Growing up in rural Vermont, Timothy Deer was a local star in the fast-paced world of competitive jump rope. Later, his fame grew to include such starring roles as “man at airport” in a major motion picture and “palace guard” in various productions with Boston Ballet.
Novel Incubator Year: 12 (a.k.a. the dirty dozen) (jk, no one calls it that)
Current Project: upmarket fiction about a good dancer who takes a bad job in a show staged at an abandoned shopping center.
What novel has stayed with you over the years?
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I carry passages from it in my soul, especially this time of year. Michelle Hoover once said in class, “All novels are broken, except To the Lighthouse.” Now my husband and I say it all the time, even though he’s never read it. It’s a book I’ve tried to foist on many people over the years with little success. On a road trip with my parents, I put on the audiobook version narrated by Nicole Kidman. Who could resist? An hour in, my mom said, “Does anything actually happen in this book?” I gifted a copy to my lifelong best friend, who has it on her bookshelf at her current home in Malaysia, the spine pristine, uncracked. Apparently, she would sooner move the book halfway around the world than read it, but I stand by my choice.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
My first memories of wanting to be a writer stem from Louise May Alcott. I cringe at the memory of my 10-year-old self, using a messy fountain pen and carrying a massive annotated copy of Little Women around the playground. When my parents sold their house a few years ago, we found some of my early stories, and my mom and I laughed until we cried over how bad they were (the most notable being an ode to … rugs?). Even now, though, after having drafted multiple novels, I still struggle with the identity of “writer.” I met Joyce Carol Oates once, and she asked me if I was a writer. I told her I try to be a writer but think of myself as more of a reader. She gave me a withering look, which was fair. Who was I trying to impress with such self-deprecation? And yet. At this point in my writing, I’m hoping to make people laugh—like Stephen McCauley, or David Sedaris, or Andrew Sean Greer. When people laugh, I feel like a writer.
Are you currently part of a writers’ group? Tell us about that.
It’s a big struggle for a lot of writers: how do you find community in this otherwise very solitary activity? I’ve been in one writing group for years now (shoutout to the Late Writers’ Club); it started as a workshop with Louise Miller (Novel Incubator alum, author of The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living), and some of us kept in touch afterward. They’re an incredible source of support and encouragement, but we also push each other to be better writers. Beyond that, my Novel Incubator year still meets regularly to workshop pages. I feel lucky to be surrounded by such amazing writers (who are also amazing people). It’s a delicate balance, of course; time is finite. I try to remind myself that time away from the keyboard is part of a writer’s life, and there’s value in that. Community can come in a lot of different forms, too; one of my sources of support and motivation is Jami Attenberg’s Substack, Craft Talk, and her “1000 words” writing challenges. They remind me I’m never alone when I’m writing, even if the people I’m writing with are strangers.
What is your work when you’re not writing?
I’m an executive assistant. People often suggest that would be a great subject for a novel, and I have to gently remind them that yes, it was, called The Devil Wears Prada. None of my bosses has ever been monstrous enough to write about anyway; they were, at best, decent fodder at cocktail parties. If you ever see me with a drink, ask about the Nordstrom cardigan emergency or the time the First Lady of France called my cell. I love my job, but it’s very task-based and action-oriented, so the process of writing requires a mental shift of slowing down. The payoffs for writing are different—slower, less concrete—than the ones at work, but they’re worth it.
What’s the worst writing question any non-writer has asked you?
“How many of your books have been published?” Lady, none of them! In a way, there’s a compliment buried in there: that I might have secretly published multiple books but am too modest to talk about it. I do not have that kind of self-restraint! I had a bite-sized piece in the New York Times last year, and I wouldn’t shut up about it. Even now, here I am, still talking about it!
Timothy Deer completed GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program in 2023 and is still busy at work on his novel in progress, The Folly of Harvest. Previously, he earned his Master’s in French Language & Literature at the University of Pittsburgh. For more information or to get in touch, visit www.timothydeer.com.