Interview by Cara Meiselman
We recently sat down with Marcy Dermansky, the author of Very Nice, this month’s GNI Reads book club pick, to learn more about her writing process, how she develops her characters, and self-care in her day-to-day life.
Writing and Career
Congrats on your fourth book! Where did the idea for Very Nice come from?
Marcy: Thanks! My books are starting to look really nice together on a bookshelf, which I find very pleasing.
Very Nice started out as a short story. I wanted to try to write about a professor/student affair. It seemed like forbidden terrain and I wanted to go there. I used to have a crush on my high school English teacher, but he was a truly good one and never did anything inappropriate outside of recommending me books to read and then talking to me about them after class for which I am still grateful. High school is no fun. I wrote the short story version of Very Nice quickly. I was sad when I was done, and so I kept going.
This book was very different from your previous books but still had what I’ll call the “Marcy Dermansky style.” In your own words, how would you describe your writing style?
Marcy: Oh, gosh. I think my style is deceptively simple, easy to read, which is actually harder to accomplish than it seems.Carefully crafted despite its apparent simplicity. There, I said it. I have read many a Goodreads reviews that states I write like I am in grade school.
I love using repetition, taking the last short sentence that I’ve written, and then writing it again in a slightly different form. Sometimes, my characters don’t use contractions when they speak and this is intentional. I am known for writing short sentences (and there are many short sentences in Very Nice) but I also write a bunch of long ones. I love to explore what is going on in my characters’ minds. When I am really in it, writing, I am listening to my characters and they are talking through me and to me. I never know what they will say or do. It is one of the pure joys of writing a novel. I am also known for my dark humor. The funny thing is that I don’t try to be funny. If I tried to be funny, I don’t think it would work.
Very Nice is different in that I have so many different points of view. Rachel, Becca, Zahid, Khloe, and Jonathan. Five. I have never done that before. It is different from my other books, too, in that two of the points of view are male. It’s different in that I am writing about rich people for the first time, even though I am not rich. It’s also different in that this book is political. This element snuck into the story. It was impossible to keep my thoughts about current events out of the book. You create characters who exist in the world, after all.
I loved the way you told multiple character stories and yet somehow tied all the characters back together. When writing Very Nice was there one character you started with or did you begin with multiple plot points you wanted to include and then had to find a way to weave them together?
Marcy: Thank you! I started out with Rachel and Zahid. The student and her professor. A writing professor friend suggested that I keep writing, but this time from the mother’s point of view. It was almost like a writing exercise, but it worked! Then I wrote from Zahid’s POV. I still have no idea where the next POV came from. Khloe with a K. She is the subletter of Zahid’s apartment. It honestly felt to me that she had no place in the novel but I wanted very much to keep her, so I took pains to weave her in, make her integral to the plot. Therefore, Khloe’s twin sister Kristi is a close friend of Zahid’s. The woman she is in love with is Zahid’s editor. Her boss is Rachel’s father. The coincidences don’t stop coming. The father initially wasn’t given a point of view but he seemed to want in – and so he gets two chapters, far less than the other characters, who follow a regular rotation.
I write without an outline, somehow find a way to make it work as I go. Often, I find myself working backwards instead of forwards, adding details necessary to make everything work. I think that one reason I am able to surprise my readers is because I have so many OMG moments while I am working.
Each character has a special place in my heart but I particularly loved Becca and the way she was prioritizing her own happiness. I have heard from a bunch of readers who have written to me about Becca, happy that I have written a 54-year-old woman who takes delight in sex, has a yoga body, but also eats what she wants. Becca wants what she wants. When I was in her head, I completely agreed with her. Why shouldn’t she have this man? I love her, too. I loved the line about being more upset about her dead poodle than her husband leaving her. It felt true.
I think I had the most fun with Zahid. I made him awful at times, but I also genuinely like him. While I am nothing like Zahid, I gave him a lot of my thoughts about the writing life. For instance, I want someone to let me live in their big house in Connecticut and feed me and take care of me so that I can write. I have a friend with a house in Connecticut but I can only go there for two days, once a year. I once was able to spend a month in a guest house in the Hamptons, revising Bad Marie which was amazing, but that was a long time ago. In that sense, Very Nice is a fantasy. I mainly write at home and in cafes.
There were so many triangles and character connections in this book - I had no idea how you planned to tie it all up! However, I thought the ending of this book was absolutely perfect and left me with a huge smile on my face. What feeling did you hope to leave readers with that shocking ending?
Marcy: I love that you have to read my book to the very last sentence to know how it ends. And then BOOM.
I wrote that final scene on Christmas day. I woke up feeling really sad. I am Jewish but it is still a major holiday, I grew up with Christmas trees and presents, and I was spending it alone. I am divorced and my daughter was spending the holiday with her father. And so I woke up much too early, made my coffee, and I started writing because that is what makes me happy. And I wrote a lot more than I usually do. I think I put in something like six hours, maybe more, which is crazy for me. But I knew I was building up to something and I didn’t want to lose that momentum – and then I got there, that scene, that ending, and I was like, wow. It shocked me too. I had no idea I was going to finish the book that day.
It is such a strange feeling to finish a novel. You are always alone, just you and your computer, and there is this big moment of expansion in your chest.
Later, of course, I went back and revised, but what happened stayed the same. The ending of Very Nice is shocking, but it’s also a happy ending - in my opinion - at least if you are able to take a step back. While they aren’t happy at the very moment I leave my characters, I hope it is clear that everyone is going to be okay.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Marcy: To read a lot. And more important, write a lot. Not to agonize over the writing or tear your hair out while working on a sentence. I always hear about how hard writing is - and it is, for so many different reasons, but it is also incredibly important to enjoy the process of writing. That is the best part, really, fingers moving on a keyboard. Why we all get started. Publication is incredibly great, but really, I love it the most when I am writing and I hate when I am not writing.
What’s next for you?
Marcy: I am back at it. And that is hard. Every time I finish a novel, I am back at zero, starting all over again. I am working on something now, but I don’t know if it will be my next novel or anything at all. I am glad I am writing it.
At Girls’ Night In, we’re very focused on self-care in whatever form that means for you. How do you define self-care in your day-to-day life?
Marcy: Being kind to myself. Forgiving myself if I don’t accomplish a lot. Eating well. Drinking a lot of cold water, seltzer preferably. Making sure that I get my hair cut before it gets awful. Petting my cats (there is one sitting on my lap while I type these answers which is both nice and a little bit annoying). Taking myself out to lunch. Having a nice time with my daughter even if our home is a crazy mess. Ignoring the mess and then cleaning it up later. Sometimes, because I am my own boss, self-care can be as simple and decadent as watching a favorite TV show in the middle of the day. I love that. Exercise.
How do you incorporate self-care routines while writing or working?
Marcy: I want to have a better answer for this. I feel like this is the moment where I get to be a role model to others, but sometimes, all rules are off when I am writing, and I drink an insane amount of coffee and eat a whole lot of chocolate. Wear the same clothes day after day. Don’t go out with friends.
And then, when I am done, I go on a big detox. I have done that more than once – given up gluten, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, basically everything, for thirty days – and when I am done, I feel amazing. I really do, And then, before I know it, I slip back to who I am.
On my best days, I write first thing in the morning. It is the best. Then I feel virtuous all day long.
What tips do you have for adapting your self-care routines when you’re on your book tour or traveling a lot?
Marcy: I have genuinely enjoyed my book tour this summer. Because my novel is set in Connecticut, I have had several events in Connecticut, where Very Nice is set, and I make sure that I budget time to go swimming. It is important to pack your favorite beauty products and then not use them if your hotel has good samples. It is important to travel with good snacks, fruits and nuts, in case you get hungry and want something to eat right away without having to find a store or a restaurant or leaving your hotel room. I believe it is important to pack a bathing suit. Too many people I know travel and don’t make use of their hotel pools. I consider this a form of insanity but I am aware that people have different priorities than I do.
What woman or women are currently inspiring you right now?
Marcy: I am part of the fast growing Phoebe Waller-Bridge fan club. I love Fleabag. I am totally in awe of her confidence, the strength of her voice, her haircut. She is amazing. I love Keri Russell and where her career has taken her since Felicity. I was so happy to sneak her into my novel. Roxane Gay is incredible. I love her writing, her ability to shake you to your core, with both her fiction and non-fiction. I also admire her ability to write so clearly about current events as they are happening. I am totally starstruck by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is fearless and smart and she won’t be mocked or bullied and she is fighting to make desperately needed change in this country. Finally Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old from Sweden who leads a now international school strike for the climate every Friday, even in the summer and is nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. I hope she wins. I think she might be the most inspirational of them all. My older sister once sat my entire family down in front of the computer – my mother, my brother and sister-in law, by nieces and daughter – and listened to her TED Talk. We were all blown away.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips
Favorite poolside drink?
I like super cold water from my insulated water bottle after I swim laps. Oops, that is the wrong answer. I just realized that. At a private pool, it would be a gin and tonic. That was my father’s favorite drink and nothing was better to him than sitting by the pool with his drink and a small bowl of pretzels. We used to drink them together. It always felt funny to me, drinking an alcoholic drink with my Dad.
Ebook or physical book?
Marcy: Physical book.
Favorite book to read with your daughter?
Marcy: Anne of Green Gables.
Dogs or cats?
Marcy: Cats. I have two. Ginger and Sunshine.
Most frequently used emoji?
Marcy: A red car. I was so pleased to discover this emoji after my last novel was published, The Red Car. I used it all the time. Now, I have to up my emoji game. I forget to use them. I have to get with it.