In Julia Dixon Evans' debut novel How to Set Yourself on Fire, 30-something Sheila and her 12-year-old neighbor grow increasingly obsessed with letters to Rosamond, Sheila's recently deceased grandmother, from Harold, a lovestruck neighbor. While Sheila's voice provides the book's primary viewpoint, Harold's voice adds a second narrative rhythm.
Later in the book, Sheila, whose own life tends towards chaos, attempts to impose order by hanging the letters on laundry lines strung around her apartment. Evans's own creative process involved a similar moment of organizational imposition.
"There's always that point in writing something longform for me where I say, okay, wait, I need to organize this," she told Spine. She created a chronological archive of the letters she'd already written, then considered what more she should write to satisfy not only the reader's need to know, but her own.
"What do I need to write? What can I get away with assuming happens, and not have to reference? The theme of those letters is mystery. We are left with mystery. Does my knowledge as a writer have to be complete? Do I have to spread out all the possibilities?" No, she decided. In some instances, she needed to hash out Harold's details, and Sheila's, but at other points, she allowed herself and her readers to navigate without constant wayposts.
In addition to Sheila's story and Harold's letters, Evans also included letters from Sheila's grandmother and a delivery guy Sheila obsesses over. Beyond the structure — which letters to include when, and at what point in Sheila's narrative — Evans had to not only channel several points of view, but also smoothly switch between them.
Sheila holds primary voice, and it's a strong and unique voice, at once loud and unsure, funny and lonely, off-putting and sarcastic and needy. Evans found switching off Sheila, and summoning Harold, to be particularly difficult. "I had to steel myself before starting," Evans said. "I had to shift gears, crack my knuckles, put on special music … to get out of Sheila's more cynical headspace and get into Harold's, which is more wistful, heartbroken, overly expressive."
The mechanics of letters, the way reading them brings a situation alive, but only in one direction, only from one perspective, fascinated Evans, and drove her writing. She first noticed this one-way phenomenon when she found a box of letters from a long-distance boyfriend to her 17-year-old self. "I marveled at how eloquent he was," she said. "And I have no memory of writing to him at all. I only have this partial archive of that story."
From letters and concept, Evans kicked herself into full writing mode via NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. Every November, writers commit to creating as much of a novel as possible. Though Evans has a love-hate relationship with the annual event, her efforts proved successful; she created about two-thirds of the book. But then she stopped, "brakes screeching." For a long while, she couldn't commit to Rosamond's replies to Harold, and she couldn't commit to an ending to Sheila's story.
Though Evans worked hard and long to find the right endings and letters, the right voices and order, finding an agent proved a quick process. She sent out a few queries, agent Monika Woods (then at InkWell, now at Curtis Brown) asked for more, and then she agreed to represent the manuscript. "That part was the fastest moving part of anything."
Evans's manuscript wasn't yet finished. Woods sent a few of her short stories to publishers to pique interest while she and Evans worked back-and-forth towards a finished, full-length product. "She had a great vision for the book, which filled in a lot of blanks from my end," Evans said. "We did serious rewrites together."
Ultimately, a little unintentional networking at AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) led to a sale. Evans was milling about the floor and stopped at Dzanc Books. "The editor-in-chief looked at my nametag and said, 'I recognize your name from a manuscript.'" Eventually, this led to the sale.
Dzanc released How to Set Yourself on Fire last May. In addition to helping launch and promote the book, Evans's writerly schedule has recently included running Last Exit, a reading and workshop series; and performing her regular gigs as senior columns editor for The Coil and nonfiction editor for Noble/Gas Qtrly.
Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.