The author of the acclaimed novel The Interestings, now out in paperback, talks about Scrabble, Edith Wharton, and writing without a desk.
Where did you grow up?
In Syosset, a town on Long Island, aka Exit 43.
Where and what did you study?
I started out at Smith College and transferred to Brown University. I resisted the then-loud siren song of Semiotics at Brown, and studied English instead.
Where do you live and why?
Manhattan. In an uncool neighborhood that’s quiet and far from everything, which forces me to walk a lot.
Describe your morning routine.
Wake up, walk dog, play a little online Scrabble, start to work.
Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers, and tell us why you like them.
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. It’s sad, funny—it’s everything. I have learned a lot from this book. Wallflower at the Orgy by Nora Ephron. This collection shows you just how complex and funny and astute she was from the start. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. A YA book that’s full of feeling. I’ll read anything that’s full of feeling, even if its target audience is a hundred years younger than me.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I sort of follow an eighty page plan. I write eighty pages without worrying about what I’m doing, or what anyone will think of it, or even what it is, exactly. And when I’m done with those eighty pages, I print them out and have a look at what I’ve got, as opposed to what I fantasized I’d have. Then I make drastic changes. Eighty pages is enough pages for a writer to feel she’s accomplished something, but it’s not so many pages that, if she decides to put aside the book, she’ll feel as if she’s wasted her life.
You’ve been called “an expert social observer” and this seems to be the key to your novels. Which books by other authors do you think are crowning examples of social-observation fiction? And do you find yourself examining the real world around you (dinner parties, events) with a different set of eyes, considering your role in writing about it?
Edith Wharton, of course, writes in such a startlingly sharp and close-grained way about how people live. Just read “House of Mirth.” I rarely think about writing directly about a moment or event that I’ve witnessed or experienced. Instead, a single experience might be a jumping-off place (even only in terms of thinking about the experience) that leads to something more or less unrecognizable on the page.
You’ve written for grownups and young readers. How does your planning and writing of a novel differ depending on the target age group?
The language and subject may differ, but you’re still writing from your own sensibility; you still can’t escape yourself, not that you would necessarily want to. Zadie Smith has an essay called “Fail Better,” in which she says, “When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world.” I think a writer does that whether writing for children or teenagers or adults. (I do tend to break up the paragraphs a little more frequently when writing for younger readers, in order to respect their natural antsiness).
Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.
I drink a great deal of Japanese green white iced tea during the day. Otherwise, no rituals, really. I try to write as much as I can, and the early hours of the day have a hopefulness that starts to fall away as it gets later and later.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?
I no longer have a desk, because I rarely used it when I had one. I prefer to work on various surfaces around the apartment, and also in coffee shops and at the library.
Describe your evening routine.
After writing all day I sometimes want to watch a whole lot of British TV, preferably set at Oxford, with dead bodies turning up.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
The brilliant British TV sitcom, “Peep Show,” starring Mitchell and Webb.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
The end of Charlotte’s Web.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
My grandmother. She was the best.
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
I sold my first novel, Sleepwalking, back when I was a senior in college, for five thousand dollars. I thought that money would last a very long time, which naturally it didn’t. The book got very good reviews but didn’t sell well, and as a result the paperback was published to look like a kind of cheesy novel meant for teenagers. So, happily, the novel is now being reissued for the first time since then, in a new edition. I’m quite proud of it; it’s about a group of college girls who are knows as “the death girls” on the Swarthmore campus, because they are really into the work and lives of certain women writers (Plath, Sexton, and a third writer I invented) who committed suicide. It’s about the romanticization of despair, and I guess it’s about growing up.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
I gave a reading for my kids’ book, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, which is about kids who meet a Scrabble tournament, and a kid came up to me and pointed at the photo in the back of my book and said, “Is that what you used to look like?”
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Work constantly. And read great things. And, hey, Japanese green-white iced tea can’t hurt.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
I love Scrabble, and play it online far more than I should.
What is your next project?
Another novel. Can’t say more because it’s too soon. That old Orson Welles commercial for Paul Masson went, “We will serve no wine before its time.” I sort of feel that way about talking about my new book. Too soon.