Marcy Dermansky finds commas in coffee shops
Halfway There readings
Marcy Dermansky, Chaya Bhuvaneswar, Shelly Oria, Tamara Zbrizher
Monday, Oct. 28, 7 p.m. (Doors open 6:30 p.m.)
Red Eye Cafe, 94 Walnut St.
By GWEN OREL
Once, Marcy Dermansky was sitting at Local Coffee in Watchung Plaza, looking at page proofs.
Author Alice Elliott Dark came in.
Dermansky waved her over, and said “Alice, what do you think about this sentence?”
Dark looked at the pages, and fixed a comma.
“It made me really happy,” Dermansky said with a laugh. “She was right.”
She loves being part of the Montclair community, and writing in cafes. She’s written at Java Love, at Crazy Mocha, as well as at Local.
Her next reading will be in a cafe: as part of the Halfway There series, she’ll read from her latest book “Very Nice” next Monday, and sign books.
Recently she appeared in Open Book/Open Mind, interviewed by Montclair author Kate Tuttle, a former president of the National Book Critics Circle..
She is originally from Englewood, she lived in Queens for a long time, and moved to Montclair in 2016.
She decided to move to Montclair after attending a reading at Watchung Booksellers. A couple of writers knew her from her work, and told her, “you should move here.”
A few months later, she did.
“There’s a Montclair writing community, and a New York writing community, and when you live in Montclair, you’re just part of the whole community,” she said.
She also works as a freelance editor, but just now is writing full time.
“Very Nice” came out in July 2019, and has already been optioned for television. That’s all Dermansky can say, but she’s hopeful it might really get made.
The book starts off with a sexual encounter between a student and her young professor, and then widens to include the points of view of the student’s mother, the professor, and others in their circle. It’s set against the aftermath of the 2016 election, and along the way, the comedy of manners bumps up against school shootings and homophobia and racism.
Publisher’s Weekly described it as “sly, deceptively simple and thoroughly seductive.” Maria Semple, author of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” called it “Trenchantly observed and darkly funny.”
It only took about a year for Dermansky to write it.
The first chapter was published as a standalone short story in Lenny Letter, a feminist publication created by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. The online publication shut down in October 2018.
After she finished the short story she didn’t know what to write next. A friend who is a writing teacher said, “Why don’t you just write from the point-of-view of the mother?”
So she did that. And then from the point-of-view of the teacher.
Then she had 40 pages. “It was so easy,” Dermansky said. “It wasn’t intentional.” She hadn’t thought it would be her next novel. She put the pages away. But nothing else was coming, and she thought, why not go back to those pages?
“I think there's this idea with all people and with writers that if something is easy, that it's not good. And I think that was a big part of it,” she said. “And now I feel like most of the things that are easy for me come out better than the things that I struggle and worked really hard on. Those become labored. And they don't read well.”
The novel is not autobiographical, but Dermansky has had crushes on teachers, and wanted to write about that. And like Rachel, the student in the book, she’s been in writing workshops: she did a writing MA at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her experience there has been that feedback was not always helpful. Sometimes people were jealous, or give terrible advice and not even know they were doing it, she said. And all of the advice can be conflicting.”If somebody didn't like you, they might not say nice things about your story,” she said.
But while she doesn’t think you need a writing degree to be a writer, having the time to write, and deadlines, was helpful.
Because the process itself isn’t easy.
“Every time I write, there's always this fear of writing,” she said. “I still feel that fear. And I’m four books in. Every time I sit down to write, I'm like, ‘oh, my God, I'm going to write.’” She moves beyond that fear by revising first. Unlike some authors who press on to the end with a messy first draft, sometimes changing character names midway through, she revises what she’s done first thing.
So by the time she gets to the end, what she has is not really a first draft at all. It’s a draft that has gone through many versions.
She doesn’t belong to any writer’s groups, and doesn’t like to get much feedback along the way.
“I had one friend who read the first hundred pages and she was reading on her phone and said she almost got hit by a car reading the book. I'm like, OK, it's good,” she said. Her agent is the only other person to read her work.
Knopf, her publisher, is marketing “Very Nice” as a “literary soap opera.” Dermansky is not offended: in fact, she thinks she may have given them the idea, because she wrote an essay about how she watched “General Hospital” for years and years.
“I was almost imitating shows,” she said. She doesn’t know in advance where the story will go, and watches it in her head. “That was really thrilling, when I realized I could make that happen in a book.”
My professor had long eyelashes, big eyes, brown skin. Silky hair. He was tall, thin, too thin. He was from Pakistan.
My professor had published a novel that had won all the big awards the year it had come out. I had tried to read his book but I couldn’t. A sentence was as long as a paragraph. A paragraph was as long as a page. At a reading on campus, I asked him to sign a copy of his book. Though I had not been able to finish it, I told him that I thought it was beautiful.
“So are you, Rachel,” he had said, looking up from the book. The compliment had come out of nowhere, blindsided me.
I thought he probably didn’t mean it, like the way I had complimented his novel.