A chat with Kemper Donovan

At Literary Orange in April, I was seated next to Kemper Donovan for lunch. He’s a fellow debut novelist. We got to talking about the craziness of publishing your first book and our angst about social media. I messaged him on Twitter that night because, well, social media happens to be the best way to connect with people, like it or not. He sent me a message back saying he was just telling his husband about meeting me and I said, “I was just telling my husband about meeting you, too!”

Of course, I bought his book, The Decent Proposal, right away. It’s always nerve-wracking to read a book by someone you want to like. What if you don’t like it? Thankfully, I really loved his book. The premise is awesome: a struggling Hollywood producer and an up-and-coming lawyer meet when they get a proposal from an anonymous benefactor–they’ll split a million dollars if they agree to spend at least 2 hours together every week for a year. It’s witty and sweet and easy to read in a couple days.

We have since progressed to abandoning Twitter and communicating via email. I bombarded him with some questions for this post and here is what he had to say.

When did you start writing? Has it always been in your blood?

I actually didn’t start writing until I was almost thirty, and I have to say it really wasn’t “in my blood” till that point. This touches on an issue I ran across quite frequently before publishing my novel, which is that 99 out of 100 writers will say they’ve been writing since childhood, and while I have no doubt that’s true, reading about those writers would give me this sinking feeling that I was fooling myself trying to be a writer, not having been obsessed with the craft since before I could remember…. (The only author I came across who said she hadn’t started writing till adulthood was Ann Brashares, the author of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. I remember this because she really was the only one! I took great comfort in Ann Brashares on many an otherwise hopeless day of writing….) As I said, I don’t doubt those writers; I’m sure they *were* obsessed with writing early on. And I have a whole theory as to why there are so many of them and so few Ann Brashareses (?!) of the world. Basically, all writers except for those rare geniuses among us (of which I certainly am not one) are terrible at the start. Just terrible. But it’s much easier being terrible as a child, when your whole life is ahead of you and no one is expecting you to be not terrible, and when you probably don’t even realize how terrible you truly are. And then you get into a routine of writing, and revising, etc., so that by the time you’re an adult, writing is a more organic process and you’re perhaps a tiny bit better than terrible. But if you don’t start writing till you’re an adult—fully cognizant of how quickly time slips by, unrelentingly hard on yourself from the get-go—it’s easy to get discouraged. You start writing and you tell yourself, “this is crap!” (because it *is* crap), and then you stop. There’s no established routine, no sense that things will get better eventually…. So I think that’s why most people who make it are the ones who’ve been writing since childhood—not because you have to have “wanted it” since childhood to be a real writer, but because the childhood writers have the tools/mindset at hand…. My conclusion to all this is to say: don’t give up, adult-beginner writers! Because it’s possible. Harder. But possible.

Addendum to the above (don’t worry, I’ll be more concise in my other answers!): if I was going to identify any sort of “litmus test” for what it takes to be a writer, I would say it’s a love of reading. Writing is all about words, after all, so if you aren’t much of a reader, I’m not sure how you spontaneously start creating meaningful words of your own…. And on that score, I can definitely say that reading has always been “in my blood.”

Do you have a writing routine or writing rules that help with productivity?

I try to wake up as early as I can (without that being counterproductive—I’ve definitely had those days where I’m so exhausted by 8am that I should’ve just slept an hour or two more, and would’ve been better off for it!). I find that my mind is much clearer in the morning; by nighttime I’ve got the news, the internet, everything that happened to me that day, cluttering my brain…. That said, I have a baby now, so I’ve had to take the time where I can get it—mainly in the afternoon, which isn’t my preferred time. But, you know, necessity is the mother of all invention, etc., etc. I probably get more done in less time, now that my day is more constrained. Irony!

What’s your least favorite interview question? I will not take offense if it’s one of mine.

Ha; it’s not! I think it might be some form of “is your book real?” It’s crazy to me how so many people seem hell-bent on proving that a fictional story is not in fact fiction. I think I’ve dealt with this a lot less than others, since my book features a fairly outlandish establishing concept (look at this seamless segue to your next question!), but it still comes up occasionally.

In your book, a struggling Hollywood producer and an up-and-coming lawyer meet when they get a proposal from an anonymous benefactor: They’ll split a million dollars if they agree to spend at least 2 hours together every week for a year. How did you get this fantastic idea?

I wish I had a great story about my “eureka!” moment when I came up with this concept, but in reality the idea emerged from the primordial ooze that was this book for so many years…. This novel was actually the first thing I (seriously) wrote, so it came about extremely slooooooowly. The character I started with was in fact the anonymous benefactor, who was not so anonymous in my earlier drafts! For years the novel started off with this person…. So it really was an organic process, which is strange for a “high-concept” idea like this one, but there you go.

Your book is like a love letter to Los Angeles in many ways. Did you grow up in L.A.? What are your favorite neighborhoods?

I did not! At some point in the book I mention how my male lead has the enthusiasm of a convert, and that is exactly how I would characterize my enthusiasm for L.A. I grew up on the East Coast and moved out to L.A. when I was 25. This was back in 2004 when people were still talking about what a “wasteland” L.A. was, how it had no “culture,” etc. A lot of that nonsense has died down now, but I was honestly shocked by how much I loved the city when I moved here. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never did.

I’m so glad that people have picked up on my affection for Los Angeles in the book, because I went to great pains to portray it…. It was important to me to showcase that affection, not only because it’s how I feel but because L.A. is so rarely depicted this way. It’s either a superficial entertainment bubble, or a crime-ridden world of shadow…. But really, it’s a city where millions of people live their varied lives.

As a debut novelist, I know the journey has some ups and downs. What advice would you give to new writers?

I would tell new writers to embrace the process of writing itself, because that’s all you can control. I think a lot of writers dream about getting published, and of course it is wonderful to be published, a true milestone, but getting published (and promoting your book) is another beast entirely, requiring you to both give up control and do all sorts of things you may not be comfortable doing (getting on social media was a big one for me, for instance). But the one thing that will always be yours is the writing process itself. This process has to be why you do it.

I know you’re a runner and you think that has helped you as a writer. I couldn’t agree more. How do you think running and writing relate to each other?

Well, they are both solitary activities…. At least, the way I write and run, I do them completely alone, and I think it’s that way for most people. You can have a writers’ group, or run on weekends with friends, but for the most part they are activities you have to do alone. And I find a lot of solace in that. In a way I think of writing and running as two extremes along a spectrum of solitary activity, where on the one end, you’re sitting and staring in front of a laptop focusing your mind on a specific task—all mental activity, no physical—and on the other you’re upright, in motion, pushing your body as hard as it will go while letting your mind wander—all physical activity, no mental. But the two extremes complement each other, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ll spend hours banging my head against a passage of writing, then go out for a run and “spontaneously” come up with a solution. This happens a lot—as if the running is an extension of the writing….

Sometimes I read a book and I think, “Hot damn, I’m never going to write like THAT.” What books have knocked your socks off?

Oh, there are too many to count…. (And that feeling is one of my favorite feelings to encounter as a reader.) I do remember reading a Maggie Shipstead novel—her second one, Astonish Me—when my agent was on submission with my novel and thinking, “Well this is hopeless. Why would anyone read my trash when they could read this?” And then the next day my agent called me to say she had interest! Clearly all Maggie Shipstead novels are good-luck charms.

Are you working on anything right now? (Note: This is my least favorite interview question)

Haha, I once made the analogy that asking an author—especially a debut author—if they’re working on another book is exactly as obnoxious as asking the new parent of an only child if/when they’re going to have another…. Can’t I just enjoy the one?! But I am working on a second novel now. Stand-alone, nothing to do with the first….

How has having a baby affected your writing life?

I already mentioned the biggest impact, which is forcing me to practice better time-management. Beyond that, it’s strange, but—and forgive me for getting philosophical in my answer to a fairly pragmatic question—having a baby is by no means as dramatic as I expected it to be. And I mean that in the best of ways. The baby arrives, your life shifts, and it could never be different from what it has become. I think the same phenomenon happens to many people when they fall in love. We’re conditioned to expect fireworks, drama, but sometimes the most important changes don’t have that because they’re important. Does that sound insane?

What are 3 random things people would be surprised to know about you?

1) I co-host a podcast called All About Agatha in which my co-host and I are rereading all of Agatha Christie’s 66 mystery novels, in (UK) publication order…. You can download it on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts!
2) I play piano, violin, and trombone. Though I haven’t played trombone in so long, I doubt I could make much of a recognizable sound from one now. The violin, on the other hand, I picked up just 2-3 years ago, so I’m still very much a beginner. The piano has been a lifelong love. Since becoming a writer I enjoy building skills on musical instruments even more than I did before because the time I spend on an instrument has a guaranteed payoff, whereas the time I spend writing each day definitely does not!
3) I am a retired lawyer, and have been since the ripe age of 25 when I graduated law school, took the (NY) bar, passed the bar, and then assumed “retired” status to avoid paying dues and whatnot, as I never practiced.


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