Hey, Matthew Norman, Why’d You Do That in Your Novel Domestic Violets?
Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.
…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…
These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things. In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.
Matthew Norman first came to my attention when I saw a Twitter notification about the Lit Hub piece he published in May 2016. I obviously have a very soft spot in my heart for writers; as a born showman (though not a good performer), there’s little I fear more than taking the stage, only to see no one is watching. In prose that is hilarious and full of heart, Mr. Norman tells the story of giving a reading to an audience that primarily consisted of chairs, tables and people who were trying to skim half a dozen $100 art books they wouldn’t buy while sipping a $3 coffee.
The essay inspired me to look into Mr. Norman’s work and I picked up a copy of his 2011 novel Domestic Violets. (You should, too. Indie bookstore. Barnes & Noble. Amazon.) I read the first chapter and even though I should have been working on what I hope ends up as my follow-up YA novel, I spent the next few hours with Tom Violet and the people in his life.
Domestic Violets is right up there in quality with the work of Tom Perrotta. (And you know how I feel about his stuff.) The book tells the story of Tom Violet, the son of a famous novelist who just won a Pulitzer. He has some marital troubles, he hates his corporate job and his coworker Greg, he quite likes his coworker Katie. How will Tom get through a trying time in his life? Read the book and find out; Mr. Norman tugs your heartstrings and tickles your funny bone. What else do you want?
Mr. Norman was gracious enough to answer some questions for us. As always, I wanted to know why he made some of the little choices that he made. If you’d like him to go into painstaking detail about his grand literary philosophies, why not catch him at his next reading? (And come early. And sit up front. And bring friends.)
1) Your whipcrack stretches of dialogue make appropriately sparse use of “stuff.” (That’s what the great Lee K. Abbott calls the dialogue tags and additional information in dialogue.)
My most recent and in-progress novels are also in first person present; I am always worried that I’m overusing “I” and “Me” in the narration. Do you share this worry? How did you keep your narration from sounding like a singer who is warming up? (“Me me me memememe…”)
I don’t know if I’m technically a minimalist, but I try to avoid “stuff” as much as possible, particularly in dialogue. I very much believe in Elmore Leonard’s rule that the dialogue belongs to the characters, not the writer. Loading on a bunch of descriptors or adverbs to dialogue is just the writer sticking his or her nose in where it doesn’t belong. Plus, it just messes up the rhythm of the dialogue for the reader. Dialogue creates a nice breather for readers, so I prefer not to rob them of that.
As for overdoing “I” and “me,” it’s definitely something I think about. If it’s a problem, I usually pick up on it when I’m editing/revising. Reading your own work aloud over and over again helps, too. It’s a great way to find ticks and trouble spots in your prose.
2) Curtis Violet, freshly Pulitzered, appears on David Letterman to read the Top Ten List. The description of Curtis’s segment fills three whole pages of the book.
Were you daunted by the idea of making up five minutes of a TV show starring people whose rhythms and patterns of speech are so familiar to so many? How did you make it seem like a real Letterman show?
That chapter was so much fun to write. I grew up watching Letterman pretty much every night, so I wasn’t particularly daunted by it. For decades, the formula was the same. He’d come back from the first commercial break, jabber with Paul for a bit about nonsense, then introduce the Top Ten List. I imagined how it would go if Curtis was on, and I sat down and hammered it out. It was a blast to write, like I said, but I think it’s an important scene because it gave me a nice way to put Curtis’s fame into context for the reader. Is he a movie star? No. But he’s famous enough that if he wandered onto the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater, pretty much everyone would know who he was.
3) DOMESTIC VIOLETS is very much a product of its time. You say in the end matter that you did a full rewrite after the economy started to go kablooey in 2007 and 2008. The book also includes a number of cultural references: The Hills, Barnes & Noble (how long will we have bookstores?…), Morgan Freeman, Russell Crowe and the film Gladiator, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Johnny Rockets, The English Patient…
Those who make the rules of writing advise writers to ease up on such references, lest the book seem dated. I think they’re wrong in the case of DOMESTIC VIOLETS and other books, but how did you make sure the novel will be as hilarious in 2031 as it was in 2011?
Very early on, I made a commitment with this book. I was going to make it up-to-the-minute current, I was going to have Tom be extremely referential to pop culture, and I wasn’t going to hold back at all. To me, it just felt right and, more importantly, realistic. My generation is very referential. We’re constantly talking about movies, music, headlines, high art, low art, whatever. To strip Tom of that insight would have done harm to the book.
However, I’m well aware that my decision came with a cost. Of the references you mentioned above, The Hills makes me shudder. Believe me, I wish I had that one back, and I’m sure there are a handful of others that haven’t stood the test of time. But I can live with that. Will we find Domestic Violets funny in 2031? I don’t know. Odds are we’ll be too busy battling our robot overlords to care.
4) It’s not much of a spoiler; about halfway through the book, we find out that Tom’s mother (Curtis’s ex-wife) also attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was far more successful than Curtis was. Then she just stopped writing and focused on teaching.
Why did you wait so long to include that sad and beautiful exposition?
A really good writer friend of mine dropped an epic line on me a few years ago about this. He said, “Never tell readers something until they need to know it.” That’s a great rule of thumb when you’re deciding when and how to reveal information, which is one of the toughest challenges of novel writing. If you hit them with everything right away, they’ll probably get bored with all the blah-blah. But if you withhold too much for too long, they’ll get annoyed because it’ll feel like you’re toying with them. You just need to feel it out, basically. When you’re revising, and you come across a piece of exposition, ask yourself…“Does the reader need to know this right now?”
5) So, DOMESTIC VIOLETS is a book about the son of a Pulitzer-winning writer who is a writer himself; one of the subplots centers upon the son’s burgeoning writing career. From time to time, writers will tell other writers not to write about writers because that’s what a lot of writers have heard.
For my money, DOMESTIC VIOLETS is like WONDER BOYS or SIDEWAYS, books that overcome any problems that can afflict books about writers. How did you approach writing about the Violet family business of writing?
Yeah, I’ve heard that, too. Writers shouldn’t write about writers. At some point when I sat down to write Domestic Violets, that crossed my mind. I quickly ignored it, though. As a writer, I think you should write what you want to write…and I really wanted to write about a famous writer and his wannabe-writer son. So I did.
One potential problem that can arise with books about writers is that they can feel too “inside baseball.” Writers blathering on about writing isn’t much fun for the vast majority of readers who aren’t writers. So, I did my best to keep the blathering to a minimum, and I made sure I hit on themes that were more universal than just Tom’s struggles with the page. Fathers and Sons. Husbands and Wives. Workplace misery. Economic doom. That’s all writer-free stuff.
6) There is a LOT going on in the book. In the first few chapters, you gracefully establish many of the overarching conflicts that Tom Violet must navigate. His erectile dysfunction, his obvious marriage problems, his disruptive but lovable father, the threat to his job caused by the stress of the global financial crisis, Tom’s oddly respectable lust for Katie…phew! And there’s so much compelling and suspenseful plot that follows.
Without getting into too much detail, and without asking for too long and specific an answer, how’d you balance so many characters who have so many conflicts and resolve them all (in some manner) by the end of the book?
The characters all existed in my head, along with their motivations, character arcs, and the moments in which those things would intersect. To organize all of that more tangibly, I used—and I continue to use—a notecard system. Here’s how it works. Every plot point, big and small, gets a single notecard. I pin those cards up chronologically on a giant corkboard in my office. It’s an imperfect system, and there are always tons of gaps and inaccuracies. But it gives me a quick, easy way to see how the story is laying out without having to back and dig through what I’ve already written. Plus, it lets me know exactly what I’m writing toward. I highly recommend the notecard system to anyone who’s writing a novel. Honestly, I can’t imagine finishing a book without it.
Matthew Norman lives in Baltimore with his wife and their two daughters. His writing has appeared on Salon, the Good Men Project, and the Weeklings. His first novel, Domestic Violets, was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award in Best Humor. Visit his blog at www.thenormannation.com, or follow him on Twitter @TheNormanNation.
His second book, We’re All Damaged, is in fine bookstores everywhere.