Elizabeth Earley holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her stories and essays have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The First Line Magazine, Fugue, Hair Trigger, and Glimmer Train, among other publications. Elizabeth is the recipient of the David Friedman Memorial Prize for Fiction, has twice been a finalist for the AWP New Journals Award, has received two pushcart nominations, and was a finalist for the 2011 Bakeless Literary Prize for Fiction. She is the editor of Bleed, a literary blog from Jaded Ibis Press. Her debut novel, A Map of Everything, was published in March, 2014.
Lunch Ticket’s contributing editor Ashley Perez talked to Elizabeth via email in March, 2014 about her debut novel, the publishing industry, and the writing process.
Ashley Perez: How has the journey been for your first novel? From writing to publication?
Elizabeth Earley: Long. There was a long period of time between beginning this novel and finishing it when I tried to write other books. From start to finish, it might have been about four years. After my agent, Malaga Baldi, sold the novel to Jaded Ibis Press, it was about a year before it was published. Since publication, it’s been a whirlwind with a debut at AWP and a 6-city book tour. All of the events have been a lot of fun. People showed up, old family and friends I hadn’t seen in many years, so it was both a book tour and a reunion tour. The tour began at the beginning of March, which coincided with National Brain Injury Awareness Month. This was a perfect synchronicity, as all of the author royalties I make from the sales of this novel will be donated to people with traumatic brain injury (TBI).
AP: In A Map of Everything, each chapter/section is indicated with an element of the periodic table. In Rob Roberge’s blurb he calls it, “the most structurally inventive and emotional remarkable books.” Was it organic during the writing process or something that came about in revision?
EE: I didn’t think about structure while I was writing. I just powered through. Later, when I had all of the raw material, I went back through to break it up and arrange it in a meaningful way. It was when I read back through and edited and plotted out the arrangement that it occurred to me to make the periodic table the frame. It was just such an obvious and perfect fit because Andy (a character in the novel) says that whatever god is, it can’t be articulated, but it can be approximated by calling it everything, the organizing principle of everything, and the intelligence that presides over that organization. The periodic table is a human-made chart that represents everything that exists. It’s an attempt to break everything down into its base elements and organize those, which is kind of a joke. Human intelligence can be so arrogant! There’s so much it doesn’t account for. There are so many gaps between what we’re given as scientific explanations for the world and what we actually experience, what we actually live through. This story traverses those gaps, exposes those questions, and pulls the reader into them. It doesn’t offer answers, but it offers hope. And reverence. Reverence for the questions and the patterns and the raw experiences.
AP: You also have shifting points of view that provides a wonderful experience for the reader that allow them to experience the different characters. How did that come about?
EE: That was a function of a class I took in graduate school called Prose Forms. In it, we were encouraged to experiment with different prose forms including letter, parable, first person, and “how to” or second person as a way of getting at the nerve of truth. I found it incredibly effective for this material in particular. Different prose forms offer unique ways to access and experience universal truths through story. For example in this novel, the second person, used when the protagonist has lost control, distances the narrator from the pain of the experience and offers insight and direction while allowing a more intimate involvement of the reader. The overall effect is a darkly humorous, fast-paced voice that teases out important absurdities and nuance in the action.
AP: A Map of Everything is a duel narrative of A. The narrator growing up, dealing with relationship and addiction issues and B. How her sister’s accident and subsequent brain injury affects the entire family over a two decade timeline. The narratives were intertwined so beautifully that I wonder did you ever consider telling them separately? Or could one not exist without the other?
EE: I never considered telling them separately, no. They certainly could not exist, at least not in the way they now exist, independent of one another. They are, by nature, intertwined. One of the major concepts of the novel, inherent in the story as well as the structure and the way it’s told, is that everything is interconnected, intertwined—events, relationships, people, and even time.
AP: In your essay “Is This a Fiction Novel?” (published on the Jaded Ibis literary blog, BLEED), you call A Map of Everything an autobiographical novel. You also mention being very protective of your family. What was it that made fiction a safer venue for you to explore this narrative?
I don’t think it was safer. It’s never safe to write about one’s family and one’s truth.
EE: I don’t think it was safer. It’s never safe to write about one’s family and one’s truth. And the decision to write a novel wasn’t inspired by a desire to protect my family. Rather, it was inspired by my love of fiction and the form of the novel. I’ve long admired writers who’ve pushed the form, evolving it into something better and more intricate. My goal was to push the form even further. I wanted the novel to be suggested by facts, by my own real experiences, but not bound to them. Still, when we write what we know and what we’ve lived through, the voice is so authentic that people inevitably take it as literal truth. For example, my publisher actually thought that at one point. She was ready to position the book as a memoir, and this was after I signed the contract. I told her that, although inspired by real events, the book is fiction. She was particularly disappointed to learn that my mom in real life didn’t give birth to twins on her bathroom floor.
AP: How was the experience for you at AWP this year as a debut novelist? You did a reading and a signing, right?
EE: It was a whirlwind! There were more people there than I can fathom, and at the signing event I did received huge support. My books sold out from the table by the end of the hour. And, I got to see and hug and talk to so many people I’ve either only ever met online or hadn’t seen in years.
AP: This is your first book tour. What has been one of the most memorable moments for you?
EE: In Phoenix, a woman came to the event with a copy of my book looking worn and well-read. There were many paper clipped pages and the edges of yellow sticky notes poked out from everywhere. She told me that she worked with families of traumatic brain injury survivors, had heard about my book, and got an advanced copy. She said it was the best profile of the spiritual, psychological, physical, and relational effects of TBI that she had ever come across and that she was recommending it to every family she worked with. I was very moved and honored. I felt an acute sense, for the first time, that this book is much bigger than I am and will reach much farther than I ever could.
AP: You recently did an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the book’s publicity with proceeds of the book going towards the Brain Injury Association of America. How have people responded to that?
EE: Just to clarify, I am going to be donating 100% of the author royalties that I earn from sales of the book to charity as well as directly to people I know and love with TBI. People have responded warmly to the idea.
AP: Why did you pick that particular charity?
EE: BIAA is a charity that benefits people with brain injuries, but I’m open to considering other charities that specifically benefit people with traumatic brain injuries, especially children.
AP: Can you tell us about your writing process? What does a day of writing look like for you?
EE: When I’m working on a book, I typically give myself a daily word count to meet that feels realistic. This could be anywhere from 500 to 2,500 words per day. The discipline of the daily word count helps me to produce material, whether usable or not. At times, I’ve held myself accountable to another writer or group of writers for meeting daily or weekly word counts. And I never have a specific time set aside for writing. Instead, I steal whatever time throughout the day that I feel particularly inspired or that just turn up as available. Riding on the train, waiting for a friend at a coffee shop, my lunch break, anything.
AP: What are you working on now?
EE: I’m not exactly sure. I started working on a memoir then stopped. Now, I’m thinking about working on that same memoir again. Or, another novel suggested by facts. Or, a nonfiction book about public bathrooms. I’m up to my knees in that stuck-in-between place, but I think (I hope) the wet cement is starting to recede.
AP: You mentioned being at the stuck-in-between phase right now in terms of writing projects. After being focused for so long on one project, what do you feel is the most important thing about moving on to another project?
EE: Just to clarify, I wrote two complete novels since finishing Map. My agent is now pitching the most recent of those. So it hasn’t been a matter of focusing on this one project, A Map of Everything—I’ve always been good at immediately moving on to a new project once finishing a draft of a previous one. This time though, after finishing my last novel, I became pregnant. I wasn’t prepared for the way that being pregnant, especially in the first trimester, would cripple my concentration and creativity. The stuckness has mostly been about that. But now I am getting into the initial research part of a new novel, which is one of my favorite parts.
AP: Any advice for new writers?
EE: Write a lot, read a lot, make friends with other writers, make professional connections, and ask people for help. Then, when you’ve eventually achieved some success, be generous in helping other writers.
AP: Thank you!