Saturday, July 20, 2024

Jane Roper (via the author’s website)

Jane Roper is busy. Previously the producer and host of “The Zeitgeist” podcast on the writers’ site A Mighty Blaze, Roper works as a copywriter, writes the “Jane’s Calamity” newsletter on Substack and has published three books. Hectic? “I like it that way,” she says. This love for chaos translates into Roper’s newest novel, “The Society of Shame” – the story of a woman who comes home to find her house on fire, her husband in his underpants and his mistress passed out nearby. It’s as funny as it is ridiculous. Roper brings “The Society of Shame” to a book launch at Porter Square Books on Thursday. We talked with her over Zoom; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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What was your greatest challenge during the writing process?

Keeping all of the balls in the air, as is the case with writing any novel. One of my professors once said that a big part of writing a novel is just information management: You’re trying to keep so many details straight in your mind and figure out “Well, how is this thing that happened on page 32 going to affect how this other thing happens on page 132?” Keeping all of that organized in my mind and in my notes can be challenging, especially this novel where a lot of little subplots and side scandals are constantly happening.

What was the best piece of advice you received?

The author E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I love that because it makes you realize that even if you don’t really know what you’re doing, and you’re flailing around, all you have to do is go that next little distance, and that helps me keep things in perspective. If I’m starting to panic, thinking, “Oh my god, I have to write a 300-page book,” I’ll stop myself, and realize, “No, I just have to write these next few pages.”

What advice would you give other parents who write?

Take time wherever you can steal it. Even if you’re writing in 15-minute increments here and there, whenever you can sneak it in, don’t feel like, “Well, because I can’t write for three hours a day, I might as well not write it all.” You just have to learn how to do it when you can, but at the same time, go easy on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for the fact that you can’t be as productive as you like. Your kids will get older and give you more space and time. Remember that in the end, it’s not a race.

Does your family read your work?

They do. I’m trying to get my kids to read “The Society of Shame.” One of them started it and then was like, “Yeah, I need to switch gears and focus on some other books for school.” My husband does read my works in progress and gives me great feedback, so that makes up for it. And my mom and my in-laws are reading the book right now. Hopefully they like it, we’ll find out.

How was writing a novel different from writing your memoir, “Double Time”?

I actually started out writing fiction. Yet while I did have the tools for fiction, my last book was a memoir. I wrote about my first three years as a mom of twins and some mental health struggles I had during that time, and I found it a lot easier than writing a novel. I didn’t have to make as many decisions, I just had to deal with reality. Whereas with fiction, you have to make so many more choices about what’s going to happen and who your characters are going to be. Still, a lot of the fundamental tools are the same: creating good dialogue, creating good descriptions. You even create characters in a way in nonfiction – even though you’re talking about real people, you have to make them come to life for readers. That aspect is the same whether you’re writing about real people or made-up people.

Were there any ideas or plotlines you left out of the final version of “The Society of Shame”?

I wrote it very fast – much faster than I’ve written other things, so of course there were false turns along the way. At one point, I started to think about Kathleen, the main character, having a little romantic dalliance with one of the other characters, a little affair of her own, but I ended up not doing that because I felt like it muddied the waters. So she doesn’t have any revenge sex.

What’s the key to making a book funny?

There are a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s just having side characters who are quirky or sometimes it’s coming up with outrageous scenarios. With this book, I tried to take reality and make it just a tiny bit crazier, especially where social media and the Internet are concerned. Just turning up the volume on the crazy takes it into a funnier space. I also tried to give the book heart. When fiction is all humor with no heart to it, it’s a little harder to feel invested emotionally.

Is there a very popular book that you just never connected with?

There are these books by Elena Ferrante – “My Brilliant Friend” was one of them. She had a trilogy and a few years ago, everyone just thought it was the greatest thing. And I was sort of like, “Oh, I don’t get it.” It didn’t speak to me. I’ve secretly found other writers who feel the same way. We’ll have covert conversations like, “I didn’t like it, did you like it?” “No, I didn’t like it either.”

You’ve written in your newsletter about ChatGPT. Will artificial intelligence take over writing? Should we be scared?

As for real creative writing, I don’t worry. What I do worry more about is for teachers who are having students use it for research or essays about common things. That’s where there needs to be some solutions; I’ve no idea what they are. For fiction though, it’s true that AI is capable of creating a novel – I just don’t think it’s going to be very good.

And what have you learned throughout writing “The Society of Shame”?

To let go and have fun. The other fiction I’ve written was much more serious and sincere. Of course, you have to learn how not to overdo it and have too many jokes in a row. My editor was good at being like, “All right, let’s cut this one. You already made these two jokes. Let’s not make another one.” Overall, it was a process of learning to lighten up.

  • Jane Roper reads from “The Society of Shame” at 7 p.m. Thursday at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Porter Square, in conversation with Sara Shukla, editor at WBUR’s “Cognoscenti.” Free. Information is here.