Novelist Janice Erlbaum on publishing and writing her new book I, LIAR

Janice Erlbaum is the author of two memoirs, GIRLBOMB: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, and HAVE YOU FOUND HER. Her new novel, I, LIAR, is about a young woman who’s so desperate for love and attention, she’ll lie, manipulate, and even make herself sick in order to get it.

How did you get the idea for the novel?

In Spring 2014, I was working on another memoir, this one about the death of my mentally ill mother, and it was excruciating.

I needed to take a break from it, but I didn’t have another project in mind.   I'd been thinking about writing from the perspective of a liar for a while. My second memoir, HAVE YOU FOUND HER, was about being lied to and scammed by a young woman with Munchausen's syndrome, which is a compulsion to fake or cause illness to win attention. After writing the book, I thought, "You know, I bet HER side of the story was way more interesting than mine." I mean, what’s it like to fake AIDS in a children’s hospital? How do you live a lie like that? So that had been in my head for a number of years already. One night in late May, I came across a news story about a “mommy blogger” who'd poisoned her son over many months so she could get attention and sympathy – classic Munchausen's-by-proxy. I found her so interesting (and infuriating, and disgusting, and yet incredibly compelling), and I felt this immediate anxiety – if I didn't write a book about someone like her right away, some other writer was going to get to it first.

That's the night I started a new document, and this project was born.

What was it like to write fiction after writing two memoirs?

Writing memoir is painful. People talk about how healing and cathartic it is to write a memoir, and it is healing and cathartic, but first it’s awful. I teach Memoir Writing and rarely does a class go by without someone shedding tears.

In a memoir, you’re supposed to be addressing crucial experiences in your life, and that can be grueling.

Writing fiction was such a relief. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I usually have to force myself to write, but with this book, I couldn’t wait to sit down at my laptop. It was so freeing, not having to follow an outline, and not having to worry about writing about real people, which is a major downside of memoir. I loved being able to indulge my imagination. I didn’t know what my character was going to do from one day to the next, and it was great.

But, strangely, the book wound up being way more autobiographical than I’d intended it to be. Most of the events and people in the book were invented, but a few of the plot points were taken directly from my own life. There’s an autobiographical scene where the narrator and her best friend run away from their grade school and wind up walking down the New Jersey Turnpike before being picked up by the police, which is a story from my own life, one I’d always wanted to write.

And I thought the relationship I’d written between the narrator and her mother was “made up,” because the events were fictitious. But after I finished the book and took some time away from it, I was able to see how closely I’d modeled her mother on my own mother.

There were a few instances like that, when it wasn’t the narrator speaking anymore, it was me. It wound up being a very personal book.

What was it like going from a major publisher to a smaller, newer publisher?

Publishing the two memoirs with Random House was wonderful. I felt 1000 percent legit every time I said the words “Random House.” As a small author at a big house, I could have gotten shafted, but I lucked into the best possible editorial hands with Bruce Tracy. I got a Times review and a Vanity Fair party and a brief stint on the front table at Barnes & Noble. All great.

Then Bruce left, and I was thrown up against a bunch of women in their fifties who thought my work was too angry, and my characters not likeable enough, and could I make the memoir about my (schizophrenic, animal hoarding) mother a little bit…lighter?

Meanwhile, Thought Catalog Books is run by young people, for young people, and that’s the audience I want to reach. That’s who my characters are. My (young) editor, Kaitlyn Wylde, was so astute and on point. All of her suggestions made the book better. Because Thought Catalog Books is relatively new and primarily digital, their books don’t get Times reviews or front table placement. Fortunately, most of my audience doesn’t read the Times or shop at bookstores.

The biggest difference between the two houses comes down to time and money. Thought Catalog took this book from manuscript to market in three months, as opposed to the eighteen months a major publisher would take. They also give their authors 40 percent of the price of the book – four times what a major publisher gives you. They don’t have 150 years of history, or a multimillion dollar sales and publicity team behind them, but they do have a website with insane traffic and a loyal following. The book’s selling very nicely. I’m very happy.

What are you working on now?

I’ve gone back to the memoir about my mom – the working title is HOW I LET HER LIVE LIKE THAT. It’s still gruesome, but I think it’s important that I finish it. Unless I get sick of writing it again, and wind up writing another novel instead, which is what I’m secretly hoping will happen.

In the meantime, I take notes in my journal, looking for inspiration. Lately I’ve been paying particular attention to the people around me whose stories don’t tend to get written. I was floored when I read Atticus Lish’s PREPARATION FOR THE NEXT LIFE, a novel about an illegal immigrant and a vet of the war in Iraq, set in the sweatshops and flophouses of New York City – it was so exciting to read about the lives of people who are usually invisible in literature. I feel like I’ve read enough novels about editors and writers and office assistants for a while. I want to hear from some custodians and parking garage attendants for a change.