Leigh Stein, author of The Fallback Plan (Melville, 2012), will unashamedly tell you that she’s lived with her parents four times. Her newly-released novel, a coming-of-age about post-college angst, is spliced with details from her own experience and speaks volumes to the plight of so many twenty-something’s undergoing a quarter-life crisis. Stein’s protagonist, Esther, is a recent Northwestern graduate suffering from the post-grad blues. While Esther’s narrative is bestowed with details from the author’s life, Stein’s story has a few twists and turns uniquely her own. I recently sat down with this up-and coming writer to talk about her writing process, moving in with the rents, and her obsession with Pandas.
When did you start writing? Have you always known you wanted to be a writer?:
I started writing when I was in acting school because I was so exhausted; I was in all these emotional scenes and I was crying all the time… So, then I would go back to my dorm room and write short stories. That year it dawned on me that writing was a job. So then I was like “I’m going to be a writer.” And that was eight years ago!
So, you went to Northwestern?
No, no. I didn’t go to college. That’s a long story, too: I moved to NY when I was 19 to go to acting school. I had one year of acting school and since then I’ve been to the New School for a year and now I’m at Brooklyn College… I moved to New York three times and in between, I lived with my parents. So, Esther’s story is not mine, but the reason I wrote it that way is because I felt my story is too confusing. I was trying to make it like what would more likely happen to more people.
Tell me about your writing process for The Fallback Plan? How long did it take you to complete?
I knew I wanted to be a writer and I had some poems and short stories published. I was living with my parents and I met this guy at an audition and we started dating. After like 4 months, he was like “we should move somewhere and you can write a book.”… So we moved to New Mexico- to Albuquerque. We were there for six months. I wrote most of the book in those six months when I was in Albuquerque. And then we broke up, I had to move back in with my parents again, it was really depressing, I didn’t touch the book for a while.
How did you finally get what you’d written off the ground? Did you have an agent?
My agent, Sarah, was reading my blog because she knew me as a poet. And then on my blog I was like “I have this novel, it’s so terrible! I’m never gonna finish it!” And she was like “Hi-I’m an agent! Do you have a novel?” So, I showed it to her. I never had to go through pitching it to agents.
Any other influences that helped advance this work?
While I was in Albuquerque I went on MeetUp.com and I found a writing group. So, I started going there and everyone dropped out until it was just me and Ellen – the woman who had started it. Ellen helped me with my book so much.
When I first started writing it, it was going to be the story told from three different points of view: Esther, then it would switch to Amy, and then to Nate. I handed that into Ellen and she was like, “Esther’s the only voice that’s working.” She made me turn in 20 pages a week! It was insane, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I was like, “okay 20 pages, if that’s what you say, I’ll do it.”
So, Ellen helped me really get the book started and helped me find that voice and then once Sarah found me, she helped me finish it.
How long did it take to find a publisher?
Sarah sent it out for a year to every major publisher. And I got these glowing rejections about how great my book is and what a funny writer I am, but they didn’t know how to market it – that’s what they kept telling me. Or they weren’t sure if it was YA. Which made me angry because it’s not YA – I wouldn’t give my book to a 14-year-old. I think it’s inappropriate. It’s a very particular moment in an adult’s life, so those rejections were really disappointing. The more flattering the rejection was, the more devastating it was to me.
How did you find Melville House?
A friend of mine who’s a writer, Catherine Lacey, she had interned at Melville house. I gave her the manuscript and she gave it to my editor, Dennis Johnson, over Thanksgiving Weekend 2010. He emailed me that Monday morning and said that he read it over the weekend and said “did I want to get coffee?” and “is the book still available?” After a year of being turned down by everybody, that was like a dream come true!
I noticed that Pandas make recurring appearances in the book. Can you talk about your Panda obsession?
The pandas snuck into the book and took over! Anytime I was stuck or frustrated I would give myself the pandas as a treat. I would be like “Oh, you can write a panda part now.” So, that’s how the pandas took over the book. “Okay, today will be an easy day-I’ll just write a panda section.”
Is there anything you’d change about The Fallback Plan if you were to write it over again?
I still don’t feel like I nailed Amy and Esther’s relationship. I think it could’ve been deeper, but I don’t know what I would’ve done differently…It’s one of those things where like, that’s based on life and it’s in my head perfectly. May is a character I completely invented, but I feel like she’s the most alive. And then the characters that are based on real people, I feel like I don’t quite have them.
Did you think about your platform or audience while writing? Who did you write this book for?
I wanted to write a book that I would’ve wanted to read. I started writing it when I was 22 and I was writing for my 22-year-old self. So many of the books I love are all written by men: Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer…it’s all these dudes writing these big books…I kept reading books by men and I was like; I want to read a book for young ladies. That was the kind of book I wanted to read: that was kind of funny and kind of sad, kind of magical. That was the type of book I wanted.
Can you name a few influential authors?
Lorrie Moore, definitely. Miranda July. Those are the big ones. I was reading Little Children [St. Martin’s, 2004] by Tom Perrotta when I was writing this, so I don’t know if I have anything to do with his style, but I really love the way he writes about suburbia.
Do you ever have “writer’s block”?
I don’t think I believe in writer’s block. I think when I’m stuck on one thing I’ll just write something else. If I’m stuck on a poem, I’ll write prose. If I’m stuck on prose I’ll write a poem or a blog post. There’s so many different things to write, I can’t imagine not being able to write anything at all.…That’s my remedy for being blocked: switching genres or switching topics.
Anything you’re working on now?
Melville house is publishing a collection of my poetry in June… I’m also working on another novel that’s more ambitious than this. It’s more ambitious structurally, so I don’t know how I’m going to be able to pull it off. It’s about two girl friends and one of them is famous for writing a dating blog and the other girlfriend works at a magazine.
What’s your favorite book you read in 2011?
Treasure Island! [Europa Editions, 2012]..You have to read it! It’s like my book’s secret twin sister, except much darker. It’s not as emotional – but it’s much funnier in a dark way. It’s by Sara Levine, who runs the MFA program at the Art Institute of Chicago and it’s the first book I’ve read by her – I think she has a short story collection but this is her first novel.
Any advice to writers?
Oh God…that’s so hard! That makes me seem like a real writer! I think regular practice. When I write every day, I write so much more than when I write once a week, but it’s very hard to make the time for that. I remember living in New Mexico and I treated it like it was my job, I wrote everyday.
I also think building community with other writers is important… I’m also really active online. My first publications were for online magazines, so that’s a way to build your publication credits. I don’t have a writing group, but I’m just friends with writers and we look out for each other… Just find other people who write!