A Conversation with Susan Scarf Merrell
By Christine Sampson
November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. So, it’s only fitting that novelist Susan Scarf Merrell, who teaches in the Southampton College Masters of Fine Arts program, runs its Writers Conference and has served as the fiction editor of The Southampton Review, is running a program at the John Jermain Memorial Library to boost those who are hard at work writing a whole novel in 30 days. Ms. Merrell, who lives in Sag Harbor, spoke to The Sag Harbor Express about NaNoWriMo, writing in general and her own upcoming project.
Have you ever taken part in NaNoWriMo?
I feel like my whole life is NaNoWriMo. I’ve never done this month, but I’ve done my adult life this way. Every day, no matter what else is going on, I touch the pages every day. Seven days a week, on vacation, when I’m not feeling well. I always at least look at the pages and have a conversation with them. That’s what I think they’re trying to do — get people in the habit of taking themselves seriously enough that they will see themselves as a writer.
Can you sum up the talking points of your two events at the library?
I went into the first one wanting to give people various tricks and self-inducements, if you will, to get through the beginning part, to start building the habit. Each person came up with a guide word for the essential meaning of their project they can go to, so if they have a question, they can go back to this word and remember what comes next. “Bravery,” or “estrangement,” or “attachment.” For the ending, we’re going to talk about ways to revise what they did. I’m making the assumption that people will have done what they set out to do or will be very close to it. If you lay out a book in a month it will be pretty messy, so there are all sorts of tricks for assessing what you’ve done and developing a plan for revising it and seeing how it would be to read this book. A first draft is like taking a lap in a pool. You sort of hang on to the edge of the pool and turn around and look at what you did … and think about how you can look at your book more objectively.
What advice would you give to writers in general?
Don’t give up. Just don’t give up. I think the writing business is a business for people who don’t give up. It is not an easy business and anybody who looks at a published book and thinks they just did that is not really understanding how difficult the process is. Keep hoping and trying and working at it, because you can, in fact, do it. Anyone can, if they work hard enough. It doesn’t happen that a person just becomes a writer without work.
What’s up next for you in your own writing career?
I’m getting close to the end of a project I’ve been working on for the last couple of years, a novel, and in another four or five months I’ll be ready to send it out into the world. I can sort of see the end of it, and it’s a novel about something that gets stolen. I’m really just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. With the MFA program, it’s really exciting that we have these new faculty members, Amy Hempel and Cornelius Eady, and Paul Harding coming in next fall, and with the writing conference we have a bunch of really interesting writers coming to run workshops for us. It’s maybe not such a great moment in the world but I’m having kind of a nice moment personally. It feels awful to say, but one has to keep going on and keep doing what one does no matter what, because there’s nothing else to do, right? It’s funny because I think sometimes when everything is strange and tense, there are also wonderful opportunities if one can keep one’s energy constant and not be overwhelmed.
Ms. Merrell’s next workshop at JJML, “Getting to Know Your Novel,” is at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 29. Registration is required and can be done by calling (631) 725-0049.