Late Bloomers, Listen Up: She’s Publishing Her First Novel at 60

February 16, 2012 at 10:00 am , by

Meredith Maran (at right) has been a working writer for more than 40 years, turning out ten nonfiction books and scores of magazine articles (including a fair share for Ladies’ Home Journal). But this week marks a brand-new milestone for the brand-new grandmother: the publication of her first novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes. Set in the countercultures of Oberlin College in the 1980s and Berkeley, California in the late ‘90s and onward, this “deliciously messy love story” (to quote from one of the blurbs on the book’s cover) is about a protagonist, Alison, caught in a love triangle with her former (female) lover and her husband—and about the son all three of them come together to raise.

Here, Maran chats about the book with her friend and fellow novelist, Caroline Leavitt (at left), author of the New York Times and USA Today bestseller Pictures of You, as well as eight previous novels.

Caroline Leavitt: What sparked the idea for A Theory of Small Earthquakes

Meredith Maran: A decade ago, a friend told me a true story about such an untraditional family, whose existence required so much daily forgiveness on the part of all involved, I thought, “If only I were a novelist, that would make a great plot.”

As I watched the story unfold in real time in my friend’s real life, the itch to write it finally overcame my fear of attempting a novel. After a lifetime of writing only nonfiction, that fear was epic—and, as it turned out, well founded. The novel took two years to write, five years to rewrite, and many gnawed fingernails to sell to a publisher. And it’s been the most thrilling writing experience of my life.

CL: I love the title [a theory of small earthquakes refers to the idea that the occurrence of many earthquakes of lesser intensity offsets the possibility of a single catastrophic one]. Can you talk about it? 

MM: Over the eons it took to bring this book from concept to publication, the novel had at least five working titles, starting with The Surrogate and ending with Boy Girl Boy Girl, which came in a close second. Early on, the phrase “A Theory of Small Earthquakes” came to me in a flash, and I loved it. But there were so many factors to consider, and such a big job the title had to do.

My dad was a true Mad Man—a Madison Avenue ad executive. I grew up naming products at the dinner table, so considering the impact of the title on marketing the book came naturally.

CL: Tell us about your writing life. Do you outline or is it more intuitive? Do you keep a schedule? 

MM: I have a very simple schedule, as follows. Wake up before the sun. Work happily until bedtime or “Homeland,” whichever comes first. Eat at desk around 8AM and again around 2PM. Break for 1.5 hours for perspective-restoring hike with writer friend. Go to sleep worrying book won’t sell. Wake up worrying book won’t sell. Repeat.

P.S. I wouldn’t trade this life for anything. I’ve proved that by refusing to trade this life for anything, including a living wage.

CL: What’s obsessing you now?

MM: See “book won’t sell,” above. The thing about book sales, these days, is that they determine one’s ability to publish another book. And that’s all I really want to do: publish another book. Oh, and another one.

CL:  Anything I forgot to ask?

MM: The question no writer wants to be asked. “What’s next?” Answer:  Another novel.

It’s official: I’m a born-again novelist; a convert to the truth that lies in fiction. And I’m knee-deep into my next novel, about which I’m absolutely thrilled. I’m madly in love with the characters, each one of whom is as twisted and complicated as the characters in Earthquakes. I’m dreaming of the day I’ll have time to get back to them, which I take as the best sign of all. If I can’t wait to hang out with these people I’ve invented, I figure there’s a decent chance that at least a few readers might feel the same way.

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