So great to meet you.
So nice to be here.
I really admire your stuff.
Thank you so much.
So I want to start at the craziest, highest level. Why do you think that we read stories? Like why is there even a job called a novelist?
This is something that I think a lot about because I'm trying to make a living doing it and you know, I have to justify why it is that I'm doing it and why I spend so much of my time with imaginary people in my head basically. And I think that it's because stories are really how humans make sense of the world. Stories really cause an effect. This thing happened and it made this other thing happen. And on a very basic level even for babies, they figure out oh, that thing landed on the ground because I pushed it off. And that's how they start to make sense of the world. And when we get older, I think we're really still doing the same thing. We're like, well why did I get divorced? Well it was cause I didn't get a long with my ...
spouse but that's because this thing happened to me that shaped how I was viewed. And I think that's just how we understand the world. That's how we understand ourselves and that's just how we exist. And so we're always looking for that, to help us out and figure out how to keep going.
Do you ever feel like our desire to have a story that has a logic that relies on cause and effect is kind of this crutch? Cause sometimes I feel like a lot of things that people write most beautifully about and most compellingly are about unknowable situations and the fantasy of fiction is that in this story, you're gonna explain it to us and there's gonna be a reason.
I think that's exactly right. A friend of mine, who's also a writer, calls fiction writing life editing.
Because she says that's when you get to take out all the parts that don't make sense and you just leave in the parts that give you a clear answer. I mean I think we read fiction for a lot of reasons but one of them is that we're trying to make sense of the world. But also we're sort of just understanding, what are the limits of our understanding. What are the limits of how well we can know another person? You know, what are the edges of sort of like human understanding? I mean those are very, very big questions. But I think we're always looking for that meaning. I don't know that we're gonna find it, but I think that's always our hope when we go into a story.
Do you ever feel pressure, your own pressure or from readers of from editors or from the machine that is publishing to have a logic that you would prefer to leave more ambiguous?
I think that readers sometimes want that. I mean it's wonderful that novelist and you know fiction writers in general are viewed as being able to give us answers. The problem is, I don't think we have them. I think a lot of times our job is to ask the questions. And the answer comes between the reader and the book. But I think a lot of what I am interested in in my own work is actually all the things that we can't understand and just accepting those. Accepting that if you're writing about siblings that you have this other person who had the same parents as you, had the same background. And yet, there are so many things about them you don't know and you're just never gonna know them. I mean that for me is what pulls me to the story is both accepting that we won't understand it and yet still trying to.
If what we're going in fiction, which I agree with you. I believe this is what books are the promise of storytelling, is I'm gonna tell you this in a way that's gonna help you make sense of your own existence. But we both agree that often times that's not at all the way things work out in real life. Do you feel a pressure from yourself, for your readers or your publisher to give the reader just a little bit of satisfaction on that count?
I always want to because I want that satisfaction, you know. And sometimes readers will say, "Well what am I supposed to learn from this book?" And the problem is that I think as an author, my job often is to raise the questions. And the answer is gonna come between the reader and the book and sort of what they make of it. But what interests me a lot, and what I keep coming back to in my writing is what are the things that we can't know? You know, sort of both holding the idea that we want answers and the idea that we might just not ever get them. And sort of holding both of those things in our minds.
Yeah, so you're not offering anybody a quick, juicy, satisfying like, voila.
No, I'm really kind of doing the opposite which is sort of, this is probably even more complicated.
You're mean, you're so mean.
Even more complicated than we wish it would be. I am, I'm mean to my characters a lot.
Yeah. And the idea, I mean I feel like a lot of your work is really interested in family relationships and in particular, siblings.
And I have seen you say and I totally believe it as a mother of two kids, that nobody has the same parents.
Exactly, even identical twins I don't think have the same parents because you're different people. And so your relationships with your parents, or with your child, are gonna be completely different. Just every moment that you have shapes that relationship. And at some point, you're gonna diverge.
And the chemistry's so strong. Like you know you have a kid that makes sense to you from the outside and then you have a kid who's kind of confounding and mysterious. And try though we may and as much as we wanna be the bigger person, sometimes it's just easier with one kid than it is another. That can be a really painful...
Yeah, it's really hard I think for parents to feel more drawn to a child or to feel more distance from a child and yet at the same times sometimes even the person that you think you're the closest to and the child you think you know best you're so close to them that you can't really see sort of all of the nuances of who they are.
Right, so this brings me to a really big question which is, you know when we're inside a story and we're being as true to it as could possibly be, we might discover tremendously depressing truth. One truth that I think is potentially crushing is it's very difficult to actually know another person.
That's kind of the depressing truth that I think I keep coming back to and I keep rediscovering in my own work and I keep sort of hoping that I'll find a different answer. And I keep ending up at the same place which is that I think they're always going to be things about people that we don't know. You know, there are always gonna be things about even the people that you love the most that you're just not going to understand. Or there will always be secrets that they're keeping from you. Maybe not on purpose but just things that have never come up. And that's sort of heartbreaking in a way to think of yourself as being a little island. But I think that's that paradox of being surrounding by people and also being kind of ultimately alone is sort of the human experience.
And the only upside that I can give to that is that to accept that, to understand that is to feel a little differently about it.
I think so. It's a little bit like a zen parable in some ways. That you accept that you will never know everything but you're gonna keep trying for that goal anyway.
Which is so beautiful. I mean that has actually takes you to a really lovely part of humanity I think, which is that we do have the insatiable desire to understand each other and I think that's what's generating all these stories is that even if you have come to the realization at 2 am in the morning like, God almighty, like I've been married to this person for 17 years and I still don't feel like I know every corner. The next morning you wake up wanting to know another corner.
Exactly and I mean I think that's you know, why do we get up in the day and keep going? You know, if you're sort of depressed you think well, why am I gonna wash my clothes cause they're just gonna get dirty again. Why am I gonna eat, I'm just gonna be hungry again. But we do that and that's part of being alive.
And you think that is ultimately, to go back to your earlier question, that's sort of what stories do. Is they kind of remind us like oh, this is what living is. And we keep doing it.
Yeah, yeah. Do you have themes that you come back to over and over again that you're obsessed with that like get you out of bed in the morning creatively?
Family is one of them. Siblings and also the relationships between children and parents because I'm in that sort of sandwich spot where I am a child. You know, my mother is still alive and you know, we talk frequently and we love each other. And I'm also parenting a small child. And so I'm sort of looking in two directions at the same time. And I'm sort of seeing all of the things that I remember from my relationship with my mother and trying to pick out, how am I gonna do those or not do those things with my son. And of course both of those relationships are developing at the same time. And so I just keep coming back to this idea of you know, your parents shape you and you try and shape the next generation. And how that cycle just repeats itself.
And when you're shaping characters on the page, what are your tricks? Like do you love dialogue? Do you love showing us their bedroom? Do you like showing us their morning routine? Like, how do you bring somebody alive for us?
Well for me, stories always begin with character. And so I know there are a lot of writers who like to start off with a physical description. But for me, I usually try and get inside their heads. And so often what I do is I start writing from their point of view or from something very close to them. About what memories are important to them. Or how they notice the world because like if you're ever at a cocktail party and you meet somebody and they start telling you about what they did that day or how they look you can get a really quick insight into the kind of person they are. They're the kind of person who's going to have their head down, have their earphones in. Not notice anything on the way to the subway. Or they're the kind of person who's gonna notice all the weird little details. And that immediately starts to tell you who they are, how they're gonna see the world. And that's usually how I get in.
Right, which is such a, to go all the way back to the idea about story clarifying, there's this tremendous urge to crack the nut of a person.
Like, what kind of person are you? What category do you fit in? Like I can't bare the ambiguity of you any longer. I must start to land you somehow.
Right and I think it's because we're sort of fascinated and bewildered by each other at the same time. Since we're in New York now, there's a great website and also a book called Humans of New York which is just basically--
Pictures of people being themselves doing their things. And every one of those people I think is a sort of fascinating story. We're like, why are you dressed like that? What are you doing, where did you come from? Where are you going? I mean for me, that's the stuff that stories are always made out of.
Have you always been an observant person?
That's a really nice way of putting it. Actually, yeah. I've always been a really nosy person. I am the sort of person who, if I'm sitting in a coffee shop, I'm working but I'm always eavesdropping on the person next to me.
And especially if their voices get quiet, that's when you know they're about to start saying something interesting.
Yeah, stretch your ears.
So I've always been watching people and looking at the world. I was, even as a baby, kind of the little baby that was just like looking around at all of the things.
And I've always just been fascinated by all of it.
Been a collector.
Yes, a collector of people and ideas and experiences and senses.
Do you have a locale that you're obsessed with? Like I feel like you're kind of curious about suburbia.
I am cause I grew up in suburbia and--
You're Shaker Heights, right?
Shaker Heights is my actual home town. And it is a beautiful--
It's just right outside of Cleveland, right?
Yeah, it's right on the east side of Cleveland. It's actually right, it's the first suburb in sort of the outer ring of suburbs. And... It is a fascinating place to me because it's what we think of a lot of times as prototypical America. You know, houses, lawns, nice things, cars--
Sidewalks, kids on bikes.
Walk to school, exactly.
And it is all of those things. And yet at the same time underneath that, are all of these sort of really fascinating stories that still get buried. And so because that's where I come from, that's sort of what I'm always drawn to go back to.
I sort of loved this metaphor you used of in Shaker Heights, they keep the trash back hidden behind a fence.
And this is true.
And then you have to drag it, we do too in my little town. And you have to drag it out to the street on Friday mornings.
And then it disappears again.
The front of your house is never messy. And nobody ever sees your garbage. I mean it is so metaphorically rich, the idea that like you can't ever let anybody see all of the things that you're trying to get rid of. All the things that are, you know, dirty or smelly or whatever.
And that's just sort of one of the many metaphors that I ended up finding in this particular suburb.
I think of that metaphor, that little bit of your writing every time I put food out. So I'm actually not much of a cook but we have people over a lot--
And so I buy my dip at Trader Joe's and then I scoop it into my pretty bowl--
That's the best trick.
And then I have to hide the Trader Joe's. Like I could never, you could never know that I didn't make that. And I think, how absurd is that? Like these are my friends. What do I care whether they know whether I made this or not?
You know, it's one of those things where we're like, well I'm gonna do these things. And even if we're all doing them, we're all gonna pretend that we're not doing them.
And I find that fascinating, that sort of collective silence that we're all having. We're all just gonna agree that this is the story even if we all know that's not what's going on.
Are you a forthcoming person?
No, not usually, no. I'm really an introverted. I'm usually, at a party, I would be the person standing in the corner probably taking notes. For me, I tend to take a lot of things in but you have to know me really well for me to sort of like be forthcoming and to--
So is this storytelling gig of yours, this is an outlet.
It's an outlet and it's the best one for me because it's a place where I get to think about what I wanna say and I get to rewrite it until it's as close to what I wanna say as I can and then put it out there. I think that's why I think a lot of writers end up being introverts. Or why a lot of writers are introverts because we wanna have a minute to think about what we're gonna say.
Do you have like a creative to do list? Like, I'm just still not as good at pacing or structure or sequence as I wish I was, or...
I do, but it's not written down because I feel like there's just always room to improve in everything. Plot is a place that I feel like I'm slowly learning. In graduate school, one of my professors said to me, "This is really great. "It's really beautiful writing. "Now all you need is a plot, "and then you will actually have story." And so that's a little voice that I always sort of have on my shoulder to remind me, well something has to happen for us to be interested in what's going on.
And so how have you developed that skill? Like what are your...
I read a lot. I try and...
See it another...
That's it, and I try when I read a book that really grabs me, and I like books that have a lot of plot.
I do and when I go on vacation, what I usually take with me is Agatha Christie mysteries. And that's virtually all plot. And so I look at those books and I try and think, okay how did they tell this story? How are they getting me to keep turning the pages so that I stay up really late while I'm on vacation instead of going to sleep?
Like I'm supposed to.
I read like that. I think that's such a fun way to read. I mean I read with a pencil. Do you write in your books?
I do, I write, unless they come from the library. But I like to write in them because I just put marks by the things that I wanna come back to and think about and remember.
Or just, I'm often putting a check mark and thinking, oh aren't you clever.
You just sort of floated this tiny thing that I know you're setting me up for something. I don't know what it is.
It's almost like an emotional inventory that I'm taking as I'm reading.
Like when am I leaning, and I when I share my drafts with people, they say, "How would you like feedback?" and I say, I wanna know what you were feeling.
If you were feeling impatient or you were feeling, if you found yourself sitting up, or you felt if you were making a face that's like--
Exactly. It's sort of like a running sort of meter of how your reader is feeling. And I love, I still have some of my books from high school and they're great, cause they have my notes in them. And in high school, I was much more direct. I would just say... Right, right, be like right. Like this person is terrible. Or oh, that's really cool. And so there's this barometer of how I was feeling as I was sort of experiencing the text--
That's sort of fun to keep.
How much of the readers in your mind when you're working?
I try to not think about the reader, at least in the first draft because usually for me, the first draft is about figuring out what I'm even trying to say. And if I'm thinking really hard about how someone else is gonna hear it, I get paralyzed. It's like the writing equivalent of stage fright I think. If you're thinking so much about the people who are listening, sometimes you can't talk. But after I've gone through and I go, okay, I think this is a story about a family. I think this is a story about secrets or whatever it is. Then I can start to think, well what is the reader gonna need to know? And when is the reader gonna need to know those things?
But you're a person who polishes as you go, right?
I do, yeah.
So say more about that. Like, because that's very different than the way I write. And I think it would be kind of devastating to your pace. And I need pace to feel optimistic.
It's devastating to my pace in some ways. Like I am very slow at writing. But at the same time, I think I need that. It's just I've come to accept that that's sort of my process. I have a lot of friends who draft quickly and then they come back and they make radical changes and they fix up. But I started off as a teenager thinking that I wanted to be a poet. And so for me, language is really a big part of it, how it sounds, and so I often feel that I'm writing by ear. And so if I'm writing something down and it doesn't quite sound right, I can't keep going yet. I have to kind of go back until it's sort of in the right register. And so for me, you know it's a little bit like I'm... I don't know, like Wile E. Coyote. Like kind of laying out the road as I'm walking on it and I have to kind of check and make sure that square's firm before I can step on it and then move to the next one. So that's sort of how I ended up at this process.
I mean are you writing like a paragraph a day? Like what's... What kind of output does that lead to as you--
I try to go by time because there are some days which you probably know where--
You know, your writing is that you deleted the last two pages that you wrote from the day before.
Yes and that counts.
And that counts.
And that counts, right. Because you know, oh that doesn't belong here, right and that's kind--
Of what it is. And so I try to go by time. And so there are some days where if I get about a page, I feel pretty good about it. There are other days where the writing is working and I've sort of am on a downhill spot and I can write, you know, maybe five pages. And there are some days where like I said you go backwards and I've like deleted all of the things that I wrote earlier that week. And so I've no idea in terms of number of words per day where I end up but somehow--
The work gets done.
I know, isn't it such a mystery? When it's over, you're like...
You're like, how did I do that?
I guess I did it.
Yeah, I feel that every time.
So if your polishing as you go, if you're working through every word choice as you go, what does that do to your editorial process? Like are you pretty much, when a page is done, it's done?
Well for me there's a really big divide between sort of the language of the work and then also sort of the bigger structural plot concerns.
Right, so you know the saying of course kill your darlings. What happens it that I end up with a lot of darlings and then I look at it and I go, this is actually it's not doing anything for the book. This paragraph is not doing any useful work. It doesn't tell us anything new and it has to... It goes into--
And it's just beautiful.
That's it, and I'm like and I love it but I have to pull it out. And so I have a giant cut file on my computer which just has all of the sentences that I've taken out of anything that I've written. And theoretically I'm like, well I'm saving it. I'll go back to it someday.
And almost never have to but I think I had to write those in order to figure out where I was going.
Having a parking, so I call it my parking lot file.
I love that.
Like when I put something in the parking lot, it's the only way I can cut it.
Because I love it and I, but now I'm writing like seven paragraphs just to get the one line.
And I think, oh Kelly come on, like have some guts. But what made that process go faster is to stick it in my parking lot so it's. Like every now and then, I can go over there and look at it and think, that was really a nice phrase.
I love that parking lot. Yeah, I think of mine as sort of a big scrap bag and I think, oh maybe I'll use that later. And I don't, but it's really the scaffolding that we've sort of used--
And now we don't need it and we can pack it up somewhere.
Yeah, but it must be retained.
And nobody's allowed to throw it away.
Do you feel any pressures to, I don't know, not be bleak or show an optimistic character or likeability or all the kinds of commercial pressures that make a book big huge best seller versus like a critical darling?
Yeah, well I've always wanted to be a writer who is at least a little bit funny on the page. My sister, who I love dearly, read my first book and she said, "It was really good. "I think maybe your next book should be funnier." Because the first book is about a family dealing with a death of their--
Teenage daughter. But so again, I try not to think about that when I'm writing because I think that what comes out is gonna come out. And so instead of trying to think about likeability or are these characters funny. Are they the kind of people you'd wanna have a beer with, I just try and make them interesting because what I find as a reader and in life, a lot of times the people who are kind of horrible and you'd never want to them in your life--
Are fascinating to watch.
And so that's sort of what I try and think about. I try and think for the reader, it might funny it might not be funny but at least you're going to be interested in watching what's gonna happen.
Yeah I remember reading Notes on a Scandal.
And thinking I am so glued to this. And there isn't one likable character in the whole damn thing.
Exactly and I think it's true. I mean if you look at TV which is not a perfect analog to writing, but sometimes, especially reality TV, a lot of times the person you're watching is the person who's misbehaving. The person who is stirring up trouble or the person who's the villain. You know usually the villains are more interesting than the heroes.
Yeah or the super disturbed people. I mean we're sort of fascinated by that. I mean--
We really are.
I remember reading King Lear in graduate school and thinking, why do we love this?
Why are we so fascinated by this terrible insanity and this terrible, this family that's absolutely deteriorating and ripped a part at the seams. And 400 years worth of readers have adored it.
And we're still reading it and we're still finding new things to say about it. Or look at Othello, right. Like the exciting person--
Is not the person in the title, who is--
But we're really interested in Iago.
Why is he doing this? What's happening?
Just like Breaking Bad or Tony Soprano.
Or all these incredible--
Exactly. And or Mad Men. I mean pretty much everybody in Mad Men, you know.
You root for them sometimes and other times, you're like, no, no, no. Don't do that.
Right, you cannot be rewarded, yeah.
Right, you're like just stop doing that. Like don't do that Don Draper.
You know, but it's like that feeling that we wanna know I think, and this goes back to what we were saying earlier about why would you do those things? Why would you make those choices that are so different from what I might do in my own life?
Alright, so we just have a few minutes left and I have the little speed round of questions for you, are you ready?
Are you ready?
Name a book you wish you had written.
The book for me is always The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Read it when I was a teenager and I literally turned the last page, turned it over and started reading it again. I read it every year at least part of it. Usually standing up at the bookshelf.
That's great. What was the last story that made you cry?
There's a new book that I think just came out by a woman named Lauren Grodstein who's an author that I really love called Our Short History. That is about a mother writing to her son. She has a terminal illness and it got to the point where I couldn't read it without my son sitting next to me and I was holding on to him. It was heartbreaking in the best way.
If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called? (laughs)
It would probably be called something like Calm Down which is what she usually told me. I mean even as a kid and still now whatever I do, I think I don't usually do by halves. So if I like it, I really love it and I'm excited about it and I wanna share it. And if I don't like it, then I usually will let people know about it so...
Who can't you live without, creatively speaking?
Person or a thing?
A person, like...
Honestly, probably my husband. Both because he is my best friend. He's my life partner. But he grounds me when I'm sort of been, I've been spending a lot of time in my head. But he also does so much to allow me to do my work in terms of doing, you know giving me brain space and talking through ideas with me. And you know, sharing all of the responsibilities of our life. I think that behind every person who does a lot of you know, sort of like work that gets attention, there are so many people behind them who are helping them get that work done in so many ways.
Yeah, enabling the whole enterprise.
Do you have kids yet?
I do, I have a six year old so yeah.
Okay. If you could get everyone in the world to read just one book, what would it be?
I can't name a specific one but I would say a book by somebody that is completely unlike you. That comes from a totally different background. Comes from, you know, is of a different race or is of a different sexual orientation or anything. Because I think part of what stories do for us is they open us up to seeing things through other people's eyes and that's something that we don't get enough of.
Yeah, reading and writing fiction is an empathetic act.
Exactly and you know science says so but we know it when we read it. That we feel like we've been somewhere else and we feel like we've experienced something that we haven't.
It's really powerful.
Do you remember the first book you read that you thought, oh that's what it's like to be...
I don't cause I was an early reader and I was the kid who my parents had to not let me read at the dinner table or I would've just read all the way through. But I was always reading books about people who were different from me because it was a way for me to experience stuff that I didn't get to in the suburbs.
Yeah, it's the only way to travel.
Thank you so much. It's awesome to talk to you.
Thank you so much, this was such a fun conversation.
Yeah. (upbeat music)