Though she’s more accustomed to writing headlines than making them, The Argus’ own Jenny Davis ’17 is one step closer to the literary fame for which she is destined. You may know her from her poignant opinions and witty features, and soon you’ll be able to dive into a new world she has created over the past two years. Last week, Davis signed a contract with St. Martin’s Press for not one, but two novels—one, titled “Everything Must Go,” set for release in Fall 2017, and another that has yet to be written. A lifelong writer, Davis is currently spending her semester at the University of Iowa further honing her craft and integrating herself into yet another unfamiliar environment.
The publishing house released a brief description of the novel, which is cleverly constructed through letters and other primary source documents.
“Told in a series of letters to friends and estranged family back in Manhattan, along with clippings and documents, it’s the story of Flora Goldwasser, a fish out of water in a vintage Grace Kelly dress, navigating her new life at a Quaker boarding school,” the Publisher’s Weekly blurb reads.
Davis draws inspiration from her own life, as well as her affinity for atypical environments. Coming from an all-girls’ elite school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, she also spent time on liberal farms and, of course, at the University, which she also describes as an extreme atmosphere.
“In 11th grade, I spent a semester at this alternative, farm, social-justice boarding school in Northern California,” she said. “It was radically different from my private school in Manhattan. I took a lot of notes and absorbed everything. The next summer, I worked at this farm camp in upstate New York. It was also super alternative, [with] people who wore tattered shirts and ate a lot of lentils and stuff like that.”
The immersion in this alternative culture, combined with detailed note-taking, gave Davis ample material on which to base “Everything Must Go,” as well as a desire to further explore the interaction between the worlds in which she has lived.
“And then, finally, freshman year of college, I decided that I had to tell this type of story,” Davis said. “It was just five or six weeks of nonstop writing. I woke up in the morning, and I just wrote. I didn’t edit; I just tried to get everything out.”
The following summer consisted of a major revision, followed by a series of smaller revisions through this fall, where the novel really took the form that it has today.
“It was really this past fall that I sat down and wrote a lot and made sure that it was all fluid, and that all the plot issues were worked out,” Davis said. “[It] was a really intense time of writing. If you saw the floor of my room in Hi Rise, with all my index cards…you couldn’t even walk because there were so many index cards. I was rearranging them furiously, and in class I didn’t really pay attention. I just wrote my book. It was bad.”
Through her subsequent revisions, Davis’ book changed significantly from its original version.
“The two times I rewrote it, I felt like I was writing it for the first time,” she said. “I wrote the first draft to get everything out, but the final draft that I have now looks totally different.”
A major contributor to the change in her novel over the course of her revisions is the knowledge she gained throughout the writing process, both from the University and elsewhere. In her writing courses, she picked up many new skills that aided her in the writing process.
“I also read a lot of books on plot and structure,” Davis said. “I think that as time went on and I edited more…I had more space from it; I would take a few months and not look at it at all. [Then I would] come back with fresh eyes, or with as fresh eyes as possible, since I wrote it.”
This isn’t Davis’ first foray into novel writing: She’s been churning them out since she was 10. However, this is the first one that she’s developed to the point at which “Everything Must Go” currently stands. She attributes more of her progress, though, to her experience at the Wesleyan Writers Conference, to which she earned a scholarship the summer before her sophomore year.
After this arduous process, Davis’ next step consisted of contacting and securing an agent to ensure that the right eyes fell on her manuscript. She sent query letters to a number of agents—the usual way that writers contact potential agents—but then realized that she wasn’t ready. During her next revision process, Davis found an unconventional route to an agent through a friend of a friend in December 2015. In late January, her agent began submitting to editors, finding a match with St. Martin’s earlier this month.
As she begins her next round of edits (even when you think you’re done, she notes, there are always more), Davis once again finds herself immersed in a world other than her own.
“I think I’ve spent most of my life ricocheting from extreme environment to extreme environment,” she said. “[From an] Upper East Side all-girls’ school to a farm school in Northern California to that alternative camp in upstate New York to Wesleyan, which is a really extreme environment,” she said. “In Iowa, I hoped to find out what the mainstream was. So even though it’s extreme for me, the impulse was to go someplace that felt like the standard more than the exception.”
The vast and diverse student body of the University of Iowa showcases individuals from all walks of life, and Davis considers it less monolithic than some of her other environments. There is one stark difference between Wesleyan University and the University of Iowa, though.
“I’ve never seen so many blond people,” she said. “I feel very different than everyone, which is kind of strange and exciting.”
This article was updated to reflect a change in the title of the book.