Jessica Strawser, editorial director of Writer’s Digest Magazine, has just published Almost Missed You, a debut novel. Strawser has worked in publishing for 15 years, in everything from editing to marketing and public relations. In her work at Writer's Digest, she has interviewed Alice Walker, Anne Tyler, David Sedaris, and other leading literary figures. An Ohio native and a graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Strawser has written a second novel that will be published next year, also by St. Martins. She spoke with The National about her new book, the mysteries of marriage and motherhood, and having faith in her fiction.
-- John Valeri
Q: What inspired you to write Almost Missed You – and how did you know that, after other false starts, this was the idea that would become a fully conceptualized novel?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of fate, of what’s meant to be, and of our collective searching for “the one” and all the misses that can come along with that (“the one that got away,” for instance). I wanted to take a couple that had one of those perfect, meant-to-be kind of stories, but then call it into question. What if it wasn’t what it seemed?
I had secured an agent with a previous novel, and I wrote Almost Missed You while it was out garnering slow, kind rejections. In truth, I had no idea that this would be the one to sell until it did. It had very strong feedback from friends who read an early version, but then I parted ways with my agent and my confidence was shaken. Almost Missed You was in final draft form on my hard drive, but I found myself at a crossroads.
During that time when I was trying to decide whether I should seek a new agent, or perhaps take a break, or shove it in a drawer and start something new, there were two “signs from the universe” — if you want to use the language that my characters do — that put a little wind back in my sails. One was a post on a writing community website I frequent and respect, about the lack of platonic male/female friendships in popular fiction. Another was an article in The Atlantic called “Life Stories,” examining the psychology behind the ways in which we instinctively give our lives plot and character arcs when we relay our stories to others — which means we choose what to emphasize and what to omit and, in turn, help to shape our identities through the way we tell those stories we think of as the truth.
Both of those ideas had factored strongly into Almost Missed You, and seeing them out there so plainly affirmed that I was onto something that might resonate with others the way it had with me. So when another agent asked to see it, I went ahead and sent it, and she ended up selling it in a preempt in just two weeks.
Q: Your protagonist, Violet, finds herself questioning how well she knows the man she married. What about this particular relationship dynamic makes for such compelling storytelling – and how did you endeavor to bring a fresh twist to a familiar premise?
A: If all the characters are shaping their own narratives, it follows, then, that we’re all unreliable narrators, to a certain extent, by the very nature of our perspectives. The story is told from three points of view, and from the outset I wanted all three to be necessary in order for the reader to get the whole story.
The story is also told out of order, flashing back and forth between the awful catalyst for the novel — that Violet’s husband has just left her and taken their son with him, without a word — and the years of near misses and eventual connections that got them to that point. Many readers have likened it to putting together a puzzle, and that’s exactly how it felt when I was writing it.
Q: In what ways did the inevitable insecurities that come along with being a wife and mother inform your fiction? Also, how do you achieve a semblance of balance between personal and professional obligations?
A: There’s an old cult classic movie I love, While You Were Sleeping, where Bill Pullman’s character is sitting down with his father over donuts with the intention of finally breaking it to him that he doesn’t want to inherit the family business. His father is reminiscing that in a family there are such rare moments where everyone is happy, everything is perfect, and Bill Pullman looks at him sheepishly and says something like, “Dad? This is not that moment.”
That’s a light, comedic example, but it always comes to mind because I think we’ve all felt that — the unsettling fear or uncertainty that can too often come when we’re least expecting it. Those insecurities are only amplified when you become a parent, at least in my experience.
As for balance, I’ve always tried to confine my writing to my children’s sleeping hours as much as possible, but it’s getting more difficult now, obviously. Balance is something that always needs to be recalibrated, I think, so it’s something I’m being mindful of and still working on.
Q: The narrative alternates between past and present events. How does this serve to heighten suspense? Also, did you find that the threads came together through intricate plotting, organic development, or some combination of the two?
A: Everyone in the novel seems convinced that Finn is acting out of character, so I think the timelines serve to peel back the layers of what his character actually is, and how it might have evolved, and why. The threads came together surprisingly organically — I’m not much of an outliner, though I often wish I was — and in revision I then went back to smooth over timelines and the reveals.
Q: There are some truly jaw-dropping moments throughout the book. What is the key to maintaining an underlying sense of realism – and how does this logic play into developing characters that are mostly likeable (or at least relatable) but do unlikable things?
A: It's funny because I spend my days steeped in writing instruction in editing Writer’s Digest, and writers are schooled that our characters must be flawed in order to feel real. Who among us, after all, is not flawed (often deeply, though we’d hate to admit it)? But while readers subconsciously relate to flawed characters, they also can get frustrated with those flaws, even angry, so it’s a fine line. Isn’t that exactly like real life, though, where no one else seems to have a copy of the script we’d hoped they might follow? And real life, one might argue, is what we’re setting out to evoke.
Q: You have a diverse background in publishing. How have your experiences shaped your understanding of the industry – and what advice would you give other writers struggling to break into the book world?
A: I’m sure I have a better grasp on the industry than many debut authors have, but then again, I’m also convinced that nobody really understands the industry! With that in mind, I think it’s important to be as savvy as you can be but also to focus on what you can control.
Perseverance, though this isn’t terribly original advice, really is key. There will be moments where you want to give up. Resist, and try to have faith in yourself and your work even when it feels like no one else does. I can’t tell you how many successful writers have told me about low points where they felt nearly soul-crushingly discouraged not long before they got their breaks.
Whatever it is about writing that brings you joy, hold on to that as tightly as you can. And then go ahead and give yourself permission to dream of something more.
John B. Valeri wrote for Examiner.com from 2009 to 2016. His "Hartford Books Examiner" column consistently ranked in the top ten percent of all Hartford, National Books and National Arts & Entertainment Examiners. John currently contributes to Mystery Scene Magazine, The National Book Review, The News and Times, The Strand Magazine, Suspense Magazine, and CriminalElement.com. He made his fiction debut in Tricks and Treats, an award-winning Halloween-themed anthology published by Books & Boos Press last fall. Visit John online at www.johnbvaleri.com.