Besotted: Melissa Duclos Chats About Her Latest Novel

Besotted begins with an ending. Sasha is alone and preparing to leave her home of four years after being betrayed and abandoned by her girlfriend Liz. Before she can say goodbye to Shanghai, though, she has to solve the mystery of why Liz left her. 

Practice pitching: tell us what your new book is about in 50 words or less.

Besotted is the ballad of Sasha and Liz: two American women living in Shanghai who fall in love and treat each other terribly. After Liz leaves, Sasha is desperate to understand why. 

Where did your idea for this book come from?

The idea for the novel started with Shanghai—a city that felt as alive as any character I’d ever read. 

My first human character, Liz, was a young American woman, new to city, overwhelmed and searching for a place to belong. The first draft of Besotted was a present tense travelogue: Liz narrating six months of meandering around Shanghai. I had to give her something to do so I made her fall in love with a woman named Sasha, a character I based on my emotionally manipulative college boyfriend.

It took me nine years to realize that the story wasn’t Liz’s, it was Sasha’s. She’s the narrator of the novel now, looking back on her failed relationship, trying to figure out why Liz left. 

If you were the right gender could you have a romantic relationship with your protagonist? Why or why not? Would it be a good relationship?

I could see myself being drawn into a relationship with Sasha. She’s a charismatic chameleon who notices the details about people, who makes everyone feel special. But she’s too dishonest—to herself and to other people—for a relationship between us to work.  

Everyone needs an outlet to help them recharge. What hobbies do you have outside of writing?

I like reading and watching movies. But if I really want to relax, I need to give my brain something to do that isn’t absorbing or analyzing narrative. I like yoga, hiking with my kids, playing board games, dancing (mainly just by myself around my house), organizing closets. Lately I’ve been putting a lot of energy toward redecorating my house. 

What was your journey to publication like? What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome?

I started Besotted in 2004. It was published in 2019. When people who aren’t writers hear this I get a lot of impressed eyebrows and compliments on my dedication. From writers—especially debut novelists—I get a lot of nodding heads and murmurs of “me too.”  

When I started this book, I had absolutely no idea how to write a novel. It took me maybe 10 years to figure that out. The early drafts book were so embarrassingly bad: pretty sentences, but no plot or character development. Then I figured out the story I wanted to tell. I turned it in for my MFA thesis. My readers’ main feedback was a suggestion that I “tell the same story, but with different words.” I was six months pregnant at the time. They’d given me good advice and I followed it, but it took a while. 

Once I finally had a book with both a plot and readable sentences, I went through the same submission process most people who publish a debut have gone through. I got rejections from 135 literary agents, emailed by me in batches. At first, they all disliked the same things, and so I gathered their feedback and revised, submitted to the next batch. Eventually, they all started disliking different things. I had nothing left to revise, so I put the book down and accepted it would never be published.

Two years later my friend Kim pressured me to submit it to a small press. Though I read small press books, I hadn’t submitted my own novel to any. I lacked confidence in Besotted, and was overwhelmed by the prospect of researching small presses. 

But Kim was persistent. I submitted to two small presses whose editors I thought might like the book. I planned to research more. 

A month later I got an email from Leland at 7.13 Books. He was in the middle of Besotted and liked it so far. “Have you submitted this to any agents?” he asked.

I imagined answering him honestly: “Yes. 135 of them. They all disliked it.” Instead I lied and told him I’d submitted to a “handful” of agents over the past few years. 

He finished reading it, then wanted to publish it. 

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Read more small press books.

Melissa Duclos’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, The Offing, and Bustle, among other venues. She is the founder of Magnify: Small Presses, Bigger, a monthly newsletter celebrating small press books, and co-founder of Amplify: Women’s Voices, Louder, a series of writing retreats that put writers on the path to publication. She has an MFA from Columbia University and lives in Portland, Oregon with her two children, small cat, and even smaller dog. She is at work on her second novel and a collection of essays about heartbreak and writing.

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