Miranda Popkey’s debut novel, Topics of Conversation, traces ten significant encounters over twenty years, each of which shapes the unnamed female narrator’s views on gender and sexual politics. The excerpt above brings together a group of single mothers reflecting on their circumstances while their babies nap in the other room.
In the style of Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick, Popkey trusts her narrator’s voice to carry the reader along, eschewing many conventions of plot. I asked her about the process of revising her “nontraditional” novel and what other traditions she subverted along the way.
—Kate Dwyer for Guernica
Guernica: I’m curious about the detail of the eye-rolling. What made you add it?
Miranda Popkey: What I’d had in place of the eye-rolling (“The stench on her …”) was meant to communicate the narrator’s dislike of Fran and her ambivalence about motherhood; but, trying to do two things at once, I found it was doing neither well. It just read as mean—and worse, slightly confusing. The eye roll is clear—a very legible gesture. The reader gets the narrator’s contempt for Fran and also, possibly, one reason for it: Fran, sharing the joy and camaraderie she felt, seeing Sandra, is making herself vulnerable; our narrator hates vulnerability. Trying to do less, I sharpen the tone (I hope). Perhaps, because the comment now reflects back on her alone, I also make our narrator slightly crueler, less sympathetic.
Guernica: Why did the “walls flak[ing] white plaster” disappear? Was it also about tone?
Popkey: That, I decided, was cliché. Perhaps “water-damaged” is, too, but if one cliché is forgivable, two, to butcher Lady Bracknell, starts to look like carelessness.
Popkey: Oh, yes. The novel was definitely influenced by her novels more than her nonfiction, although some of the ideas of her nonfiction are in there as well, but you’re absolutely right to spot that as an influence on the voice. The voice was the first thing I had, before I had a plot or even a sense of who my narrator was. I had that voice, and as I continued to write, it was really important to me to keep that consistent. If I was writing a new section and the voice wasn’t clicking with the content, it was sort of a sign that perhaps I was not writing in the right direction plot-wise, because if I couldn’t make it sound right in her voice, then maybe it just wasn’t a situation she would be in.
Guernica: The novel is structured around a series of conversations that take place in different locales over roughly two decades. Were you always planning to follow this structure, or did it emerge later during the revision process?
Popkey: I have a really hard time structuring plot in the way that traditional novels structure plot, with rising action, a climax, etc. When I first started working on this novel, it was two short stories that I put together because they shared a voice and a narrator in common. And then I kept adding to that. For some reason, there’s this huge difference in my mind between how you tell a story and how you write a story. I can do the former, but when it comes to the latter, it’s like a stubborn part of me doesn’t want to do something it thinks it’s bad at.
Guernica: You bring up a really good point — the traditional structure that we apply to narratives is actually sort of contrived, and doesn’t reflect the way that people live their lives.
Popkey: No, I think it doesn’t. On the other hand, neither does the way that you tell a story at a party, for example, or tell a story to a friend. I think I’ve just been doing that for so much longer that it made sense to me to tell a bigger story as a series of these smaller stories. With those novelists who are the best at following a traditional story structure, you almost can’t tell that this is not how we experience life. They just sort of allow us to sink into the reality of the novel. And you’re allowed to experience life in this sort of artificial, formulaic way, but you’re not noticing that it’s artificial, or formulaic. You’re just getting to know people in a series of scenes, and that seems quite natural.
Guernica: Tell me about your revision process. How many drafts did you go through, before and after submitting the manuscript?
Popkey: The draft that I submitted to my agent was all written during my MFA. And that meant that I was able to bring these little sections into workshop, and get really, really helpful feedback on what was and wasn’t working. The draft that I sent to my agent had been revised as a whole maybe three times. And then the draft that my agent sent around to editors, that was another revision.
After that, there was another round of revisions, once I got my editor’s comments back. And another round, once I got the copy-edited manuscript back. So I would say holistically between six and eight, which actually doesn’t sound like a ton. I was doing so much revision of individual pieces before I stitched them all together. The structure of the novel meant that I had to do fewer top-to-bottom revisions because the pieces were independent enough that I could work on them separately, and that was useful. The biggest thing that changed in revision is that initially, the scenes were not in chronological order.
Guernica: Which scene was the hardest to revise?
Popkey: I really struggled with the scene that takes place at the hotel bar [where the narrator picks up a married man on a business trip]. It’s just really hard to write a sex scene or to write a scene that suggests eroticism, because there are so many ways it could go wrong. So it was really important to me that you didn’t start laughing in the middle of a scene that was supposed to be charged with some kind of tension. I spent a really long time trying to figure out how to write this interaction between my narrator and this man, so that we understand why she is putting herself in this situation and what she’s getting out of the situation.
Guernica: The playwright Annie Baker, who you mention in your “Works Not Cited” section, talks a lot about the shape of narratives. Was there a particular shape that you considered as you were plotting the book out?
Popkey: My professor at WashU, Danielle Dutton—she’s a writer and publisher of a small press called Dorothy—had us do this really helpful exercise. We had just read The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, and she had us sketch the shape of the narrative. It was something she said she did with her undergraduates, and I ended up using it in my own Fiction I class, when I taught during my second year. When I think of the shape of this narrative, it’s like one of those rope ladders, you know? With knots in it every so often? I don’t think of it as rising and falling in a sort of line. I think of it as a straight line connecting these knots. And the knots are the individual stories, or the individual sections, and then you have to get really close to the knot to see what particular shape it is, to see what particular shape that story is.
But it’s sort of how I think of my life also. There are these moments that I return to, and that I want to keep picking at, and then in between, there’s just years where nothing happens, or nothing happens that I’m ever interested in thinking about again.
Guernica: At the very end of the book, the narrator says that her life lacks an origin story. Did you always know that the narrative would be building to that epiphany? Or is that something that came later?
Popkey: I had an image of where I wanted her to be at the end, physically. I wanted her to be alone with her child, I wanted her to have her own home, and I wanted her to be in a place that was not very populated. In a way, that’s visual shorthand for someone who’s starting over. You know, you create the physical blank slate in addition to the mental blank slate. I knew that I wanted her to get less attached to this idea of having a governing narrative in your life, and less attached to the idea that life having a governing narrative is important to determining not only who you are and were, but who you’re going to be.
I was listening to this podcast, called Blank Check (it’s in the Works Not Cited) and they were talking about the film Aquaman, and comic book tropes, and how heroes always have to have origin stories. I was listening to that, and I was like, “oh, what a dummy I am, and what a dummy my narrator is,” and I mean that very affectionately. Heroes in comic books have origin stories. Superman has an origin story. Batman has an origin story. But humans don’t. You can pick what it is that you want to define you. You can tell yourself a different story. You can create an origin story for yourself, which is just like not having one. Because the origin story is determinative. If you pick something from your past, it can be a guideline going forward. If you pick something in the future, you can work towards it and define yourself by it. If you just decide the whole idea of an origin is sort of bullshit, and I’m just gonna live my life as open to individual moments, and as attentive to my environment and my experiences as possible, I think it’s a healthier way to live, at least for my narrator. At the end of the novel, she’s alive to the possibilities that remain in front of her in a way that she was not when she was in a more superficially attractive life situation. For me, that was the hopefulness of it.
Guernica: It sort of seems like the book’s structure works in the service of this narrator trying to piece together her origin story, and then that idea gets subverted.
Popkey: Yeah. I mean, I think the more that she understands herself, the more that she understands that she is a bunch of different people. I think of the ending as really hopeful.
Guernica: I do, too.
Popkey: I liked the idea that when she seems to be where her life seems aesthetically least attractive, is when she understands how much possibility and power she has. Rufi Thorpe wrote an essay for VELA magazine called “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid.” I have a quote from it taped above my desk: “I view my own interestingness as being directly related to the thoughts I think and the work I do, rather than the aesthetics of my leisure time.” And that’s not exactly the revelation that she has at the end, but it’s connected.
Guernica: That’s really interesting. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is revision vs. reconceptualization. As you were revising, were you also reconceptualizing the project?
Popkey: Oh, yeah. There was a really brief moment when I thought it was going to be about my narrator rejecting heterosexuality. I played with that, and I felt like my romantic experiences have been with men. Rejecting heterosexuality is an interesting story, I would love to read that, but I couldn’t put it on the page in a way that felt honest and truthful. And although I think that is a path the narrator could go down, I did not trust myself to tell that story in the way that wasn’t B.S. to someone who had been on that journey themselves.
Also, for a while I wanted to keep the narrator’s personal history as off-the-page as possible. There was a part of me that felt like I was giving in to traditional narrative by even giving her an emotional arc.
Guernica: What’s the best revision advice you’ve received?
Popkey: I can never take advice if I read it in an interview, but if someone reads this and it helps them, that would make me very happy. I revised almost every section of this book — and every single time I did a full revision — by retyping it. This is something I got from Kathryn Davis, the novelist and professor at WashU. She said when she was revising something, she would print it, mark the page up, start a new Word document, and make a change in the first line, because that gave her permission to make changes.
Guernica: That feels pretty radical.
Popkey: It was totally revelatory, because it’s so hard to go into a Word document that’s already crowded with words and try to figure out how to fix them. But just starting over, and being like, I’m going to start retyping this section, and I’m going to change one tiny thing in the first sentence, and then if I want to change everything else I can, and if I want to change nothing else I also can, but I have a blank page ahead of me, which is scary, but I also have the material already. Then, it’s more possibility than it is terror of not having anything.
My book is only 55,000 words, so I wasn’t retyping War and Peace every couple of weeks, but if I was really having trouble with a section, even just pulling that section out, I’d print it out, mark it up, and then retype it. You get the words and the rhythm of the sentences in your fingers this way.
To read more interviews from our Back Draft archive, click here.