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How I Wrote the Book I Wanted to Write: James Klise
New Q&A series alert!
Readers know about my my Q&A series “How I Got My Agent”, where I interview writers about, well, how they got their agent. That is still ongoing! However, there are so many stories to tell about publishing your work that I’m expanding my interviews to include other journeys that are just as worthwhile to read about. I’m calling it “How I Did X” for now.
This month, I chatted with one of my fave writing instructors and humans James Klise, author of the soon-to-be-released I’ll Take Everything You Have.
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James Klise is the author of I'll Take Everything You Have (Algonquin, 2023), a queer coming of age crime story set in Chicago 1934. His previous novels include The Art of Secrets, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Teen Mystery, and Love Drugged, an ALA Stonewall Honor Award winner as well as a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the New Orleans Review, StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. Mr. Klise earned an MFA from Bennington College. He leads a popular Novel-in-A-Year workshop at StoryStudio in Chicago and, for the past two decades, he has overseen a very busy high school library.
What can we learn from James? A few notes:
Taking a break and giving yourself permission to write something new IS part of the process.
If you’re not sure how to start again, go back to that other art form or activity that reminds you why you love what you do.
Story over research—you want to make sure the main dish steals the show.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Before writing I’ll Take Everything You Have, you had completed a manuscript that is still unpublished. I would love for you to walk me through the process of that one first.
I don’t know how to tell a short version of this. In 2015, my second novel, called The Art of Secrets, won an Edgar Award for best Teen Mystery. That was a big jolt of luck for the book. And it got me thinking, OK, now I’m a mystery writer.
So I set aside the book I was writing, and I wrote a murder mystery. I had so much fun with it. Also, I suspected that part of the reason The Art of Secrets won the Edgar was because of the way the story is told – the format is unusual. I decided to use an experimental structure to tell the murder mystery. I wrote the whole thing and sent it to my editor. She bought it. I signed a contract and got some money. Great!
And then my editor and I spent about four years sending it back and forth. Revision is always part of the process, of course. I actually enjoy revision – it’s my favorite part. I’m open to big revisions. When we revise, we’re working with so much more information, more confidence. It’s fun to try different approaches to a story. I changed the POV, even adding a few new POVs. And I was getting new feedback from the publisher, including new editors. I kept rewriting it from scratch, all 250 pages of it.
After a while, during the fourth big go-round, I hit a wall. I felt really broken. It felt like taking a course that I couldn’t pass. Maybe it had to do with age. I just felt, like, the clock is ticking here, and my smart editor and I are not seeing eye-to-eye, and I have other stories to tell. I couldn’t keep writing the same story over and over.
I took a break and gave myself permission to write something totally new. Nothing experimental. Mind you, I still had that contract looming over my head. It was both the bravest thing I ever did and also the most foolish thing I ever did!
Once you set it aside, the book you worked on ended up being I'll Take Everything You Have.
That's right. I wrote the first draft in about six months, which is really fast for me, because I work in a high school full-time. My editor was excited about the new manuscript right away. One narrator, and told in chronological order, and not trying any fancy tricks. It's just centering a really good story and a young character that I hope readers will root for.
Let me back up a little. Once you decided to set aside the previous manuscript, did you take a break between them or were you writing this new story the next day?
(Laughs.) Not the next day, no. In fact, I didn’t write anything for months. Honestly, Ines, it felt like my magic wand was broken. I remember that at some point, I went online and looked at every theater performance that was coming up over the next six months. I started buying tickets, buying tickets, buying tickets, buying tickets. It was sort of bananas. My husband and I spent months sitting in theater seats. Maybe it sounds strange, but those performances reawakened my love of storytelling, drama, character, surprise, voice, all those things.
When did you get the idea for this new novel?
There are two answers to that. The first is that I'd always wanted to write a book about Chicago in the 1930s. In particular, the summer of 1934 is
it was the year of an infamous drought. It's the year Dillinger was killed outside the Biograph Theater. 1934 is the second year of the Century of Progress World's Fair. 1934 fascinates me for a bundle of other reasons, too, and so I’ve always wanted to write a story that takes place during that infamously hot summer.
And the other thing is that 15 years ago, my husband and I made plans to spend part of our summer in Paris, and so we took a French conversation class. That class was memorable for a number of reasons, but mostly because it left the students seriously vulnerable to burglary. Even then, I knew it would be a fun element for a crime novel.
When did you really start to feel the flow? Or what do you think made it flow so easily?
The story felt more urgent and more personal, which is maybe a funny thing to say because I work in a high school, so I certainly know a lot more about contemporary teenagers than I know about teenagers in the 1930s. The previous book was a murder mystery and murder mysteries with big casts tend to be like puzzles to solve. Whereas this book felt like a plunge into a very specific emotional experience, even though it’s a crime story. It was easy to get lost in it emotionally and I was genuinely eager to discover how things would unfold.
That's a big difference in approach, right? With a murder mystery, even before you even start writing, you have to know a lot of the puzzle pieces
. For example, you know that there's, say, a dead body, and you usually know who's responsible for putting the body there. You have to know what their motive was and how they tried to get away with it. And then you tell the story from the point of view of somebody else, someone whose job it is to discover all those things. Whereas with a coming-of-age novel and a crime novel, you're just putting a specific character into a compelling situation and seeing how they might respond.
One of the reasons I find it interesting that it flowed out is because it is a historical YA You've been interested in this year for a while, so maybe you already had a ton of ideas of what this period was like. But I would love to know how you balanced researching with writing because I find that to be challenging all the time.
For me, it's helpful to remember that story always, always
For this new book, I used research to confirm facts and for scenes where I thought I needed more texture. I also read the day's Chicago Tribune of every day from that summer. I needed to be aware of things that my character would be aware of, even if I never used it in the story. I ended up using more than I ever expected.
Here's an example: My eye kept falling on these lurid tragedies that were being reported in the Tribune. Farm tragedies and bloody murders, freak accidents, things like that. I decided to let a minor character be somebody whose eye always falls on those lurid stories in newspapers. So the research details were useful in creating that character, as well as a clue to the reader that the story might contain similar elements.
While you were writing this, did you incorporate maybe something you learned from writing the previous manuscript? Or did it haunt you in any way?
Mostly I just focused on the pleasure I was having in discovering a new story. What I took from the experience of the unpublished manuscript—not just writing it, but also setting it aside for now—was that we should write the books we most want to write. The books that bring us the most joy. It doesn't mean that the other one didn't bring me joy. It was really fun, and I still really love it, but the experience taught me that it’s OK to take a break when we need one, in order to rediscover the love of storytelling.
What tips do you have for a writer that might be stuck on that crossroads, of wondering whether to keep working on a project or going after another idea?
It’s helpful to keep in mind that most writing careers are made up of more than one book. When you meet an agent or when you create a relationship with an editor, there's an understanding that you're beginning a journey together that will include multiple wonderful projects. Launching a new author takes a lot of time and money and effort, right? I don't know that publishers want to take on a one hit wonder. With that in mind, juggling multiple projects is standard. When you need to take a break from a project and set it aside because you're stuck or you're tired of working on it or whatever, go ahead and set it aside and keep writing something new. Rotate those crops. Keep planting new seeds.
If you’re in the Chicago-area, James will be holding a book launch on Thursday, March 2 at 7:00 pm at the Book Cellar. RSVP and find more info about the event here. You can also check out his website for his other upcoming events.