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Tiffany Cates on her novel "M-Theory"
On the writing process, Townsend Literary Journal, and the "birth" of characters
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a new storyteller or artist from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with writer and editor Tiffany Cates about her writing process and her recent novel from Baobab Press, M-Theory.
You can also enter in a contest to win a copy of M-Theory in our second-ever “Usonian Raffle.” Fill out this Google Form by Wednesday, September 8, 2021 at 11:59 PM EDT for a chance to receive a free copy of the novel.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
A sprawling and ambitious literary mystery novel, M-Theory orbits around the story of Donovan James, a high school teacher who finds himself drawn to Emily, the titular “M”, a woman he meets on the train. In the aftermath of two horrific crimes, Detective Lesley Powell tries to figure out what happened between Donovan and Emily—and who might be guilty of murder.
THE USONIAN: Often I’ve been in the airport or on the subway and thought to myself, wow, this would be a good setting for a story. But you’ve gone one step further—you dedicated M-Theory to the El Train’s Brown Line and the Chicago Transit Authority. Tell us about your inspiration for the novel and transit’s role in it.
TIFFANY CATES: I lived in Chicago for five years and didn’t have a car. I lived at the end of the Brown Line. It took me 45 minutes to get anywhere. I was always going somewhere.
I spent a lot of time on the train and on buses. The people there—the people who work for the Transit Authority—were people who I saw every day.
I was thinking about this question and how funny it is that Lesley is actually the first character who was born for the story. And he didn’t belong. He wasn’t meant to be a main character. He was meant to have his own story. He was born from a deck of an apartment at the Fullerton stop.
TU: What do you mean by that, a character being “born”?
TC: For me, characters are born in an instant, kind of like newborn babies. They don’t know a lot, but I know them. So there was this balcony at Fullerton. The brick had changed color from where the rain falls down, and there was some Ivy, and there was this faded painting on some wood with something in French written on it, and some little herbs growing.
And Lesley was there—there wasn’t actually a person there, but he was there. I don’t want to [spoil] the book, but it was “after the accident.” He was there, actually with another character from the novel—the philosophy professor, actually. Those two were born together as best friends.
That’s how I got Lesley. I took down a few notes about him, and Brian, the philosophy professor. I was working on a different project at the time, so I put those notes away.
Then there was a man who would ride the 7:25 train. He always sat in a single seat. He was always reading The New Yorker. And sometimes I would see him with the same magazine for so long that I was convinced that he wasn’t actually ever reading it. He was just trying to read it to avoid having to interact with people. That character trait, I would say, feeds into Donovan.
Emily, [her origin] was very interesting. I was leaving the Pink line; I was standing on the platform, and it was very dark. And everyone was wearing these black coats. It was winter and there was terrible weather outside. And as I turned around, there was a woman way down on the platform, who had this robin-egg-blue coat on. And I was like, man, you are not going to miss her, out of all of these black and gray colors. That woman, whoever she might have been, became Emily.
TU: M-Theory is an intricate novel with a large cast, toggling between genres such as noir and romance, as well as different timelines. Did you have a very detailed outline? How did you tackle such a complicated narrative?
TC: Not very well. I wrote 87 pages straight, switching back and forth between characters. And at this point, it was only Donovan and Emily. And Emily was written in third-person-close. It was just going back and forth between the two of them. That was slightly maddening. And at page 87, I realized I couldn’t write Emily’s character in this way. That’s when Lesley came in. And so then I tried writing straight again, and I got to the end. But it was a mess. So I pulled in all of [Donovan’s sections] and [worked on] writing his entire story, and then I pulled all of Emily’s chapters and wrote hers.
Then I had these fragments from Lesley that had been intermixed throughout the novel. I decided that I would tack them on to the end of Donovan’s chapters. Right away, I had people telling me, Lesley needs his own chapters. And I was like, no, Lesley’s getting his own book, he’s not getting chapters in here, he’s not important for this story, which is just like, mind blowing to me at this point [as Lesley forms an important part of the novel].
I cut up the manuscript, literally. I would print it, and then I would tape it to my office walls and use a highlighter and go through and mark like, this is Donovan, this is where this part ends, and make notes like, here is what is happening. I needed a big visual, and then I would see where things weren’t lining up on the page like I wanted them to, because you can’t see that on your computer.
It’s just different when it’s hard copied in your hands or on your walls and all over your floor. It was not the most efficient way to have gone about it, but I feel like if anyone were to describe a scene in the book, I can go over to my shelf, grab the book and open the [exact] page. I know the book really well. I spent a lot of time in its pages, working out those timelines, and then moved the timelines around multiple times trying to make them work. Which meant that often, Emily’s chapters were the ones that got cut altogether. I would have to write a different chapter from a different point of view.
TU: M-Theory’s protagonist Donovan James exhibits problematic and criminal behaviors—over the course of the novel, he becomes a stalker. The book’s titular “M” is no saint, either. What drew you to writing these complicated and flawed characters?
TC: Well, people are complex and flawed. I really have no interest in writing a character that isn’t. I did have a hard time writing Donovan. One of the hardest things was just like, I wanted to save him, as the author—I didn’t want him to be a creep. I didn’t want him to be a lot of things. But the characters do what they’re what they’re going to do. And you let them do what they want. Donovan was hard.
I actually had a mentor, who he just kept telling me, you’ve got to make him louder. Letting Donovan’s internal monologue come onto the page really helped me let go of trying to control him, because we all have that little voice in our head. And I think taking that little voice into consideration was incredibly helpful.
TU: What have been some formative moments in your development as a writer?
TC: Definitely my MFA program. My first mentor had set me up with a writing routine four hours a day, six days a week. He was like, I want the first draft of your book done by January. And I had no idea that that [expectation] was unreasonable.
I did it; I got it done. And it wasn’t until our next residency that I found out other people only wanted 30 pages by January. But [the challenge] was exactly what I needed. Because it showed me that if I put in that time, if I sat in the chair, every day, and just did it, that it would get done. Like, it’s possible to get it done. That was huge. That pretty much changed my entire life.
TU: Have you read anything that you have enjoyed lately?
TC: So that’s a complicated question simply because I don’t read fiction while I’m working on a project. I get really freaked out about the possibility of “voice bleeds,” that’s what I call them. Because if you’re reading a book that has a really strong voice, it can be dangerous.
However, I read a lot of books between my first and second drafts. I recently read Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. It’s short and the words appear on the page like poetry. I also read the new George Saunders. Right now, while I am writing, I still read. But I don’t read fiction. I’m currently reading A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib. And I just find myself crying. He makes you feel like you’re his best friend.
TU: Tell me about Townsend, the literary journal that you have started. What do you publish and what are you looking for?
TC: Townsend publishes excerpts of long-form fiction. I was in graduate school. We were supposed to research literary journals and submit. But everything that I could find needed work to be self-contained. It all needed to be self-contained, and I don’t write self-contained things. That’s just not my strong point. I wish it was, but it’s not.
And then I went to AWP [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] in Orlando. And I was at the book fair. I was going around talking to people. No one was publishing long-form fiction, excerpts that didn’t have to be self-contained. I wanted other people to be able to have the experience to be published somewhere, if they weren’t writing what the thousands of other journals seemed to know.
I was staying at a really sketchy Airbnb. And I didn’t know there was a wrong part of Orlando, and there’s definitely a wrong part, there was a bullet hole [in my room]. It had gone through one wall and was lodged in [another] wall.
TU: That wasn’t in the Airbnb review?
TC: No! Anyway, Aimee Harrison was working for a press at the time. She came home from an event and she had tons of wine left over. And we hadn’t met, but we were both staying in this house. We decided to get drunk and talk shop, basically. I told her that I wanted to start a journal. And I was like, Well, who am I to start a journal? And she was like, Who is anyone to start a journal? Start the journal!
And then we had a few meetings over Google Hangouts. We set the whole thing in motion. It was great. It was a fun and exciting thing. It costs a lot of money to publish a journal. That’s a problem. It’s also a lot of work. It sounds romantic. Kind of like farming. Farming, to me, sounds incredibly romantic. But that’s because you don’t know how much work it is.
TU: Do you have any advice for young writers starting out?
TC: Writing is hard. That’s just reality. It’s lonely. Maddening. But if you want to write, you have to do it. If you want to write, you have to be writing. And even when I’m not writing, like if I’m not working on a project, I’ll send a lot of emails, I’ll send some really long extravagant emails to people and I’ll send lots of postcards.
So I’m still writing. It’s a different kind of writing, but I’m still doing something. And occasionally I’ll write an essay. And someday I’m going to be done. And they’re going to find this entire collection of essays about all sorts of random things, and maybe someone likes them or maybe they would just disappear, but I’m writing them still.
Everyone has to find the thing that works for them. But you’re not going to find it, if you’re not trying.
Tiffany Cates spent five years navigating Chicago's transit and weather systems before moving to Oregon and earning her MFA in Creative Writing from Oregon State University. Strongly influenced by her degrees in philosophy and psychology, Cates enjoys writing around themes of personhood, the distance between self and other, and matters of free will. Author of novels Juxtaposed, and M-THEORY (Baobab 2021), Cates also runs writing workshops and is the founding editor of Townsend, a literary journal devoted to long-form fiction writers.