Bill Clegg’s story has been told before. A star literary agent, a two month crack binge, nine months of rehab, a relapse that almost made him lose it all again, recovery. He wrote two intensely honest memoirs—Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days—that embraced his lowest moments and has helped him stay sober. In the years since, Clegg has rebuilt his client list and slowly dabbled in writing fiction. It took seven years to write what eventually became Did You Ever Have a Family.
The debut novel was longlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. It elegantly reveals what happens to June after her family dies in a accident the day before her daughter’s wedding. But it’s about so much more, including life in a small town, social structure and what it means to be part of a family. Told through multiple perspectives from a wide variety of distinct voices, the novel has become one of the most lauded of the year.
After a busy October, which included a trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, Clegg returned to his agency in New York and spoke over the phone about his well publicized sobriety, the process of writing his fiction debut, and what it’s like to be an agent in today’s literary world.
Adam Vitcavage: I want to go back to your memoirs, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days, before diving into this book. I know people that have dealt with addiction and has been sober for quite awhile now. I feel your writing really helped me understand their struggle a little better. Did your openness about it all and writing about it help you through the process?
Congratulations to them. In terms of my sobriety and the writing of those books, they’re strangely separate in a way. I was able to write about it because I was sober. When I first started writing Portrait of an Addict, it was about the process of remembering. It really describes a two month bender where I was basically high on crack and drinking the entire time. There was an enormous amount of paranoia that set in. When I first got sober there were memories that would come and go. I kept on thinking that if I didn’t write it down I would forget the feelings. I couldn’t really distinguish what was paranoia and what was reality. In most cases it was paranoia, and in some cases I look at it and am bewildered of the state I was in when I was first coming out of the fog.
That was the early process of writing it. My recovery is an ongoing process. It’s organized and there are people involved as a piece of my recovery. They became part of my recovery in the same sense that people who read the books are a part of it. There isn’t a day that goes by where I’m contacted some way by someone who has read the books and they are either someone who is in recovery, or there are a lot of people like you whose family members are recovering.
That’s definitely part of my recovery. That connection of people who are working on their recovery or struggling to get sober. That becomes part of my recovery, but the writing itself was just the benefit of sobriety; not a function of sobriety.
You touched on it either in Ninety Days or in an interview about that book, about how being around addicts helped with recovery. Do you still feel that all of these years later?
I need to be in contact with other alcoholics or addicts who are in recovery. It’s like the oxygen of sobriety for me. Those are my people. I feel like the use of all of that is to share the story to help people get and stay sober. I don’t really know why it is, but that’s the secret sauce to recovery for me.
Thanks for talking about something so personal. I want to shift a little to how you’re known for being an agent, even after all of what you went though, who was able to work with so many terrific writers. What traits do you look for in works and authors you have worked with?
I look for a story that’s being told in a way I haven’t seen before. There needs to be some quality of newness either in the subject matter or the approach to the subject matter or the method of the writing. That’s kind of the thing that gets me most excited.
At this point I have a pretty big client list or people I’ve known for almost twenty years. It really takes a lot to justify bringing someone else into the fold. It needs to be something I haven’t seen before.
Did any of the traits of the authors you’ve worked with in the past two decades influence you in writing your fiction?
Not the style so much. I would say method maybe. There’s an author named David Huddle who wrote a novel called The Story of a Million Years which kind of begins with this memory of a middle aged woman who had an affair when she was fifteen years old with one of her father’s middle aged friends. They kept it a secret and the book moves through their lives over many years to trace the biography of that secret and the impact it had on so many lives. It moves in a kaleidoscopic sense. I had that book, which was published in the mid-1990s, in the back of my head while I was writing.
Then there was Jean Stein’s book Edie. It’s an oral history. The novel sort of moves between a close third person account of the three main characters, and then moves to monologues or testimonies from the people in the community.
That dynamic quality of people talking about the same incident from different angles intrigued me. Those two really, sort of on an unconscious level and sometimes a conscious level influenced, or rather gave me permission to write the book in the way that I did.
The biggest impact on my method was how I’ve seen writers back themselves into a corner or become exasperated with various dead ends and move beyond that to completion and artistic excitement. When I ran out of steam I would remember that it’s all a part of the process.
You’ve said that you didn’t intend to write a novel and portions were really just files at first. Was there ever a plan? Were they short stories or just things to keep you busy?
I first started when I was writing Portrait of an Addict. I turned my back on where I came from and who I was while I was in college and first in New York. When I was in my mid-thirties and sober, I found myself occupying that past. I hadn’t been back in that town in 25 years, and it really began to interest me.
None of that really had a place in Portrait, but I began writing about the town, and even kind of playing with some voices. I thought it was part of the project, but it really began to take on a life of its own at a certain point. All in all Did You Ever Have a Family took seven years.
Did you feel it was important to get such a wide variety of distinct voices into this story? Why use so many peripheral characters instead of just focusing on the family?
Well because all of those characters actually all do come into the families of the primary characters. The character who is a half Native American woman who cleans bedrooms in a hotel in Washington becomes one of the central characters of June’s family. It’s not a terribly vocal relationship and they’re not related by blood, but it shows that community is also family. People growing up in these towns really feel the impact of something happening to other people. There’s a connection to be made.
I felt like I needed to represent the truth that was happening in these types of towns and the people who I imagined living in them. I didn’t set out at all to have a diversity of characters. I actually first was just imagining who was there.
There was just these three words—“She will go”—that blurted out onto the screen. I didn’t know who she was or where she was going. So what I did was write a lot of these voices and tune into their voices like it was frequency on the radio. I listened to what they had to say about this woman who was leaving this town in a cloud of drama.
The method of the book was using these voices to find out more about this woman. It was fun to channel these people. I wrote hundreds of pages that never made it into the book and many characters that never made it into the book. I was just in this world in this small town of these people. That was the beginning of the process.
When the three primary characters—Lydia, June, Silas—I then wrote voices that illuminated them and their stories. It just became this strange cross-section of their world.
So after you had all of these voices, some in first person and some in third person, when did you decide on this non-linear format that had that kaleidoscope effect like you mentioned earlier?
Lydia was one of the voices that was the most useful, but also the most fraudulent. I would tune into her voice; I had hundreds of pages of her before I realized this woman doesn’t even speak. Yet, I had all of these pages of her monologues where she’s explaining everything. What I did was write her in the third person to be far more articulate about her than she could ever be of herself.
When I started writing her in the third person, it was clear I could write June in the same way. That was three years in and when I realized this is the book, or really this was a book.
What’s interesting is not necessarily the content, but how it was written. I thought it was so poignant how all of these pieces ended up connecting even when it didn’t seem like they would.
A lot of the themes in this seem to be about forgiveness, family or finding the truth in oneself. Was that always the goal?
Not initially. I think the theme that emerged for me through the writing was forgiveness. How it’s so necessary. We aim to have people in our lives—colleagues, spouses, children or friends—and we fail each other. We fuck up. We disappoint each other in very big ways and in very small ways. We don’t really get to have people in out lives who don’t need to forgive us or be forgiven. That was one of the things about the book that attracted me.
The other thing that initially attracted me to this story was the idea of that town and class. Class is something I’m super interested it, but I also recognize that the idea of class and the separation of them is just a way to put people in boxes. They’re a way to highlight the differences in people. Those differences are just a way to create distance.
For example, June and Lydia from a distance are two completely separate people. Actually, they both have children who can’t forgive them for mistakes they made. They both navigate regret very much alone. They live these silo’d lives alone. They aren’t connected to the community.
Throughout the book you have mixed race, different ages, and economic levels. Yet, the stuff of human existence, what it means to be a human being, shows there’s so much more that people have in common even if they seem completely different.
The glue of commonality is what really excited me as I was writing.
Your book was really exciting for me to read because of all of that. What are some books that you don’t have any stake in that you’re currently excited about?
I’m catching up on Jack Gilbert’s poems. He died not too long ago, and is an amazing poet. I’ve been reading a fair bit of his work. Current fiction? Eileen is a novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, which if you haven’t read I can’t recommend more passionately. She’s such an unusual writer and a brave writer who is writing in a key that I don’t think anybody else is.
I read as much as I can outside of my client list, but often times it isn’t as much as I wish I could.
Is there any work by a client that is coming up on the horizon that you just can’t help talk about with your friends?
I’m really excited about Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls, which is coming out in June . She is a young writer who has [had her short fiction] been published in The Paris Review. This is her first novel. It has kind of a spooky brilliance to it. It is an incredible exploration into how the decisions we make in youth can shape our whole lives. Her writing and the descriptions is just brilliant.
Speaking of works on the horizon, you’ve mentioned a new work that is sort of about a character on the decline somehow. Is that still the plan? Where are you on that?
Yeah. I’m working on something like that where one of the characters is somebody who is in decline. It sprawls out from there. It’s in a big, messy place, which is for me the most fun place. I don’t see how it will eventually end up. I’m incredibly interested in it though. It’s a lot of fun.
So are you focusing more on writing or being a literary agent right now?
My main focus is always being an agent. Period. That’s my primary identification. I have four employees, and we just signed a five year lease on the agency, which is only a year old. I’m a small business owner, and I don’t think there’s a minute that passes that is on my mind. I can’t believe I get paid to do what I do. I love being an agent. I stumbled into very early, and threw it away for a little bit because of drugs and alcohol. I’ll do everything in my power to keep doing it.
Adam Vitcavage is writer and an American Literature teacher who lives in a suburb of Phoenix. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine and the Millions. You can follow his daily antics on Twitter at @vitcavage. Find more of his thoughts at www.vitcavage.com.