Joyce Engleson was Editor-in-Chief for E.P. Dutton and editor-at-large for Crown Publishing, among many prestigious titles. She was also a best-selling author before her death in 2010. She was a highly accomplished woman. This is what she had to say about First Year (to order, go to: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JYIV9D6). Free on Kindle Unlimited.
First things first: I want to offer you my congratulations. What an amusing story you’ve crafted here! I flew through these pages, cackling throughout. This is a deft, funny, snappy book. And in its own way, it’s a generous book as well: South Dakota, in the end, turns out to be not so bad a place after all. Oh, you enjoy making fun of it, and we certainly relish the sport, but at the end of the day there’s something to be said for the place, right?
The secret truth is, Brookings is where Stevie starts to flourish. This is your book’s chief achievement. Brookings looks awful at first, and Stevie believes she’s having a horrible time there. Things seem grim indeed. But at the same time, Stevie is changing. In L.A. she was wired, brittle, and hostile; she bristled with urban neuroses. But in Brookings? Our hero starts to change. Here we see another Stevie: she’s smart, funny, creative, independent, alive. Sure, she’s judgmental. Yes, she can’t stop with the derisive wisecracks—her gag reflex. But she’s also open (well, kind of), curious, and surprisingly resourceful. So while things seem to be getting worse and worse for Stevie in Brookings, they’re also improving all the time. Stevie may call herself a hopeless Angeleno, but it’s li’l old Brookings, South Dakota that brings out the best in her.
A wonderful paradox! It’s this paradox that gives your book a heart as well as a (cutting, incisive, sarcastic) mind. While the book is endlessly funny, it’s also pretty sly in undercutting our (and Stevie’s) expectations. Again, I want to commend the book’s generosity; my favorite example of this would have to be your treatment of old Marvin. Rob’s dad may look as austere and forbidding as all get-out, but what does he turn out to be? A kind, intelligent man, even a rather funny one. The scene in which Marvin takes Stevie out for a heart-to-heart drive is probably my favorite in the book. Without making a big deal out of it, you let taciturn old Marv shine in this scene. It’s very fine stuff: surprising and even (dare I say it) moving, in a quiet sort of way.
So the novel, like Stevie, may start out loud, abrasive, and maybe a little glib, but there sure is a hell of a lot more to it than that. I could single out any number of moments in the book to illustrate my point, but I’ll content myself with mentioning Stevie’s conversation with Myrtle in the country diner. This scene is just about perfectly tuned. It’s funny, of course, and very well observed (those giggling farmers are as real as real can be), but it’s also unpredictable—the scene takes a turn we weren’t expecting. What a vivid cameo for indomitable old Myrtle! And how much we like everybody, oafish farmers included, coming out of the scene.
The book really abounds in this kind of cameo. I especially like Brian, the no-neck football hero with what Jimmy Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story” would call “unthuthpected depthth.” Then there’s Joan, the poor little Goth girl. And how I just love the Berks, that brood of balding, square-cut, monosyllabic farm boys (of all ages). You’ve got a real eye for country people, Ms. Schnell! And what’s more (I’ll keep this between you and me), you clearly like country people. This little fact gives your novel a heart to match the wit.
Joyce Engleson, editor