The Wedding Beat by New York Times ‘Vows’ Columnist Devan Sipher

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Devan SipherDevan Sipher’s career has been picaresque. Before he landed his wedding column, Vows, at The New York Times, he had brief forays into medical school, rabbinical school, book editing, and producing an entertainment news show. He wrote everything from theater reviews to infomercials and says his résumé reads like a manifesto on schizophrenia. He was surprised when the Times found that appealing. But they did. He’s written Vows for over five years and covered more than a thousand weddings. Now he can add author to his CV. Sipher wrote a hilarious romantic novel, The Wedding Beat, about a guy who—you guessed it— writes a wedding column.
Why is your protagonist always a wedding columnist, never a groom?
Being unlucky in love seemed a simplistic and superficial explanation. There are many reasons why someone who claims to want marriage remains single, and while my protagonist, Gavin,
grappled with his, I grappled with mine. Though the book is fiction, I needed to understand my own choices, to understand and convey Gavin’s. One factor, of course, is meeting the right person, but just as important is being emotionally ready to meet that person and be willing to risk everything.
The Wedding Beat
How autobiographical is the novel?
My stock answer is that the book is emotionally true. Or, to be more specific, only the painful parts are true. All of the characters are composites of people, both real and imagined, with a little of myself thrown in.
Describe your weekly writing process.
I spend 50 to 60 hours on a single Vows column, but often it’s 80 or even 100, never less than 40. Each column is four articles—a double profile of the bride and groom, their courtship, and the wedding. The interviews alone take up to 20 hours. I wrote The Wedding Beat in a year. I worked six days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day. I didn’t think it was possible to work more hours than I did at the Times, but I was wrong. If you think putting in that much effort sounds crazy, I wholeheartedly agree.
Describe your writing process.
I suffer. That’s not a joke. There’s a reason I included in the book the Thomas Mann quote: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” My writing process is made up of equal parts writing and avoiding writing (and eating while surfing the Web). I don’t vomit out a first draft. I get frustrated by poorly constructed writing. Especially when it’s my poorly constructed writing. I tend to edit as I write, polishing each sentence before I commit it to the page. My disclaimer is: “Don’t try this at home.” It’s not an effective way to write a book. It’s best to let the first draft flow out of you unedited. Let your heart and mind wander to new and unexpected places. That’s what I recommend, but it’s something I have a hard time doing.
Did it help to share your novel with a weekly group?
Yes. On a good day, everyone laughed at the right places and comments were minimal. On a bad day, people were confused or bored or both, and it was back to the drawing board (and the refrigerator). After a few days, I’d feel hopeless. Then, after another couple of days, a new draft would begin to take shape. I used the group to give myself deadlines and it provided instant feedback. You can’t beat hearing people laugh when you’ve written something you hoped was funny. It was hard to believe when a chapter was better than I anticipated. Even harder when a chapter tanked.
What did your editor at Penguin cut?
I tend to be a thorough editor, so there wasn’t much to cut. A line here and there, some of which I squawked about. Mostly she wanted me to add material and to deepen crucial moments. My plan was to have far more weddings, but I realized that the weddings were the least compelling part of the story. They shifted the focus from Gavin to supporting characters. My group suggested readers wanted to stay focused on Gavin, the character they were invested in. Entire sections of the book were eliminated, including a gay wedding, which I now feel is a missing element in a book about weddings in 2012.
Did you ignore any criticisms?
The prologue of the book is indefensible from a craft perspective. It’s not necessary. And it shouldn’t be necessary, and I was told countless times to cut it. I deliberated right until the moment I submitted the manuscript but decided it let the reader know quickly and effectively what the book was about. What’s amusing is that my editor ended up saying it was one of her favorite parts of the book.
What do you love about The New York Times?
It’s been my longest monogamous relationship. I became a subscriber in 1992 and I’ve read it cover to cover since.
Are you working on another book now?
I’m writing a romantic comedy about two people who make a lot of wrong turns on their way to finding each other. The tagline is “Sometimes love at first sight can take a lifetime.” What can I say? I’m still a romantic. And I’m still hopeful.
Written for the July/August issue of the ASJA Monthly