Where are you from?
Who are your favorite writers?
I am a tremendous fan of various classic authors, particularly Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, Stendhal, Flaubert, George Eliot and Tolstoy. Of more contemporary authors, I especially admire Richard Yates, Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri and Claire Messud.
Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
While writing my novel, I returned again and again to Revolutionary Road and The Corrections, books I admire so much for their tremendous psychological and moral sensitivity as well as for their technical achievements—the consistent quality, and wit, of the writing and their elegance of structure. As a writer, I admire those books more than I can express in a few words. In another sense, Middlemarch, which I read for the first time when I was twenty, had the most profound influence on me. As an unhappy 20-year-old, searching for insight I didn’t always feel I was getting from the contemporary novels I picked up idly at the bookstore (usually whatever well-reviewed book with a women protagonist that happened to catch my eye), I was knocked cold by Middlemarch. All my initial skepticism—that it would be boring, that it was dated, that it was of historical or theoretical or cerebral, intellectual interest only—quickly fell away. I got past the long dresses and unfamiliar, dated social mores. Eliot’s insight into character blew me away, changed the way I saw not just books but also people—including myself. In my life, as much as in my writing, I have tried to follow in Eliot’s footsteps to become a more skilled and also a more humane and fair-minded observer of both myself and others. And yet… At 35, I must admit I find George Eliot to be, in places, a little too didactic. This is not to say she isn’t still one of my favorite writers, just that she no longer holds a position of such sanctity in my mind that I can’t bear to admit of her having any flaws, which was pretty much my position throughout my twenties.
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
I like to cook. I am also a runner, but a somewhat lackadaisical one. I also like to play chess, but I am not very good.
What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
What is your favorite quote?
I can’t resist two.
How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure
Human experience is usually paradoxical, if that means incongruous with the phrases of current talk or even current philosophy.
What is the question most commonly asked by your readers? What is the answer?
Q. Was it hard writing from the perspective of a male character?
A. The answer is yes and no. In many ways, it was the best part of writing the book. Writing from the perspective of a male freed me from using the character as a proxy for myself, of using my protagonist to try to justify or vindicate aspects of myself or my worldview. Nate is so clearly other that I knew no one would confuse me for him.
Of course, it was also a challenge to write about love and sex from a male point of view. I drew on my own dating experience and the experience of my women friends, and set about trying to imagine what fundamentally decent guys may have been thinking when they behaved in ways that were frustrating. I am also lucky to have long had close male friends, and to have two brothers. And I benefitted tremendously from the advice of my husband (who is not at all a model for Nate!).
At times, it’s been very strange for me to see the world through Nate’s eyes. It looks very different than the world as seen through my eyes. For example, I don’t notice women’s bodies nearly to the extent that Nate does, and I certainly don’t think of them in his terms. Sometimes, I felt a little horrified by things I’d written, including his relentless focus on women’s looks, and the way in which, for Nate, the beauty of his partner is tied up with his sense of his own status. Such things felt true to Nate—but that isn’t to say I liked them or I approved of them. While I was writing the novel, I’d sometimes get angry at my husband, just for being a guy, for thinking, I imagined, some of the same sorts of things as Nate. (Naturally, Evan felt it was a bit unfair that I was mad at him for things my imaginary character thought in my imaginary world…)
I should add to that that I don’t mean to imply I think women are morally better than men. I think we all have much in our secret inner lives that is complicated and dark. But it was interesting for me, as a woman, to contrast some of Nate’s least attractive thoughts with mine, not because as a man, his are worse but just because they are different.
What inspired you to write your first book?
I have long been interested in writing about the ordinary experiences of life—relationships with family, friends and romantic partners, struggles with loneliness, with career and conscience, et cetera. It seems to me that in many novels and movies, one sees mostly life at its most dramatic—for example, a partner cheats or leaves (i.e. is revealed to be a terrible person), and the protagonist must learn to trust again. But most of life unfolds on a subtler register, and that is what I wanted to dramatize, life as it is lived by most people most of the time. On the other hand, I didn’t want to write a story that felt baggy and meandering the way life sometimes does. I wanted to use the stuff of ordinary life to build a novel that is taut and well-crafted and suspenseful the way my favorite novels are. This meant having a plot in the sense that E.M. Forster meant when he distinguished between a story—a set of events in which one follows another chronologically—and a plot, a set of events that are related in terms of cause and effect. (To paraphrase him: The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.) I think that a plot not only makes a novel more fun to read, more taut and suspenseful, but imposes a certain rigor. The author has to work out, on a pretty deep level, the relationship between events. There is little room to fudge things with vagueness or skips in time or subject changes. This can be very challenging—at least it was for me. (Did I mention I spent four years writing this short novel?)
I also wanted to write a book that takes seriously the kind of romantic pain that is too often written off as frivolous or unimportant. I suppose in certain ways I wanted to write a 19th Century novel that is set in the 20th Century. But I didn’t want to rehash my favorite 19th Century novels, so much as build on them—to try and apply the kind of moral and psychological analysis that is so central to those novels to a broader range of situations and characters.
Where do you write?
I have a small office in the apartment my husband and I share. I am lazy and love not having to leave the house to work. All is well as long as my husband is not at home. He is also a writer, but he belongs to a writing space, a sort of shared office space designed for writers. He likes to get out of the house and to maintain a separation between work and home. Thankfully. I couldn’t work at home if Evan were home, too. When for some reason he sticks around for the day, we wind up distracting each other and getting into arguments. So in a roundabout away I am as dependent on his writing space as he is.