11/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

First Time Novelist Breaks All Rules with a Winner

How Far is the Ocean from Here by Amy Shearn has to be the weirdest,
funniest saddest road novel I've ever read. A single, confused
20-something, named Susannah Prue, agrees to surrogate for a pair of
cozy yuppies. As the due date nears, she panics and eventually finds
herself careening through the southwest in the company of a
9-year-old hermaphrodite and a sex-starved mentally retarded teenager.
The yups are in hot pursuit. Hey, they paid for that baby, they want it!

As Shearn deftly shifts back and forth through time, she used the
opportunity to delve into some pretty strange psychological territory.
But this isn't a thinky book - it's a page turner - which makes it
pretty unusual. Even more unusual, the first-time novelist had the
courage to chuck that sacrosanct
rule: write what you know and then she wound up getting published by
ultra-prestigious Random House after finding an agent through a cold
call. I sat down with her to find out how it happened.

CK: What gave you the courage to write what you didn't know?

AS: I think that my experience of world is very boring. I grew up in
a nice suburb of Chicago so I love imagining situations I've never
been in. When I first heard that women rent out their wombs, I
couldn't believe that it was real. The situation seemed so fraught,
complicated, imbalanced and I'd never read about it in fiction, so I was drawn to it.

CK: Do you think that we've gotten a handle on this idea of surrogacy yet?

AS: People don't know what to make of it. There was this fascinating
Newsweek article about how many military wives become surrogates. It
makes sense in a way -- their husbands are gone for long periods of
time, they could use the money, and many of them described feeling
this sense of duty and self-sacrifice. There was another article
about couples outsourcing surrogacy to India, and actually having
Indian woman (who they sometimes have almost no contact with) carrying
their babies. It's so weird that any of this is even possible. And
it's still so new that the whole thing is pretty unregulated, and
still illegal in much of Europe, which I also find really interesting.
I'd say no, we certainly have not gotten a handle on the idea yet it still seems kind of unlikely and inexplicable.

CK: Let's talk about your process. How do you work? Do you write outlines?

AH: Nooooo. I write a very messy first draft, just getting it all
down. As I write I tend to rewrite sentences pretty obsessively, and
do a lot of revising on the line-level as I go. Only once I have a
draft or most of a draft do I create some sort of outline and figure
out exactly what's happening. With this book it was pretty late in
the game that I figured out its themes and trajectory, and how, for
example, many of the characters are kind of weird doubles of each other, and how each is damaged in some way.

CK: You got an MFA from University of Minnesota. How much does a
writing program cost and can graduate schools teach people how to write?

AS: It's like visual art. You have to have basic desire and raw
talent or just that raw want-to-do-it -- you can't be taught those
things. But you do learn certain things that make you better - you
expand your vocabulary and knowledge, and hopefully you learn
something about discipline, buckling down and getting it done. I
really learned how to construct a novel by writing a couple failed attempts and then throwing them away.

They also teach you to be comfortable getting your work torn up in
front of all your friends. You start to talk about your work in a way
that makes you get over taking it personally. You stop being so
touchy and that is a hugely important lesson.

As for the cost, they really range just as undergraduate programs do.
I chose mine, in part, because they offer a tuition waiver and a
teaching stipend to every student. In other words, it's free. I
don't think I would have gone if it had meant taking out loans to do
it. It's not like you're going to suddenly make a lot of money (or any) once you have that MFA in hand.

CK: Those ego-shredding lessons are really important for beginners.
How can you get them if you can't afford grad school?

AH: You could have a similar experience by joining a good, rigorous
writers' group, or by taking a workshop or two.

CK: What books have taught you how to write?

AS: I always go back to Virginia Woolf. It sounds pretentious but
every one of her books makes me feel like I want to quit because I
could never be that good
- and inspires me to keep trying. I'm also always going back to
Nabokov for the same reasons. And then reading Ulysses was like
meeting the prom queen
realizing she really is actually awesome and totally deserves to be
prom queen. The contrarian in me wanted to find Joyce sadly overrated
but nope, it's actually amazing, and really fun to read. Same goes for Proust.

CK: Didn't people tell you it was crazy to try and become a novelist
in this day and age?

AS: My friends and family have always been really supportive of my
creative endeavors < I think I'm really lucky in that way. As for the
world at large, everyone's always saying, no one reads anymore, no one
publishes - but I didn't listen. I feel like there is always the
sky is falling mentality. I know I live in a book-nerdy hothouse here
in New York, but I still have the sense that there are more books by
more people more widely available than ever before. I try to feel
hopeful. It's a little too bad that it's not exactly a
self-sustaining career path for most of us, but that's okay. A day
job isn't going to kill anyone. I work as a freelance web editor for and teach writing classes, and I think it's good for a writer to have that outside stimulus and contact with the world.

CK: Why did you get an agent - to sell your book?

AS: At first, I just wanted an agent to read it. If my friends read
it and said it was awful I'd be devastated. But if an agent - a
stranger - didn't like it, I could just assume they didn't know what they were talking about.

CK: How did you find yours?

AS: Most authors acknowledge their agents. So I did some
reconnaissance work. When I read the gorgeous novel The Seas by
Samantha Hunt, it really felt like my sensibility, so I thought,
whoever liked this book might also like mine. I looked at her
acknowledgements and saw where she thanked her agent, PJ Mark. I kept
having the experience of reading a book I'd love and realized he
represented it: Ed Park's Personal Days, Amy Fusselman's 8, Pia Z.
Erhardt's Famous Fathers. So it seemed like a good match. I sent it to him and he accepted it.

Everybody says that this is exactly how you aren't supposed to do it.
You're supposed to send query letters to millions of agents. But I
was just really careful in who I queried, and got lucky!

CK: You seem to have two themes: breaking the rules and sticky
situations - so what's your next book about?

AS: Well, I really believe in that superstitious mojo about not
discussing current projects. But I can tell you that in this next
novel there is a big, huge, sticky situation that itself breaks all
sorts of rules. So while it feels really different, topically anyway,
from HFITOFH, perhaps it's not so different after all...