The Beatrice Interview

Jennifer Belle

"I don't know what the question is, but whatever it is, it was hard for me."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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When Jennifer Belle broke up with a boyfriend several years back, she was particularly devastated by being forced to move out of their apartment in Manhattan's West Village. "I cried every day for two years missing that apartment so much," she recalls as we sit drinking coffee at Caffe Reggio, one of Belle's favorite spots--and, uncoincidentally, a regular hangout of Liv Kellerman, the young divorc ée protagonist of Belle's second novel, High Maintenance, who turns to real estate to support herself. Shortly after leaving her dream apartment, she was watching TV, "which I do pretty much all the time," she notes ironically, "and Cher was talking about how when she and Sonny were poor, they used to drive up to this house in the Hollywood Hills and park in front of it and look at it. And they'd say, 'One day, we'll live there,' and sure enough, it happened.' Likewise, she'd go stand on the street below her ex's apartment windows, look up, and know that she'd move back in eventually--and, because she insisted on keeping her name on the lease, when he finally left the place, she swooped back in. "Of course, I'd idolized the apartment in my mind, forgot about the chipping paint and all the other problems. But it's a nice place," she smiles, savoring the victory.

RH: You actually worked in real estate for a while, long before writing High Maintenance.

JB: Yes, but I took the job because I knew it would be great experience for a book. I knew that the characters would be great, and the locations would be fantastic. Plus I needed a job when I was writing Going Down that would lend itself to writing, and real estate was perfect. I could make my own schedule, and since Wednesday was my traditional writing day, I took Wednesday off every single week and wrote all day.

RH: What comes to you first when you write a novel: the voice of the character, the situation...?

JB: What comes first is the main character, then scenes. I don't start at the beginning, I write gag-like situations. The first scene I wrote for High Maintenance was when Liv is watching her wedding video over and over, then I wrote the scene where she asks a man on the street what time it is and he curses her out and tells her to buy a fucking watch. So I start with the character, plunge her into adventures, and then have faith that all the adventures will add up to something. As the writing progresses, the themes and the plot, the relationships between the characters, start to emerge.

For the book I've just started, though, I know more of the plot going in than I've ever known before, and it's kind of nervewracking. It's like I know too much, like I know my own destiny, and it's not really a pleasant feeling. Even though I'm very thankful that I know I'm going to write something else, it's still an odd sensation--like if a fortune teller told you you'd have three kids and die when you were ninety, you don't really want to know that.

RH: Since you don't usually plot things out in advance, do you go down a lot of dead ends?

JB: With Going Down there were almost none. My sections are usually about three to seven pages, and there were only maybe half a dozen that didn't go into the final draft. But with High Maintenance, I went on a couple long stretches...I wrote about a hundred pages of Liv being a waitress that got axed pretty much after I wrote them. And very early on, I had written about eighty pages of her falling in love with a gay guy named Edward. That's what I thought the book would be about, unrequited love; I had her in love with a gay man, a young man in love with his teacher...but that just went away.

RH: When you get a few scenes done, and you have a feel for where it's going, does it go a little faster for you?

JB: I don't manipulate it. I go to the computer with a very open heart and mind, and I try to tune in to what I'm feeling. If I'm feeling in love, I try to write a love scene; if I'm very angry, I try to write something angry. I don't tell myself to write the car chase scene because I think I need one. I just don't work that way. I wish I did, because I can't take another five fucking years to write this new book, and that's what happens when you explore in this way. It just takes too long. And it's not like a couple of scenes--it takes about fifty scenes, maybe a hundred scenes, and then I start to know more about what's going on, and then I put it together. But this time around I think my process will change, because I know more and I'm going to try to be more organized.

RH: Was it hard--

JB: Yes. I don't know what the question is, but whatever it is, it was hard for me. (laughs)

RH: OK... After the success of Going Down, did you face a lot of pressure when you sat down in front of the keyboard to write your next novel?

JB: Oh. It wasn't hard to sit down and work. It usually isn't, although right around now, with the book just coming out, it's very distracting. Today I really should have worked all day, but instead I had a long lunch with my writer friend, Arthur Nersesian, to complain about what a bad mood I'm in over the progress of everything, and then I took the subway to Brooklyn, something I've done maybe twice in my entire life, to sign books in Brooklyn Heights, and then I came here. So here's another day gone where I haven't done any writing.

After Going Down, I went back to writing with happy anticipation. I know so many writers who are talented and great and aren't published. I know it sounds callous when I say this--and when I say it to them--but nothing compares to the joy of writing the book, particularly the first book. Everything else is kind of downhill from there. The moment you find out that first book is being published, okay, that's thrilling, but after that, it's just one humilation after another.

You're really naked out there--and of course it's fiction, but people don't really get that. It's pretty raw and open, and the publishing business is horrendous...Anyway, what I hoped was that I could recreate the happiness I felt writing Going Down. But soon into High Maintenance, just seven pages into it, actually, I had a book deal. So now it wasn't just me alone in my sad little planet; now there were people who wanted to get their money's worth. I really believe in not censoring myself, in writing from a pure and honest place, but you do remember that there are people wanting to read the thing and sell it.

RH: Are you more comfortable dealing with the media circus this time around?

JB: I'm much less comofrtable. I don't know why. I constantly feel offended and insulted, even when people are nice to me. They say, "I love your book, it's so much better than the first one," and I feel insulted; they say, "Oh, I like High Maintenance, but I loved Going Down," and I feel insulted. I'm just very thin-skinned, and for some reason I see, with Going Down, people told me I wouldn't sell any copies, I wouldn't make any money, no movie deal, no advertising, no press, nothing. And I knew that was true, because I'd seen friends get their first books published that way.

But then I got everything. I was on TV, I was optioned by Madonna, I wrote the screenplay, I got press you wouldn't believe, got to quit my job... So they told me this book that would be huge, that it'd be a bestseller, I'd get a movie deal no problem. And I'm so stupid, I believe what anybody tells me, so I went into this thinking it would happen. I wasn't necessarily bigheaded about it, just confident, except that it didn't happen.

This is a fun interview. I could talk like this forever. I love talking about writing. What's unnerving is the other kind of interviews, like for Going Down, when because it was about a girl who becomes a hooker, everybody was asking me about what it's like to be a hooker. There are hookers they could talk to for that. I don't know why journalists try to make fiction writers experts on something they aren't. If I'm an expert on anything, it would be my characters, and I'm not even really an expert on them. I'm not even an expert on myself.

But now I'm supposed to be an expert on real estate, so I'm touring around the country, and people in Minneapolis are asking me for advice for people buying a home in "the Mini-Apple." How on earth am I supposed to know? So I just told them to make sure they had somebody like Rhoda for a neighbor.

RH: Plus you've got to deal with the media's reaction to the success of your first book.

JB: And that's a whole other thing, the famous sophomore backlash. I thought that if I said enough times before the book came out, "I know second books have a hard time," somehow I'd avoid having a hard time with it. But I am. It's not the worst time in the world, but...

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