Interview with Debra Jo Immergut: “When I’m deep into a draft or revision, I’m obsessed.”

Debra Jo Immergut is the author of You Again,  published by Ecco/HarperCollins in July 2020, and The Captives, a 2019 Edgar Award finalist for Best Debut Novel by an American Author, published in the US by Ecco and in over a dozen other countries.

She has also published a collection of short fiction, Private Property (Random House). Her essays and stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Narrative,  and The New York Times, among others. A recipient of Michener and MacDowell fellowships, she has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in western Massachusetts.

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Hi Debra, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. We’re really excited to talk to you about your writing routine and process. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I’m the author of three works of fiction–my novels You Again and The Captives came out respectively in 2020 and 2018. And I published a collection of short stories, Private Property, that appeared in 1992. That’s quite a gap. So I’d say I”m a fiction writer with an unusual trajectory.

I took a long time off from publishing, though I was writing most of that time. And this summer I’m finishing work on my third novel, a hypercompressed family saga called This Is Joy, and hopefully it will be out next year or the year after that. I’m also a teacher of writing and I worked as an editor and journalist for many years.

If I may ask, what led to that significant gap between Private Property and The Captives? Also, it seemed that once you got back into the groove again, you started publishing more regularly. 

I sometimes say my publishing record is one of intermittent persistence. A mind-boggling 26 years elapsed between Random House publishing my story collection, Private Property and the publication of my first novel. I wrote an early version of The Captives in the early 2000s, and it didn’t find a publisher. I was discouraged.

Then life happened—marriage, motherhood, money woes, cubicle jobs. I kept writing too, in my cubicle when the boss wasn’t looking, in once-a-week writing groups. Some years, I walked away from it—being a working mom felt like more than enough.

But the joy and challenge always lured me back. I didn’t seriously pursue publication, though, until I was laid off from my magazine job in 2015. The cultural climate was beginning to heat up around issues of gender and justice, and I sensed the moment had come for this story. I spent a year heavily revising, infusing my prison novel with my deeper life experience, tightening the plot with the help of an amazing new agent and honing the language.

Two days after my agent submitted The Captives, it sold to Ecco/HarperCollins and then in almost a dozen countries. And I know without a doubt that I am a stronger writer having a lot more road—and experience, reading, and writing—behind me. I published You Again two years later, and in the summer of 2022, I’ve just finished final work on my third novel. I hope I have found some kind of groove. I feel like I have a lot to say.

Can you take us through the creative process behind your 2020 book, You Again?

I began the novel after I moved away from New York City to Western Massachusetts. I had a family and a fulltime job, and not much time to write. I joined a group that would meet one night a week to write, and working that way, plus an occasional lunch hour or weekend, I finished 180 pages.

Then life overwhelmed me again and I put it away for a few years. Finally I was laid off from my job. I knew that all I wanted to do was write fiction. I read over the pages and found that I loved my story of Abigail, a woman who is literally haunted by her younger self, but the draft was terribly rough.

So I threw it all out and began again from page one. I poured all of my frustrations about my long-thwarted creative dreams into that story, and almost broke my brain trying to figure out what was going on with Abigail, but by the end I felt I had captured something truly important to me. 

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

My writing practice is much more consistent now than it was during all those years when I was balancing it with job and motherhood. When I’m deep into a draft or revision, I’m obsessed. I write in the mornings, and when my schedule allows it, I can work for eight or even twelve hours a day. I get lost in it, and it’s a magical feeling. But then, when I’m finished with a draft or between drafts, I might not write for a month or two.

I believe in intermittent persistence. I know from experience that the work can get done even if you can’t or don’t want to write every single day. What is important though, is that once you’re rolling on a first draft, you must expect and even embrace bad writing days. You can’t let them derail you. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way. 

Do you have a target word count or a set amount of hours you like to write each day?

My writing routine changes a lot based on where I am in a project, and I give myself a lot of leeway and avoid tyrannical thinking about word or page count. If I’m in between projects, as now, I might just noodle, read, work on sketches and short pieces as I formulate the premise for my next longer work. When I hit on an idea I like, then I might gently try for 500 words a day early in the first draft, and move up to 1000 as I start to see the path ahead.

I like to work in the mornings, and I might work half days on my fiction, because I often teach in afternoons and evenings. But when I’m deep into a project, I try to clear the decks, I set deadlines for myself, and then I might do many 12 hour days in a row. There’s nothing like full immersion in a project. It’s living inside a waking dream, an extraordinary experience, and I love it.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns affect your routine? 

Given that I’ve been writing full time at home these past few years, not much changed. You Again was published in July 2020, and it was a strange experience, but the book got out there and found readers. The biggest adjustment was learning to teach effectively on Zoom.

I now lead my own online courses, and a hybrid one called Fiction Kitchen, and also teach online courses at other amazing places like the Center for Fiction. I’ve found that the format works beautifully for a bunch of determined writers, and I’ve really bonded with some of my students, and they’ve bonded with each other too. That’s one big takeaway from the past few years–learning how to connect even when we can’t really connect.

What does your writing workspace look like?

I have an office space, surrounded by mementos like the magenta wooden “DJ” monogram from my childhood bedroom and gifts from my son Joe, plus my awkward attempts at live model drawing, and books relevant to my current project.

But mostly I rove around the house with my laptop, in search of the best light or the most consistent quiet. Or I’ll write outdoors, in cafes, or rented studio space, depending on my mood and the season and what construction projects are happening at my neighbors’ houses.

Photo courtesy of the author

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