What an English Alumna Learned From Writing a First Novel
Cheryl J. Fish, a professor of English and single mom, made good use of limited spare time.
Cheryl J. Fish (Ph.D. ’96, English) is a professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College and a docent lecturer in the Department of Cultures at the University of Helsinki. Her debut novel, Off the Yoga Mat, was published by Livingston Press last October.
Recently, she spoke to us about her novel, how her fiction and academic experiences are intertwined, and her advice for fellow fiction writers. A lightly edited version of the interview follows.
The Graduate Center: How did you fit in writing a novel with your other responsibilities as an academic, and what advice do you have for fellow academics interested in writing and publishing fiction?
Fish: I wrote my novel during summers, breaks, weekends, and sabbatical. I found it helpful to leave my apartment to concentrate, so for a time I worked at The Writer’s Room near Astor Place, which has alcoves for writers. I also attended summer residencies where there were other artists and writers, and I could increase my intensity. As a single mom raising my son Josh, I had limited time to write and took advantage of all opportunities. Once, at the Tin House summer writing workshop, with my son at sleepaway camp, I spent afternoons writing the first draft of Off the Yoga Mat in my room while others attended lectures or socialized.
It took me a long time to write and publish the novel because I had to focus on scholarly writing to meet the research requirements for tenure and promotion. Creative writing often does not have the same weight. Though I published poems and short stories, I received grants like PSC-CUNY more for my scholarly proposals.
If you want to publish fiction, my advice is to get down a first draft any way you can and try to avoid distractions. For my novel, I wrote ideas in a notebook, and developed my characters’ backgrounds, interests, and conflicts in separate sections as they came to me.
GC: One of your characters, Nate, an eighth-year doctoral student, researches jealousy but claims he never gets personally jealous. You have since written that that’s a lie and that jealousy motivated you in your writing. Can you explain?
Fish: Nate’s research on jealousy is interdisciplinary and draws on King Lear and Othello as well as evolutionary biology and Darwin, yet Nate does not own up to feeling jealous. In his research he argues that jealousy can motivate humans, but in his life, he is scared to feel the rage of frequent disappointment. Of course, part of the irony of the plot is that he is in for a drubbing of that which he avoids. For writers and academics, comparing ourselves to others is inevitable, and often collegial. At other times we may feel shunned or wonder why someone else achieved the merits and accolades we desire and believe we deserve. But supporting others and expressing happiness for their success comes from the higher self. Resentment saps energy. Nate comes to understand that.
GC: The novel is set partly in Finland, where Nate’s ex-girlfriend Nora spends time, and you mentioned that those sections were influenced by your experiences as a Fulbright professor there. Can you explain?
Fish: My Fulbright experience heavily influenced Nora’s plot. The novel begins in New York City’s East Village where the three main characters live, work, and play. I wanted a Finnish story arc, so Nora escapes bad office politics and a stagnant relationship with Nate to work in marketing at Nokia in Finland for a few months. Like Nora, I had a rich social life in Tampere with friends from the university and beyond who took me to saunas, karaoke bars, flea markets, museums, ski trails, frozen lakes, and to their homes. While I was a Fulbright professor, I felt more like a resident and less like a tourist. I have returned to Finland many times, and each layer of experience inspired my writing, from fiction to a book of poems and photographs (The Sauna is Full of Maids) to scholarly articles.
GC: You published Off the Yoga Mat through an independent press, Livingston Press, without an agent. Can you speak about querying and publishing through this method, and any advice you have for writers starting the querying process?
Fish: Querying is a stressful and time-consuming process, and you have to brace yourself for a lot of silence and rejection. I queried in waves over several years, and took breaks, revising my novel and my query letter and getting lots of feedback on both. I came close to acquiring an agent several times, but most agents focus on representing books to sell to big five publishers. As a debut novelist with a story told from three alternating points of view, I was told it was a hard sell. So, I started to query independent and university presses. There are many ways to publish these days. I was on a panel in September through the Women’s National Book Association on the various ways to publish a debut novel with writers who published with a small press and with a hybrid press. I learned a lot over my years of querying and rewriting. My essay “Case Study: How I Published My Debut Novel Off the Yoga Mat" goes into detail about the processes and services that made a difference for me.
GC: How has your experience as a Graduate Center Ph.D. student influenced you as a writer and a scholar?
Fish: I drew on my graduate student experience at the Graduate Center, but also used composites of other student experiences I heard about. I was blessed to work with and receive support from Jane Marcus, Mary Ann Caws, David Reynolds, Neal Tolchin, James DeJongh, bell hooks, Ella Shohat, and Barbara Bowen while I wrote the dissertation that became my book Black and White Women’s Travel Narratives: Antebellum Explorations. For Nate’s disastrous job interview, I drew on my most chaotic times on the job market. When written through a fictional character these experiences come across as funny, yet still troubling.
The greatest blessing of my Graduate Center education and my teaching at Borough of Manhattan Community College has been the range of literature I have been exposed to and excited by. In Off the Yoga Mat, I quote and briefly reference authors ranging from Nathanial Hawthorne and William Blake to James Baldwin and June Jordan, and theorists who were the rage when I was a student, such as Foucault, Kristeva, Haraway, James, Gramsci, and Lacan. I wanted to convey the excitement of innovative interdisciplinary research as well as the frustrations and contradictions of graduate school and academic life. The campus novel has always been a draw for me, especially in satire. At the Graduate Center, there were opportunities for collaborations and friendships that have endured, but some students like Nate, a long-time ABD (all but dissertation), enabled me to examine what it is like to be 39 with no job and scant income, and still have to adhere to the structure of an advanced degree program.
GC: Do you have any other advice for people, especially fellow academics, working on their debut novels? Or are there any takeaways from this experience that will influence you?
Fish: Yes. My advice is to write your novel without worrying about where or when you will publish it. Imaginative writing is exhilarating. My takeaway is that everything takes longer than you think, rewriting and revising are endless, but discoveries are made. You read a lot; you teach literature; now go and write your book.
Off the Yoga Mat is available for purchase from Livingston Press.