Author Interview Hyatt Bass

The Embers is Hyatt Bass’ first novel. Her award-winning feature film, Seventy Five Degrees in July, released by Vanguard Cinema in June of 2006, marked Hyatt’s debut as a feature film director. She also wrote the screenplay and was a producer on the film. Prior to that, Hyatt wrote, directed, produced and edited the short film, Just Desert, in Los Angeles, where she worked as a production assistant on Sister Act, a camera assistant on Tombstone, and an assistant editor and camera assistant at Roger Corman’s infamous Concorde Films. Hyatt received her BA from Princeton University. She lives with her husband, Josh Klausner, and their two sons and two miniature schnauzers in New York City.

Tell us about your latest project.

I have a novel, The Embers, that was just published by Henry Holt. Here is the description of the book I wrote up with my editor:

A once-charmed family is forced to confront the devastating tragedy that struck it years ago in this fiercely tender tale of betrayal and reconciliation.

We love to hear about your journey to publication.

The Embers actually started as a screenplay. I was editing my first feature film, Seventy-Five Degrees in July, and in a restaurant one day, I saw a precocious looking New York adolescent girl wearing an oversized men’s blazer and carrying a stuffed animal backpack.
I’ve always been fascinated by adolescent girls, and thought she would make an interesting subject for my next film. So I immediately started forming this character (now split in the book between Ingrid and young Emily). At the same time, I was completely blown away by the performance of one of the actors in my film-Harris Yulin-and I thought that whatever movie I made next had to feature him fairly prominently.
I began working on a story about an unlikely friendship between a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood waking up to all kinds of things-romance and independence and fantasies of where her life will take her-and an elderly man nearing the end of his life, looking back with nostalgia and yearning, but also thinking about what he might have done differently. I liked the contrast between them, and the idea that, different as they are, they might strangely find comfort in one another.

Somehow, from the very beginning, the whole concept felt more like a novel than a film. But since I was a filmmaker, I brushed that idea aside and went ahead with the screenplay, all the while writing notes in the margins-“If a novel….”

In the end, the screenplay didn’t work at all, and so I figured I had nothing to lose.

Once I started writing the story as a novel, it was tremendously liberating. I had no page-limit, and I could delve much deeper into each character. Soon, the friendship between Joe and this young stranger, Ingrid, turned into more of an exploration of the relationship between him and his daughter, Emily. As Emily and the rest of Joe’s family began to spring up around him, the Aschers took over the novel.
I thought about a Van Gogh quote I’d read a few years before: One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul, and yet no one come to sit by it. This really captured the way I thought about the Aschers and the state of isolation they’re all living in, yearning for closeness but unable to connect. Out of the quote, too, came the title of the book. The funny thing is I now think the book would make a great film.
I spent 7 years writing the book. For the first few, only my husband, who is a screenwriter/director, was allowed to read it. Then, at a certain point, I decided I was ready for some objective, professional feedback, and I gave it to a couple of friends of friends—who I did not know (that was important for me)—and they gave me notes, which I worked off of for a while, editing and reshaping the book. When I had gotten it to a point where I felt pretty happy with it, I then gave it to another friend of a friend, who was an editor, because

I wanted it to be in the best possible shape before submitting it to agents.

She did some line-editing with me, and assured me that it was ready to go out. So, I sent it to several agents, and eventually landed at William Morris. Jennifer Rudolf Walsh, the head of the literary department, loved the book but felt that it still needed some work before we submitted it to publishers. So I worked with my agent, Dorian Karchmar, for about 2 years. (I should mention here that we were both pregnant with our second children when we started working together, and the babies definitely slowed things down a bit. My first child was also born while I was working on the book, so when I tell you it took seven years to write the book, this is part of the reason it took me so long.)
Anyway, when Dorian and I both felt the manuscript was finally ready, she sent it out to all of the publishers. We thought we wouldn’t hear from anyone for several days, but Henry Holt actually called the next day and made a pre-emptive offer—meaning that they offered a significant amount of money to buy it right away, before we got responses from other publishers. I was of course excited, but also a little worried at first because I knew¾or hoped anyway¾that my editor would probably be someone I would work with for many years on many books, and I liked the idea of getting to talk to a lot of different editors before making that very important decision.
After speaking on the phone with the Holt editor, Helen Atsma, I got really excited about the possibility of working with her and with Holt. And so, we accepted the offer. And I’m so, so, so happy we did. I love Helen and everyone I’ve had the chance to work with at Henry Holt, and I hope to work with them on my next book¾and the next, and the next….

What is one weakness you have as a writer and what do you do to overcome it?

I often get stuck trying to get sentences to read perfectly even though I’m so early on in the process, I should just be moving forward and fleshing out a rough first draft. Especially early on, there’s a good chance that a “perfect” sentence will get thrown out anyway. When I was writing The Embers

I made a rule that I was never allowed to go backwards and look at something I’d already written.

To keep myself from being tempted, I’d close a file when it was still fairly small—a chapter or two–and then start a new one.

What is one strength you have as a writer and to what do you attribute your success in this particular area?

From what people tell me, one of my greatest strengths is being able to write believably about characters who are much older than I am or much different, and have experienced things I never have. I think this comes from the fact I don’t like real-life conflict, and so I’ve always tried to see things from everyone else’s point of view in order to keep from arguing or fighting with them.

If you could go back to the young writer you were when you were just beginning, what advice would you give yourself?

Throw out the thesaurus.

When I read the first draft, there were words in there I literally had to look up in the dictionary because they were not words I’d ever use in real life. Taking inspiration from writers like Hemingway and Carver, I eventually figured out that using every-day words and stating things simply is often far more powerful.

I don’t think I’ve ever had to look up a single word while reading Carver, but the power and beauty of his writing is breathtaking.

What’s one publicity tip you can share that you’ve gotten a good response with in promoting your work?

Twitter! I was so reticent to join. I wasn’t even on facebook. But I’ve found such an incredibly supportive community of authors, booksellers, bloggers, and readers on Twitter. Several interviews and reviews have stemmed from it. And it’s so nice to connect with other authors—many of whom are launching their books right now too, and we’re all cheering each other on.

What do you to improve as a writer?

I’d like to take a lot less than seven years to write a book. I’m shooting for two years for the next.

What are a few of your favorite books not writing by you?

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (in fact, I count all three of her novels among my favorites)
Monkeys and Evening by Susan Minot
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
Anything by JD Salinger or Raymond Carver

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?

There was an incredibly touching letter my publisher received from a woman who said reading has always been her favorite form of relaxation and she could not put my book down. She wrote: “Her descriptions were so vividly conveyed, I felt as if I were a part of the book almost like a relative or close friend who interrupted a private family moment.” I will never forget that letter—especially because it’s from a complete stranger, and I don’t think she even intended it for me.

What’s your favorite part of being a writer/least?

My favorite part is just writing. I feel so lucky that I’m able to spend my time that way. I’m not a tortured writer at all—I just really love the process. My least favorite part occurred when I was waiting for the book to come out. I felt so excited and nervous about it, I couldn’t work on my next book, and not working just made my anxiety worse. Now I’m on book tour, and I really love doing readings, but I’m also eager for the tour to be over, so that I can start writing again.

What has surprised you most about this industry?

How incredibly supportive my publisher is for one. And really just how hard-working and passionate everyone in this industry is… especially everyone at Holt and all the booksellers I’ve met.

Parting words?

Thank you so much, and I hope to be back before too long to talk about my next book!