Meet the Writer: Tracy Manaster

I want to thank Tracy for taking the time to answer my questions. Her website is a work in progress, but you can also find her on Twitter or watch this awesome video interview about her novel, You Could Be Home By Now.

What was the first story you ever wrote about?

Ever? I can’t believe I’m going to own this in public, but it was a fourth grade stab at a novel. There may have been a contest involved in my deciding to write it. In fact, I can almost guarantee there was contest involved; at that age I really liked to win. It was called Kim! A Star Overnight!Shockingly, it was about a girl named Kim, a gifted actress whose talents were somehow discovered in a shopping mall and who became—you guessed it—a star overnight. A Lana-Turner-at-Schwabs meets (I’m dating myself here) Tiffany’s-mall-tour narrative that involved a lot of neon. There was also an adorable poodle and a mystery-on-the-film-set subplot where the vital clue was a tube of frosted lip gloss.

Eventually, I learned that the “star overnight” thing was, for both women, a bit of industry mythmaking (the drugstore wasn’t even Schwabs!). They both worked like hell to get to that magical “overnight” point. And there’s a valuable lesson in that, especially for someone pursuing a creative career—you have to put in the work, period. But I’m at heart a daydreamer and can’t help but like the other way better.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

A balloon-seller in Central Park. I planned to set the price at a dollar per balloon and then retire after selling one hundred of them. I was young and unclear on the fundamentals of economics.

I studied archaeology in college, with an eye toward (obviously) being an archaeologist. I was writing grad school applications and wrapping up a thesis on the material culture of the American mining frontier when I realized that what I loved about archaeology was the point where I had all the data and got to basically make up what it meant. I should say “conclude” or “analyze” here; if any of my former professors come across this, they’ll cringe and see about retroactively flunking me. But it felt that way for me, like pretending or inventing, and that feeling was pure fun. This would have made me a very bad archaeologist, but I think it makes me a very good fiction writer.

Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?

Taught, absolutely. I don’t necessarily mean in a classroom setting (though that’s not to be discounted; I owe huge, un-repayable debt to my instructors and peers at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop). I mean through reading. Reading thorny, complicated books that are well beyond your comfort zone. Reading dismissible, guilty pleasure fluff. Re-reading old favorites that have resonated with you over the years.

Read enough and writing starts to feel intuitive. Not entirely (I wish), but with these gorgeous, intermittent brainflashes of hey-I-guess-I-know-what-I’m-doing-after-all.

When I reach the final third of a manuscript, I often find that I’ve left myself inadvertent presents early in the work. Maybe a character name that I chose because it was the first one that popped up in my Facebook feed (true story; that’s how I named a hefty percent of my forthcoming novel’s cast) lends itself to a witty bit of wordplay; maybe a small detail I threw in on page forty-three takes on tremendous emotional weight as I resolve an arc two hundred pages later. I’m not a meticulous enough writer to have planned that all out from the start, but I am a voracious enough reader to recognize narrative opportunities as I create them.

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

Fifth grade, almost in its entirety. The teacher didn’t really like me, which guaranteed that the feeling would be mutual. I suspect I was lively and, while intelligent, nowhere near as intelligent as I believed I was—in short, an entitled snot in many ways. It’s a difficult age, and I’m sure no teacher alive has liked all her or her students, and teaching is without question an exhausting profession, but still: her antipathy projected very mean.

I named a maximum security prison after her in the novel I’m just wrapping up. I’m not always the best at rising above myself.

Are you reading anything right now?

I got my greedy hands on an advance copy of Tana French’s The Secret Place and am torn between reading it all in one blissful swoop or rationing so it lasts. Her books are always so mesmerizing and impeccably paced in terms of plot, but what slays me, every single time, is her facility with character description. In a single sentence she manages to evoke a character physically, spotlight her narrator’s prejudices or insecurities, infuse the text with socio-economic commentary, and advance the overarching mystery.

Are you writing anything right now?

I’m in what I call the accordion phase of revising a novel: expanding it, contracting it, expanding it, contracting it until I finally feel it sings. I’m also gaining momentum on Young Adult book. I’m reluctant to talk about either piece—I’ve found that the more I discuss a work in progress the less I actually work on it—but can assure you that neither manuscript revisits the masterwork that wasKim! A Star Overnight!

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