A teacher I once had said that many people are talented writers but few have what he called "the talent of the room"—that is, the ability to sit for hours on end, alone, undisturbed, carefully placing word after word after word, always maintaining the faith that someone will want to read what you've written. It is the talent of the room that separates the would-be writers from the actual writers. It is the talent of the room that creates successful writers (if you define success as actually finishing a novel as opposed to just starting one every so often). The talent of the room—that is what matters.
But what if you have it, the talent of the room? What if you have the discipline to get up every morning and write for hours, just in the hope that one day you'll snag an agent out of it? What then? Writing is a solitary, lonely occupation, and it can be a grim and depressing one. Oh, and it rarely pays well.
"I talk about this with my students a lot. Being a writer isn't a job you just wander into because you majored in it," says Margaret Lazarus Dean, a professor in the University of Tennessee's English department.
Of all people, Dean would know. In fact, Dean knows doubly well how hard it is to be a writer because not only is she one, but she's also married to one. Both Dean and her husband Christopher Hebert (who's UT's next writer-in-residence and an adjunct professor) are what the publishing industry likes to call "emerging" writers—each have published one novel, and both are hard at work on their second books.
But when two people who live together engage in such self-absorbing labor as writing, how do they make it work? Could it be possible that the myth of the solitary writer is just that—a myth?
***We all spend a lot of time doubting ourselves … but we share each other's passions and can sympathize with each other.
It was the fall of 1999, and Hebert and Dean had just started the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Michigan. Dean had grown up in Boston, D.C., and Minneapolis/St. Paul before attending Wellesley College in the early 1990s. She had taken a couple of years off after college and worked in coffee shops and bookstores before deciding to get an M.F.A. Hebert, an Antioch College graduate from upstate New York, had spent a year working in St. Louis and writing. Both decided on Michigan because of its reputation and its funding, but they were surprised by what happened next.
As Hebert recalls, it was the second or third class of their fiction workshop, and the first time anyone had actually brought in a story to workshop. Both Dean and Hebert had volunteered to go that week, and each brought in a draft of a short story.
"I think we both had the experience that no one else knew what to make of our stuff," Hebert says. "But I really liked her story."
"He was the only one who kind of spoke up and said, ‘You're missing the point of what she's trying to do,'" Dean remembers. "And I hadn't really met him before that, and I thought, ‘Who's that intelligent man at the end of the table who likes my story?'"
Hebert says he felt there was a rift between so-called traditionalists and more experimental writers at Michigan, and both he and Dean discovered themselves to be in the experimental camp.
"We sort of found ourselves foisted together and very quickly became friends. We were constantly together," Hebert says. Within a few months, after Dean ended things with her then-boyfriend, the relationship became less platonic, and the pair has remained inseparable ever since.
Dean is a petite blonde with a winning smile, while Hebert is long and lanky with a shaved head. They laugh easily with each other while lounging on a modern sectional in their Bearden home. All their furniture is sleek and European, down to the tiny table and chairs for their son's art projects. (It could be a set out of Mad Men, except for the lack of wall-to-wall shag carpeting.)
Hebert pours a glass of wine for Dean, and then for himself—they have just put their 5-year-old son to bed after a dinner of ravioli and a bath—and now is a rare moment of calm. As they talk, they often finish each other's sentences; when I ask a question, it is answered by one on behalf of the other one. But the affection and easy intimacy is never cloying. It's just there, present, a fact as indubitable as the solid masses of each one's book.
"I'm very confident about your book," Dean says.
"And I'm very confident about yours," Hebert responds.
***Being a writer isn't a job you just wander into because you majored in it.
Hebert's first novel, The Boiling Season, was published by HarperCollins in March to praise from novelists Madison Smartt Bell, Charles Baxter, and Peter Ho Davies, among others. (Knoxville author and UT professor Michael Knight also blurbed the book—Knight is good friends with Hebert and Dean.)
But the critics have liked the novel, too. Booklist wrote, "Hebert conjures a vibrant atmosphere, as rich a character as any inhabitant, whether in the fetid stink of the slums or the cool, detached opulence of the most affluent homes, and each locale is made more striking by the close proximity of the other," while the Miami Herald said "Allegories about the morality of international development projects are rarely as subtle and lyrical as Christopher Hebert's debut novel."
The Boiling Season tells the tale of a manservant on an unspecified Caribbean island that works his way up the ranks until he becomes the manager of a posh resort hotel. But try as he might, he can't escape the nation's revolutionary chaos by building the perfect luxury estate, and eventually the gates cannot withstand the forces behind them, both literally and figuratively.
The island is very clearly meant to represent Haiti, but the protagonist, Alexandre, is as formal as an English butler. However, in Hebert's capable hands, Alexandre's stiffness becomes a weapon just as powerful as any gun—in a violent nation, everyone must have his own defenses to survive, Hebert seems to be saying, even if that defense is a perfectly starched suit and well manicured lawn.
Hebert admits he became fascinated with politics while at Antioch, which was known in the 1990s for its students taking extreme positions on things like date rape and sexual harassment. (One ostensibly was supposed to ask permission for hand-holding and kissing, for example.) He says he remained on the outside looking in, much like Alexandre, watching the activists take action.
That fascination has carried over to Hebert's current project, a reworking of an unpublished first novel about various characters in Detroit, including political activists, urban farmers, and the rich businesswoman who owns the estate in The Boiling Season, Madame Freeman.
"It's somewhat fragmented," Hebert says, describing the work-in-progress as much more experimental than The Boiling Season. And while he's aware of some of the similarities between the two books—"Detroit is in ruins the way the estate in Haiti was in ruins. I guess I like ruins as a backdrop," he laughs—Hebert is careful to disabuse the notion that he's yet another person writing ruin porn about Detroit. He and Dean lived in Ann Arbor from 1999 until moving to Knoxville in 2008 and spent a lot of time in Detroit. And anyway, it's not like the book is finished.
"The chapters are all these different people that come together in ways yet to be determined," Hebert says with a wry smile.
Dean may be supportive of Hebert's new publication, but that's because he's already been there for her. The Time It Takes to Fall, Dean's first novel, came out in 2007 from Simon & Schuster. It takes as its centerpiece the Challenger disaster of 1986 and explores how the fallout from that explosion affects one Florida family (in which the father, of course, works for NASA). The book is also an affecting coming-of-age story—and its first chapter was based off that short story Dean submitted in grad school, the one that got Hebert's attention.
"M.F.A. programs tend to be very story-centric," Dean says. "You feel a little ass-y saying, ‘I'm working on a novel.' But I was pretty committed by my second year—my thesis project was the first 150 pages of my book."
Of course, it took another few years to finish it, edit it, find an agent, and get it published—all while teaching at Michigan—but the end result garnered glowing reviews and scores of adoring e-mails from fans.
But the publicity has also had its negative side. One man has begun sending creepy e-mails, along with gifts and packages addressed to the couple's son, which is part of the reason why Dean and Hebert didn't want their son's name or picture to appear in this article.
"I'm not really afraid of [his] safety but it's made me think more about privacy. Because once it's out there, we can't take it back, in relation to him," Dean says. "It's one thing if he became obsessed with me, but if he became obsessed with [my son]—"
In this respect, at least, Dean and Hebert are quite different from the hot literary couple du jour, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, whose next-to-last book was a memoir entitled Bad Mother. The couple laugh when I ask if they could write back-to-back in the same room as Chabon and Waldman ostensibly do.
"That sounds like a horrible idea," Dean says.
Yet the intimacy in Dean and Hebert's relationship spills over into their writing life. Both of their books are dedicated to each other, and they both think of each other as the best editors a person could have.
So how do they juggle work and childcare while still maintaining a happy relationship, when writing takes up so much time and has to be done alone?
"In a lot of ways, it's made things a lot easier," Hebert says. "We all spend a lot of time doubting ourselves … but we share each other's passions and can sympathize with each other."
Hebert and Dean have set up strict writing schedules, in which they write every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights—"I probably never would have finished anything without that," Dean says.
"That's one of the hardest things about writing," Hebert adds. "There's a million other things you could be doing." Things like laundry, grading papers, or spending tie with their son, which is why Dean chooses mostly to work in Starbucks while Hebert writes in longhand to avoid the temptation of Internet distractions.
Dean's current book is a non-fiction work about the end of the space shuttle era, and it's required her to travel a lot, trying to catch the launches of all the final shuttles, leaving Hebert as a single dad for quite a bit of time.
"I admire the project, and I understand the need to write it, and I think it might be a lot harder if I didn't understand," Hebert says. "We both just enjoy being obsessed with things."
But this role—as dual parents and dual writers—is a new one, and there aren't many couples Hebert and Dean look to for inspiration as having done it successfully.
"Who did that [back in the day]? Joan Didion and her husband, I guess," Dean says. I point out that Didion considers herself a poor parent. Dean sighs and says she's part of a new generation.
"It gets complicated," Hebert says. "But we do have designated child time so we are not working all the time."
"And so [our son] knows when he can expect our full attention," Dean says.
They discuss parenting for a few minutes more, and the conversation returns to writing.
"It's weird there was this generation of men who could produce 20 books and have five children. I feel like that shit is over," Dean says.
"Because they weren't married to other writers," Hebert adds.
"No one gets to be Norman Mailer in this house," Dean laughs.