We love any opportunity to get to know our favorite authors better. So a lightning round of questions sounds like a good place to start. Here, we ask five quick questions (with one wildcard) about books, genres, reading preferences, writing style, and their secret to success.
We’re excited that author and management consultant Jillian Medoff took a moment to answer a few questions for us. Her latest novel, When We Were Bright and Beautiful, explores the dark side of families, money, and power. Like her previous hits, Hunger Point and This Could Hurt, her latest novel focuses on a fierce young woman. Jillian’s self-described “funny-sad female-driven novels” are the perfect books to binge during these last days of summer.
Here, Jillian shares how Toni Morrison changed her life, what books stay with her through the years, and how she fits writing in with her other career in management consulting.
1. What are your all-time favorite books?
Jillian Medoff: I’ve been a ravenous reader all my life, so this is a hard question. Honestly, it’s easier to choose my favorite child! But here are a few books that have stayed with me over the years:
- Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison: I read this novel in a fever dream. The writing is breathtaking, and I absorbed Morrison’s language into my pores. I’ll never forget this reading experience.
- Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson: I loved this novel so much that I applied to one MFA program — NYU — because Mona Simpson taught there. Talk about hubris! The odds of my getting in, much less studying with her, were stacked against me. But I got very, very lucky: I was admitted and took a workshop with her in my second year. In fact, she was my thesis advisor. Through Mona, I learned how to read critically and edit my own work. I ended up selling my thesis, a novel called Hunger Point, to HarperCollins. It was published in 1997 and made into a Lifetime movie in 2002.
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth: Say what you will about Philip Roth — and people are talking about Roth a lot these days in our post-#MeToo culture — but American Pastoral is a masterpiece.
- The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins: I read these novels with my daughters. We devoured them, and it was such a thrill to read them together. (See our list of books that are similar to The Hunger Games here.)
- Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (nonfiction): I love nonfiction that reads like a novel, and this one was beyond satisfying. So was The Smartest Guys in the Room, Liar’s Poker, She Said, and Bad Blood.
2. What’s your favorite genre to read?
Jillian Medoff: I read every genre from highbrow literary fiction to romcoms to pulpy thrillers. For me, it’s about finding a great story. If I had to choose, though, I’d say my favorite books are courtroom dramas that delve into family dynamics like Presumed Innocent or, more recently, Defending Jacob and The Appeal.
3. Which do you prefer: ebook or audiobook?
Jillian Medoff: For years, I would’ve said ebooks, but I recently started listening to audiobooks, and I’m slowly becoming a convert.
4. What’s your writing routine or process?
Jillian Medoff: I typically start with an image or a line of dialogue, and then go wherever it leads. With any new novel, the first few years are tedious because I write the way I read, which is to let the story unfold, rather than imposing a preconceived structure. Sometimes I may have an idea of how the novel will end, but I rarely, if ever, know how I’ll get there.
My process is repetitive and grueling. I’m sure there are ways to make it easier for myself, but I’ve always done it this way: I’ll write a few pages, realize key details, and then go back to the first page and start over. I’ll do this again and again — too many times to count, really — through the life of the book, which will take anywhere from four to seven years. I don’t write every day, and I write in the margins, which means I steal a few hours here and there from my job. I have Fridays off, and those are sacred book days, when I can immerse myself without interruption.
For me, work begets work, and the more pages I cobble together, the more I understand the characters and the more confident and inspired I feel. This, in turn, compels me to work more. It’s hard to get the cycle going, but once it gains momentum, I can really take off.
5. How much of your writing success is due to hard work, talent, or luck?
Jillian Medoff: I’ve been incredibly lucky. When I first started, I happened to be writing funny-sad female-driven novels at a time when the industry wanted to publish them, and the public wanted to read them. Plus, I focus on the dark side of families, which is a big draw. I also have gender, race, and socioeconomics on my side.
At the same time, I’m not a first-touch author; my early drafts are awful. I mean, truly un-readable. It takes years of refining, of writing and rewriting again and again and again (see my process above). So, any success I’ve had is a combination of good fortune, hard work, and not giving up. There are many, many writers who are far more talented than I am. But when I started, I was at the right place at the right time with the right material. Then as the years passed, I learned how to exploit my luck and make better choices, artistically and financially.
Wildcard: If you could have coffee/tea with anyone alive or dead, who would it be and why?
Jillian Medoff: I’d love to have coffee with Toni Morrison. When I was in grad school, I took a master class with her. The class was limited to 10 or 12 students, and for some reason, we were all youngish women. At one point, Morrison described what her experience was like, being a young single mother, working as an editor at Viking and embarking on her first novel. Like me, she stole time from her job to work on her book, and it was many years before she felt comfortable calling herself a writer. Lots of women, she told us, feel like they need permission to create art; they’re burdened by familial demands, or their financial situations are precarious. They don’t feel they can follow their passions. Then she went around the room and looked each one of us in the eye. “I give you permission,” she said. “All of you — go out there and do what you love.” Hearing this, I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, one I didn’t realize I was carrying. So, I’d love to buy Toni Morrison a cup of coffee and thank her for changing my life.