Maximum Shelf author interview: Bill Clegg

Following yesterday’s review of Did You Ever Have a Family, here’s Bill Clegg: Characters with Secrets.


Bill Clegg is a literary agent in New York, and the author of the bestselling memoirs Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days. He has written for the New York Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, New York magazine, the Guardian and Harper’s Bazaar. Did You Ever Have a Family (Scout Press) is his first novel.

CleggWhat motivated your transition from memoir into fiction, and how did it go?

I became interested in stories where people with good intentions inadvertently make the wrong choice and instigate calamitous consequences.

On top of that: How do the people in their lives forgive them, how do they forgive themselves? Also the possibility of years of struggle that arrive at peace, finally, but not for long. For instance, stories of people who find love after years of its absence, only to face its sudden loss. I found that fiction was the place to begin to find answers to those questions, and soon the world of the novel came into being.

Did your insight as a literary agent make writing and selling a novel easier or harder?

Probably both. I advise my writers to write for themselves first and try and satisfy the terms of the work as they’ve laid it out, and then open their ears to their fellow writers and me, and then editors. Hold on to it as long possible, take it as far as you can before sharing. If publishers don’t want it right away, it is likely not the end of the story, it’s just that it’s not always easy. So knowing that there are no sure outcomes when you submit fiction to publishers was useful because I could, over the years that I worked on the novel, just try and answer the questions I was asking and also stumble onto new ones. For a long time, whether it would be published or not was, happily, not involved in its making. So that part was helpful. Of course, when my agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh sold it, there was a lot that didn’t need to be translated for me as we progressed toward closing a deal.

I love that so many different characters get a voice in this book. Did you have a favorite to write?

At various times I was drawn to some more than others. Cissy, who works at the seaside motel, held my attention for a long time. She still does.

Cissy is indeed a great enigma. Does this mean that you’ll be writing more about her? Is there room for a sequel here, or will you be able to let her go?

I don’t think Cissy would figure into any next book I might write, but you never know. And I don’t see a sequel in the cards. Anything else that might happen to the characters in Did You Ever Have A Family I leave to the imagination of readers. I have, though, been writing in and around a group of characters in Wells, the town in the novel. It is a place I expect I’ll return to at least one more time.

What makes for a compelling protagonist?

Oh, gosh–many things and likely different for every reader. I tend to be drawn to characters who have something to learn through the course of the story being told. Also people with secrets. I had a lot for a long time and it’s a lonely existence that I am sympathetic to.

This novel starts out as the story of one family’s tragedy, but it expands into something larger. Is this the book you set out to write, or did it grow as you worked?

It opened up in the writing. And far beyond what ended up in the book. I had to write beyond and outside the thing to figure out some of the characters and ideas and voices. Issues of class and people’s relationship to the places they come from became more important and more interesting to me as I wrote.

How tantalizing! What happens with that material? Has it run its useful course?

Not as tantalizing as you might think! All that material is for the forensic computer experts to someday find in my computer but it will never see the light of day.

Do you feel that there is a moral to this novel, a message you needed to share?

When it feels like the end it often is not. And also: despite everything we think we know–about class, about human nature, about psychology–we really know nothing of anyone else’s life, cannot ever presume to understand another’s particular existence. Judgement is often no more than a confession of ignorance.


This interview originally ran on June 10, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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