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The Underachiever

Janet Desaulniers blew a book deal with Knopf, and boy is she glad.

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On a recent reading tour Janet Desaulniers wowed audiences by telling them how she sold the first story she ever sent out--a semiautobiographical shortie about a college grad who moves back in with her mom--to the New Yorker when she was 25. Then she really shocked them by telling them how long it took for her first book to get into print. First contracted by Alfred A. Knopf about 20 years ago, her story collection What You've Been Missing was just published by the University of Iowa Press in October. In New York, she says, audiences audibly gasped: "As if I said I'd lost an arm!"

The long delay, she explains, was due to a combination of conflicts with an editor at Knopf and the ongoing business of life. Desaulniers, who teaches fiction writing at the School of the Art Institute, won the deal with Knopf on the strength of a handful of stories the New Yorker had published, "which I later learned is a really bad idea," she says. "To sell a book before it's finished is to sell an unquantifiable product."

In retrospect Desaulniers believes her editor there was looking for more stories like the New Yorker ones: "quick, young, dark, edgy," she says. "But what they got was long, maturing, with a growing interest in consolation. It didn't have to do with quality so much as the mood and marketability of what they thought they'd bought." That's just a guess, though. She found the editor, whom she doesn't want to name, hard to talk to. "We weren't speaking the same language," says Desaulniers. "I sat in her office and looked her in the face and asked her what the problem was with what I turned in, and she wouldn't tell me anything. Or she couldn't tell me anything."

Desaulniers' stories revolve around domestic crises big and small--a teenage girl descending into alcoholism, a woman recalling the death of her son, a boy who fakes stomachaches to get out of school. "The domestic may be all we get, so we better damn well pay attention to it," she says. "It may be where everything's happening." She focuses on matters of the home in her nonprofessional life too, and believes this makes her something of a misfit in the cutthroat New York-centered world of trade publishing. "Lorrie Moore knows how to put out a book in two years," she says. "Alice Munro knows how to do it in one year. I'm not capable of that. It has to do with the domestic nature of my life: in order for me to raise my son and be really present and enjoy sitting around with my husband, it takes me a really long time to write a book. I'm not competitive, and I'm not in any kind of hurry. When I was in the hands of my New York editors and publishers I felt a real sense of hurry, like 'What are you waiting for?' I wasn't waiting for anything. I was just learning about the craft that I wanted to do."

The slower pace of the midwest suits her much better, says Desaulniers, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Though she's written constantly since she was a child, she didn't take a writing class until her last semester at the University of Missouri. "I was afraid I'd be bad," she says. "What if I was bad at this thing I wanted to do most in the world?"

After getting an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she went back to Missouri to teach literature. "I'm 26 years old and I'm teaching graduate students," she says. "How much did I know? An infinitesimal amount more than they did, if that." After marrying and having a son, she and her husband moved to Chicago, where Desaulniers was hired for a three-year lectureship teaching fiction writing to undergrads at Northwestern University. (I met her there in 1989, when I was one of her students.) Northwestern asked her to stay for another lectureship and there was talk of hiring her onto the faculty, but it didn't happen, and after six years Desaulniers had had enough: "The deal was they wanted us, but they didn't want us to stay." By then she'd signed the contract with Knopf, but she'd also gotten divorced and didn't want to mess up a joint-custody agreement she'd worked out with her ex. So instead of moving to New York or putting herself on the nationwide job market, she worked part-time for the Chicago Public Schools' Urban Gateways arts-education program, then found a position as a writer in residence at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (The commute, she says, was a killer.)

Then, in 1995, she heard that the School of the Art Institute was creating a graduate-level fiction-writing program. "I know everybody in the country applied for it, but I knew I was the right person for the job," she says. "I think because I started so young, I could speak to some of the aspirations that people in the school had."

As the first chair of the department (it revolves every three years), Desaulniers was responsible for everything from hiring faculty to ordering carpeting. It was around this time that, having failed to come to an understanding with her editor, she was dropped by Knopf; two days later she got married to Michael K. Meyers, an artist, writer, and fellow instructor at SAIC.

Full of "doubt and fear and woe" about her book, Desaulniers put it away for a while. "I had just started the program at the school, my mother was dying, I fell in love and got married," she says. "Life just required my presence for both the good things and the bad things."

Then three years ago Desaulniers took her first sabbatical in 21 years of teaching. During her year off, she says, "I got well. I rested, I stopped smoking, I ran, I enjoyed my life. I began to relax. And I began to find joy in my work again." She wrote a few new stories, then, curious about how they'd work with the old ones, pulled out the book manuscript. "It was so much easier for me to be ruthless this time," she says. "I threw out some things and put in some of my new work and rearranged the whole thing."

Two of her old New Yorker stories are in the new book ("The Good Fight" and "Everyone Is Wearing a Hat"), mixed in with stuff she's written in the intervening 25 years. Looking through the collection, she says, she can see the evolution of not only her writing style but also the nature of short stories as an art form. "It's not just the length of some of those stories, but it's also the amount of detail," she says. "So many people have said, 'Those stories are sort of novelistic,' and I said, 'No they're not, they're just long! That's the way stories used to be!' . . . You can't publish a story that's 29 pages long in 2004. Who's going to give you that much space?"

This time, Desaulniers sent the manuscript to small presses. Eventually Iowa picked it as the winner of its John Simmons Short Fiction Award, for which the prize is publication. Its first print run was 2,000 copies, which sold out in about two weeks. A second run of 1,000 copies is also selling well. The New York stop of her reading tour earlier this month (she'll appear at the Red Lion Pub on December 28 as part of the TallGrass Writers Guild Authors Series), she says, confirmed her feeling that losing her Knopf contract was a blessing. "Just getting back there as a mature artist and human, seeing, Oh, this is what I didn't have to do!" she says. "In New York people go to parties two, three, four, five times a night. How tired they must be!"

Desaulniers has recognized former students at her appearances, which she uses to encourage struggling writers. "I don't do readings so much as I do a kind of pastiche of my life," she says. "The last part of the pastiche is about the last 25 years and what I have to tell them from this side--the done side--of the task." She also tells beginners to be patient, not to jump at the first contract that's waved in front of them. "For young writers with a chapter or two or three stories, I tell them, 'What's your hurry,' you know? Maybe figure out what the book is before you go selling it. Be aware that the New York publishing industry is really a marketplace that has to do with consumerism. . . . People forget that."

She's now writing a novel that will address the tension between the demands of the modern working world, which she calls "beyond horror," and those of the home. Her writing, she says, has changed a lot in recent years. "I'm much more comfortable with snippets and vignettes, small fractured pieces of narrative just meaning what they mean." And she's grown impatient with certain literary devices. "For instance," she says, "you suddenly realize that transitions aren't just a waste of your time--they're a grotesque oversimplification, they're an insult to sensibility. So suddenly I couldn't write any more transitions. I can't even use an introductory phrase anymore! 'As I walked into the room'--bullshit! You walked into the room and you saw that, or you saw that and you walked into a room. You didn't do 'em both at the same time. Or if you did, why the fuck do I care that you're walking? I'm 50 years old, I don't have that much time left. So I don't want to watch anyone's hand close around a doorknob. I'm not interested in someone walking in the door or going down stairs or getting into a car. You're gonna write words about walking when I'm gonna die?

"People say, 'Oh, this collection will break your heart,'" she says of What You've Been Missing. "But the part that's not heartbreaking is that the characters get up the next day. They do keep walking. And to me that seems to indicate that they found something worthy."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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