The dusty files of a venerable dictionary publisher . . . a hidden cache of coded clues . . . a story written by a phantom author . . . an unsolved murder in a gritty urban park–all collide memorably in Emily Arsenault’s magnificent debut, at once a teasing literary puzzle, an ingenious suspense novel, and an exploration of definitions: of words, of who we are, and of the stories we choose to define us.
In the maze of cubicles at Samuelson Company, editors toil away in silence, studying the English language, poring over new expressions and freshly coined words–all in preparation for the next new edition of the Samuelson Dictionary. Among them is editorial assistant Billy Webb, just out of college, struggling to stay awake and appear competent. But there are a few distractions. His intriguing coworker Mona Minot may or may not be flirting with him. And he’s starting to sense something suspicious going on beneath this company’s academic facade.
Mona has just made a startling discovery: a trove of puzzling citations, all taken from the same book, The Broken Teaglass. Billy and Mona soon learn that no such book exists. And the quotations from it are far too long, twisting, and bizarre for any dictionary. They read like a confessional, coyly hinting at a hidden identity, a secret liaison, a crime. As Billy and
Charged with wit and intelligence, set against a sweetly cautious love story, The Broken Teaglass is a tale that will delight lovers of words, lovers of mysteries, and fans of smart, funny, brilliantly inventive fiction.
What was your creation process for The Broken Teaglass? Meaning, what was the original nugget that inspired the book? How did it develop/evolve from there?
The first glimmer of an idea came to me on a particularly long day at the office when I worked at Merriam-Webster in my early twenties. I was flipping through some old citations and daydreaming about finding a mysterious note or citation in the files. I didn’t consider writing it up as a story at the time. It really was just a passing notion. But years later (long after I’d left the company, and after I’d written another book—a YA novel that was never published), I started playing with the idea as a concept for a novel. The hard part was answering this question—why would anyone hide a secret in the citation files of a dictionary company? I found this question so difficult to answer that after a couple of months of brainstorming , I gave up. But then I started writing an unrelated story about a bizarre crime, and eventually it occurred to me to combine that story with the dictionary setting. I wrote the draft of the “story within the story” first, then wrote the present-day narrative around it.
When I first decided that I would attempt to write a mystery at a dictionary company, I was wary of the story being (or being perceived as) autobiographical, since I’d worked at a dictionary company myself. One easy way to separate my personal experiences from the plot and characters was to narrate from a perspective different from my own. The most obvious strategy that came to mind was to make the narrator a male. In addition to his gender, I gave him several other qualities that are basically the opposite of my own. This made it an interesting challenge—to attempt to authenticate his voice. Once Mona came into the picture, I was already pretty set on Billy being the narrator. I never considered making Mona the narrator.
Billy and Mona were always Billy and Mona. I wanted Billy to be a “regular Joe,” at least superficially. My husband and I often joke about our “strapping” future sons, “Bobby,” and “Billy,” who play Little League, love my homemade apple pies, etc. I think it was with that in mind, and somewhat in jest, that I named my character “Billy,” intending to change it at some point. But the better you get to know your character, the harder it becomes to change his/her name. Also, Billy is in a situation in which some of the people surrounding him haven’t really allowed him to fully grow up yet, so the boyish ring of “Billy” fit pretty well. As for Mona—her character is based loosely on an old friend, and I felt the name simply suited her personality.
I don’t think I ever could have predicted how many vastly different drafts and versions this story would take. If I knew ahead of time how much material I’d end up throwing out, I don’t know if I ever would have started. For every page that made its way into the final book, there are about three or four that didn’t.
The Broken Teaglass is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a suspenseful murder mystery. How did you balance these two elements in the novel?
My original intent was to write a mystery, but the coming-of-age elements crept in fairly naturally as a result of my own experiences in a similar setting. On a technical level, most of the mystery comes from the citations. The appearances and revelations of the citations are spaced and timed in a way that allows Billy and Mona’s emotions and relationship to take center stage in between.
My greatest strength as a writer is my passion for revision. My greatest weakness is staying disciplined during the early part of the draft stage. It takes me forever to get the first fifty or so pages down.
It took me about eight months to find an agent, but I wasn’t querying and submitting for that whole time. I stopped in the middle of the process to do a major revision of the manuscript. Then I started sending it out again. A few months later, after a particularly crushing rejection, I stopped querying completely and put the manuscript aside. I felt it was still fundamentally flawed and was pretty depressed about the whole thing. Soon after that, an agent (Laura Langlie)—who’d had the manuscript for a while—called out of the blue to offer representation. I agreed—flattered but still doubtful. But then—surprise! She had interest within a week of sending it out. Two publishers were interested and bid on it. It was a little shocking to go from the “It’s embarrassing and it belongs in a drawer” stage to having a book deal so quickly. But then, the timeline from book deal to publication was nearly two years, so I had a lot of time to get used to the idea that people would actually be reading my work. And my editor’s insights and suggestions really did make it into a much stronger, tighter book.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed by Kyria Abrahams
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
It’s difficult for me to choose a favorite character, plot point, or quote. I think my favorite thing about it is that it will potentially make people laugh. Until this book, my writing tended to have dark and depressing themes. It dawned on me, writing this book, that I don’t care to depress people. It’s a much more meaningful and satisfying challenge to make readers happy.
Well, it’s not exactly a “moment,” but I will confess that the first draft of The Broken Teaglass had a 25-page section in which Billy visits a nudist colony on a long weekend. The craziest things happen in rough drafts! It seemed like the right thing at the time—for the plot to take an unexpected turn away from a dictionary company into a nudist colony. The nudist colony scenes hadn’t been removed yet when I first sent out the manuscript in my earliest attempts to get an agent. In fact, my agent, Laura, was one of the few people who received that version. (She offered to represent me six months later, after she agreed to look at the revised manuscript.) She has never mentioned the nudist colony to me, which is kind of her.
My favorite word that I worked on (that is, helped to define/update) at Merriam-Webster is honky-tonk. I don’t have a favorite word in general, but I’m awfully fond of nebulous and dingbat.
About Emily Arsenault:
Emily Arsenault has worked as a lexicographer, an English teacher, a children’s librarian, and a Peace Corps volunteer. She wrote The Broken Teaglass to pass the long, quiet evenings in her mud brick house while living in rural South Africa. She now lives in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, with her husband. (from the book jacket)
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