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Turning a Boss from Hell into a Terrific Read

Award-winning author tells of nearly heart-breaking path to publication.

Show Up novel

Life is short. Art is supposed to last longer. But sometimes what's really long is the journey to publication for a fine and quirky novel. You have to take what you've experienced and turn those lemons into lemonade, and that can take a long time.

Show Up, Look Good took seven years, not counting the time it took Mark Wisniewski to write it, from final draft to the day of publication.

Wisniewski's voice is energetic, his narrative compelling. His short stories have been widely published and anthologized; a previous novel of his is called Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman. Portions of Show Up, Look Good have been published in major literary journals.

Still, publishing this novel was anything but a slam-dunk. About a young woman from Kankakee, Illinois, who moves to Manhattan to start over, gets mixed up with a murder, has a terrible time paying her rent, and fends off sexual advances by a married couple, it's a darkly funny page-turner. And it nearly broke its author's heart.

Here is my interview with Mark Wisniewski:

Q: Show Up, Look Good feels like a memoir at times. How do your own experiences dove-tail with the plot?

A: Any novelist who claims total fabrication is a liar. I'd guess I made up about 75%. And I'll admit that, like my narrator, I lived in Manhattan, scalped Letterman tickets to pay rent, and had a boss from hell who, for whatever reasons, tried to ruin my life.

Q: Have you ever been accused, like your main character, of thinking too much?

A: Not exactly. The closest thing to that I can remember was someone telling me something I said was "too deep." Her auburn bob and the faint splash of freckles on her nose, in addition to the fact that she came from too much wealth to take me seriously, had me stuck in a pathetic crush on her. This was when I was in prep school. I was a virgin then.

Q: Your narrator decides to be a painter. How accurately does the following statement of hers describe your own writing process?

As far as my painting was concerned, I'd done well with volume. After three weeks, there were stacks of wrinkled-dry drawing pad pages all over my main
room and bedroom. . . . And there was paint on each page in those stacks, but I had no idea if any page looked decent to anyone but me, and sometimes, especially when I was tired, I myself disliked everything I'd done. I'd learned that much about painting, though: decide if it's good when you're tired.

A: That section reflects me as a young writer. I remember thinking as I drafted that section: Just make this a metaphor for how it felt when you started writing short stories. Michelle's sketches were like outlines, her painting was like rough draft writing, and so on. And of course there's that question most beginning writers (and, I imagine, painters) face: Is this stuff any good?

Q: It seemed to me that much of what happened to Michelle could have happened to either a man or a woman set into a new environment. Why did you choose to write the character as female?

A: The decision to risk several years drafting Show Up came after I'd spent years on a novel that was agented, excerpted in print mags such as Triquarterly and The Yale Review, then rejected again and again by NYC publishing houses. A few editors were kind enough to explain that the gender of my narrator turned them off. Word back then was that two-thirds of all book-buyers were female, so publishing wisdom held that, for the sake of profit, novels with male narrators were untouchable. Or so I was told.

Which gave me three choices: quit being a novelist, write another novel with a male narrator and end up homeless, or try a female narrator. And I don't like to quit. What helped was that I'd just gotten married, and I liked listening to my wife, and that in order to help pay the mortgage I was now book-doctoring fiction for other writers, 90% of whom were women, and several wanted phone consultation--and once we'd be on the phone, they'd do most of the talking. It was a rather odd time in my life, but I now knew plenty about the struggles of contemporary women. Plus there was this urgent, compelling female voice in my head that made drafting easy.

And then, the more I wrote, I started seeing what you saw, Susan: there are so many things people experience commonly regardless of gender, and, for that matter, regardless of faith, race, and sexuality. I mean everyone knows how it feels to lose at love, to aspire to live excellently, to crave dignity. People are far more similar than they're different. We have more in common than publishers, demographers, and pundits give us credit for.

Q: Did it take you a long time to find your publisher?

A: Good question--because one might think my choice to try a female narrator was rewarded quickly, but that didn't happen. What happened was Show Up was itself rejected in NYC, and now word through my agent was that this new novel was unmarketable because its author wasn't female. Which again gave me choices: quit writing, or use a pen name. Or, I guess, get one of those surgeries in Denmark. And my agent said no to a pen name. So I fired her.

Then, naturally, I became depressed; for years I wrote nothing but poems. Then came two open-heart surgeries within two weeks' time. And after you go through that, you don't care about publishers' theories or agents or anything, really; you just know who you need to be in order to not have someday wasted your life. In my case I knew I was a novelist, always had been, and something in me kept saying, "Show Up has been abused more than its narrator was."

So I sent it to small presses, unagented. And Robert Giron at Gival picked it up. Which means that between the day I handed the final draft to my then-agent and the day of publication, I needed to wait seven years.

Q: Do you think in terms of a sequel or are you done with that character?

A: I don't know. What would you do?

What would YOU do, dear reader?

Cool book trailer here.

You can read another interview with Mark in which he discusses his writing process.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry

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