"I knew I needed to make it better, but how?"

An interview with debut novelist (and my dear friend) Nicola DeRobertis-Theye!

Welcome to So Relatable, a bi-weekly newsletter featuring conversations about the creative process, suggestions for nourishing yourself, and inspiring links.

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Today’s newsletter features a very special guest - my dear friend and debut novelist, Nicola DeRobertis-Theye! Nicola’s beautiful novel, The Vietri Project, came out this past Tuesday (buy it now!) and somehow, in the middle of virtual book parties and glowing reviews, she took the time to chat with me (and, by extension, all of you) about writing, publishing, and making your art your priority. Let’s dive in!

Hello Nicola! First of all, congratulations on The Vietri Project!

Thank you!!! I am so excited to be in my favorite newsletter!

Good, because I’m excited to interview one of my favorite writers! The Vietri Project is about a young woman who works at a bookstore in Berkeley, where she fills the increasingly bizarre book orders of a signor Vietri, in Rome. She ends up quitting her job, traveling to Italy, and searching not just for Vietri, but for her own family, history and legacy. How did you come with the idea for this book?

I spent four years working for a bookstore very much like the one described during and after college, and there were so many customers whose orders fascinated me! The other part of it was that I obtained Italian citizenship when I was twenty-five, and I really wanted to explore the legacy of Italian history that I was taking on in accepting this passport. 

You and I met as MFA students at UNCW nearly ten years ago (!!!). I remember workshopping “The Vietri Project” when it was a short story. When did you know it was meant to be a novel? 

Oh man, I can’t believe it has been 10 years! I remember workshopping the opening chapter, and the response being pretty uniformly like, this is nice but it’s the opening of a novel, not a short story. Which of course I did not want to hear because I was in the middle of another book, but a few years later, after I’d finished that one, I knew the time had come to figure out what happened next.

I was lucky enough to read an early version of your book, and I know it went through numerous drafts. Can you talk about the editing process? How many drafts did it take to get from an idea in your head to a book on my shelf? 

You were the second-ever reader! It went through many, many drafts. I had received, as part of a fellowship at the Center for Fiction, a freelance editor’s reading of a draft—that was a very early one. Then I did at least another two drafts on my own, then I gave it to you and another friend to read, then did another round or two of revisions based on that feedback. Then I queried agents with that. My agent Julie Barer did three (!) rounds of edits with me, and was the one to suggest I change the ending from the one you originally read. Then it went out to editors and sold, and I did two rounds with my editor. And then I had to do copyedits, and review the first and second passes! I was thoroughly sick of reading the book after all this, as you can imagine.

I can imagine all too well! As my newsletter readers know, I love routines, habits, and schedules. What is your writing routine like—especially as someone who also has a full time job? 

This is the part I always find most helpful in author interviews too! As you say I also have a 9-5 job, so this book was almost entirely written on weekend mornings. I love to sleep in, so I’d get up around 9 or 10 or 11, and go to my desk or a coffee shop and work for around two hours, not checking phone or email or any internet before then. I also wrote after work from time to time—when I had the Center for Fiction fellowship, in the writing space there, or sometimes in a coffee shop with tea or in a bar booth with a beer. Once I couldn’t write anymore, I’d usually try to do research, especially on the weekends in the early days of writing.

Do you use any programs or apps to help you organize and write your projects? (I use a combination of Scrivener, Google Docs, Word, Pacemaker, and a notes app.) 

I am pretty basic: I wrote the book in Microsoft Word. I also had a notebook where I tracked ideas, research, character maps etc., and I kept most research internet tabs saved in the ‘reading list’ in Safari. But I do love using the notes app on the iPhone for jotting down ideas that come up when one is out and about!

One thing we like to discuss in this newsletter are the challenges and struggles of the creative life. What was the biggest challenge in writing this book, and how did you overcome it? 

Oh gosh. You and I have talked about this, but honestly every part is hard! I found the editing of the early drafts, before I had readers, the most excruciating: I knew I needed to make it better, but how?

What is your favorite part of the writing process? What brings you the most pleasure or satisfaction? 

As you can see above, I find the editing really challenging. The parts that brought me the most unadulterated joy were the earliest days of writing, where it’s pure creation and you are not yet accountable to a larger system, when it feels like magic.

How funny! The beginning is the part I find most terrifying—it takes me so long to figure out if an idea is worth writing. Speaking of, what are you working on now? 

A novel set in my hometown of Oakland.

And finally, the most important question: what is the best snack you had this week?

Great question. I think I need to say the fresh, never-refrigerated mozzarella my husband brought home yesterday from Caputo’s, an Italian food store in our neighborhood. As you know, I am very passionate about cheese.

Thank you, Nicola, for sharing your process, your challenges, your inspiration, and your passion for excellent cheese. And congratulations, again, on The Vietri Project! I couldn’t be prouder. 🥰

Snack of the Week

In honor of Nicola’s book, which takes place in Rome, I wanted to bake something celebratory and settled on these Italian Lemon Cookies. They’re very simple, deliciously light and wonderfully bright. My favorite part is the beautiful little twist, which reminds me of a certain book. I ate about 17 of these cookies while attending Nicola’s virtual book launch, and my only regret was that I couldn’t share them. 🇮🇹

Relatable Reads

Have You Seen Enough to Finally Start Taking Anti-Asian Racism Seriously?, SELF. “It’s deeply personal work to shift your own thinking and awareness, but creating lasting change also means coming together to dismantle systemic white supremacy.” I always feel so helpless after tragedies, so this time I signed up for Bystander Intervention Training to help protect Asian and Asian American folks in particular. It’s not enough (nothing is) but I hope it’s something. 💔

58 Things to Do With the Rest of Quarantine That Aren't ‘Get Hot’, Vice. Y’all know I love a good to-do list!!! Personally, I’ve been upgrading my wardrobe (turns out you don’t need 17 pairs of sweatpants once you’re vaccinated), scheduling my first haircut in 8 months, and planning my August birthday party. 📝

How Crying on TikTok Sells Books, New York Times. “For publishers [BookTok] has been an unexpected jolt: an industry that depends on people getting lost in the printed word is getting dividends from a digital app built for fleeting attention spans.” I can’t decide if this article is charming or bewildering. Leaning toward charming. 😭

My Mother Risked It All on the Beanie Baby Market, Gen.When Redditors decided to meme stock GameStop, they were irrational heroes. When moms decided to meme stock Beanie Babies, they were irrational idiots.” I love pieces that reexamine and reframe moments from our not-so-distant history. 🐹

Tiny To-Do

It’s practically April. In North Carolina, the azaleas are beginning to bloom, the days are getting longer, and my social media feeds are full of vaccine selfies. This is less a tiny to-do and more a tentative hope: change is coming. Welcome it.

Coffee Club

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