by Annie Scholl
In her mid-forties, Jennifer Haupt went to Rwanda as a journalist and found a story there that she could only tell as fiction.
“I didn’t think it would be that difficult because I had friends, fellow journalists, who were having success selling novels,” recalls Haupt, now 60. “If I’d known it would take me 10 years to learn to write literary fiction, I might not have done it.”
To grow her fiction-writing skills, Haupt invested in what she calls her “MFA in a box.” She found writers and editors she admired and made it a point to work with them. She also took master classes at places like Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, and Tin House.
Haupt’s first novel, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills, was published by Central Avenue Publishing in 2018. Her second novel, Come as You Are, was published March 1 of this year, also by Central Avenue Publishing. She is the editor of Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19 (Central Avenue Publishing 2020), which raised over $40,000 for the Book Industry Charitable Foundation and was awarded the 2021 Washington State Book Award for General Nonfiction. Haupt writes a blog for the Psychology Today website called One True Thing, which is a collection of essays and articles about finding meaning in life’s moments. She’s also written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Parenting, The Rumpus, The Sun, and other publications.
Haupt talked with The Sunlight Press in earlier this month, just before her virtual book launch party for Come As You Are in March.
I knew I wanted to be a writer probably since fourth or fifth grade. I always loved the idea of writing and telling stories. I never thought of it as a career. I became a reporter. When I was in my mid-forties, I went to Rwanda for a reporting assignment and, when I came back, I realized I had the beginnings of a book. I tried writing it as a memoir, and it just didn’t work in that form, so I wrote it as a novel. The same thing happened with the story I’m writing now, which is set in Haiti and based on my experiences there. I tried writing it as a memoir and it also ended up working better as fiction. It’s just where I’m inclined to go. I really admire people who can write memoir, but I’m not one of them.
What is the biggest challenge about writing a novel?
For me the biggest challenge is staying focused. A lot of why I do it is for mental health reasons. When I first started writing fiction, it really helped me to stay out of my depression world. I think a lot of artists feel that way, where their art is a form of self-therapy. I learned a lot about myself in the process of developing a character who is me but not me, and who becomes less and less me and has more and more to say on their own.
How does fiction writing compare to the writing you do as a journalist?
Well, reporting is easy for me because I’m a natural question-asker. Fiction, in contrast, is about asking yourself questions, and that can be much harder. But what I like about all three of the novels I’ve written is that they all required me to start by doing the same kind of work I’ve done as a reporter. The first one is set in Atlanta during the Civil Rights movement through post-genocide Rwanda. So, I got to be a reporter to find out about those time periods. As for the novel about Haiti that I’m writing, I’ve been to Haiti three times now, so I can draw on my experiences there, but I’ve also done a lot of reading about Haiti. My novel, Come As You Are, takes place in Seattle in the early ’90s and it’s all about the music scene of that time, so I got to be a music journalist, which I have always wanted to be.
As you were honing your fiction writing skills, what was the toughest part?
That’s a good question. There are a lot of hard parts, but the hardest is being committed to doing the work every day. I think if you don’t do the work every day, then those muscles just don’t develop.
What is your writing practice?
On my best days, I like to write first thing in the morning for about two hours. It also depends on what stage of a project I’m in. Right now, I’m working on final revisions to a novel. I can do that in one or two hours a day. But if I’m starting a new novel, I really need to spend a good month writing every day for, say, three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon, and an hour at night. I need to really be immersed in it. Otherwise, the story isn’t going to come to me.
How do you know when you’re getting it right?
I think that is actually one of the hardest things to recognize, because there’s always that voice telling you it’s wrong. Again, for me, when I was just starting out as a novelist, I thought I was doing a great job—until I realized I wasn’t. I think that, if you don’t have enough skills, you may think you’re doing better than you actually are. At least that’s true when it comes to literary fiction writing—that’s a different game than writing, say, chick lit or mysteries. It’s about trying to find the voice of your novel, trying to let your novel tell you what it is, instead of trying to force it to be something.
What does success look like to you as a writer?
What that looks like for me is, the week before my book launch, I’m spending time every day writing my next book. That to me is success. Really being in flow with spending an hour or two a day writing my next book.
How long did you work on your new novel Come As You Are?
I worked on it for about ten years. That’s how long it takes me to write a novel.
Any advice you’d give to writers who are frustrated at how long a writing project can take?
Likely no one is waiting for your book, so if you’re enjoying writing it, that’s success. If you aren’t enjoying it, then you shouldn’t be doing it. You should put it away for a while. There are time periods when I don’t enjoy writing, and I just don’t do it. I do other things. It’s healthy to have other things you’re doing because the words are not going to come to you all the time. I think it’s important to write every day, but that doesn’t necessarily mean working on your manuscript. Your writing might be outlining, or it might be writing in a process journal about something you’re having trouble with. It’s not always about making progress on the manuscript.
What does a great writing day look like for you?
A great writing day for me is getting up and taking care of my dog and my plants, writing for two hours, going for a walk, writing for another two hours, doing something else in the afternoon, writing for another two hours. So having, say, three periods of writing for about two hours, and then, another period of about an hour in the evening, looking at what I’ve done and figuring out what I’m going to do the next day.
Thank you so much. Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
No, you’ve asked really good questions. This was fun. I appreciate it.
Learn more at Jennifer Haupt.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr