Q&A with Jennifer Kitses,author of Small Hours
"No matter what you do, you're going to lose something, or someone. All you can really decide is how much—and, to be blunt, who—you're gonna lose."
What starts off as an ordinary day quickly spirals out of control for Tom and Helen in Small Hours, Jennifer Kitses's unputdownable debut. Each has their own cadre of secrets and lies: some are small and easily forgiven. Others are of a marriage-threatening magnitude. Kitses tells their story through the course of one single, life-changing day, sparing—and vilifying—neither character. As mistakes mount and indiscretions are revealed, the husband and wife are forced to reckon with just how much their marriage can withstand.
Victoria Fullard: You manage to pack an entire marriage’s worth of love and dysfunction into the story of a single day. How did you choose this structure, and what challenges and opportunities did you see in this hour-by-hour approach?
Jennifer Kitses: The structure came to me very early on in the writing. I wanted to capture the feeling of just how much can happen in a day. When you’re taking care of very young children, these kinds of days can happen all the time, but I think we all have days when the stresses are coming from many different directions, and you’re constantly trying to cope with the latest emergency, and all you want is to collapse at home (knowing that in just a few hours, it might start all over again).
The greatest challenge in the structure was cutting back at times, and giving the reader a chance to pause and take a breath. Also, I didn’t want to show the same events from both Tom’s and Helen’s points of view, except for a few episodes, because I wanted the reader to have the feeling of always moving forward. Yet there are a few zigzags in the timeline. (I was following the advice I mention below, in Question 6.)
VF: One of the things I admired most about your book is how you ratcheted up the tension little by little, so it’s almost imperceptible until, as a reader, I was on edge along with the characters. How did you do it?
JK: Thank you! I think I owe a lot to crime novels. One thing I love about crime stories is that even when there isn’t a mystery to be solved (sometimes you know who did it, and the story is about why), there’s a tension that pulls you forward — often so strongly that you want to flip ahead to see how a scene ends. My all-time crime favorites are everything by Richard Price and Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series (I found Life After Life just as suspenseful and can’t wait to read the sequel).
VF: As a New Yorker, one of my favorite pastimes is obsessively stalking houses in the Hudson Valley that I’ll never buy (current favorite is this brick beauty). Your lead characters ditch NYC for a quieter life that ends up being no easier than their city existence. Even so, do you ever fantasizing about buying that country house? Has writing this book changed that desire at all?
JK: That is such a nice house! I love exploring towns in the Hudson Valley area and also farther afield, in parts of New Jersey and Massachusetts. And I’m very prone to having crushes on those towns and imagining how my life would be there.
Researching the towns that were the basis for Devon was probably the most enjoyable part of the whole process. And yes, I’ve fantasized many times about buying that country or seaside home (if part of the fantasy includes a windfall), but I’m very tied to the city. But since I still have dozens of real estate alerts set up for various towns, I don’t think that desire has changed. This must be one of the favorite pastimes of New Yorkers: getting all worked up from a real estate crush, and then coming down to earth once you discover realities like real-estate taxes.
VF: Your writing has been compared to that of Tom Perrotta (congrats, by the way). Perrotta, for my money, gets the best adaptations: it doesn’t get better than Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick. Have you given any thought to whom would play Helen and Tom in your ideal adaptation?
JK: This is actually something I haven’t really considered (maybe because it’s too much of a pie-in-the-sky dream for me to even ponder), but I agree with you on the adaptations of Perrotta’s novels — they’re terrific. Election and Little Children are two of my favorite novels, and somehow the movies are just as good. (I haven’t yet watched the TV adaptation of The Leftovers, but it’s on my list.)
VF: As a debut author, what’s most surprising about the publishing process?
JK: It’s still a mysterious process to me, but I now have a much better sense of why it takes so long to publish a book. When I look at all the books on my shelves (I’m a huge book buyer, and I’m still wedded to hardcopies), I’m amazed by all the effort, from so many people, that went into producing each book — after the writing was done.
VF: What’s your favorite writing advice you’ve received?
JK: A few years ago, I went to a Crime Fiction Academy event at the Center for Fiction that featured Lisa Unger. Someone in the audience asked: “What do you do when you write yourself into a corner?” And she smiled and said, “I’m a writer. I remove the corner.”
It was so funny and unexpected that everyone laughed (as I remember it). And it’s terrific advice. If you’re writing a novel, you’re in control of that world. If you’ve hit a roadblock, you can remove it.
VF: Fill in the blank (hopefully in an unexpected way): People who like _______ should read Small Hours.
JK: People who like to forget about their own anxieties by vicariously experiencing the stressful lives of others should read Small Hours.
That’s a long answer, sorry! This might seem strange, but I’d recommend it to people who like The Americans. It’s a bit of a stretch, since my book doesn’t have any spies, but Elizabeth and Philip must be the most stressed-out couple on TV right now. That they’re über spies while raising teenagers might be a little unrealistic (I will forever wonder who is keeping their house clean and their business afloat), but I love watching them maneuver through their days.