Beginning to End is a series from Spine following a book from writing through acquisition, design and on to publication and publicity. For our second "season," we're looking at Hard Mouth, Amanda Goldblatt's debut adventure novel about a woman facing—and sometimes fleeing from —her father's drawn-out battle with cancer. Counterpoint Press publishes the book in August. We begin the series by talking with Goldblatt.
In her debut novel, Hard Mouth, Amanda Goldblatt centers on a young woman, Denny, during the final stages of her father's decade-long battle with cancer. Written from Denny's point of view, the book follows her from home into an isolated mountain cabin and back home. Though Denny guides the reader through the narrative, she does so while holding herself in, always tightly controlled. Her unwillingness to unravel, even for the reader, reflects her emotional stagnation.
Finding Denny's Voice
Goldblatt told Spine that all her writing begins with language. "I thought, and think, a lot about the idea of performance in a narrative voice. This extends into Denny’s language, and what she as a character is willing and able to say."
Initially, Denny was addressing a very specific someone, but when Goldblatt's agent, Caroline Eisenmann (Frances Goldin Literary Agency), entered the process, she encouraged Goldblatt to drop that approach. Goldblatt did, and in doing so, discovered more about her character. "I was able to recover Denny's interior motivations for telling the story: the charting of a destabilized time in her life."
As she grew more familiar with her protagonist, Goldblatt still wondered how much of Denny's emotional self to reveal. Trying to work from several different angles resulted in a series of expanding Denny, pulling her in, expanding, pulling in.
"Caroline, at one point toward the end of our editorial work, encouraged me to include just a little more of Denny's emotional self, and I — an overeager student — worked on expanding that throughout. To me, what I'd done felt ostentatious. I think I had internalized the idea that publishers like identifiable narrative feeling — neat proclamations wherein the narrator takes their temperature and offers it to the reader."
The book landed at Counterpoint Press, where Assistant Editor Jennifer Alton turned Goldblatt's notion of what publishers want on its head. Alton didn't want clearly identified feelings. She wanted a true-to-character voice.
"Jenny was often identifying that which she felt was too much disclosure for a voice like Denny’s, asking if it might be cut. I was very happy to accommodate. Sometimes I cut more than what was suggested: Throughout all the edits and revisions I tried to remember the motivations for Denny telling her story, and what she’d be interested in disclosing and what she wouldn’t.
"I was interested in giving readers a text, her text. Jenny was great at supporting this, and at noticing when there was authorial meddling or imposition. She talked a lot about the manuscript offering different levels of information and experience based on a reader’s engagement and attention — I love that."
Finding the Book's Structure
In terms of structure, Goldblatt spent early writing days examining other books. She cited Camus' The Stranger as particularly influential. "It has a straightforward organization and is the first novel that I remember having read for anything beyond plot, character, rhythm, and the sounds of the words. Though it’s not an adventure novel, it is a crime-and-punishment novel, which means it’s also causal in structure. It also didn’t hurt that the structure is governed by deaths: mother's, victim's, one’s own. I thought often about that structure when approaching Hard Mouth; it became not a shape to trace but maybe a horizon line to drift toward when the work was feeling unmoored."
Eventually Goldblatt arrived at her book's own shape, a movement from Denny at home, to Denny away, to Denny back home again. The structure worked for Goldblatt's narrative, but she struggled with how much to include in each section, how much weight to give to each. Once again, her agent, Caroline Eisenmann, stepped in.
"She did a tremendous amount of work, providing notes and thoughts over the course of seven months before anyone else ever saw it. I am so utterly grateful for this. That first version she saw was quite front-loaded, with a lot of flashback and exposition before Denny even thinks about leaving town. Caroline rightly noted that a reader might want to watch Denny make decisions before investing in that kind of information."
Finding an Agent
After a few unsuccessful rounds of querying, Goldblatt gave up on Hard Mouth and moved to new projects, including a short story, "'Ha!' I Said Quietly." When the piece was published by the literary journal NOON, she tweeted it out. Someone she didn't know, a woman named Caroline Eisenmann, liked her tweet and started following her. Goldblatt was intrigued, and began to look around for more on her new follower.
Click. Eisenmann's Twitter bio — I have a crush on every dog. — was "pithy and relatable."
Click. Eisenmann was an agent. Her clients included Brandon Hobson, a writer Goldblatt admired, a writer whose work was being included in the very same issue of NOON.
Click. Goldblatt liked what Eisenmann had to say about writing.
Click. Goldblatt liked Eisenmann's taste in books.
Click. "Very carefully," Goldblatt contacted Eisenmann to see if she was accepting queries. She was! And soon, she accepted Hard Mouth.
The two worked on the book, back and forth and back, for about seven months. "The notes Caroline gave me during that period, and the revision work I did, helped bring the work to a point where I could say, 'If this is the version that got published tomorrow, I’d be happy with it.'" Eisenmann sold the book to Counterpoint, more work commenced, and… we'll tell you all about that in the rest of the series, coming soon.
Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.