The Penmen Profile: Novelist Kris D’Agostino

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

Bestselling authors Nickolas Butler, Ann Leary and Jonathan Evison agree that novelist Kris D’Agostino’s second book, “The Antiques,” is a must read. Dealing with heavy topics like death and natural disaster, D’Agostino adds humor as a broken family comes together again. Published in early 2017 by Scribner, “The Antiques,” also garnered praise from The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Booklist and People.

Have you always written?
I think so? I mean, I can remember back to when I was maybe 10 and there were these toys called Barnyard Commandos – they were two armies of anthropomorphic sheep and pigs who battled one another on the farm. I collected all the characters and weapons and then I would use my father’s word processor to type up my own versions of different stories and scenarios for them. I wish I still had some of those actually. I bet they’d be pretty funny to look at now. In high school, I started attempting to write my own short stories. Lots of sci-fi related stuff and little bits of novels that I would begin and then quickly abandon. In college, I wrote a lot of “poetry,” which was really just a thinly veiled diary. It wasn’t until around junior year that I started getting serious about it. I knew I wanted to write novels, but I didn’t know how one went about doing that. It would definitely take me another five years until I attempted grad school and actually completed my first novel.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
After I’ve come up with the overarching plot or story idea I like to outline the whole scope of the novel in its own document. I’ll type or handwrite several pages, devoting a small paragraph to each scene or section of the book. For me, setting up an outline this way is great because not only does it help flesh out the plot, it also helps mitigate that dreadful feeling of sitting down to work and not knowing where to begin. I basically always know what scene/section I need to work on and go from there. In terms of the characters themselves, once I establish the rough parameters for them – who they are, what they’re looking for, what their motivations and interests and specifics are, a lot of the rest of their details come from just having them in my head all the time and eventually they begin to form themselves more concretely.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
Plot is always a challenge. Is the story moving forward at the correct pace? Am I doing a good job of both developing the characters and pushing the story in the right direction? How do I get my characters the various places I want to get them to? I think the only way to overcome that is to keep writing and to keep re-writing. Polishing and revising is a great way to smooth out wrinkles and make adjustments. Another good lesson to learn is getting to the point where you are okay with throwing away sections of stuff you have written. People tend to cling everything they write, holding it precious, but I think throwing away something – a page, 10 pages, 20 pages – of stuff you think is totally fine but just isn’t serving the story or “working” as well as it should – I think that is a fantastic place to get to as a writer.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
The road to publication for me has been, knock of wood, relatively boring and straightforward. Obviously it’s been something I’ve wanted for a long time and something I’ve worked hard to achieve, but in terms of the steps I took to get there, nothing too crazy was involved.

I decided to go back to school and get my MFA in 2005. I was living in New York City and wanted to stay, so I just applied to writing programs here. I was accepted at the New School and went. When I finished in 2008, I had completed a draft of my first novel, “The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac,” and I gave myself a year to try to find an agent with it. As luck would have it, I met an agent literally one month after getting my degree, in a bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where I was living at the time. He came walking in while I was there and we got to talking and he gave me his card and I sent him the manuscript and he loved it and that was that. He’s been my agent ever since. Together, we did a few rounds of edits and revisions to the novel and sent it out in the spring of 2009, got some interest and ended up selling it to Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

So really when it was all said and done, my road to publication was extremely “by the book” (no pun intended). I got a degree, wrote a novel, found an agent, sold the book. I had to work pretty hard to get all of those things to fall into place, but I knew I wanted to try to write a novel while I was in grad school and I knew I wanted to publish it, so it all made sense to just keep going and take each of those steps one at a time.

How do you market your work?
I promote and am active as much as I can be on social media, although, admittedly I’m not that great at it and don’t really enjoy it. Instagram is my favorite of all the social media outlets, because I feel like I get to post things that reflect more accurately me as a person and my interests (outside of writing) as opposed to just plugging the book itself on Facebook or Twitter or places like that. I’m lucky to have a big house like Scribner behind me (for my second novel, “The Antiques,” which just published in January of this year) and their marketing and publicity department is amazing and has gotten me reviewed and placed in lots of amazing publications.

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
That’s a tough one. Maybe just to not to be afraid of “going for it” sometimes. Like writing the scene you think you aren’t talented enough to write or the storyline that feels bigger or more complex than you think you can handle. I feel as though I was way more timid when I first started writing and am now more confident in my capabilities.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
This list could go on and on, so I’ll just talk about a few. In terms of style and prose, no one has influenced me more than Cormac McCarthy. I don’t know that there is a single author on the planet who writes more cleanly, accurately or precisely as he does. I learned a lot about grammar and punctuation from reading him and his ideas about sentence structure. Like, for example, his disdain for the semi-colon (I agree) and his refusal to use quotation marks. I’m basically obsessed with how stripped down and sparse his prose is. It’s perfect.

A more recent book that hit me really hard was Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life.” I’ve been reading and writing for so long that I’ve sort of accepted the fact that I don’t get as easily “lost” in a book as I once did. But “A Little Life” proved me wrong. It can still happen. I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten so emotionally invested in a set of characters before, or experienced such a fantastically orchestrated rollercoaster of a plotline. She nailed it. I was a wreck reading that book. Crying on the subway on my way to work, having to put it down because I just couldn’t take it anymore and then picking it up two seconds later because I had to keep going. And I’m still thinking about it, months later. Her writing style isn’t close to mine at all, but she knows how to plot and narrate a book like a master and I think there is a lot I can learn from just analyzing her structuring and plotting.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
That’s a tough one. I would pick “Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson, “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller and “The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty.” “The Crucible” is my favorite play of all time and in terms of dialogue, things don’t get much better. I love to just open my copy to some of my favorite sections and read them over and over. Daniel Day Lewis plays John Proctor in the film version from the 90s and he is jaw-droppingly good in the role. “Jesus’ Son” because it was one of the first books that dazzled me on a sentence-by-sentence level. Some of the prose in it is so brilliant that it’s almost disheartening. Like why bother to try to write anything because it will never be as good as Denis Johnson? But I like that feeling too, it keeps you motivated. And Eudora Welty is just the most badass short story writer of all time and you get style points for having her on your shelf.

Visit D’Agostino’s website to read reviews.