Interview with Rebecca van Laer: “The more time I spend away from the project, the better.”

Rebecca van Laer is a writer based in the Hudson Valley. How to Adjust to the Dark (Long Day Press 2022) is her first book.

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Hi Rebecca, thank you for joining us today. 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? 

Of course. I’m a writer based in the Hudson Valley and the author of a novella, How to Adjust to the Dark. I hold a PhD in English from Brown University, where I studied queer and feminist autobiography. My academic research and interest in literary theory shape my fiction, and I also dabble in criticism.

Can you take us through the creative process behind your recently published book, How to Adjust to the Dark

It was a long road to finishing this manuscript! The book is a mixture of prose and poetry—in short, the narrator Charlotte is looking back on the poetry from her college days about a decade later, telling the stories of the love affairs that inspired the poems as well as close-reading them to re-familiarize herself with the person she was she wrote them—both what her intentions were at the time, and what the poems reveal in retrospect to the older, more mature Charlotte (the things she didn’t or couldn’t see when she was younger).

The project can be called autofiction, and it started with my real-life poems from college and graduate school. I picked out the ones that I thought were strongest and most interesting and re-arranged them to tell a story of growth and progress. Then, I started doing both the close-reading and narrative, fictionalized framing that would make up the rest of the book.

I wrapped up the first draft of this book in 2017, when I was living in New Orleans, and at that point it ended with Charlotte in New Orleans doing spiritual exploration. The book had a wide cast of characters and unfolded over the course of about a decade. But eventually, I saw that that wasn’t the right direction. To create a tighter, more streamlined manuscript, I condensed the cast of characters.

I also developed those that remained, fleshing out their relationships with Charlotte. Finally, I cut all the stuff about New Orleans and focused more closely on her relationship with love and poetry. And that’s how I got to the current version. I’ve realized that it takes me a long time to really understand the right structure for a book!

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

When I’m really on a roll, I write for about an hour in the morning and return to the project on the weekend for a longer writing session (2-3 hours).

One thing I say often is that I do my best work when I’m dreaming about my writing projects (as opposed to my day job)! But that’s not always possible for me. Sometimes, I’m either re-reading my work or working on revision, and that’s a more grueling process that I, on some level, don’t want to make time for. And sometimes I’m just out of ideas!

Recently, I had nine days between jobs to really hunker down and do some writing and revision. I was able to work for about two hours every morning, which was ideal. I was able to get deeply into the project without burning myself out.

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

I wrote a lot over the pandemic, but everything that came from the early months was sort of bad! I tried to write about 1,000 words a day, but I was writing in a very stream-of-consciousness way without re-reading anything from one day before plowing forward the next.

The anxiety of the time made me want to keep pushing forward, and I didn’t have much patience to re-read and re-work. I think this was good in one sense; I learned that I can actually write a lot more and a lot more quickly than I had previously thought. At the same time, the 60,000 word manuscript that I ended up with was really not good. I just hadn’t done enough reflection throughout to stop myself at an earlier point!

Now I’m permanently working remotely, which has opened up a lot of my time in the morning. And I think I’m finding a healthier balance between output, reconsideration, and revision.

I’d be interested to learn more about you finding that healthy balance between output, reconsideration, and revision. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis?

I’ve settled into a rhythm of working on one part of the process in a concentrated chunk of time. I spent two weeks doing a revision with lots of rewriting and new writing on the novel I’m currently working on almost exactly a month ago, which I suppose counts as part of the “output” stage.

Then, I let it sit for three weeks before I started re-reading (reconsideration). Once I’ve done that re-read, I’ll jump into revision, and since this will be a fine-grained revision with less rewriting and more focus on cleaning up structure and prose, I’m anticipating it will take quite a bit longer.

Overall, the output stage is the most enjoyable, and for me, often the fastest — but the more time I spend away from the project, the better. So while I’m reconsidering, there’s always at least a little room to look at another project.

Can you describe what your writing workspace looks like? 

I mostly write in my light-pink office, where I have a desk with two monitors. Right above the desk is a bookshelf that my dad had in his childhood bedroom in Germany (so it’s really cool mid-century modern).

Since it’s wall-mounted, there are mostly slender little small-press volumes on the shelf, along with knick-knacks: crystals, stuffed animals, and a beautiful How to Adjust to the Dark embroidery that my friend and pressmate Shannon McLeod gifted to me.

There are a couple other bookshelves in the room, but the space could probably use a little more furniture. Or maybe something about the empty space is conducive to writing.

Rebecca’s writing workspace (courtesy of the author).

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