You start by thinking about all the things a novel should do: tell a compelling story, create vivid characters and reveal them in all their particularity, illuminate the human condition in general, reveal ordinary experience with a vividness that enables us to see the familiar world anew, open fresh possibilities for language… you can easily spend a whole afternoon just listing the requirements, and you should.

Then you divide the list into three categories. You can use a new sheet of paper with three columns, or you can just mark the first sheet with three symbols, like maybe an asterisk and a pound sign and a smiley face.

  1. Category One is “Things I Can Do.”
  2. Category Two is “Things I Can Maybe Do Without.”
  3. Category Three is “Things I Need to Learn.”
- How to Write a Novel: The Short Version by Gabriel Roth, author of The Unknowns

Gabriel Roth’s workshop at The Center for Fiction, “The Novel,” begins on March 25.

“This hope was not unmixed with the glow of proud delight—the joyous maiden surprise that she was chosen by the man whom her admiration had chosen.”

So I think I’ve won that one.

“This hope was not unmixed with the glow of proud delight—the joyous maiden surprise that she was chosen by the man whom her admiration had chosen.”

So I think I’ve won that one.

(Source: thatweirdsmithgirl, via tomewing)

Gabriel Roth: The Novel

For several years I have been designing a novel-writing class in my head. This spring I will be teaching it at The Center for Fiction. Sign up and watch as my pedagogical ideas crash headlong into reality!

Emails we’ll probably regret sending

To whom it may concern at the East Preston Book Club:

Regarding the following post on

Happy New Year!! What a great start we had…a magnificent buffet, fun, glitz and glamour! This month we have two nominations… 1st out of the hat was…’The Unknowns’ by Gabriel Roth. HOWEVER, as this is a little inaccessible. We have a choice… 2nd out of the hat was…’Sweet Tooth’ by Ian McEwan. Available at WSCC libraries. Choose either OR both! See you there, it’ll be lovely to meet you!

Happy New Year to you too, and congratulations on your magnificent buffet. I am delighted to learn that The Unknowns has been nominated for your club, and further delighted to hear that it was picked first out of the hat.

I am sorry to hear that you found it “a little inaccessible.” Please know that this was not my intention in writing the book.

But I must take issue with your choice of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth to serve as a presumably more accessible substitute. There are plenty of reasons to spend one’s limited reading time on any book by the great Ian McEwan rather than my own poor effort, of course. But since accessibility is the issue of the day, I do feel the need to point out that Sweet Tooth (a) engages in a good deal of slippery metafictional gamesmanship, and (b) depends at a crucial point on the reader correctly understanding the tricky mathematical puzzle known as the Monty Hall problem. Whereas The Unknowns, although not blessed with McEwan’s Booker-winning prose style, doesn’t do either of those things.

Wishing you great success for February’s meeting,


Largehearted Boy: Book Notes - Gabriel Roth "The Unknowns"

“Bring me a box!” shouted the king.

A box was brought.

“Open the box,” the king commanded.

The box was opened. The king was silent.

“What’s the matter, sire?” asked the king’s chief advisor.

“I wanted there to be a frog in the box,” said the king.

“You’re not used to real ketchup,” she said. We were standing in the supermarket and she was trying to get me to taste her small-brand ketchup on a cracker. Who would eat ketchup on a cracker? “You’re used to ketchup that’s all sugar and salt.”

“That’s right,” I said. “I like ketchup that’s all sugar and salt. Sugar and salt taste good.”

“You think they do, because you’ve ruined your palate,” she said.

“So does my two-year-old,” I said. “Has she ruined her palate? As a one-year-old would she have preferred this watery sauce to proper thick Heinz ketchup?”

“No, you have,” she said. “She doesn’t decide what ketchup to use, does she?”

“Yes, she does,” I said. “We have a little blind taste test every week, with fish sticks and little dipping cups and four different brands of ketchup—two mass-market, two artisanal—because that’s how much of a shit we give about ketchup in my household. She always goes for the Heinz. Who doesn’t?”

“You’re being sarcastic,” she said.

“And you’re being sincere,” I said. “That’s the difference between our approaches to this conversation.”


Authors Gabriel Roth and Megan Abbott write each other letters (via email)


Picador asked authors Gabriel Roth and Megan Abbott to share an email exchange about their novels, The Unknowns and Dare Me, respectively. Prepare to be entertained.

Gabriel Roth
Gabriel Roth
Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott

Gabriel Roth

May 14, 2013, 10:54 AM


Greetings from Brooklyn! It’s nice of Picador to give us an opportunity to chat. Hopefully our British readers will be able to get the gist of our conversation, despite the language barrier. For instance, will they understand what I mean when I say that our first real-world conversation took place in an elevator? (Note to UK readers: it’s what you call a “lorry.”)

So here’s what I want to know. I know that your recent books have been “inspired by true events,” as they say in Hollywood. But unlike many of those “ripped from the headlines” books, they have this ripe, emotional intensity that comes from being filtered through some of the darker parts of your mind. What makes a news story take root in your unconscious, and what do you do to make it your own?


Megan Abbott

May 14, 2013, 2:54 PM

An elevator it was. And the first thing I said was, I believe, “I didn’t recognize you from Twitter.” Just as Edith Wharton said upon first meeting Henry James, I’m told.

What a great question. Maybe because my novels tend to reside in the fevered head of the narrator—and are in fact a lot about feeling—I require the cold, hard concrete of “the real” to start. It’s often just one detail that speaks to me in ways I can’t always understand. With Dare Me, it was a line in an article about a scandal erupting on a high school cheerleading squad, a young coach (and new mother) accused of taking her cheerleaders to a wild hotel party, trying to relive some barely-gone youth. A friend was quoted as saying, “She feels like a bomb went off inside her.” I started to imagine myself in the coach’s place. To have made this mistake—out of vanity, longing, loneliness—and have your whole life go off the rails. Once I had that, the novel started to take all kinds of turns. It became mine.

Speaking of real life, they say (not sure if I agree) all first novels are autobiographical. Does that hold true for your wonderful novel, The Unknowns? Is it a strange feeling to know that readers may wonder if its intelligent, misguided young hero is a version of you? 

(Do you hate me for asking that question? Especially since you did NOT ask me if I had been a cheerleader …)


Gabriel Roth

May 14, 2013, 8:31 PM

Yes, although at the time Henry James still had an egg for his avatar, which gave Ms. Wharton the opportunity for some good-natured fun at his expense (cf. the preface to the New York edition ofWings of the Dove).

The Unknowns definitely has that distinctive first-novel flavor—it’s about a lonely, articulate young man looking for love, for God’s sake—which naturally leads people to wonder to what extent and in what ways it’s autobiographical. In the narrowest sense the answer is “very little”: none of the events of the book, none of the scrapes and messes Eric Muller gets himself into, have occurred in my life, fortunately. (Although I also haven’t made millions of dollars from an Internet startup, so, swings and roundabouts, as the readers of no doubt say.)

But in another sense, as you know, every character is part of the author, and the more deeply you inhabit the character, the closer the connection. Addy Hanlon, the narrator of Dare Me, is surely some aspect of yourself, incarnated as a 16-year-old cheerleader. And although Eric is a gentile computer geek from suburban Colorado and I’m a Jewish American writer who grew up in north London, he embodies the anxious, self-conscious parts of my brain that I can keep under control, most of the time. 

I’ve written just this one novel, whereas you’ve done six (plus another in the works). What have you learned about writing that you wish you’d known when you started out? Save me years of struggle!


Megan Abbott

May 15, 2013, 8:45 AM

Well, Mr. Roth, let me tell you … (feeling distinctly like Bette Davis, leaning, gravely-voiced, over her martini), if I were to offer one pearl, it would be to do your best to keep as much of it unconscious as you can. The more your writing’s out there in the world, the more you talk about your writing, read other people’s reactions to your writing, the more cerebral (or, at worst, strategic) it can become. With so many voices in your head, most of all your own (and mine is very loud), it can be harder to access that murky, mossy center of your brain, the part that generates the most surprises when you’re writing. I try to keep as much of it as possible mysterious even to me. Because that’s the best part of writing, isn’t? Surprising yourself? And it means you surprise your readers.

I think there’s a connection here to your novel. In some ways, it’s a book about the (notoriously straightforward, uncomplicated) subject of love. But it’s also a book about the challenges posed when the cerebral meets the emotional. Eric’s hyper-intelligence can’t abide by the mysteries of intimacy. But I think you also show how the two are always connected. Even our rational minds can be hijacked by love. Do you see it that way?


Gabriel Roth

May 15, 2013, 2:06 PM

I do see it that way, kind of. The distinction between the rational and the emotional is a fundamental binary of our culture, as the structuralists would say, and as is the way with these things, the closer you look at it, the less sense it makes. None of us is really Mr. Spock, even for an instant; our careful calculations are informed by the same drives and desires as our wildest feelings. Eric is smart—he’s good at rational thought—but it’s a skill he uses to try to make a difficult emotional life a bit more tolerable. And as such it has its limitations. 

Thanks for the advice. It’s a shame we know each other a bit, because I feel like that has helped you come up with advice that’s applicable and potentially useful to my specific case, which is the most difficult kind of advice to take. I was hoping you were going to recommend a new piece of software or something. 

I think we’ve got time for one more round. The paperback of Dare Me is just coming out, and I know you’ve turned in a screenplay adaptation. What did you learn working on the script that you want to take with you to the next thing? And what are you dying to get away from for a while?


Megan Abbott

May 15, 2013, 8:10 PM

Alas, that was advice for myself most of all! Besides, if you just nail this Microsoft Word thing, I promise you will face no obstacles down the road. It’s a silver bullet.

Adapting Dare Me was quite a challenge, most of all returning to a book I’d already written. It’s like a surprise visit from an ex-boyfriend you thought you were done with. There can be no vanity. I had to take the book (not the ex-boyfriend) and burn it to ashes and and try to build something new with its sooty essence. 

What I’ll take away is a bit of screenwriting advice I read while working on it. Screenwriter-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) said that, with each scene, you should “come in late and get out early.” It sounds so easy, but it was so useful. Because you have so little space with a script, everything has to be doing ten things at once. You can’t waste a sentence, a gesture. It’s made me be more rigorous with myself. Everything matters.

What I’m dying to get away from? I’d like to say dangerous teenage girls, but I admit, I haven’t been able to yet. They stalk me like a pack of wild dogs!

So, a two-part final question for you, so you can punt the second if you’re not ready to talk about it. How will you celebrate on publication of The Unknowns? And what comes next?


Gabriel Roth

May 16, 2013, 3:12 PM

I’ll be in London for the publication of the Picador edition, which comes out three weeks before the U.S. version. So I’ll be seeing family, meeting some of the Picador folks, and doing a couple of events at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival

Then for the American one, Little, Brown (the book’s U.S. publisher; you already know that, obviously, since they’re your U.S. publisher too; look at me, parenthetically exploding the contrived illusion that this is a private exchange) is planning something for me to do on Twitter, which is great because it will give me an excuse to be on Twitter for an extended period, not that I’ve ever needed an excuse. And then there will be some kind of celebratory drinking event in the evening, to which you’ll receive an invitation soon. 

After that I’m doing various promotional events in a few different cities, which I hope will burn off some of the mania, and then I’m going on vacation with my wife and kid.

What comes next is another novel.

Good talking to you! I’m excited for a bunch of new readers to discover the sexy/creepy pleasures of Dare Me.

Thanks, Picador, for posting about (and publishing) such great Little, Brown authors!

That one imprint at @HachetteBooks that is filled with ridiculously good looking people


Reagan Arthur Books, obvs.

(via lifeinpublishing-deactivated201)

Steve Lieber: Remembering Joe Kubert.


The first drawing I ever hung up in my room was a copy I made of Joe Kubert’s cover for issue #1 of “Justice Inc.”

Looking at that cover now, it’s easy to see why 9 year old me was enthralled by it. It had a sense of danger that just wasn’t present in the other comics I was reading. Joe drew…