“Troubled.” That’s seventeen-year-old Genesis according to her small New Jersey town. She finds refuge and stability in her relationship with her boyfriend, Peter—until he abandons her at a Planned Parenthood clinic during their appointment to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The betrayal causes Gen to question everything.
As Gen pushes herself forward to find her new identity without Peter, she must also confront her most painful memories. Through the lens of an ongoing four act play within the novel, the fantasy of their undying love unravels line by line, scene by scene. Digging deeper into her past while exploring the underground theater world of New York City, she rediscovers a long forgotten dream. But it’s when Gen lets go of her history, the one she thinks she knows, that she’s finally able to embrace the complicated, chaotic true story of her life, and take center stage.
Aftercare Instructions, an electric, format-crushing debut, full of heart and hope, follows Gen on a big-hearted journey from dorm rooms to diners to underground theaters—and ultimately, right into readers' hearts.
Welcome to the Launch Pad, Bonnie. This is a really powerful book, on a difficult, sometimes taboo, subject. Can you tell us how it started?
The first spark was a vague idea that I wanted to write about abortion, but not have it focus on the journey to the choice. I also wanted to tell a story that didn’t attach any shame to this. Reflection, yes, but no judgement. Once that was floating around in my head, a complete vision of the opening scene came to me. One of those magic writing moments. I knew there was a girl named Genesis who would have an abortion, come out into the waiting room expecting to find her boyfriend to take her home, but find herself abandoned. After that, I knew it would have to get worse for her before it got better, and that was hard considering I jumped in at such a low moment. The rest took some exploration of Genesis’ past and her desires for the future.
Clearly it was a creative leap that paid off. What was it like when you found out you had sold the book? Did you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?
I feel very fortunate that I signed with my agent, Emily van Beek, just one month out from graduation. Emily is a very editorial agent, so it was like inheriting another advisor just out of the VCFA nest. I revised Aftercare Instructions with Emily for nearly two years. It was grueling, and there were definitely moments where I questioned if I could ever finish. One afternoon, I was walking through Times Square with my mom and her friend after seeing a Broadway matinee, and I got an email from Emily with her feedback. I stopped and read it right there in the middle of the mayhem—she didn’t think a new scene I wrote was working. My response was to start sobbing right there on the street, under the blinking marquees, surrounded by tourists with selfie sticks. Now, Times Square is breakdown inducing anyway, but this really was a very low moment for me.
But I pulled myself together, and went back at the manuscript shortly thereafter. When it was finally in shape to go out on sub, it sold in three days in a pre-empt to Flatiron Books / Macmillan. I did another couple rounds of revisions with my editors at Flatiron, but I had already done the soul crushing revision, and it was actually quite joyous taking it to the finish line.
I'd love to hear about your writing community. Are you in a critique group? Does a family member read your early drafts? Who do you turn to for creative support?
I am not in an official critique group, nor do I have a regular critique partner, but I do have a handful of people (most of whom I collected at VCFA) that I know I can send work to whenever I need to. One thing I did during the last round of editing of Aftercare Instructions was to put out an invitation to my friends (readers, not writers necessarily) to come over to my apartment and listen to me read the whole manuscript out loud. Two of them accepted. They came over to my house for two afternoons, and I provided lunch, snacks, tea, to keep them happy. I knew I was close to finishing, and I wanted to see which parts still made me squirm when I had to witness people actually absorbing my words. I planned to mark an X next to anything that made me feel self-conscious, or I knew I wanted to change later. I didn’t stop though. I just kept reading. I only asked their opinion about one scene at the end of the story, but for the most part, I just needed to see how it flowed. They were both engaged the whole time! And I swear I didn’t slip anything into the snacks! It really helped me to make sure everything was tight, and I know I will use this method again as part of my process.
Do you have a writing superpower?
I like to think that my writing superpower is GUTS. Is that a superpower? I love the Ernest Hemingway quote that says: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Well, my office is pretty much a mess of blood and guts at all times. When it’s too clean, that means I’m not writing much.
I think "guts" is a great superpower! And of course it took guts to go to VCFA in the first place. Who were your advisors at VCFA?
Coe Booth, Alan Cumyn, An Na and Martine Leavitt. A perfect example of one of those magical, trust-the-process things that happens at VCFA: the sequence of the advisors you work with seems to be fated. Too perfect. Each one of them changed me for the better.
How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
I live in Brooklyn and have a pretty expansive creative community here. My social life can be overwhelmingly active at times. I went to VCFA expecting to keep my head down, finally develop a regular discipline, and not make a single friend. (Insert scoffing laughter here). I had more friends than I could keep track of as it was. I signed up for yoga at the first residency and really planned not to talk to anyone. Well, this changed the first night when Varian Johnson, our GA, told us how important it was for us all to drink wine together in the “wine pit” and you don’t have to tell me to drink wine twice! The very first night we were all bonding and I was sharing so many personal stories! But I’m not one to tuck away when experience is happening. Life is for living. And it turned out there actually was lots of room in my life. Or maybe I grew? But what I really got out of VCFA was an amazing community. And this community has 100% affected my writing life and helped me get to where I am today. There is no question.
You are a member of the MAGIC Ifs (Melancholy Agents’ Guild Investigating Cruxes In Fiction), from the Winter of 2014. What was special about your VCFA graduating class?
The most special thing about The MAGIC Ifs is how close we were and how we’ve managed to stay so since graduating. We have a serious track record for supporting each other. Last year, at least a dozen people attended both Cynthia Surrisi’s launch in Asheville and Jenn Bishop’s launch in Cambridge. Then this year, fifteen of us went to Estelle Laure’s launch in Nashville, and I think about twelve or so IFs are coming to Brooklyn for mine. I love that about us! The book launch pilgrimage!
Thanks so much, Bonnie, for sharing some of the process for Aftercare Instructions. Congratulations on the book and have a great launch!
Bonnie Pipkin believes in prose, performances, puppet shows, and public displays of affection. Originally from California, Bonnie now lives in Brooklyn. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaches literature courses at Kean University, officiates weddings, and looks after a very cute cat. Aftercare Instructions is Bonnie’s first novel.
Aftercare Instructions is published by Flatiron/Macmillian, June 27, 2017. For more information on Bonnie Pipkin check her on Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/bonniepipkinauthor/ and Twitter: @bonnie_pipkin
Bonnie Pipkin: www.bonniepipkin.com