Once upon a time, I was a poet, but then I came of age and became a novelist. That sounds simple enough, right?
Not so simple.
I was a Literary Novelist, as any poet who forswears poetry would be. I wrote lyrical sentences, laden with imagery, and declined the degradations of plot. The two novels I produced (in my twenties) were chock full of alliterative passages and ethereal characters who were free of physical attributes and enjoyed only the most imagistic descriptions. Not much happened in those two novels, but who cared? They were so beautifully written!
They were rejected by every publisher in America, and a few in England as well.
This was not the outcome I had hoped for when I threw over the muse Euterpe for that young and undulating art form, the novel. For years, I rewrote those two novels, and periodically sent them out, only to have them whacked back in my face. The world did not want them, clearly, but did that also mean it did not want any novel I might produce?
Then I had a baby, and on the first day the babysitter arrived (when she was about three months old) to give me a few hours of respite, I went into my study and prepared to do another round of surgery and suturing on my poor pair of rejected novels. But suddenly, something stopped me. It had occurred to me that I could actually write something new — something that someone (anyone!) would publish.
So I wrote another novel. Ethereal language? Um, no. Absence of story? Most definitely not. The book I produced was — somewhat to my surprise — a Legal Thriller. I had no background as an attorney, and I had no experience writing a twisty, suspenseful plot. But I did have an idea, and the idea turned into a story, and the story turned into a novel called A JURY OF HER PEERS. It was published in America, with a cover photo of an empty jury box, and in England with a photo of a sexy young lawyer (I guess) squatting down in the street (I have no idea why).
So that made me: a Legal Thriller Writer. Which was something of a problem. In my own eyes, I was still a Literary Novelist, and having completed my little experiment I intended to return to the altar of glorious prose fiction, perhaps with a wee bit more plot than I’d relied upon in the past. (I’d discovered that plot was not my enemy. A fine and unexpected plot-twist was a glorious thing!) My new publisher, on the other hand, wanted me to write another Legal Thriller, starring the same heroine (the memorably named Sybylla Muldoon). That I could not do, and my publisher and I parted ways.
My next book, THE SABBATHDAY RIVER, was published in America by a publisher of impeccable literary credentials, and I was beside myself to share an editor with Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinners. But readers could not quite figure out what my new novel was supposed to be. Was THE SABBATHDAY RIVER, a reimagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER, set in 1980s New Hampshire, a Literary Novel obsessed with Jewish themes? And if so, what about that courtroom trial that dominated the second half? Readers who’d enjoyed A JURY OF HER PEERS were irritated by all the literary weight. Readers of Literary Fiction didn’t look twice at a book by a Legal Thriller writer.
I had to part company with my literary publisher, who did not like my next novel. THE WHITE ROSE took the plot of my favorite opera, Der Rosenkavalier, moved it to 1990s Manhattan, and populated it with Jewish characters. There was not a lawyer in sight. Sadly, neither was there a reader in sight. THE WHITE ROSE was most definitely a literary novel, and as such suffered the fate of most literary novels. Watching it wither on the bookstore shelves, I was brokenhearted, because I truly loved this novel. Though not remotely autobiographical (my work is never autobiographical), it was nonetheless a deeply personal book; written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, it was full of my love of New York City. (I am thrilled to note that THE WHITE ROSE is about to be reissued in the U.S.)
Then came ADMISSION, a novel about an admissions officer at Princeton whose long-kept secret has had a devastating impact on every aspect of her life. Courtrooms? No. Lawyers? Not a one. But literary? No one called it that, either. Instead, response to the novel focused overwhelmingly on the way I’d “blown the lid off” the secretive world of Ivy League admissions (I’d worked for Princeton’s Office of Admission while researching the book.) Now I was apparently a muckraker, using fiction to expose horrors and inequities, just like Upton Sinclair shining a light on the Chicago stockyards in THE JUNGLE, or Dickens exposing the workhouses in OLIVER TWIST. When the film adaptation starring Tina Fey was released last year, there was additional confusion over the book’s genre designation. The film, which was sweetly funny but also, at times, very moving, was variously described as a Comedy, a Romantic Comedy, and a Dramedy, and ADMISSION-the-novel was therefore retroactively cast as Chick Lit and even, sometimes, Romance.
Which brings us to the just published YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, about a Manhattan therapist who comes to understand that she has no idea whom she’s married to. There’s a murder. There’s a fugitive. There are police detectives. The protagonist, at one point, is even hauled down to the station. But YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN is not really a whodunit (not just because we’re pretty sure we know who did it from the outset, and we’re right, but because the focus is always, always, on our protagonist and the changes she undergoes in the wake of a terrible, private disaster). It’s also not a Police Procedural (we don’t see very much of the police detectives), nor is it, in the conventional sense, a Thriller (no axe-wielding madmen stalking our heroine). So what is it? Well, here’s a partial list of genre labels applied to the novel in the brief period since its publication: Thriller. Psychological Thriller. Literary Thriller. Suspense Novel. Page-Turner. Literary Mystery. Marriage Thriller (This is a brand new genre, invented in England and already discussed in America. So far it includes about five novels, including one in which a woman apparently cooks and eats her husband!)
Here’s the thing. Even if I’d wanted to pick a genre and stick with it throughout my career, I don’t think I’d have been able to pull it off. For me, a novel has always begun with an idea, a character, a set of circumstances. I’m fascinated by people who lie and are lied to (this includes lies we tell ourselves), and by the courage required to not only weather adversity but grow from it. I also like language; in fact, I became a writer because I like language. Mix and match these ingredients and you might end up with a romance, a mystery, a literary novel or a thriller, or indeed any number of sub-categories therein. At this point in my writing life, I care far less than I used to about which shelf in the bookstore I end up on. At this point in my publishing life, I’m mainly grateful that I have a publishing life. I hope that any reader who picks up YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, having been lured by its designation as a Thriller,will understand the care that went into writing every sentence. I hope that any reader of Literary Fiction who reads the novel shares my appreciation for a plot twist. Because at the end of the day, there’s very little in life that’s as satisfying as a great plot twist.
You Should Have Known is published by Faber.