The Stud Book: An Interview with Monica Drake
Funny thing about The Stud Book by Monica Drake: You know how some people turn their noses up at genre fiction? I'm a genre guy, and I tend to scoff at literary fiction, shrugging it off as stories about melancholy families in the suburbs. And at first blush, The Stud Book is exactly that: Melancholy families in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. But it's so much more—moving, whip-smart, beautifully written, sad and hopeful in equal parts. And funny. Damn, is this book funny.
(And able to serve me a heaping dish of crow for being all highfalutin about pulp fiction.)
Monica crashed onto the cool-kid literary scene with Clown Girl in 2007, and The Stud Book is her long-anticipated follow-up:
In the hip haven of Portland, Oregon, a pack of unsteady but loyal friends asks what it means to bring babies into an already crowded world.
Sarah studies animal behavior at the zoo. She’s well versed in the mating habits of captive animals, and at the same time she’s desperate to mate, to create sweet little offspring of her own. Georgie is busy with a newborn, while her husband, Humble, finds solace in bourbon and televised violence. Dulcet makes a living stripping down in high school gyms to sell the beauty of sex-ed. Nyla is out to save the world while having trouble saving her own teen daughter, who has discovered the world of drugs and the occult. As these friends and others navigate a space between freedom and intimacy, they realize the families they forge through shared experience are as important as those inherited through birth.
A smart, edgy and poignantly funny exploration of the complexities of what parenthood means today, Monica Drake's second novel demonstrates that when it comes to babies, we can learn a lot by considering our place in the animal kingdom.
I don't know why this book spoke so strongly to me. Maybe it's because I just hit 30 and I'm now forced to face this whole "adult" thing. Maybe it's Monica's style—her writing is so tight and vivid as to make me jealous. Maybe it's the humor. Because, no shit, I laughed out loud a few times reading this. Which is a fun thing to do on the subway.
I traded a few questions with Monica, about writing, inspiration, and her writing workshop, which consists of literary heavyweights like Suzy Vitello, Lidia Yuknavitch, Chelsea Cain, and Chuck Palahniuk.
What was the nexus point for this book? That moment when you realized, "Yes, this is the book I want to write next."
There are a few things going on here. I wrote two sections of the novel as stand-alone short stories. One was about a character named Ben, and his longings. That story takes place entirely in the bathroom at his workplace. The other was about Georgie, published by The Sun as "Georgie's Big Break." Then I moved outward from there, with more pieces to the puzzle.
That's the practical talk.
But the larger truth is—and I'm serious, here—that I have a lot of projects underway all the time, and this particular book wasn't one of them, initially. Writing takes time. I wanted a sense of where to commit my efforts. I was overwhelmed by the essays, short stories and novel starts that pile up around my computer.
Here's where it gets spacey: I opened my mind to the universe, and asked the world at large where I might put my focus. I let myself be as open as possible about it. I didn't force the decision, didn't stack pages or make a list. And in that very open-minded space, in the span of one evening, this entire book settled over me. I knew the whole thing. It wasn't one of the many projects I had underway, but it was what I'd work on, and I pushed the rest aside. It was a pretty great feeling, actually. A strange certainty.
I'm a Joan of Arc fan, so I'd love to say it was the voice of God. God! Telling me to talk about population! How cool would that be? I won't go that far, though—that would be freakish and narcissistic. God, talking to me? Crazy! Crazy in a way that makes me laugh. (Wouldn't it be cool to have God in workshop? Yowza! Though it'd be intimidating, too.)
Really, what I would say is that I dropped expectations, quietly listened to my own mind, and this book came forward in my thoughts. Then it took years to write it down.
The cast of the book is rather large—what about the story demanded that it be told with narrative being passed among so many characters?
It's a narrative look at population, so it cried out to be populated. There are so many conflicting views about babies, population, and reproduction, and so many emotions. I wanted to bring differing opinions into conversation with each other. A large cast of closely entwined characters can hold the tension of being dedicated to each other while at emotional odds, as individuals as well as perhaps sociologically.
The voices of the individual characters felt distinct. How do you keep that consistent between chapters?
Great. So glad to hear that. For me it's about empathy—about fully moving into the world view of the character at hand.
Your male characters have sex (or at least, attempt to initiate sex) and masturbate, and nothing about it feels inauthentic. As a woman, how do you get into that mindset, to write about sex from a male perspective?
A great question. Again, thank you. It's totally possible that I have what Freud would have called a "poorly developed sense of gender identity"—ha! Damn, you know? Or, it's possible that male and female roles, and minds, aren't really so distinctly different as to be unimaginable to each other, contrary to what our very gendered cultural marketing machines would have us believe. Then there's also this—I'm lucky enough to know some really cool guys, who I adore, who talk with me like a real person, not like an abstract woman/girl figure they can't relate to. One way or another, between all three of these, I don't feel alienated from the male world view, or from men as sexual animals.
Did you have a character you identified with, or enjoyed writing the most?
I identify with all of them. I've had a few people ask, and they seem to want to hear that the character of Humble, in particular, is outside of that range of identification or empathy, but really he's not. He's a mess, he's coping badly, he behaves badly, but I sense where he's coming from. It's hard to transition into new roles, and he's struggling, ill equipped with emotional tools.
What was the hardest part of writing The Stud Book, and how did you get past it?
The hardest part was winnowing it down—it could have been much longer. I wrote many more scenes. Another tricky bit was linking the pieces together. In my initial version, it was a much more loosely connected series of moments. My editor encouraged me to lace them together more tightly, offering readers a gesture to move from one time, place and character to another. Looking back, I see she was entirely right about that.
Now that it's done and published, do you look back and wish you had done anything differently?
Individual lines, sentences, come to me, and if the manuscript were still in draft form I'd probably work them in, but since it's done, that's fine. I'll always have more ideas, more work.
What's your writing process like?
Slow and steady. I throw down words, on a page, when I can. Then I move them around, tinker. I go for the ideas, characters, and moments that interest me most, because when writing time is limited (which it is, always) why not go for the heat, right?
How much of the book did you workshop through your writing group?
All of it. I run everything by them. Except possibly the very first pages, with the worm story on it. I wrote those pages last, oddly, and after I'd sold the book, so that wasn't exactly in workshop.
Did your workshop members push you in new directions on the story? And were any of those directions surprising?
Workshop often helps me see things I might have gotten around to later, but it expedites the process. Also, they definitely draw my attention to any areas that might be underdeveloped, confusing or misleading.
I wouldn't say they pushed it in new directions—I had a strong sense of where I was going from the start—but they really helped me bring forward what I was trying to do. Workshop also really helps keep the whole process fun, alive and interesting.
How long do you have to edit and tinker before you're ready to show it to them?
Oh, I show work early all the time! And then sometimes I send it back through workshop in a later round. It varies.
Portland felt like an integral part of the book. Do you think this story and these characters could have worked in another city?
I'm a Portlander. I've been here forever. I'm not really sure how this narrative would work with another city in that role—it's like asking how it might be if another author had written it.
Clown Girl came out in 2007. It seems like a lot of authors are moving into a direction of juggling various projects, some putting out a book a year, or more. Do you ever feel pressure to do that?
Absolutely. There are real-world pressures to turn out more work. I'd love to be a faster writer. I'm just not, and not because of any shortage of ideas. Sometimes I'll have a burst of speed—I wrote 110 pages of my next book in about a week—but then life steps up, gets in the way, and it all equals out to the same slow and steady pace I've taken in the past. Along with writing, I've now established a brand new BFA in Writing at PNCA (the Pacific NW College of Art) in Portland.
I'm the department chair. It's an incredibly cool program, with long writing workshops and a parallel practice in studying visual arts. It's open to the future, with room for students to help craft the vision as we bring in digital media alongside conventional writing workshops. That's all new terrain for me, with a big learning curve, and it's interesting work. I'm also a parent, enjoying my daughter's childhood. I wouldn't give that up for anything.
For now, I have to be content with what I can do, in my crazy, slow-motion juggling game, keeping the short-term work and the longer projects always in view, in an awkward, delightful, mortal race against time.
Banner photo by Arthur Smid, at the Powell's Books launch party.
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