Our blog’s ongoing “On the Books” series introduces you to writers from our growing list of Fresno State MFA alumni who are getting their first books published. The 11th installment profiles Elizabeth Schulte Martin. She has attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, she has published short fiction in the New England Review, Ninth Letter, Witness Magazine, and Hot Metal Bridge, and she has received a special mention in the annual Pushcart Press anthology.
In a December email interview, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Elizabeth about finding the right agent and editor, prioritizing your own writing above all else, and turning a small experience with clowns into a big book about the circus and performance and art.
When were you in the Fresno State MFA program?
I studied fiction from 2006 to 2009. Wow, it doesn’t FEEL that long ago!
What were your first thoughts when you learned that your debut novel, Everything You Came to See, would be published?
Relief. Joy. I worked on and pitched that manuscript for so long. After years of obsessing quietly about the story itself, I finally began quietly obsessing over how to get it out into the world. Questions of whether anyone outside my friends and family would read it, questions of whether all the hard work would end up on the cutting room floor, questions of whether I was going about my agent-querying correctly, or if there was anything more I could do—I swear my every third thought involved asking myself one of these questions.
It was a sort of self-inflicted torture, because I talked about it very little, and with very few people, and I thought about it nearly constantly. So when I finally found an agent, and, shortly after, an editor, I think I had the first feeling of true relaxation I’d had in years, because I would finally be able to share this thing that had so utterly occupied my thoughts for so long, and because I had at least two people other than myself who had an interest in it.
By the way, I’m definitely not giving advice on how to manage one’s mental health as a writer! Actually, I think I make a good counter-example. But that’s how I felt.
You say that you “obsessed quietly” about your book for a very long time. Now that the book has found a home and is out in the world, what advice might you have given yourself at the start of the process, to support your mental health as a writer?
Well, first I would remind myself to take the advice that was already given to me during my MFA at Fresno State by faculty Steve Yarbrough and Alex Espinoza and David Anthony Durham and my workshop-mates and every single visiting writer we ever had, which was: obsess less, and write more.
I would tell past-me to be more honest with myself about where my writing fell in terms of my priorities. The fact is that writing (and publishing, to a lesser degree) are very important to me. And often I found myself, in practice, putting writing dead last. It makes no sense, but there is always this voice in my head telling me that writing is a nonsense hobby or something that always has to take the back burner to “real work.” Because any work that gives you pleasure and/or makes no money is not “real?”
I know this isn’t true. By that logic, parenting is also a nonsense hobby of mine, not real work. And yeah, you have to eat, you have to take care of the people you love, you have to show up and be an adult, but if I could have adjusted my thinking a little bit about what was most important in my everyday life, I think I would have had an easier time.
It’s about a boy who runs away and joins the circus. It’s true. The plot of my book is a cliche. But that’s intentional! The fun of it, I hope, is that readers see something familiar become unfamiliar, and vice versa. More importantly, there’s a hot giant in it so … I mean what else do I need to say?
Did parts of your book grow out of your Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript, A Space Between the Rows? What’s the status of that manuscript now?
My book did grow out of my thesis, but in indirect ways. As far as the status of A Space Between the Rows, several of the stories in that collection have been published in literary magazines, but I not-so-secretly hope to publish it one day as a story collection.
How did you land your publishing deal with Skyhorse Publishing, and what about their work is a good fit for your novel?
My agent, Jordan Breindel, queried Skyhorse Publishing, and he got some interest from one of the editors, Chelsey Emmelhainz. From the very first conversation I had with Chelsey, I knew that she understood what I was trying to do in Everything You Came To See, and I knew she was an editor who would make my book better.
Skyhorse itself is small, but fast-growing, which I think is a fortunate place for any author to find themselves. But I mostly felt like they were a good fit because I knew Chelsey was a good fit.
Tell me more about your connection with your editor, Chelsey Emmelhainz. What about her work felt like such a good fit for you? What did you learn from working with her through the process?
I wish I could show you the comments back and forth between us on my manuscript. Chelsey understood my strange sense of humor and she was really sensitive to the development of the characters.
For example, at one point she made a casual comment about how Caleb (one of the characters) reminded her of Liz Lemon from 30 Rock. It was just an observation, but I thought … I never thought of him that way, but yeah, that comparison pretty much shows she understands every single thing that is important about this guy.
She also knew when I was missing something like, an emotional beat, which I think is a pretty subtle thing to key into in someone else’s work. I think at one point I imagined my relationship with my editor would be them saying “Do this,” and I’d be like “Okay!” When in reality it turned out to be a messy but really fruitful negotiation. That went on for a year.
How did you decide on your novel’s title?
This book has had at least three titles before this one, all of them screaming This Is A Book About The Circus. And that never struck me as right, because it’s kind of not a book about the circus? It’s a book about performance and exhibition and art, sure, but in a more intimate way than the earlier titles were letting on. So I tinkered with it, made lists of names, 75% of which were basically word salad, and eventually came up with Everything You Came to See. It got the seal of approval from my editor, agent, and husband, so I went with it.
Do you have any weird or funny circus stories that you like to tell the most?
You would think! But I left most of my circus experiences feeling more conflicted than anything.
I can tell you about the CSU Summer Arts clowns, though! One of the characters in my book, as his audition to the circus, makes a giant upside-down face on his back, and then more or less sits on his neck with his butt in the air and moves his back like a face. I totally took this idea from a performance I saw at Summer Arts, when they had their clowning class. It was strange as hell to watch, because the illusion was absolutely complete. It was like watching an alien being on stage, and it was nothing but a guy with a face drawn with a black marker on his back.
I worked at Summer Arts at that time, by the way, and I ordered the supplies for that class, which were things like “100 colored scarves” “40 red rubber noses,” I swear. And that’s sort of where the book started, actually, because I thought, “If there is a whole website selling red rubber noses of various shapes and sizes, there is a whole weird world that I don’t know about, and need to.”
Outside of writing fiction, what work are you doing to make a living?
I teach first-year writing at IUPUI, which is a satellite campus of both Indiana University and Purdue University in Indianapolis, and I love it.
What about your MFA experience at Fresno State has stuck with you, and what do you wish you might have done differently?
So much has stuck with me—like I said, it feels like yesterday that I was a student at Fresno State, and I haven’t been there since 2009. I learned a lot from being part of the The Normal School staff. The magazine started during my time in the MFA program, so I was lucky to be able to see first hand not only how a publication is run, but how it’s built.
I also often think about my classes—there was always this warm, supportive vibe from my professors and other students. Because of this, I felt like I could take some risks as a writer. This was super important for me, to know I could try something different. Whether it worked out or not, there were people who would support me, who were in the same boat, trying new things.
And it’s not like we were all sitting in a circle holding hands and telling each other how brilliant we were. That’s not what I mean by support. There was criticism, but it was always given in the spirit of helping the author, of helping the work. Having this kind of classroom experience affected me hugely as an artist, and as a teacher, too, because I really want my students to have the same type of space to experiment.
I don’t think I would do anything differently, honest. It was a pretty great experience.
What’s your next writing project?
I’m working on a new novel. I’ve just come out of the honeymoon period with it, where I was just in love with it, and feeling very certain about the direction it was going in, and really confident about my writing abilities. Now I’ve entered the phase where I feel like it’s absolute trash, that the whole premise of it is terrible, and I should probably set my computer on fire and never write again.
But this is the normal progression of things, right? I’ll probably never get back to the honeymoon phase, but if I keep revising, I might be able to fall back in love. Or at least not set anything on fire.
Jefferson Beavers works as the communications specialist for the Creative Writing Program. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the program in creative nonfiction.