Summer Words alums Stephanie Danler, Anna Noyes and Molly Prentiss return to Aspen after breakout debut books
The last time Stephanie Danler, Anna Noyes and Molly Prentiss were in Aspen, they were unpublished and anonymous. As Emerging Writer Fellows at Aspen Summer Words in 2014 and 2015, this trio of extraordinarily talented young writers went to work on the books that would change their lives.
All three saw their debut books released last spring: Prentiss’ novel “Tuesday Nights in 1980” in April; Danler’s novel “Sweetbitter” in May; Noyes’ short story collection “Goodnight, Beautiful Women” in June.
The writers will return to Aspen on April 4 to discuss their work and close the 2016-17 Winter Words author series.
Stephanie Danler arrived in Aspen in June 2014, having just finished the first draft of “Sweetbitter,” her coming-of-age novel about a small-town girl coming to New York and getting swept up in the wondrous, wild world of the service industry.
Her time in the Summer Words novel-editing workshop, a six-student group led by Kathleen Anderson, was the first time Danler could see “Sweetbitter” as a whole.
“Everything was a breakthrough at that moment, because I had just finished the book,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I had never been able to hold the entire project in my mind before and I had never had readers of the entire project.”
She’d spent the last few years in the MFA program at the New School and juggling three jobs (yes, waiting tables and gathering material for “Sweetbitter”). That week in Aspen, with a complete manuscript to focus on, was one of the first times she could just be a writer among writers.
“It’s really about the artists that you get to be in contact with, and I didn’t know that, because I was so new to it,” she says. “But it’s at least as important as any writing work that you’re doing.”
After intense morning workshops, she got out for a hike or walk or a run every day around Aspen — enjoying the fresh air after years of school and work.
“It was the first time I’d been outside, and there were lilacs everywhere,” she recalls with a laugh.
Now, when unpublished writers ask Danler for advice, she recalls that first look at her manuscript in Aspen and tells them that the moment of finishing a first draft will be a revelation.
“You really don’t know what you have until you get to the end and you can see where the weak spots are, where the structure needs to be realigned,” she says. “Everything was an epiphany and everything informed the next draft.”
After Summer Words, she went to a residency in the Catskill Mountains, where she meticulously rewrote the book — sentence by sentence — incorporating what she’d learned about it in Aspen.
She soon found an agent, who sent the book around to editors. Its sale that fall quickly became the stuff of publishing legend — four months after Summer Words, a splashy New York Times story recounted the dramatic journey of the young waitress whose astounding novel became the talk of the publishing world and sold for six figures. A year and a half before it would be released, “Sweetbitter” was already one of the most hotly anticipated books in the U.S. It lived up to the hype upon its release, becoming a bestselling hit with readers and critics.
The last year has been a blur for Danler. She was on tour and promoting the book for eight months — and this spring she’ll be publicizing the paperback release (available the day of the Winter Words event). She’s been writing, though mostly, she says, on airplanes and in hotel rooms, and she’s managed to publish some nonfiction pieces. But the days when she juggled quiet writing time at home with shifts in a wine store and restaurants are long gone.
“My life looks nothing like my
ANNA NOYES, ‘GOODNIGHT,
By the time Anna Noyes came to Summer Words in 2015, she’d already sold the story collection “Goodnight, Beautiful Women” to Grove Press. In her fiction workshop, led by “Family Life” author Akhil Sharma, she worked on the final story in the book, “Homecoming,” which tells of a woman moving back to her small hometown in Maine with her husband.
A final test before the book would be bound between hard covers and let loose in the world of readers, putting it through the workshop process was a bit nerve-wracking for Noyes.
“The feedback itself was scary,”
Her class of Emerging Writer Fellows was made up of seven women, many of whom she’s stayed in touch with in the past two years.
“I think that’s the biggest thing I got out of it — this group of readers and writers and friends who I could take with me after Aspen,” Noyes says.
The panel discussions at the festival and writer’s retreat also proved helpful as Noyes prepared for the publication of “Goodnight, Beautiful Women.” She recalls novelist Ann Hood’s insights one afternoon about the early struggles in her own writing career as particularly edifying.
“It gave me heart and hope for the future, especially because I was on the precipice of going out into this world as a published author,” she says. “I didn’t know at all what that would feel like or look like in practice. It felt like a good community for that time in my life.”
The stories in Noyes’ collection are set in her native Maine, which takes on a mournful and mysterious spirit. They look intimately at the lives of young women and their sexual awakenings, at memory and at familial relationships. She’d written most of these stories during graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And though they read together as a cohesive whole, Noyes hadn’t thought about them as a thematically linked collection of complementary stories when she was writing them.
“Looking back on it, I definitely was interested in latencies within these characters — be it sexuality or mental illness or aging,” she says.
After working toward writing a book all her life, the release of “Goodnight, Beautiful Women” and its embrace by readers and critics — including a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection — was the beginning of a new reality for Noyes.
“It was this remarkable feeling to have the book come out, because on the one hand it’s the joy of your life to have your dream come true,” she says. “That’s very real. On the other hand, I felt a lot more raw and vulnerable going from place to place and having to articulate the workings behind the book. You’re vulnerable having your first book out, and having to be onstage in different forms and giving interviews was much more vulnerable than I expected it to be.”
This spring, Noyes is moving from Brooklyn to an island on the Connecticut coast, where she’ll write full time and live closer to the natural world of New England that inspires so much of her work.
“It felt really hard to go back into that creative space where you feel like nobody is going to read what you’re writing, so you can really bare your soul and your secrets and that kind of thing,” she says.
She’s now at the beginning of a new project — a novel.
“I’m five pages into something new now,” she says. “And I feel so relieved to have five solid pages.”
‘TUESDAY NIGHTS IN 1980’
Molly Prentiss was in what she calls the “final push” on “Tuesday Nights in 1980,” already working closely with agent Claudia Ballard on the novel, when she came to Aspen in 2014 as an Emerging Writer Fellow. Along with writing short fiction in a workshop led by “The Interestings” author Meg Wolitzer that week at the Hotel Jerome, Prentiss got her first taste of doing a public reading for a sizable crowd of strangers.
“I remember being really nervous during that,” she recalls, “because it was one of the first times I’d done a reading on that scale. It was an interesting test run for when the book came out.”
Prentiss had been working on “Tuesday Nights in 1980” for seven years — before, during and after her time in graduate school at California College of the Arts — and could finally see the end of her long creative journey during her time in Aspen. She sold the book to Scout Press, an imprint of Simon and Shuster, a few months later in January 2015.
It’s an ambitious novel that paints a vivid picture of the gritty downtown New York art scene in the early ’80s while following three characters — an Argentine artist, a synesthetic art critic and the woman who comes between them — through that heady era.
“I felt this compulsion that if I was going to write a novel it was going to be this big-feeling novel,” she says. “There was this element of the style of it, the scope of it, that I wanted to feel too big to handle. That was part of the intention for me.”
Telling a story about ambition, she reasons, one ought to be thinking big and work on a large canvas.
“I went into it with blissful ignorance,” Prentiss says. “I didn’t understand how hard it would be or that it would take me seven years, or that there would be so many different renditions of the book — entire drafts scrapped and 200 pages in the garbage and these kinds of big overhauls that felt really dramatic to me at the time.”
Prentiss has stayed in touch with her class of Emerging Writer Fellows from Aspen, including Stephanie Danler. She still reads and offers feedback on their work (and she’s in a book club with Aspen classmate Sarah Dohrman). Along with the intense workshop time and panels at the conference, Prentiss recalls the fellows squeezing in some fun in Aspen — making a group outing to The Thrift Shop of Aspen, for instance, and doing a late-night bike ride to the Buckminster Fuller Dome on the Aspen Institute campus.
“It was such an amazing place to connect with other writers,” she says. “It was the first place where I got to have that kind of intense connection and community around writing.”
Prentiss also, of course, made the rounds at Aspen’s art galleries.
Since its publication a year ago, “Tuesday Nights in 1980” has earned accolades, including being long-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Along with starting work on a new novel, Prentiss recently founded Blue, a small conceptual creative writing school running out of a Brooklyn art studio, where she also teaches.
“Everything has changed,” Prentiss says. “It’s been sort of a whirlwind, but a good one.”
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Perhaps it’s because we are in the abbreviated days of winter and I instinctively know that the sun is shining down-under. But every January I go through a nostalgic period where Australian wine dominates my mind.