Next Chapters is a biweekly feature spotlighting graduates of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, which has been running since 2010.
Novel Incubator Year: 7
Current Project: two novels—one set on the West Coast explores the futility yet necessity of creating art in the face of climate collapse; the other follows a couple from the end of their marriage in 1890s New Orleans through détente and eventually to friendship in prewar Paris.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Part of me wanted to be a writer. But, honestly, I think what I really wanted to be was a generic successful suburban adult. Like the dad on The Brady Bunch, or maybe Steven or Elyse Keaton on Family Ties.
What book do you wish you wrote? Why?
Over the holidays, I read Claire Keegan’s Foster and Small Things Like These. Both are perfect little gems with engaging characters in simple-yet-complete 100-page-ish narratives. So much beauty and pathos in such little space. Not a wasted word.
What novel has stayed with you over the years?
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. It centers on three families living in a northwest London neighborhood in the 1980s and 90s. This novel does so much. It explores race, cultural identity, family and class dynamics, intellectual elitism, post-colonialism, the rise of fundamentalism, and the pandora’s box of scientific progress. And it’s also…fun to read! The voice is whip-smart, winking, and droll, with a narrator you’ll beg to keep telling you stories. Plus, the book is this amazing time machine back to the late 1990s, that era and its optimism depicted without apology by an immensely talented and audacious young writer.
Are you currently part of a writers’ group? Tell us about that.
I’m in the process of joining a few writers’ groups. I recently finished my MFA, and now that it’s over, several classmates and I are actively setting up groups to sustain our writing practice and support each other from afar. One group will meet monthly over Zoom to catch up and discuss what we plan to write in the month ahead. Another will workshop each other’s writing.
What was the last darling you killed?
During 2021, I wrote a first draft of a novel that I was excited about. I let it sit during the first half of 2022 while I worked on short fiction pieces. Then I wanted to revise it in the fall, but when I picked up the manuscript and reread it, I thought: “Ugh. Wha?” The beginning was fine, the middle got weird, and the ending had grown unintentionally belligerent. I decided to start over from scratch, which was awful but liberating. “Kill your darlings” means don’t be afraid to cut even your most precious lines during revision. There were ideas, lines, passages, and even chapters that I loved. But no one got out of there alive. It was a darling cataclysm. At least a super-heavy revision, or in this case a total restart, made the little choices simple. The new manuscript has the same setting and themes, but different characters, plot, and scenes. I have a ton of work to do, but I feel better about it.
What strategies do you use when you’ve hit the wall?
- Be gentle with myself.
- Read, or watch an interview of, a favorite author. Their words and perspective can make writing feel real and necessary. I’m on a Rachel Cusk kick right now.
- Read a piece I’ve written that I love and think: See! I’m good!
- Talk to a fellow writer; articulate why I may have hit a wall.
- Change the point of view of the scene where I’m stuck. Switch it from 1st to 3rd, or vice versa, or flip to an adjacent narrator, that sort of thing. I might not use the new material, but the switch often unlocks something.
- Go for a walk, especially if it’s a little cold outside.
- Put it down. Give it time. It’ll be fine.
James LaRowe is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator and the Bennington Writing Seminars. His fiction explores privilege, loss, and shifting notions of masculinity. His flash fiction has been published in Cleaver Magazine, which designated him a Cleaver Emerging Artist in 2022. James lives in the Boston suburbs with his family and dog.