Rebecca Johns-Trissler is a novelist and an associate professor in the English department. Her first novel, Icebergs (2007), was a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Award. Her second, The Countess (2010)—a fictional imagining of the life of Elizabeth Bathory, the “Blood Countess”—was translated into 10 languages and is now being adapted for a television series.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Johns-Trissler teaches a two-course fiction writing workshop for graduate students. Here, she talks about how the lessons she learned as a young writer help her students find their own voices as novelists. You hit a home run with your first novel. Isn’t that kind of unusual?
Well Icebergs isn’t really the first novel I wrote—just the first one that was good enough to publish.
I had always wanted to write a novel, so in my early 20s, I decided I had to stop talking and start writing. I made a New Year’s resolution to write two pages a day—in the morning, on my lunch hour, or after work—just two pages a day. I finished two books that way. They were terrible—absolutely hideous—no one will ever see them! But at least I proved that I could do it: I could write a manuscript of novel length. But I couldn’t figure out why they were terrible. So, again, I said “now or never” and decided to go to graduate school. Icebergs evolved from a short story I wrote during my time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Has your writing process changed over time?
Now I’ve got a system that works, but I can’t say that I’ve done every book the “right” way. For example, my agent sold Icebergs to a publisher before it was finished, so I was being cautious: I felt like every sentence had to be perfect before I went on to the next. That process was painstaking and time-consuming—the writing was much harder than it had to be.
Now I think it’s better to power through a first draft, warts and all, and then fix everything later. A first draft is for structure and plot, a second for going deep into scenes. Then, there’s a draft for improving the characters’ development. The last draft is for language and style. Writing needs momentum, and you can’t revise until you know how the story ends. Both your books are historical fiction. How does research fit into your process?
I probably did more research in advance for Icebergs, since the story is set in recent times and I wanted to get the details exactly right. For the Countess, I researched while I was writing, and now I think that’s a good method: Write the scene the way you imagine it and leave placeholders for facts. Otherwise, research can be a rabbit hole—you go down and down—and you might never come out again.How do your students respond to a “put your head down and go” approach?
True to my own method, I teach my students to write quickly, to produce a down-and-dirty draft as fast as possible. In the first course, I push them through to the end: They write 60,000 words in 10 weeks, not a small amount of writing, but perfectly doable. We spend a lot of time talking about novel structure, about the things that drive stories, about the way plot hangs off a character’s desire. In the second course, we take those rough lumps of clay and mold them into something prettier, more complex, and better developed. We focus on the craft of writing—all the things a reader expects from a good piece of fiction.
My students learn good work habits. Unless they’re independently wealthy, writers need to work—whether that’s a 9-to-5 job, or being a barista at Starbucks, or teaching college—so somehow a writer has to incorporate the writing itself into a working life, has to find a way to balance writing with everything else that has to be done.
Is this approach successful? Well, one student just had her first novel—the one she wrote in my class—bought by Simon & Schuster. As a teacher, I can say: It doesn’t get better than that.Do other universities offer a workshop like yours?
Well, it’s fairly unusual. It isn’t easy to workshop novels or parts of novels in a 10- or 16-week course, which is why workshops usually focus on the short story.
When I joined the faculty five years ago, I was teaching a speculative fiction course—short stories in the science fiction/fantasy genre. But the students wanted to write longer pieces; they were all trying to turn in chapters of novels. And they wanted a two-course sequence so they’d have the time to develop something of substance. So, I developed the class in response to student demand. The first time I taught the class it was a smashing success. I had 17 students in that class and each one finished a 200-page manuscript. Several of them then stayed on to work with me afterward in independent study.
I judge my success based on the students’ enthusiasm. I want them to believe in themselves as writers; I want them to have both the technical skills and the emotional tools to keep writing after the class is done. I would like every single student to end up with a manuscript that they could take to an agent or editor and say “Here it is!”This profile is the first in a new series, My Art, which will showcase the work of artists teaching at DePaul—our poets and musicians, painters and composers, writers and actors.