Debra Jo Immergut, YOU AGAIN

Debra Jo Immergut, YOU AGAIN

Zibby Owens: Welcome to day four of my July Book Blast. Today, I am going to be calling this Thrilling Thursday. There are a bunch of thrillers and suspenseful reads that I thought you’d really enjoy and that would make great summer reads. A lot of these came out during the pandemic. They’re really worth your time, so I wanted to get them out. I hope you enjoy them.

Debra Jo Immergut is the author of You Again. She’s also the author of The Captives, a 2019 Edgar Award finalist for Best Debut Novel by an American Author, which was published in the US and in over a dozen other countries. She has also published a collection of short stories called Private Property. Her essays and stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Narrative, and The New York Times, among others. A recipient of Michener and MacDowell fellowships, she has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Western Massachusetts.

Zibby: Debra, You Again, first of all, tell listeners, please, what You Again is about. Then I want to hear about the impetus for writing this book and everything else.

Debra Jo Immergut: You Again is about a fortysomething-year-old working mom in New York City who is coming home late from work one night and looks out her taxi window and sees her younger self coming out of a nightclub that closed years ago. It is really about this woman who is literally haunted by this younger self and what these encounters mean, how they change her, how they throw her life into complete upheaval, and how she comes out the other end of it.

Zibby: I know this is not your first book, but tell me how this particular book came into your head. Were you in a cab by the Hudson tunnel? Is it not called the Hudson Tunnel? I’m losing my mind. Hudson Tunnel, right?

Debra: Holland Tunnel.

Zibby: Holland Tunnel, oh, my gosh. I’ve been out of the city too long. Did you ever see yourself while you were in a cab or somebody who looked like you and then that sparked the novel? That’s my theory, but probably is not true. Tell me.

Debra: Not exactly, but not far off. What happened was I was walking through my old neighborhood in Greenwich Village with a stroller holding my one-year-old son at that time. I just happened to be in this area where I had lived when I was in my twenties. By this time, I was in my late thirties or mid-thirties, about thirty-five. I walked by my old building. I just happened onto this block, hadn’t been there in a long time. I just had the strangest sensation that I was going to see my younger self coming out of the door. The block is one of those landmark blocks, so nothing had changed. The old tenement building was still there. I just felt like I could see her coming out. Then I thought, what would she say to me? Here I am pushing a stroller. She wanted to be a novelist. I have not yet managed to get that novel out there. What would our conversation be like? What would I tell her? What would she say to me? That moment stuck with me for a long time. At that period, I really wasn’t writing. I think that was part of the reason that I felt this encounter might be somewhat difficult. As soon as I did get back to writing a few years later, that story, I thought, I need to just start writing it and see what the girl says.

Zibby: That’s so cool. Now I’m thinking in my head, wow, at what times could I really have used the me now to go back and say something encouraging to the me then? That would be so nice if you had those kind of touchstones throughout life to get you through the harder times. Wait, but tell me — so you started writing and then you took a break for like twenty years, essentially. Then you came back. Tell me what that journey was like.

Debra: I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and got off to a pretty nice start, sold a story collection half-finished. It was really the first handful of stories I’d written in my life. That was probably not great. I was so green. I really did not have a clue about what I was doing as a writer, as a published author. I was unprepared. I was young. It kind of threw me for a loop. I thought, wow, this was a rocky journey and not what I expected. It was kind of a difficult publishing experience. As I know now, and since I know so many authors and friends who are writers, pretty much every publishing journey has a lot of bumps in the road. That’s how green I was. I didn’t know that. I needed to retreat from it a little bit. I did write a novel that got rejected. That even more sent me a signal, I need to step back from this. At the same time, I became a mom. I needed money. I got a job in the magazine business. I just thought, let me set it aside for a while. Then in those twenty years, it was not that I wasn’t writing. I did go back to writing. Among other things, I was working on this concept of the older self/younger self novel. I was doing it slowly as a full-time working mom and kind of feeling like I love writing, but maybe I’m just not thinking about publishing at this point. That’s where I was for a long time. Then I slowly made my way back to publishing when I knew I was ready. This time out has been really different.

Zibby: I bet. It seems like things are going well.

Debra: Things are going well. That novel that I was rejected all those years ago, I took out of the drawer. I put a lot more work into it and sent it out and got an agent. Then it was sold within two days of going out on the market. That was just so far beyond my expectations. That became my first novel, The Captives. Then the second one, I brought this other novel, what has become You Again.

Zibby: For The Captives, you taught writing to prisoners, men’s prisons, and got to know them and channeled that into your first book, and then now switching gears to a New York-based harried mother for the characters here.

Debra: Exactly. One of the things I was doing in all those years was teaching writing in incarceration settings of various kinds to both women and men and became very interested in those lives. The Captives is about a prison psychologist. He’s about in his thirties. One day a new client comes in, and it’s the girl he went to high school with who he had a huge crush on from afar the whole time. She’s incarcerated. It’s about what happened between the two of them. It’s funny, both of these books have these intense duos who go back in time and who are now coming back into each other’s lives. I seem to be really drawn to that dynamic.

Zibby: Is there a point in your life that you wish you could go back to and change? Aside from the being green and the publishing journey, is there more of a personal moment or something that you wish had gone differently or that you would love to go back and redo?

Debra: I would say about my publishing journey, now I feel like it could’ve have gone better than it has gone. We come to things, ideally, when we’re ready. I was not ready that time. This time, I am. I’ll also say as a writer at this point in my life, I have so much material to work with. When I was in my twenties, you’re sort of scraping the barrel a little bit. I feel like I have this deep well. I really wouldn’t change that piece of it. What I would do is go back to that ambitious young writer and really tell her, you know what, it’s going to be okay. The disappointments that feel hard right now, it all smooths out with time. I always used to be skeptical about how you get better with age, but I really do feel like life does get better when you have a little bit more perspective for the ups and downs. I think I had very, very little perspective then. I would love to be able to share that with my younger self just to say, take a deep breath. You can’t believe it now, but this is not that big a deal.

Zibby: That is good advice in general. The one scene in your book that I felt like I related to the most is when the main character is going to Dr. Singh with all these complainants like fainting, headaches, vomiting, dizziness, aching. He kind of dismisses her and says, “Are you under stress?” Then he says, “All the mommies are under lots of stress,” and is like, “Go about your business.” I feel like you hear things like this often. You present with some complainants, and everyone’s like, no, it’s stress, it’s this. Then you find out that it ends up being all these other things. In your book, it was a very complicated unraveling of a lot of different factors that I won’t go into so as not to reveal anything. I felt like that was such a classic moment that I’m sure other people have experienced as well.

Debra: He says to her, “All the mommies have so much stress.” Then he tells her to go get a massage at the shiatsu place down the block. He thinks that might do the trick. Of course, it doesn’t. She goes down the block, though. She takes his advice. Of course, what stressed-out working mom doesn’t like the idea of having an excuse to treat yourself to a massage? She does go there. While she’s in the waiting room waiting to go in, she sees her son outside — she has a sixteen-year-old — in a street protest. She never ends up getting that massage. She has to go out there and mix in a little bit. I won’t say more than that. In some ways, that might alleviate her stress a little bit more, getting out into the street with the angry protestors for a moment there.

Zibby: By the way, I was reading it and I was like, wow, this is so timely. The antifa movement and everything that’s going on in Seattle right now, I’m sure I’m just totally naïve and in my own little bubble, but I had not even heard of that particular movement before it’s been plastered all over the news. Then it’s all over your book. This is so of the moment, the protesting, all of it. It was like you had a little bit of ESP or something of what was to come.

Debra: I’m quite amazed by that too. I was aware of them, mostly because when I was in my twenties to early thirties — my husband is a journalist. We lived in Berlin for a few years. The antifa had been there in Europe really since the 1920s in various forms. There have been lots of these, what we now see as antifa, these black-clad young people, very far left. That’s been all over Berlin for many, many years. They always grabbed my attention and fascinated me. They were so wild and kind of intimidating looking. Also, often you’d see them, it looked like they were having fun. As a twentysomething of a very different variety, I was just like, well, look at those people. I just always noticed them and remembered them. Then around Trump’s inauguration, that was really where I saw them here for the first time. I don’t know if you remember. They turned up on inauguration day in Washington in a small way. I thought, oh, look, it’s the American antifa. I always wondered if that would ever take hold there. As I was starting to work on You Again, I knew that my sixteen-year-old character was going to get into trouble of some kind of and pushing the boundaries and pushing the envelope. I thought, given everything that’s going on in the country and the crazy atmosphere of the last few years, I just had a sense that that might be a coming thing and a bigger factor as time goes on. We are really polarized. The extremes are very activated at the moment. That’s where my sixteen-year-old ends up. Actually, my fortysomething ends up delving into it, I’ll say, really brought in by her son and trying to figure out what it is and what it means and how it even reflects on her own life, but without endorsing it in any way. I would say personally I’m fascinated by them, but in a neutral way.

Zibby: Got it. You just mentioned your husband a little bit. I wanted to bring up your Modern Love piece from early May this year, which was fantastic, about needing the space to breathe in your marriage and how Burning Man became a piece of that. The last line of that, “It takes fresh air to feed a fire,” just gave me goosebumps. It was so good. Tell me about selling that to Modern Love and also what it felt like to be needing that kind of recharging and how Burning Man fit into everything.

Debra: There’s some common themes there in You Again and my Modern Love piece, which shows you how personal this book really is. It is kind of my statement of being a woman in a very long marriage and having really worked hard raising a kid, paying the bills, all of those things that we have to do. Yet somewhere in there is still that teenage girl yearning to break free. I think that’s what Abigail goes through. That’s because that’s what I have experienced in the last few years too. Yet I am crazy about my husband. He is wonderful in every way. We have such a deep, long connection at this point that I knew that I didn’t want to walk away from it if I could in any way help it. The Burning Man piece is really like, what can we do to get some of that freedom into our tight bond without breaking that bond? The Burning Man adventure was one way that we decided to try to do that, something that I was really reluctant to do. He was curious about it for years. When I came into this point of my life of feeling like I needed freedom, I thought, this is something I can do for him and it might help us. It did. It was amazing. I wouldn’t say it was like, and then everything was completely different. As you well know, marriage and having a family is an ongoing project. It’s always changing and moving and evolving. That was kind of a crisis moment that I wrote about that we got through by just having a great adventure together and something really out of our comfort zone. It was fun. It was really fun, I have to say. I don’t know if we’ll go back. We might. We’re not hardcore Burning Man people. What we found out is doing something really out there is good for us.

Zibby: It’s probably good for everyone. Now doing something out there would just mean leaving my house. Burning Man could probably really shake things up.

Debra: That is true. Going to the grocery story these days feels like pushing the envelope. It’s amazing how two years feels like an eon ago.

Zibby: I got my hair done for the first time in four months.

Debra: You got your hair cut?

Zibby: Yes. Going into a salon felt like, oh, my gosh, this is a whole new world, all these people and smells and sounds.

Debra: You’re making me a little jealous, I have to say.

Zibby: It was pretty awesome. It was pretty much the most awesome three hours I’ve spent for not too much of a change, but it’s okay. It was just nice to get a little trim and all the rest. All to say that our standards and what constitutes really exciting things, out of the ordinary, can shift very quickly.

Debra: Absolutely. I would just add for all you long-married folk out there, Burning Man is not necessary, but maybe thinking about how to add fresh air, I think it’s a really good question to address together. I guess maybe what really came out of that whole experience was the honesty of our conversations. I think that’s really what changed. It was even just hard to address that this was an issue, that we had to really look and work at our relationship which really had been very easy for many years. Even that is a great step to take every so often.

Zibby: It’s really great you shared it because I feel like marriage is one of those things that people only discuss on the surface sometimes. When you actually open up and talk about the real stuff, all it does is help other people through whatever they’re going through. Thanks for doing that. Tell me a little more about your writing process. When you were writing You Again, how long did it take to write? Where do you like to write? Do you sit right where you are now? We’re on Skype. I’m looking at you on this cozy little couch and beautiful light streaming in.

Debra: I actually sit on the other side of the room here right in the center of my house. One thing I’ve discovered about myself over the years is putting my writing space really sequestered somewhere in a corner of the house makes me not go there. I finally set up my office and my desk right in the center of the house. I have one child. He’s been in college. Of course, now he’s home. That’s a fantastic bonus of what’s been a really hard and awful time. I never thought we’d have him home for, I think it’s been going on four months now. He’s around. That’s fantastic. I really do write in the midst of my family. I try to at least touch my work every day. I will say, I do believe in intermittent persistence, and especially for women who are trying to write and juggle many other things. I would say I’ve gotten two novels out there and a collection of short stories and a bunch of other essays and things writing persistently but with breaks. It’s okay. I think sometimes there’s a machismo in the writing world about, you must write every day. You must do so many words every day. When I’m able to do that and my life allows, I do that. There are other times when I have walked away when I need to. I go back, and it’s still there. I just like to put that message out for women who are trying to write. I think intermittent persistence is a good strategy if you can’t make it every day.

Zibby: I like that. It takes a little of the pressure off. Do you have other advice to aspiring authors?

Debra: I would just say you need to find your core stories. You Again, coming out of this moment in my life, it just felt like a very urgent question to answer, how to make it in a long marriage, how to grapple with unfulfilled ambitions or sidelined ambitions. I think you can’t shy away from going there, to those hard, core, deep issues. That’s the well. It doesn’t mean you have to write openly and blatantly about them. I sometimes think of it as method acting, like when the director needs a child actor to cry and he goes up and whispers in his ear, remember when your dog died? That’s what you want to be thinking about. The scene may concern something completely differently. I think you need to tap into those emotions. Then write a spy thriller if that’s what you want to write, but try to locate it in your core. That works very well for me.

Zibby: That’s so great. Just going back to structure for two seconds because so much in this book — I loved, at one point, there was somebody who was like, let’s go over all the facts right now. You outlined them all step by step. Here’s what we know. There were so many different pieces. It was a kaleidoscope of what’s true and what’s not true and who believes what and which transcript and whatever. How did you assemble that? How did you do it? Tell me how you made that work. I’m very impressed.

Debra: When I began the book, I really just had that vision that I talked about before with me and the stroller and the girl coming out of my old apartment building. I had no idea what the explanation for this could be, how this woman could be seeing herself. I just wrote with a fair amount of fear and trepidation. How am I going to explain this? One thing I knew for sure was I didn’t want it to be like, she woke up and it was all a dream. I really said to myself, if you’re going to tackle a woman haunted by her younger self, you must have some plausible explanations for why it happens. Yet you must maintain mystery and depth, not overexplaining. That was scary as I got further and further in and was really committing to the story not knowing exactly how to do it. What I’ve found is — I’m sure you’ve heard authors say this before. Your subconscious is smarter than you are.

Slowly, explanations started to emerge as I brought in other characters, as I brought in Abigail’s history and the whole backstory and what’s happening with her younger self. The explanations were sort of embedded in the facts of her life. We discover that the things that happen to the twentysomething lay the groundwork for this haunting. That’s about as much as I can say without really giving too much away. It was embedded in there for me, but I had to get about two-thirds into the first draft before that started to take shape. Then all those other pieces that you’re talking about, the mosaic of explanations and facts and twists, that comes in revision when you really see, okay, I need to account for that plot strand. Again, I would look at the groundwork I’d set with Abigail’s story. There were things that I could draw out, possible explanations, possible factors, and weave them in. It’s a mysterious process. You really do need to trust yourself when you’re writing a novel. If you do that enough, I don’t know, there’s some magic to it. It comes together.

Zibby: That’s really exciting.

Debra: I take a lot of notes too. I ask myself questions. I have a notebook for each novel, and ask myself questions, sleep on it. Again, I think it kind of comes out of the subconscious if you allow it.

Zibby: I can’t wait to hear what comes out of your subconscious next. Are you working on another book? What are your plans after you celebrate the book review?

Debra: I am hard at work on novel three. One of the lessons I learned from my earlier publishing rough seas was that, just be working on new things and really going to that beautiful, magical, imaginary place. That’s why we do it, to be able to spend time creating and living in our imagination and trying to make dreamworlds that will please our readers. That’s the fun part. I really learned, publishing, the best antidote or counterbalance is writing. I’ve been writing a lot the last few months as I get ready for You Again to come out. It is set partly in Berlin drawing from those years in the nineties when I lived there, which was a really exciting time, and partly in this small college town, which is where I live now in Massachusetts. There’s a mother and a daughter in it. It is sort of an older and a younger again, and a past story and a present story. I’m really starting to see my patterns. That’s okay. William Faulkner wrote variations on very similar stories. He won the Noble Prize, so I guess that’s okay.

Zibby: What’s that expression? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Just keep at it. It seems to be working.

Debra: The subconscious, that must be what its shape is for me. Go with it.

Zibby: Go with it. Love it. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for your Modern Love inspirational piece and this beautiful dreamlike state of novel. Thank you.

Debra: Thank you, Zibby. I just want to say, huge thank you to you for all you’re doing for writers and readers during this time, and before that also, but especially now. It’s just fantastic. Thank you. I can say on behalf of everyone who’s trying to write, we thank you.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice of you. It’s my pleasure. I love it. Thanks. Have a great day. Thanks. Bye, Debra.

Thanks for listening to this episode from Thriller Thursday, part of my July Book Blast to get great authors into your hands while the summer is still going on. I hope you enjoyed this episode.

Debra Jo Immergut, YOU AGAIN