horrendous, by the way, you are actually kicked out of the tennis club. You are ostracized. When somebody does something as horrific as bring a gun into a school, the ramifications of how many lives they ruin -- I write about this very, very comically. It’s also very, very serious. It’s a little bit of both. The characters, that family, the Thortmans, they veer on caricature. This book has a satiric element to it. Also, she was intoxicated. I make that very clear.
Zibby: Another theme in this book is playing with people in positions of authority. You have Rachel with her professor. Then you have Chloe with her crush on her former babysitter. You allude to what may have gone on in the past between the two of them. What was that about?
Marcy: It’s so interesting. It’s funny. I love when people read my books and they're like, “You're writing about people in authority.” I'm like, oh, my god. I did that. It wasn’t intentional. I think that's probably really common, to look up to people who have more authority and who know more, and then to sometimes have inappropriate feelings. I think that’s what it’s about.
Zibby: It’s also very timely. It’s been in the news so much lately, even with the gymnastics scandal and so many of these relationships that might not have been condoned. This is not in this book.
Marcy: I feel like relationships between professors and their students has been happening since --
Zibby: -- Age-old.
Marcy: Age-old. Suddenly, now you can't. Now it’s a bad thing. I think that's a good thing, by the way. I don't have a problem with that. It’s age-old. The funny thing about sex is people want to legislate it and make morals to it. It’s so messy. People behave really, really badly, and they're not bad people, except maybe the babysitter. There are bad people in this book, but I like them all. That's a funny thing. I write these characters. They really do atrocious things. They don't always treat each other very well. It’s strange that I feel affection for every single one of them. I actually do. [laughs]
Zibby: They become so real. That sounds cliché. “Oh, your characters become so real,” but I mean it, I think because they're flawed. When characters are too perfect...
Marcy: Then you don't believe them. With this book, it’s all in the first-person. I'm so in their minds and in their heads. A lot of the writing is almost stream of consciousness. I'm going in and I'm giving everybody these crazy thoughts. Maybe that's so honest. Hopefully, that makes them relatable even when a mother is trying to have sex with her daughter’s boyfriend, except he's not her boyfriend. It’s always a secret. It makes things better.
Zibby: Rachel is surprised -- this is more about the dad’s point of view. He leaves the wife, leaves Becca. Then he kind of regrets it later once the dust has settled. She realizes that her dad is not so happy. She goes, “My poor dad. It was not what I was supposed to hear from my father who was always upbeat, who was in control of his universe” -- he was this big banking guy, successful -- “who played tennis and racquetball and went running, who made tons of money, wore expensive suits.” Is the implication that the wealthy, powerful person is not supposed to feel lonely? You had also said that he was in the second tower when the plane hit on 9/11 and had walked down the stairs and escaped to Connecticut. It’s not like he hadn’t been through a lot of stuff.
Marcy: For sure. I like that you're almost giving him more depth than what I wrote. I appreciate it. I think it’s there. There's something about teenagers, about people, that they don't really see their parents as real people. Rachel would come home for the summer and give her mother her laundry. She would act snotty and petulant and be like, “I'm in a bad mood. I don't care what you think.” It’s the same thing with her father. It doesn't even really occur to her that he could have feelings or that he could be suffering. Because people are rich, there's this idea that -- well, I think Rachel is rich too -- that rich people have to be happy because they have everything. Of course, that's not how it actually is. They’re still people with emotions and feelings and struggles and new problems from having money. Rachel just doesn't see him as a person. He’s just Dad. Once your dad leaves your mother for a younger woman, that complicates things too. Then if you do something like that, if you do something as stupid as leaving your mother for a younger woman, you at least shouldn't regret it or you shouldn't be happy or you shouldn't expect her sympathy. She's a little bit bratty. I like her too, by the way. She definitely is only thinking about herself.
Zibby: That's probably true. Becca also, just this funny part about things you're not supposed to admit as mom, talks about how she basically does not remember having Rachel as a baby, that she doesn't remember the entire infancy stage at all. Rachel was like, “What?” [laughs]
Marcy: I thought about that. The question really resonates with me. This is where there's truth and there's fiction. I'm not from Connecticut. I have really, really middle-class upbringing. There's fiction. Then I'm pulling everything into the characters. One time my mother was talking about being a mother. She had three kids. She wanted to be working and wasn’t working. I think she was a little bit overwhelmed and unhappy. One time she said that to me as an offhand comment. She actually said, “I don't really remember your childhood. I think memory has a way of protecting you from remembering how unhappy you were.”
Zibby: Aw. That's really heartbreaking.
Marcy: I know. It broke my heart. It made me feel so sad. I was like, “You don't remember my childhood?” I mean, she does.
Zibby: It’s heartbreaking for both of you, that conversation.
Marcy: I was so sad. Somebody tells you something like that and then ten years later, you put it in your book. You give it to somebody else. I have wonderful relationship with my mom. I visit her all the time. She's a great grandmother. I guess you say something like that, and I don't think she was aware of the fact that it was going to hurt me, which was interesting. I think she had no awareness. I put it in this book. Then Rachel snaps back. There's this fun thing that you can do in fiction where you can respond differently to something that happens. You can take a moment or you can take a memory, and then you can change it or you can use it.
Sometimes actually, in terms of writing, when you meet strangers or people who meet writers, they're always like, “I hope you put me in your book.” I think never, never, never wish to be in somebody’s book because you never know what a writer’s going to do. It’s so scary when you write because you never want to hurt the people that you love. You never want to go too far. I don't know how people write memoir, by the way, because it’s true. As a writer, if you want something to turn out well, if you don't use your life and your material in your story, then you don't have anything. It’s really kind of stealing. It’s not always that nice. I try so hard to be nice. You asked me this question. I thought, let me try to be truthful about it.
Zibby: I appreciate that. Thank you. Going back to this gun control situation for two seconds because it does come up again at other points in the book and courses through it, was that another grab-from-the-headlines thing?
Marcy: It was. It was an interesting thing. I wrote this book after Donald Trump was elected. Every reader can come from a different perspective, but I know so many different writers where we were all sort of stuck. We were caught off guard. What can we write that matters? How can we have anything to say at all? The world is so crazy. Everything is so different. I started to write a literary soap opera. What really, really surprised me is when I'm writing this literary soap opera and it becomes political. The husband and wife in this book, before they were divorced, were having fights about whether they liked Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, which is sort of hilarious. That was actually true. I had friends on Facebook, female friends who stopped talking to each other because they felt so strongly about Bernie versus Hillary. It got nuts where people stopped being friends for a short period of time, which doesn't make sense. With the whole idea of gun control, I just wrote that in as a detail. This is part of my writing process. I don't have outlines. I don't plan. I like the idea of this mother having saved a boy. There's a gun incident in my book, but nothing bad happens. That's a spoiler. I can give another spoiler too. The dog, people worry about this dog. Completely unrelated, nothing bad happens to the dog. [laughs]
Zibby: Rest assured. It’s all okay. You can pick it up.
Marcy: Nothing bad happens to this boy and the gun. Once you put in a gun and put a child entering into a school, you can't be haphazard. It has to matter. You have to work with it. Once I put that into the novel, I had to go backwards and write it in and make it part of the story and think about it. There's also a Chekhov quote about if you have a loaded gun, it has to go off in a book.
Zibby: Where did you write this book?
Marcy: Where did I write this book?
Zibby: I envision you at that café that you had Becca at with the dog when Zahid drives up, an outdoor café in Connecticut in this [indiscernible] lovely place. Maybe you were doing it in the middle of midtown. I don't know.
Marcy: That's a good question. It’s in a funny place. I actually wrote this in cafés. It’s funny. It’s a book set in Connecticut, where I'm not from. I have friends from Connecticut. I have an envy issue. I've been into homes like this where I'm like, “Oh, my god. They're so nice.” That's another thing about fiction. I put my characters -- they got to live in a house I don't get to live in. I wrote this book in cafés in Montclair. I did. I wrote all of it cafés. They're very strange places to write. I don't know if you’ve tried it there. They can be great. They can be terrible. You cannot get the table you want. They can be crowded. People can get loud. You're so deep inside your head and you're writing. That's what I did.
I had this memory. One time I was writing a scene where the parents were fighting. It was this really intense scene. I got up to move because the people were too loud at me at the table next to me. I moved to another table. The people who work at the café said, “You can't sit there because that's a table where you can't have computers.” [laughs] What? It was a strange process. I wrote a sex scene in a café where it was really, really crowded. I didn't know that I was going to be doing it. I felt my face turning bright red. I just kept on going because I gave myself word count limits. It was an odd writing experience.
Zibby: I love that. That's so funny. My issue with writing in cafés, which I do like -- I was doing a lot of writing a couple years ago. I had this one Pain Quotidien on the Upper West Side. I had the place I liked to go. Then when you have to go up and use the bathroom, I never know what to do with all my stuff. Do I have to bring it? Then I lose my table. Have I even paid? Then I'm distracted from what I'm doing, not that I have a problem or anything, but if you're there for hours, even two.
Marcy: I usually leave my stuff. I look at a neighbor like, “Will you watch it?” How do you know they're not going to leave? You have to just put trust into the world. I have the same issue.
Zibby: I don't mind writing in a loud environment.
Marcy: Sometimes if you have the perfect environment, it’s just so precious. Everything is so nice that it’s too much pressure. I do a lot of writing in the summer. I know that summer I'd applied to a lot of residencies. Residencies in the summer, everybody wants to go in the summer. All the professors want to go. It’s the ideal time. I didn't get into any. There's the whole idea of a room of your own in the perfect writing space. I would love to have one, but they're absolutely not necessary. If you want to write, you can write anywhere. You don't have to go somewhere nice and pretty. I went to the Edward Albee residency once in Montauk. It was so beautiful that I almost didn't write at all. Every day, I got on my bicycle and I went to the beach. Oh, my goodness. I have a month at the beach. If I'm at home, I can work. I didn't go on a great vacation that summer, but I wrote a lot of a book.
Zibby: That's awesome. Are you working on a new book?
Marcy: I am thinking of ideas. I'm struggling. I'm just sort of typing. I'm a very fast writer. The beginning is actually my hardest part of the process. I haven't settled on what I want to write yet. I know I will be really happy when I pick that story.
Zibby: How long did this book take to write?
Marcy: This book was strangely quick. I think I wrote the whole beginning to end, rewriting as I go, in about eight months.
Zibby: I know your editor’s Jenny Jackson, who’s the nicest person.
Marcy: She's the nicest person.
Zibby: How much editing, how closely does that, how much input -- what's that relationship like? Or do you just hand it in and it’s basically done?
Marcy: It’s never quite like that. This book came almost as a gift. I handed it in. There were some line edits. There were some questions. Somehow, the very last scene of the book was written in the point of view of the mother instead of the daughter. That was clearly a bad decision. It wasn’t even her turn. I talked earlier about point of view, what turn all the voices -- it was supposed to be the daughter’s turn. I think I was a little bit scared to do it. My editor had me rewrite the last chapter using the point of view that it should be, that was going to be the strongest. That was a bit of work because the last scene is really crazy. It was really important to get it right. Otherwise, it wasn’t that much. I've had other editorial experiences where I've been asked to do a lot more. As an editor, it’s probably almost as difficult to have a light touch as it is to have a heavy hand. It was really, really helpful and not difficult.
Zibby: Do you do a lot of reading yourself?
Marcy: I love to read.
Zibby: When do you find time to read?
Marcy: When do I find time to read? Unfortunately, I read mainly at night before I go to bed. A lot of times, I am falling asleep with a book on my head. I don't read as much as I want to. I read on vacation. I read on the train. Mainly, in the middle of the day, it’s this funny idea where I always feel like I'm supposed to be doing something. It’s hard to read at two o’clock in the afternoon. I want to change that mind-set a little bit.
Zibby: I agree. It’s a permission you have to give yourself.
Marcy: You really do. Instead, you look at your phone. That's just a bad habit.
Zibby: Do you have any advice? I know you've already given advice, but any advice to aspiring authors?
Marcy: I was thinking that a little bit. So many people when they're writing a novel, there's this goal for publication. It’s so, so strong. I want it too. Everybody wants to get published to the point where they want their book to be done. They're like, “I can't stand this book. I've been working on it for so long. I want it to be finished.” I feel like it’s really important to remember just how great it is to be writing. Right now, I'm not working on a novel that I'm in love with. I'm struggling for my idea. I'm not in that writing zone. I miss it. I’ll envy people who are writing even though they’ve never been published. I'm like, “But you're writing every day.” It’s important to remember to really appreciate the process and how great it is and to not be thinking about what happens when I sell the book and how it will change my life. There are too many expectations and too much pressure. I would tell writers to really just enjoy working on it.
Zibby: Excellent advice.
Marcy: Oh, good. [laughs]
Zibby: Thank you for this very nice book, which was really fantastic. Perfect for the summer with a pool cover, a little water, looks like I spilled, but I didn't. It’s awesome. I love it.
Marcy: Thanks so much. That was so fun to do this.