Have you ever read a novel that just begs to be made into a movie? This was definitely the case with me as I laughed (and teared up) through Anna Schachner’s fantastic debut novel, YOU AND I AND SOMEONE ELSE.
What was your inspiration for this novel?
I wanted it to be my love song to the South, so you can say that the South of my childhood— filling stations along two-lane highways, Coke in icy green bottles, rows of corn so straight it made you dizzy, small towns with cafes and hardware stores, lots of land and trees between those towns, connectivity of the people kind, a certain prim kind of disapproval of strangers and outsiders (the South of my youth was not perfect, of course— was my inspiration, too
How did the title come about? Is the “someone else” open to interpretation?
The novel had a couple of other not-so-good titles as I was writing it, but then right before I finished the first draft, You and I and Someone Else came to me. Triangular relationships are at the heart of the novel’s tension, and there are lots of them: Frannie, Jude, and Evan; and Duncan, Madelane, and Melissa, for example. Maybe the most important one is Frannie, Jude, and the baby—the baby remains a concept for 99.9% of the book, so the question the reader is left with when the book ends is how that triangle will play out. I also like the idea that the “someone else” is the future “I” of the title, that a person will change because of that relationship between the “you” and the “I” and perhaps become a person who is different, for better or worse.
Why did you write the prologue with Rita already pregnant with Frannie’s child, rather than go sequentially? (This probably won’t be the first question, by the way.)
I wanted the reader to have a quick introduction to the main narrative thread (there are a few, I know) before the first chapter, which is all backstory. And most of all, I wanted to send a message to the reader that, more so than plot, the intricacies of the relationships, particularly with Jude, Frannie, Evan, and Rita, were the things to focus on.
What was your biggest challenge writing this book?
I think it would have to be converting it from a story collection into a novel. I basically had the narrative, forward action of the novel contained in the stories, but I had to come up with backstory and context and nuance. In doing so, I started to employ the First Person omniscient kind of point of view where the narrator, Frannie, tells stories she wouldn’t have been part of her herself. This technique operates like a Greek chorus, more or less, providing the reader necessary information but also allowing Frannie to spin it a little bit. At first, I struggled with these sections, but once I figured out all the narrative threads, they became much easier. And to be honest: they are my favorite sections of the book because they really explore the characters and are better able to use lyrical language.
Could you tell about your journey to publication?
Well, it was long and meandering and not particularly glorious—at least until the end! As I mentioned above, the novel started as a story cycle, which did not find a home. When I turned it into a novel, I queried agents, and had eight offer to represent me. I chose the most established of them, and we signed a contract. She “shopped the book” to about ten houses in New York, but then lost interest. We parted ways. After that, the book sat, alone and sad, for a long time while I wrote two other books—because, since it had been partially shopped, no agent would be interested in it. Then about three years ago, I decided to send it to some independent presses. The first two declined, but said very nice things about it. And then Mercer accepted it in November 2015. It was published in April 2017.
Did you have the basic plot, and characters, worked out before you began?
No. With the story collection, I had all but two characters—Hugh and Melissa—and most of the plot. But once I came up with the backstory of Frannie’s father, including Hugh and Melissa, the plot really worked itself out. Those two characters changed a lot! But even with the characters, Frannie included, that I did have already formed, they were really only formed to the extent that I knew what each of them wanted. That’s what I always start with: a character that really, really wants something and doesn’t quite know how to get it. For Frannie, it was that she wanted a family. She wanted to be a mother.
Was this story percolating for a long time, or did it come to you all at once?
It percolated. It percolated. It percolated. For me, the only way to make any progress on a book is to write and see where that takes me. So, even though the book bumped around in my imagination during that time when I was trying to figure out how to convert it into a novel from a story collection, I could only figure out how to do it once I started writing. I know authors who plan their books, down to what happens in each scene, but I have no idea how that works. Even if it’s a slower process, I have to figure it out as I go. And it’s very visceral—I have to type the words for the words to connect. I do a lot of spin classes and walking, and I always “write” when I’m on the bike or huffing it home that last mile. And sometimes I will actually compose a full sentence in my head that makes it onto the page. That’s it, though. If I try to put the sentences together without typing or seeing the words, it doesn’t work. So I use my cardio time to think about plot or motivation or what a character would wear to church, I gotta have the words forming, though, to get at the characters, to really expose them. For me, the magic of the process is the discovery, when the characters are calling the shots. That’s when you know that the characters are really working—because you trust them.
I fell in love with these characters! Will there be a sequel? (Please say yes.)
That is very nice of you to ask. The thing is, I love these characters, too. I still do. When I finished the book ten years ago, I had no interest in writing a sequel. It never occurred to me. But so many people have asked me about a sequel that I’ve started thinking about it. So maybe. I know this much: the character who interests me the most is Melissa. I don’t have all of her story worked out, and I think it would be fun to do that. So maybe not so much a sequel as a tangential, if that’s a word that can apply to books.
The parallels of lost children, plus Frannie’s inability to have them, are poignant and powerful. What made you come up with that part of the story?
A lot of people close to me have lost children. I have always thought that was the worst thing life could do to you. It changes someone. It breaks up marriages. It haunts siblings. It causes resentment toward those who have not lost children. Of course, it is natural to think that mothers suffer the worst, and certainly, Frannie’s mother, Rita, and to some extent, Frannie herself, suffer and grieve for their lost children. But I wondered about fathers, their stories. We know women’s stories more than men’s (the husbands or partners). So, Jude was the convergence of those two things—the man who has lost a child and who, if he stays with Frannie, will not be able to be a father again in the traditional way. In many ways, the book is about parenting. Some of that parenting is bad. Some of it is competent. Some of it is almost too good, too selfless. And a lot of it is speculative, on Frannie’s part at least. That’s the thing about being a child—you know just how to parent better than your mother or father did when you grow up. Or you think you know.
Did any characters, or plot development, surprise you?
You know, it all did. Plot always surprises me. It’s the most challenging part of writing for me, so, for the most part, it comes slowly and with a lot of thinking and revision. Sometimes it comes more quickly. Either way, I am always pleasantly surprised. And once I start letting the characters take over the story, I am always surprised. Everything about Jude and Hugh surprised me. I’ve always been intrigued by this—that the two guys Frannie had to choose between were the ones that were barely named, much less developed, when I started the book. That might have something to do with the 47 dates I went on in three months—thank you, Match.com—when I was writing the novel. Some of those dates were novels themselves. Pick a literary genre, and I had a date that matched it.
As a debut author, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?
This is the easiest question to answer because I know I am right: have grit. Talent helps. but passion and perseverance—grit—is what will take you there. Write about what you feel passionately; and know from the very beginning that writing and publishing are two very different things. You can control the writing, but you can’t control the publishing. If you want to publish, though, you just keep at it and you never ever ever write something because you think it will publish. Write something because you are just arrogant or optimistic enough to think that because you feel it, readers will, too. Write because you think that your very best sentence—the one you are still striving to write—will change the world.
Could you tell us about your next project?
Well, last week, I just finished another novel. I think it counts as my next project because it is about to start its journey to publication. It’s about an 18-year-old girl, Parker, who learns to trade her anger for passion. It’s also about the mystery of the wild and family secrets and foster homes. And Birkenstocks—they take a hit in the book. Oh, and there’s a ghost. When I started the book, I thought it was going to be a modern rewrite of Jane Eyre, but—surprise, surprise!—it ended up being something else altogether.
Anna, thanks so much for taking the time to give such thoughtful, honest and in-depth responses. I know everyone who reads your book will love it as much as I did!