Interview with Emily Schultz: “Give yourself entirely to the project.”

Emily Schultz is the co-founder of Joyland Magazine. Her most recent novel, Little Threats, was published by GP Putnam’s Sons and was named an Apple Books Best of November 2020 pick.

Her novel, The Blondes, was released in the U.S. with St. Martin’s Press and Picador, in France with Editions Asphalte, and in Canada with Doubleday. It was named a Best Book of 2015 by NPR and Kirkus. The Blondes was produced as a scripted podcast starring Madeline Zima (Twin Peaks). It was created by Schultz and Brian J Davis.

Her writing has appeared in Elle, Slate, Evergreen Review, Vice, Today’s Parent, Hazlitt, The Hopkins Review, and Prairie Schooner. She lives in Brooklyn where she is a producer with the indie media company Heroic Collective. Her forthcoming novels are Sleeping With Friends and Brooklyn Kills Me, both from Thomas & Mercer. 

Join us as we sit down with Emily to discuss her writing routine and process. Emily shares her background as a dual citizen, her journey as a writer, and the inspiration behind her novels The Blondes and Little Threats. She also talks about balancing her roles as a co-founder of Joyland Magazine, a producer and a parent.

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Hi Emily, 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?

Sure! I began writing very young—I always knew I wanted to be a writer and that story was a driving force. My parents had both been English Majors in college in the Midwest. They met when my mom (doing her grad work) judged a short fiction contest and awarded my dad (finishing his undergrad) first place.

By the time I came along he was a high school English teacher. The Vietnam War meant they headed for Canada, and his dream of writing evaporated as they settled into a new country and worked at raising four of us kids. But I was always surrounded by books—it was what bonded my parents, my brothers and me.

I’m a dual citizen, and got my career start in Toronto before moving to New York. I studied English, then Publishing, and worked as an editor for several independent book publishers. I had written most of my novel, The Blondes, in a cabin outside Twentynine Palms near Joshua Tree National Park, and I worked at polishing the next draft of it that first year here in Brooklyn in the sublet, which of course became our apartment and where we still live.

I was pregnant and very tired for the first months so I mostly worked on it in bed in the room that now belongs to my son. The novel is told by a pregnant grad student, Hazel Hayes, who is narrating the story to her unborn child in the middle of a pandemic—a hair virus that only affects blonde women.

I’ve since gone on to write Little Threats (Putnam Books), which explores what happens when one twin sister is released from prison after serving fifteen years for murder, and has to rejoin her family. I have brothers who are twins, and I wanted to explore that relationship between two people who are so alike, but different. I thought it would be interesting also to look at crime in the 1990s and how old crimes are now being solved through DNA technology.

In addition to your writing, you’re also the co-founder of Joyland Magazine, which highlights the most exciting voices in literary fiction and creative nonfiction, as well as a producer with the indie media company Heroic Collective. How do you balance it all?

My life sometimes looks like a zigzag. I have a tendency to tend to try something and see if it works, and then if it does, I go back and try another thing using some of what I learned. And if it doesn’t, okay, then let’s try this other thing. I really live the DIY aesthetic every day—that’s partly from being GenX but mostly out of necessity. 

I started Joyland Magazine in 2008 with my partner, Brian J. Davis, when we were still in Toronto. I was writing and teaching short fiction, but struggled to place stories in literary magazines. Traveling was cheap in the Aughts and we went to a lot of places because of Davis’s art career.

Peering in on the literary and art scenes in other cities was exciting. So we came up with this idea to organize Joyland by place, and hoped it would provide a kind of network—the idea being that the authors in L.A. have unique styles and viewpoints from those in New York, or those in the Pacific Northwest, or in Canada. It was our hope to broaden the reach of these voices.

Joyland published a lot of writers who are now quite well known: Roxane Gay, Brandon Taylor, Anna North, Amelia Gray, Ottessa Moshfegh, Rachel Khong, Mona Awad, Helene Wecker, Emily St. John Mandel. 

But after a few years, the magazine needed new voices and new energy. We didn’t start it with the goal of becoming wizened gate keepers and we didn’t want to end it that way. So Kyle Lucia Wu came in and was a driving force toward the new version of Joyland as it exists today, and then Davis and I handed everything over to Michele Lyn King, who had a story on the site and had edited with us for several years before becoming the publisher. 

Something else we had to balance was that our son was on the autism spectrum and needed much more support from us than typical children. And Davis and I were also both interested in developing podcasts and films, something we do together under the Heroic Collective banner. Heroic Collective is really all our media projects together.

So far, we’ve produced two dramatic series podcasts, The Blondes (adapted from the book), and The Bite, an original queer werewolf story. The Bite was made during the pandemic. It was really exhilarating to collaborate and make something during a time when most actors and musicians hadn’t been able to! The Bite wound up being an iTunes Top Fiction Podcast in the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia.

I learned to podcast during my Joyland days when I often interviewed our authors for our “Truth and Fiction” cast. 

Can you take us behind the creative process for your latest novel, Little Threats?

In Little Threats, a teenage girl is found murdered in the woods, and her best friend, Kennedy Wynn, is the one to find her. Kennedy winds up serving 15 years, but because of her drug use, she has only vague memories of the night in question.

Originally I thought I’d write about someone coming back into society and what changed between 1993 (the year of this fictional crime) and 2008 (the year of her release). In that way, there is a more literary conceit with the crime element. 

I wrote the first 50 pages. Often, I don’t entirely know what I’m doing when I start a draft. But at the 50-page mark, I know I have to get serious and decide which direction things will go—and likely I’ll need to rewrite those first 50 several times over!

So as I looked over the opening and talked about the idea, I realized it might be more interesting if she herself had no clue whether she’d done this. It would leave a lot of possibilities—including whether the real killer was still out there. I decided to bring in a “threat” as well: a TV show called Crime After Crime has decided to take a look at the case and talk to everyone involved.

This means digging up old memories, and new information coming to light. Honestly, like a lot of women, I love puzzling over Investigation Discovery shows. There’s a reason for true crime’s surge in popularity. 

Bringing in the crime show meant writing from multiple viewpoints. Who knows what, and who is withholding what information? So I made a giant wall chart using index cards. Each color represents a character. In this way I could keep track of how the storylines were interweaving. Oh, and as you can see (photo below) there’s also a ghost.

I came of age in the grunge era, so I mined a lot of my own experience and memory for this book. But through new eyes. 

The book was released in the middle of the pandemic — November 2020 — so I’ve done online book clubs, but not many in-person readings yet, which makes it hard to gauge how the book has made people feel. I was recently tagged in what was a really thoughtful review and someone posted, “You will be destroyed!” I think that’s my favorite comment about my work yet!

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

As I said, nothing in my life or my household is very typical. But there definitely is a pattern. After I became a parent to a kid on the autism spectrum, patterns became essential. I find that patterns help me too. And I learned patience, which helps in the writer life as well.

Many writers struggle with depression and anxiety, and I am one of them. To keep myself in balance, I will wake up at 6 a.m. with my son, eat breakfast and get him off to school. He goes to an all-autistic school in Manhattan.

Then, every other day, I may take a run around my neighborhood (usually 2.5-3 miles). I am kind of a lazy runner, but this is more important than you might think. It’s meditative and if I’m stuck in an idea or thought cycle, or suffering any writer’s block, feeling in my body and one with my breath is a way through it. Some of my best breakthroughs have come while running. I only run outdoors, in all seasons, because I like to be under the sky.

I also play soccer, which helps control or at least give me an outlet for any aggression I might be feeling, as well as giving me a little social life. I play in both a queer soccer league and a mixed gender league for when I’m in more of an aggro mood.

I’m very interested in aggression as a theme in my writing. The Blondes was very much about rage, and women’s rage. Little Threats also has an undercurrent about anger and control. There’s a lot about class and social climbing as well. These are also themes coming up again in my newest novel, which I am working on as we speak.

Davis and I will usually have lunch together and talk about any work we have that overlaps. Then I’ll choose to either edit or write—I can’t do both on the same day. 

Before I was a parent, I could write all day, and sometimes many days in a row—almost like a binge behavior. It was glorious and I loved being able to become so obsessive. Now, I have be more moderate with myself. I have other tasks, and need to do the freelance book editing work that provides a steady income, but I will still find ways to get away and do about four-hour chunks of writing at a time.

Before the pandemic, I had a writing office. Now I have a friend who often travels for long stretches so I’ll use her apartment as a writing office if I can. If I can’t, I’ll cozy into an armchair in my son’s room while he’s at school, or I’ll write at the kitchen table. I have a desk of my own, but strangely, seldom use it. 

A first draft can take as little as four weeks, or as much as ten years. But usually for me, in a year or less I can have something that one would deem “showable.” I try to stop writing early in the day—dinnertime, or at the latest 9pm—that way I can turn my brain off and fall asleep easily. I like to watch a lot of films and TV series of all kinds—drama, comedy, crime, horror—I’m really never not thinking about story and structure.

If you could give just one piece of advice to a writer trying to get published, what would it be?

Give yourself entirely to the project. Enjoy it, love it for its own sake. But when you’ve finished (the best draft you can), start a new thing. Never bank on one idea because it’s hard to know what people will like. If they don’t like it, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Not everything will connect with people. If it doesn’t go, you aren’t a failure; you’re a writer. So write more.

Photo courtesy of the author

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