The Second Novel: A Conversation with Brad Windhauser

Brad Windhauser lives in Philadelphia, where he is an Associate Professor (Teaching/Instructional) of writing at Temple University. His short stories and work have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Santa Fe Writer’s Project Journal, Ray’s Road Review, Northern Liberties Review, Philadelphia Review of Books, and Jonathan. You can follow his work at www.BradWindhauser.com.

A.F. I’d like to cast my net of questions toward a part of the writing process that has my full attention right now. Lately, as I’ve been finishing my second book, I’ve become fascinated by the experience of the second book. I’m curious about ways a writer might feel toward his or her first book when the second one finally comes out (I say “finally” because there are typically some years between books, at least for those of us who possess mere human qualities).

B.W. My first novel came out in 2007, so there’s been quite a bit of time for me to reflect on it. Although I’m proud of that book, I’ve grown so much as a person and an author that there are things I perhaps would have done differently. There are definitely moments in the story where I opted for the dramatic rather than subtle in terms of character development and plot choices. That said, the publication of that book taught me a lot—I made a lot of mistakes around and after the book’s release—so I feel The Intersection will have a better chance of finding a wider audience. I was much better equipped this time to get the PR machine going early and with more direction. Still, because Regret was the first I will always feel a little warm about it, even if it is the child few people know I have [smile].

the-intersectionA.F. They say book # 2 doesn’t know book # 1 exists, and book # 3 won’t know #’s 1 & 2 exist. What does this mean to you? (Side note: I’m not at all clear on who “they” are, but most writers I know agree with the statement. It’s sort of like when you discover a grammatically flawless proverb, whose logic is also flawless, in your fortune cookie: What’s there to contest?)

B.W. Although I’ve never heard this expression, I would imagine that you have to write fresh every time—what’s been published previously doesn’t matter, you need to keep looking forward. As a writer you need to prove yourself every time.

There’s probably a more fun way to approach that comment, however. Among a handful of authors, Faulkner is one of my favorites. One of the cool things I appreciate in his books is how a major character in one turns up for a brief appearance in another. This ties all of his books to the same community, in a way. I’ve brought a sense of that to my books. I folded in a major character in the first book into a small scene in The Intersection—if you know the character, that’s cool; otherwise, he just appears in a scene. In this sense, all the books are still alive—I’m continuing the trend in my third book (for which I have completed a first draft), although in a slightly expanded way.

A.F. Were there particular ticks or habits you consciously tried not to transfer from Regret to The Intersection? And were you successful?

B.W. Because Regret was my first book, I often focused more on the plot at times than the characters. As a result a few choices felt forced rather than natural to who those characters were. The story still holds up but there were places where it could have been, perhaps, more dynamic. The Intersection is also a very different type of story, and because that book is much more character-driven, I was able to get inside their heads more and avoid some of those same mistakes. I also was fortunate to be able to workshop the novel over two years during my M.F.A. program. That experience opened me up to a ton of useful feedback and taught me how to better incorporate the comments into the revision of the book. This helped me shape the narrative in ways that would not have occurred to me otherwise, in part because I was hearing how different people were understanding the characters and their actions. In addition, one of my issues with the initial draft was figuring out how all the various storylines came together. Feedback guided me through accomplishing this in an organic way. This process also forced me to take feedback less personally and allow the work to benefit from informed input from peers I trusted. Ten years ago, I was too married to what I thought Regret needed to be—that probably held portions of that book back.

A.F. In the time between books, how have you changed as a writer, and how have you remained exactly the same?

B.W. About five years ago I committed to reading much more than I had been. Although I’ve always enjoyed reading, I read when I got around to it—typically when I had time off in the summer from teaching. But I decided that one of the ways I was going to deepen my understanding of the craft was to read more. So I set a goal of 50 books a year. I made lists of books I should read. I started with the Pulitzer winners—I’ve read every winner going back to 1980. These books gave me a sense of the type of story that attracts this type of prestigious attention. I paid close attention to the types of moves the writer made within the book—I treated them as textbooks. I also read any “notable” books or books people were talking about (Gone Girl, for example). Reading deeply and widely chipped away at any narrow view I had of the craft and exposed me to a wide variety of tools I wasn’t getting elsewhere. I still think I “see” life in mostly the same way (although I’ve matured, to a degree [smile]). I do, however, take more chances with character and plot choices.

A.F. What advice might you offer to a writer embarking on the second-book adventure?

B.W. Writing a book is such a daunting task, and there are many things you will encounter that will discourage your effort—especially early. One thing I would definitely pass on to a fellow writer is this: You don’t need to write the new book like you wrote the last one. I think a lot of writers have their routines; I certainly do. However, for my first book, I had a clear sense of plot—from the beginning, middle, and end. For my second book, I didn’t. If I had sat at my computer and stared at that blinking cursor, I don’t know how I would have moved forward—or arrived at the story I did. Instead, I just began writing about my characters, with no concern about where or when I was in the story—I worried about that later. This freed up my creativity. For The Intersection, I allowed the novel to come together in revision, assembling it rather than writing it in the way I did my first. Basically, writers need to allow each new project to dictate the process that will work best for it.

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