10 Questions with 'Made to Break' Author D. Foy
D. Foy is a man running on coffee and willpower.
I first met him when he stopped by the LitReactor booth at AWP a month ago, and he has literally been on the road every day since then promoting his first novel, Made to Break. Released in March by Two Dollar Radio, the book, which he refers to as his “old man,” has had a sixteen-year journey to publication.
I had a chance to sit down with the literary road warrior and self-described clown when he rolled through Minneapolis recently. Over coffee and breakfast sandwiches, we talked royalty checks, Amazon, and why writers need an ass like leather.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
It was called “Dirt Clod”, and it was a long time ago. It was very much a Flannery O’Connor-type story about these two guys in the country. They were best friends for years and years, then one did something to the other guy that somehow worked against his moral universe. And he ended up killing him, killed his best friend.
It’s sitting in a drawer right now, where it should remain forever. I’ve seen it before, and have been appalled. I want to destroy it, but I can’t. It’s like having kids.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
It was internal. I think the real celebration happened when I got the money, which was about $450. I went to the bank with the check and took a picture of the check; I still have it somewhere. I took a picture of the check when I sold the book, too.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
The only time I ever use a pen and paper is when I write poetry. I write strictly on the computer. I think I have for so long that it’s affected my thought and compositional process. I can keep up with my thoughts when I type; thoughts come in and out so quickly, and if I don’t grab it, it’ll just vanish. When I’m lucky enough to be in the flow, which is rare, I just pour it out. My first thought, is that it comes out of my fingers, which sounds glib, but it really does feel like that. Whether it’s good or bad, I always come back to a piece of writing and can’t believe I wrote it, and that’s what I mean by that. I’m able to access a part of my consciousness that I can’t in quotidian life.
I have a study where I work. I can’t do anything until I get coffee in me. Then I’ll write for a first session of 4-5 hours, shower, and you won’t see me like I am now until 2 or 3 o’clock. I’ll get dressed, go out, meet people or run errands, handle social media stuff, then late afternoon or evening I’ll come back and do a revision of the morning session. If I’ve done something that’s really terrible, I need to get it to where I can sleep, because I’ll get up in the middle of the night and go work on it.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Showing my work too early to others. I’ve learned that the really hard way, especially showing it to people who can help you, will publish you, or agents. Showing my work when it’s still in its nascent, raw stages. Doing that, I’m giving the person the benefit of the doubt that they can see the brilliant grand picture I have in mind. Which they can’t, unless they already know me and are familiar with my work and process, like my wife. My wife is my first reader; she’s a dancer and choreographer and amazing artist in her own right, so the kind of feedback she gives me is invaluable.
It took me a long while to learn that lesson.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
A major one. He doesn’t know it yet, but the book I just wrote is about my father. It’s called “Patricide”. It’s not entertaining, it’s heavy, and it almost killed me. I was lucky enough that during most of the process of writing it I had some financial freedom. I worked on that book 6 days a week, 10 hours a day for almost 2 years. The first draft was 1000 pages, I’ve got it down to 375. It was very intense, and very traumatic, and working through it freed me of a lot of ghosts.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Not fictional, but Henry Miller, and the why should be obvious. He’s just a fascinating, social, gregarious human. I know that a lot of women have trouble with him, and for good reason, but if you get past his misogyny, he had this prescience that was amazing. He just seems to me to be a fascinating human being.
Where do you buy your books?
I’m a little ashamed to say this, but I think that every writer, especially if you’re a scrapping writer, does this to a certain extent. I buy a good chunk of them on Amazon. But because I know the independent booksellers are the real people I love, and the people I want to support, the people who are actually going to get behind my book and the kind of books that I like, I also buy my books from them. Even though I can’t afford it sometimes.
That whole paradigm I find to be extremely fucked-up. I’d love to be able to support these people, and I know they’d love to be able to sell their books for the same price as Amazon, but they can’t because they don’t have the buying power, that kind of supply chain. That’s deeply upsetting to me, so I go through a kind of cognitive dissonance every time I buy a book.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
Well, I’m lucky in that I have one book out, and haven’t had a bad review yet. I’ve had two less-than-shiny reviews, and I think I probably looked on them with disdain. And I felt that one in particular was written by a cretin. It was Publisher’s Weekly, the first one that came out, and they talked about the book as being a horror novel that had no horror. The characters go up to a cabin in the woods and get trapped there, and that’s an old, well-known trope. But if I were doing that alone, I would say that yes, the book failed, but that’s not what it’s about at all. They were treating it through that lens. So it kind of was water off my back.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
I read things all the time about craft and technique, and know there’s a value to it, but don’t really believe that it’s something that writers need to be concerned with in the stages where advice could be applied to them. I think you either have talent or you don’t, and you nurture that talent by sitting down and writing, and by reading extensively. I could say that no one taught me how to write; the people who taught me how to write are the writers I’ve read, and continue to read.
I’ll tell you my best advice. When I was an undergrad, Bharati Mukherjee was one of my teachers. This lady’s a Brahman princess, educated in England, wearing a sari, very beautiful, very elegant. And she says to me, “If you’re going to be a writer, you have to have an ass made of leather. You’re going to sit on it all day long, and when you stand up people are going to whip it.” It was branded into my brain, and it was the best advice I’ve ever got as a writer. People don’t talk about that enough in programs; I find they don’t talk about the struggle that many writers encounter.
LitReactor's many things, but is first and foremost a community for writers. Tell us about your own writing community.
I’d been writing in isolation for a while, so at Berkeley I started a writing group with another guy, and we brought in a bunch of other people. That group is still together. I dropped out of it years ago, but formed a pretty strong community at that point, and I’m still friends with many of them.
After that, I had a frustrating experience at grad school. The upshot of it was that I didn’t want to workshop my stuff anymore, with anyone. If you read my book, it’s got a very polarizing style, so people would see my writing and they just wouldn’t like what I was doing. They’d try to influence me in other directions, and I resisted that, and I’m glad that I did because I’ve been true to myself. So I went the lone wolf way for years. I had the idea that I served my time—and it’s not that I didn’t want to learn, because I’m still learning—but I was just going to read a lot, and show my stuff to people, and sooner or later someone was going to publish it. But that didn’t happen.
I reached a point in the spring of 2012 where I had this revelation: if I didn't stop doing what was doing, I was going to fail. At that point, I figured the world works differently now, there’s an online community, social media. I had been very resistant to that, but I threw away all my reservations and said I’m going to join this community. So I set up my own website, a blog, and used that as a platform for writing these cultural essays that I was really interested in, and a number of them got published pretty quickly. Then I got on Facebook, got on Twitter and started a Tumblr, and just immersed myself. Within 5 months, maybe 6, I sold my book to Two Dollar Radio. And because they have a particular reputation, that opened further doors to me.
So I have a really big community of writers now, within a relatively short period of time. And I couldn’t be happier for that. It’s very clearly the best decision that I’ve ever made as a writer, to take that tack. The community I have now isn’t the community I had then, where I’m meeting with someone to read my work and give me input, it’s more about a mutual support.
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