Writing a woman on the verge

Books

Both Same as It Ever Was and your debut, The Most Fun We Ever Had, are lengthy novels that examine family dynamics over the course of decades. What draws you to this type of story?

I’ve always been drawn as a reader to big, meaty novels that stick with a cast of characters over a long period of time, and it’s very much where I feel most at home as a writer—having the ability to explore my characters from all angles, from different vantage points in time and space. Once I fall in love with a character, I want to know absolutely everything about them, and in the case of Julia that meant getting to know not just her but her entire family, the trajectory of her upbringing and her marriage and her becoming a mother.

This time around, the time span is a bit tighter and the family’s matriarch, Julia, is at the center of the story. Can you tell us about how Julia’s character came to you?

Julia’s voice came to me first—her observational skills, her neuroses, her tendency toward self-sabotage. I find difficult characters much more interesting—and endearing, as it were—than their better behaved counterparts, and Julia delivered tenfold in this respect.

“We’re so deeply, messily shaped, as women, by our mothers—or mother figures.”

You’ve spoken before, to the New York Times, about doing your “emotional homework” in order to write about characters with experiences that are different from your own. How did you prepare to tell the story of Julia, a 57-year-old woman whose marriage has persevered despite past challenges and who is preparing for life as an empty nester? 

I had to get to know Julia as a much younger woman before I felt comfortable writing about her later in her life. I did similar work with The Most Fun We Ever Had, overwriting a great deal just to get my characters in certain situations to see how they’d react, examining them in childhood and in the quieter and less cinematic moments that don’t make it into the final draft of a novel. I explored many different phases of Julia’s life—her difficult childhood, her somewhat traumatic adolescence, her lost decade before she meets Mark, the early days of marriage and parenthood—before arriving at the 57-year-old Julia and understanding who she was.

Same as It Ever Was focuses on complex maternal relationships. What inspired you to explore this subject?

There’s just endless fictional fodder in family relationships, and I think mother-daughter relationships are perhaps the most fodder-full of all; I could write 10 more books exploring characters exclusively through this lens. We’re so deeply, messily shaped, as women, by our mothers—or mother figures—and then by becoming mothers, or not, the how and the why of it. And there’s a great deal of societal pressure and expectation as well—what it means to be a good mother, how much mothers are accountable for, the notion that we should want children and delight in them. Julia’s feelings about motherhood are complex and not especially rosy, and she’s often ashamed of them, or confused by them, which I don’t think is an uncommon experience by any stretch, so I wanted to explore it as candidly as I could.

Like The Most Fun We Ever Had, Same as It Ever Was plays with flashbacks, carrying the reader across decades to gain insight into the past moments that have shaped the characters’ present. What appeals to you about this structure? 

I love having the freedom to move around in time because it enables me to look holistically at my characters. Nobody exists in a vacuum; everyone is shaped by a wealth of big and small moments. I’ll also say that there was some degree of claustrophobia writing this novel—residing in the head of a single character over 500 pages—and moving between different versions of Julia allowed me some breathing room, and often spaces to find empathy for the character.

This novel is rich and sprawling—easy to read, but packed with hefty sentences full of detail and action. Those sentences surely couldn’t have been as easy to create as they are to consume. How long did it take you to write Same as It Ever Was?

I actually started this novel around 2015, when I was still finishing The Most Fun We Ever Had—I like to have two projects underway simultaneously. And like Most Fun, I wrote this book very much out of order, so the structure took a lot of working and reworking. This story isn’t told linearly, and finding the right shape for it was a challenge.

Tell us more about your writing process. Do you outline? Do these rich sentences appear more or less fully formed, or do you labor over their composition, starting with something leaner before hanging meat on the bone?

I don’t outline until I have a full draft on the page—once I do have a finished draft, I make a storyboard, which helps me to visualize the arc of the novel and fine-tune how I might make it work better. The sentence-level writing came fairly easily to me—it helped to have such a voicey narrator in Julia! Once I really got to know her voice—which, to be fair, is a lot like my own, full of segue and non sequitur and interruption—I had no trouble articulating her thoughts.

What are your reading habits like when you’re writing?

I have to be careful! I try not to read books with too much thematic overlap to avoid being unconsciously nudged in any particular direction. When I was deep in the writing of Same as It Ever Was, I was reading a lot of mystery novels—I read the entire Louise Penny series, for instance—because they felt in terms of genre and structure to be far enough away from my project.

Given that you also work part time as a bookseller, I’m curious: What books have you been encouraging customers to buy lately?

It is such a joy that part of my job is getting to shove books I love into the hands of customers. Some of my most-shoved books lately are The Trees by Percival Everett, The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, and American Mermaid by Julia Langbein. I also love nudging our mystery seekers toward Tana French and Richard Osman.

Do you bring anything from your experience as a bookseller to your writing?

There’s absolutely overlap between the bookseller and writer parts of me—I’m fascinated by human dynamics, by understanding what makes people tick, and I think those interests benefit me in writing books and talking to other people about them. And working in a bookstore has turned me on to books I might not otherwise have read, which is a great gift.

Read our review of Same as It Ever Was.

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