Marcy Dermansky is the author of three critically acclaimed novels: The Red Car, Bad Marie, and Twins. Her work also appears in McSweeney’s, Guernica, Lenny Letter, among other publications. If you have yet to delve into the sharp prose of Marcy’s incredibly rich novels, GAL wonders what the heck you’ve been waiting for. Her latest novel, The Red Car, blurs boundaries between past and present, weaving delectably witty prose into a haunting story that sits with you long after you finish the last page.
Photography by Sylvie Rosokoff
Girls at Library: Why do you read?
Marcy Dermansky: That’s a good question. I guess to go into a world that’s not my own, to imagine that I’m there. I read for entertainment, for distraction. I think I really read to be somewhere else.
GAL: What are you reading right now?
MD: I’m reading some short stories called Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin that I got from the library. They’re good, right?
GAL: Yes! I loved them. And her. Her interview is on GAL now.
MD: Oh, how perfect is that! I buy books all the time, but I love the magic of library books. You just go in, head to the new book wall, and pick something out like candy.
GAL: Which library do you frequent?
MD: I just go to the Montclair Public Library because I live in Montclair now. It’s funny, everybody moves here from Brooklyn, when they decide they can’t live in New York City anymore. It’s pretty and just a little bit easier than New York, and it’s kind of got a similar sensibility: smart people and cultured people and diversity.
GAL: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
MD: It’s tricky. I think I always knew I wanted to be a writer as a kid, and then I put it away for a long time. I didn’t start writing seriously until later, though. I took one creative writing class and it was the only 4.0 I got in all four years of college, so I think that told me something. And then I got out of college and I got a job for about five years, and then I went to graduate school for writing and that’s when I really started to do it. I was closer to 26 or 27 when I really started to take writing seriously.
GAL: Do you have a specific practice now? Do you write every day? Tell us a little bit about it.
MD: I don’t write every day, and when I’m working on a book — well, I just finished a book which was so fun, but when I finish something, I usually take a little time off, and then I don’t write at all. But I really like it. Sometimes I like writing novels better than short stories because then every day you sit down and work on something, and you’re not done, so you just have somewhere to go and you’re in the middle of a story. When I’m working on a book, I do work almost every day, and then I really enjoy that. So that’s why I like novels better than short stories. They take a long time and you don’t have to keep coming up with a brand-new idea every time. I tend to work early in the day. I like to write in the morning if I can because there’s a lot of strange guilt involved with writing. If you do it first thing, then you feel liberated all day and can say, “Oh my God, I got my writing done!” and you feel good.
GAL: Are there any writers who you turn to for inspiration if you’re in the middle of a writer’s block or a dry spell?
MD: The Japanese writer called Haruki Murakami helped me get out of a writer’s block. When I was writing The Red Car I didn’t know what I was going to write. I had a block for more than a year. So, I did an exercise I called “I’m going to write a Haruki Murakami novel.” I really told myself that! I reread some of his books because his work is sort of surreal and supernatural, and that felt like something I wanted to write about. I went over his style, and ended up taking cues from his structure. The structure of The Red Car really borrows from his book, where it starts with somebody reading a newspaper—which he did in one of his novels—and then it jumps ahead 10 years. I really wrote my own book, but by using his structure, I didn’t have to come up with a plan. It felt so amazing and it was really freeing. So that was the only time I’ve done that and I recommend copying another writer if you are stuck. It’s not plagiarizing. It’s paying homage to. I don’t have any guilt about it. I did put Murakami in my book, it’s not like I don’t want people to know, do you know what I mean?
GAL: Of course! That makes complete sense. It seems like a reliable trick and it clearly worked well without bordering on plagiarism. The Red Car felt wholly original to me, and I’m an avid Murakami fan. Do you remember the name of the book that you first fell in love with that turned you into a lifelong reader?
GAL: Have you reread them as an adult?
MD: I have reread them, and they’re really just as good. I got to reread them with my daughter, but she had less patience with them. They made her really nervous about what bad things are going to happen to the character, and that made me feel kind of bad because we ended up watching the movies, and she liked the movies, not the books. But they still are really good.
GAL: What do you think it was about those books that captured your early imagination?
MD: Well they were both about girls, for one thing. I mean that has to be it, it wasn’t a book about a boy. The Secret Garden, she’s really sour, unlikeable, prickly little girl, and I guess by the end of the book she does change into a nice girl, but she’s still the prickly girl at heart, and maybe I liked that in her. And the other girl, too. I never thought about it as a kid why I liked them, like they were really strong characters. They both were essentially orphans, and I think that’s great for a children’s book. I’m glad that as human beings we’re not all orphans, because it would really be sad. It makes for these incredible stories though, so many fairytales and these kids without parents who sort of forge their way in the world. Harry Potter, he’s an orphan. They’re always orphans.
GAL: Do you reread often?
MD: I used to reread books as a child. I think I used to imagine I was those characters or would get lost in those worlds. I think once you’ve read a book and you know what happens and you have a favorite part, it’s really fun to reread them, and know what’s going to happen and just really enjoy it.
GAL: Yeah, to sort of luxuriate in it. It’s comforting.
MD: Yeah. I used to take books and open them in the middle and that’s what page I’d pick up on and read from sometimes. I did that often with Little Women, because it was so long, it’s like one thousand pages, but it didn’t bother me because you could just read it from anywhere. It’s more immersive than a movie when you read. I spend too much time on social media, and sometimes I’m just wasting time, and I’m just like, wow, I would be having such a better time if I were reading a book. So I cut back. I feel better now that I’m reading more, and I realized I hadn’t been reading enough. When you turn on the internet you can get into this yucky place and it’s hard to get back out. Though there always are interesting articles to read, it’s not just like a complete waste of time. I’m glad for the articles I read and even for the social interaction. I like that part of it and I don’t think it’s negative. But it should only have a certain amount of time in one’s life.
GAL: Do you subscribe to or read any specific magazines?
MD: I don’t. My mother just got me a subscription to the New Yorker, and it just makes me feel guilty because I just don’t read it. I’ve got a nice little stack, so I guess it looks good if people come into my home that I have New Yorkers sitting on the table. When I used to submit short stories I would read literary magazines, but I don’t really submit anymore. So I think there was a time when that really mattered more to me.
GAL: Who is your favorite author? Or, if it’s easier to answer this cruel question, who is your favorite author right now?
MD: Mary Robison is one of my favorite authors. Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite authors. Anne Patchett is a favorite writer, I love everything she writes. And maybe can I leave it at that.
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot?
MD: I want to make some changes in my home, but right now I mainly read in bed before I go to sleep. I like to read in the bathtub a lot.
GAL: Do you worry about dropping your book in the tub?
MD: I don’t worry about that, but I worry about like wet fingers and library books. I’ve never dropped one in the tub though.
GAL: Do you ever read on a Kindle or on a Nook?
MD: I don’t have a Kindle but I’ve read on my iPad. I got a digital Donna Tartt book because it was so long, and I wanted to travel with it. It’s like a 700 page book. And it read fine on the screen. I think if I made the switch all together, I might like it, but right now I have a problem with it because it will tell you the percentage you have finished, but it doesn’t have page numbers. When I did read on it, I got to the last page and had no idea that was ending, it would really ruin a book for me.
When you’re reading a book, you physically feel like, Oh I have five pages left, and the end is less of a shock. I know so many people read
on Kindles– it’s funny because I know a lot of seniors who love their Kindles but I’m just very reluctant to go there.
GAL: Yeah! I have to say, we ask everyone this question, and everyone who we interview hates the Kindle. But every senior I know loves their Kindle, my grandmother, my mother.
MD: I find that so interesting, because you’d think they’re the older generation, so they would be more—
GAL: Yeah, more staunchly opposed!
MD: Yeah, so many older people, and I don’t know, there must be a reason for that. I thanked my mother’s first cousin in the
acknowledgements from my book. She is older and she didn’t scroll another page to get to the acknowledgements. So that’s something wrong with the Kindle. And she didn’t know that I acknowledged her, because I wrote a lot of the book at her house, because she had a nice beach house. And so I thanked her and she didn’t even know!
GAL: Oh no!
MD: Yeah, so I think at one point I had to point it out to her. It was kind of funny, and she was like, “Oh I read it on my Kindle!” So she totally lost on that experience, because really special to be thanked in the acknowledgements, if you’re surprised.
GAL: How do you choose the books that you read?
MD: There’s the chance element of the library. I mean at this point, in a weird way, social media really does matter. There’s this book critic who I know and I like, her name is Bethanne Patrick, and one day she tweeted about how much she loved a book, and then a week later I was reading it. So it’s kind of like word-of-mouth on the Internet, not word-of-mouth in person, but I guess it’s also people that I talk to. And I guess it’s also being aware of what is coming out, and then writers who I know and follow, I’m always looking for their new book. But I think that’s pretty much it. I also go to bookstores and see what’s on the front table, so there’s definitely some impulse to it.
GAL: When you finish a book, do you feel sad or elated? Or is it a mixture of both?
MD: I think if I really love a book, I always feel sad. Yeah I do, which is too bad! But it’s a mixture of both. I’ve had experiences where I’m enjoying a book so much I’ll want to slow it down so that I don’t finish, and then I’ll put it down and not finish it. I haven’t done that in a long time but it’s really dumb, and then you have to read it from the beginning. I did that when I was really young with like, Kerouac and On the Road, I don’t think I ever finished it because I just put it down at some point, but I loved it. So I’ll have to go back and finish it.
GAL: Yeah. Do that, and tell us what happens.
MD: Ok! Yeah I’m pretty sure I never read the end of it. It’s ridiculous.
GAL: Which books and authors, if any, helped you develop your own voice?
MD: I think it was reading a lot of female short fiction writers. I read Lorrie Moore and loved her work. I ended up studying with Mary Robeson in graduate school because I had really loved her stories. She’s not so much on the radar and should be. I really loved Rick Barthelme, Frederick Barthelme who’s Donald Barthelme’s younger brother. I was always reading contemporary fiction. It was never really the classics so much for me.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
MD: Oh how awful, the first word that came into my head was horrible, I just thought of Sloppy! That’s terrible, but that’s what came into my head. That’s not very nice.
GAL: That’s not very nice! Don’t talk about our friend Marcy that way.
MD: [laughs] I don’t read memoirs very often, to tell you the truth, and so I would never write my own memoir. Just the idea of that gives me the heebie-jeebies. I definitely put myself in all of my fiction, but just to put myself out there, I just wouldn’t want it.
GAL: Do you read any nonfiction?
MD: I read almost none. Every once in a while a nonfiction book will slip in. It’s almost weird how much I don’t read it. If someone tells me I need to read a book, I will. That’s how memoir slips in. I love Cheryl Strayed by the way. Tiny Beautiful Things is my favorite self-help book of all time. I thought it was really brilliant. But in general I don’t read any nonfiction.
GAL: What’s the power of story?
MD: I want a made-up world, I guess. That must be it, if I don’t read any nonfiction at all. I just love being in somebody else’s head when it’s done really well. Once I tried to write a screenplay, and one thing you can’t really do in a screenplay is write what the character’s thinking or feeling. It’s all dialogue to be expressed in the actor or actress’ face, which is pretty incredible. But in a book you can write it all down, and so you’re always telling what a character feels and thinks, and you’re really in there in a way you can’t be with movies and television. I think that’s what I really like about writing. You’re really inside another person, if it’s done well.
GAL: Would you ever option Red Car for a film? It seems so cinematic to me.
MD: Yes. Zoe Cassavetes is going to write the script and direct it.
GAL: Does that make you nervous? Is it difficult to let go of creative control?
MD: It does and it doesn’t. I wouldn’t want to write the script for one. I think it might even make it worse, because you have to make changes when you translate a book to a movie, and I think you have to like, Frozen, let it go a little bit. Zoe understands this book so well. I got so excited to see how she was going to change it. So yeah, I feel so good about her doing it, which is such a wonderful feeling if you’re going to hand your book over.
GAL: A true collaboration. You did your part, now the film can do theirs. I admire that.
MD: My dream is for it to just do so well that the book will get reprinted and then more people will read the book. I was really happy with how The Red Car did, but you know, it’s not that many who read it. I would like more people to read it, and I think that’s what a movie could do for you.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” which is dedicated to books that she returns to again and again to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your sanity shelf?
MD: It’s funny, I have a bunch of favorites that I didn’t mention. I have this book called Rich in Love by Josephine Humphreys that I’ve read over and over and over again. I love Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson. There are these books by Antonia White I loved so much and I am really sad that I don’t have them anymore. So they’re not part of my current shelf, but they have been. I think they have been really influential to me. I could open up Bad Marie because I have a list of the five books I read the most, and I know that Rich in Love and Anywhere But Here is on them, but I don’t know what else is on them. Hold on. I love Harper Perennial books, I don’t know if you’ve read them because those little fun sections in the back. I think they still do that. So here, I have this little section that says “Five Novels I Have Compulsively Read and Reread,” so that’s fun. I have F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night, that’s a good one. And I have Josephine Humphries, I have Mona Simpson, and the book I mentioned which I love is Beyond the Glass, and that was written in 1954. And this is true, Joy Williams’ Breaking and Entering, and that was a book I compulsively read and reread. I recommend all.