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I kinda want to be you when I grow up.
Thanks, I'm hoping you're gonna give me all the keys to the kingdom in the next 30 minutes.
Oh for sure, I will.
Part of what I admire so much about your career and your work is that you've tried so many different things creatively, and you've written for so many different venues and forms. And I just wonder if you have preferences? And if what you learn in one space, writing for the screen let's say, how that changes what you write on the page, how that changes what you write for a live performance, et cetera, so can you talk about your sort of landscape of writing projects and then how they feed each other, affect each other?
For me, I realized when I started that if I didn't work in more than one field, I could sort of be out of work.
Ah-ha, it's super practical.
Yeah, it was. I was collaborating with my sister Nora on screenplays, and I knew if I didn't write books a...
t the same time, my voice would be lost. And I wouldn't tell my own stories. And I had stories that I wanted to tell, that were just mine. So I started as a book writer. My first book was How to Eat Like a Child.
Which is a pretty brilliant title, let's just say that.
I mean that is really good.
And it taught me who I was as a writer. I heard my own voice. I knew that I loved children and that I could hear children's voices. That I had a good ear for that. It was the first time I understood who I was. And I think I knew I just always needed to do that throughout my life, keep in books in order to tell my stories.
Yeah, I mean you had a very special circumstance, which is you had this writing partner with a very strong voice of her own.
And then you needed to separate out and have projects that were entirely your own, and even writing for the screen, even the differences between even kind of merging your thought processes with Nora is one thing. But then, it gets consumed by an even larger machine that changes it and divides it.
That's absolutely true and she was the director. So that's like the older director set in stone, so I knew that that was I don't know I understood it exactly, but I feel like it was a smart move. And also, you can go out of work in the movie business. You can retire at 52 with the Writer's Guild. People don't work very long. And I knew that I wanted a long career. So when one wasn't working, I would just switch to the other. And then I also loved writing essays, so then I would do journalism, as well. Not interview, not investigative journalism, but essays.
Yeah, and how does working in one affect your work in the other. What do you learn when you write for the screen?
You learn drama. So I learned how to tell a story in a dramatic way. And I learned what you need in a scene, to make a scene crackle, that each character needs a want, and that in order to provide conflict, so I learned all these tricks in a way. And this way that you structure and tell a dramatic story, and I use that all the time in my novels.
I can see Siracusa on the screen tomorrow. Can't you?
Well I hope so. It's been bought by Working Title, so I'm very happy about that. And Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who did Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is supposed to direct it, so that would be very exciting. But yeah, one thing makes the other work better. At the same time, there are some things that are only meant to be a book or a movie or a play or something, and you sort of know what the nature of the material is. Oh that works. I knew Siracusa would be a book, it wouldn't be a film in the beginning, because really precious personal stories, I don't like to do as screenplays first,
Why? because I don't own them. They own them and they can fire me, or they can say, make the airplane pilot a truck driver. I mean I don't have any rights here.
Right, as the screenwriter, you're kind of low man on the totem pole.
That's write, exactly.
And as the author, you're yeah.
So what fueled Siracusa, like what's the heart of that story for you? What is the theme you wanted to talk about?
Marriage. It was because years ago, a therapist said to me that what we think of as chemistry is really psychology. That two people falling in love across a crowded room, is just each spotting their own perfect neurotic match. (laughing)
Oh my god. I'm rethinking my entire life right now.
No really and it's one of those things that just stayed with me. And I've always thought, in observing my friends' marriages, and you know, the marriages I've had and everything, I know what that means. And so that that's always been lurking, telling the story of marriages. Because these are two couples, one has a child and they're on a trip together and everything that's going on in the marriage, just goes up in smoke.
Snow is the child's name? Snow, which is just so irritating right off the bat.
Who names their kids Snow?
Anyway, this was sort of in my head for years, which happens with ideas. And then I was in Siracusa on a trip, and there's this old section called Ortygia and it's all stone. The Romans knocked all the trees down like in BC and they never put any back. They just did it to build warships. And so it has this imprint of stone, it's just what it used to be. I thought this is the most beautiful place I've ever been. I was insane for it the first day. And the second day I thought, I could go mad here. (laughing) And then I thought
Is that like marriage?
Well I thought if you put two couples and a child and they all had secrets and betrayals and you put them in a place like that, they would go crazy. So I knew I had my setting for my story.
And is setting always important to you? Are you a person who doesn't land until you have a locale?
No I wouldn't say that.
Or are there things
you've written that could be anywhere?
No nothing can be anywhere, but I wouldn't say that either. In this case, Siracusa was absolutely central to the telling of this story.
Thus you've got the title.
That they would go.
And also Americans in Europe, well in this case Sicily, right, they're not comfortable. And they're isolated. And so things get very crazy easily. And also, there were other things I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about the tension that exists in the world now between women who have children and women who don't.
And so one of the, Lizzie, who's married to Michael, they don't have kids. And Taylor and Finn have this child Snow that Taylor is obsessed with. And it looks crazy to Lizzie. But to Taylor, Lizzie looks like a woman who is
Yeah, emotionally unfulfilled. Not as complete as she would be.
Isn't it funny how women are feeling sorry for each other in that way?
In a way that validates their own choice?
I think critical.
Oh I do too.
I do too. I mean the question I least like on the book tour is looking after your kids?
Oh do they ask you that?
And I think, oh, you're either gonna make me cry or I'm gonna smack you across the face.
You just say like no one. They're just out there running around.
I left some frozen meat on the floor. It should be thawed by now and they're fine. Next question.
Well I don't have kids, so I'm not asked that. I have step-children, but I don't have my own.
Yeah, so how long have you been carrying around that theme in the back of your mind, this tension between women who have children and women who do not.
I think pretty, you know, like the last 10 years. I sort of noticed with Hillary that she started trotting Chelsea around, not in the Obama campaign, so people would like her more. It just seemed so sad to me, that she needed to prove that in addition to everything else that she was a real woman.
Right right. Are you writing for someone? Like do you have an imaginary writer in your mind? And has that changed over time?
No, what do you mean?
I mean, I feel I have a very strong sense of who is reading my books, because I've done so many readings out there and I've been doing it for 10 years, that I kind of know what she looks like and I know what she's interested in and whatever.
And she creeps in there for me sometimes and then I have to decide to just write the book that I'm looking for.
You don't have that problem.
No, I don't think about that.
You're really making me feel kind of lonely here.
That's so, that's really interesting, because yeah, I don't think that.
You're just writing a book that works for you.
Yeah, I really am. In fact, that to me, is what a book is. It's this thing that is only, it has purity.
Whereas in a movie, I'm always thinking, who is gonna be the audience or what the rating is gonna be. I mean you're asked questions all the time. So I try to free myself out when I do it.
Right, so there's so much of your writing fiction is in relief or is in contrast to you working in these other venues.
Yes that's right.
And so you probably see it completely differently, because what you value about it is keeping these walls up and saying, I'm just writing this for me. This is not going to be market tested. I'm not gonna get notes back on this about how my characters more likable.
Yeah, what's the hardest thing for you to do when you're telling a story.
A book gets really hard for me after what I would say, the first act. Once I set my story up, and you have to complicate it. I consider that being lost in the desert, I mean between, sort of after the 50%, I would say, the 75, the third quarter. The third quarter I think is like a nightmare where I have to force myself to write, it's just hard. And then you see the end, and you go, like that.
Yeah that's really difficult for me. I know the process. And this book, Siracusa, is a Rashomon, so each character is telling us their story and some characters know things other characters don't know. And to track that got more and more difficult for me. I had so much stuff on the wall telling me where I was in the story, in addition to the endless photographs I had, you know, of Siracusa.
It can be so stressful.
Yeah it is.
When you feel like, oh, she shouldn't know this by now. And I think we've indicated that she does and now that whole scene needs to be reshaped. But do you feel like you're writing in scenes? Like there's a pace to Siracusa that to me feels like (snaps fingers).
Pace is important to me. I do want to say that I don't solve it in the first draft. That's something I solve in the second or third draft, the pacing of the story. Because I love to make a reader want to turn the page.
That matters to me, because that's the kind of book I like to read.
Yeah. And so what have you figured out about making the reader want to turn the page?
It's just (sighs) It's about drama and plot. I mean, it's about keeping the reader interested in something they don't know. And that will keep them turning the pages. I don't know how you find this, but you begin to understand what your strengths are.
And I know how to plot and I know how to do drama. And it isn't something I need, I mean I was taught stuff about it, but it is something I have an innate understanding of, and a lot of author's don't. And I think Stephen King says this thing about you put characters in a difficult situation and you make them work their way out of it. And that is of course, you do start with all this backstory that you know about. Like Lizzie, who's married to Michael, had an affair with Finn in the past, so that I know from the beginning and I know how that's gonna influence my story, but not entirely.
How long do you walk around with Anna Quindlen is a friend of mine and she says she walks around New York City with her characters in her head for like nine months before she writes the first word. Like how long are you living with the whole cast?
Well I do a lot of work before, I do. I know when they were born and what their histories are. I don't see how you write without really knowing all that. But part of what's hard about what's writing a book is that you know your brain's gonna be taken over, and much more than in a screenplay. There's this resistance. It's like someone's moving in. (laughing) And you get completely preoccupied. I get completely preoccupied. So when she says she walks around for nine months, I mean the whole process is obsessive. It's very obsessive. I gave myself over to it. But one of the things that happened with Siracusa was the first time I was there, I didn't realize until I got home, I mean there I though oh my god, I'll set a book here. But you know, I was home three days later, and then I thought, I've got to go back. Because I didn't even take photos or draw, which I like to do for research. I actually draw things. I can't draw at all, by the way. It's just it makes me see better if I have to draw what I'm looking at.
It makes you ask different questions.
Yeah. So I got very lucky, I met people when I went back in Siracusa and one of them was a simply brilliant architect and she went from living there to Harvard where she did her post-graduate degree and I could take all my photos as my story began to unfold for me, I could go visit Alex up in Harvard and put the photos on the ground and I'm saying, this is happening. And she would say what would probably happen here, you know, and she even caught things in the book that couldn't see that from there. I mean it was unbelievable what she gave me. So I thought that was just a stroke of luck, because it was absurd to think I could set a book in this place I really knew nothing about, and then she came into my life.
Do you often find a collaborator like that?
She wasn't a collaborator.
You just kind of fell into this relationship.
Well I think books have luck associated with them or they don't. The woman who took me around, and I just hired a random guide, had grown up there and she took me to the police department, where I made friends with a translator. And I would email Paula all the time about questions I had about the story as it related to the police department. All these things either happen for you or they don't.
Well it's interesting, because I think there's this assumption or a stereotype about writers that they're introverts and they stay in their house all day and whatever, but actually if you're a great storyteller, you have to have moments of being an extrovert, because you have to reach out and talk to people.
Yeah that is hard, that is not easy for me. And on my last trip, my best friend Julia, who is a writer also, Julie Gregson, she came with me, and she pushed me. I had to go back to every site to make sure I had everything right. And she's a tremendous extrovert, because she was a real reporter. And it was good. I mean, you've got girlfriends. Whatever you can't do, someone you know and love, can help you do. That's my feeling.
And you're comfortable asking.
Yeah, absolutely, I don't think there's some law that you have to do it all yourself.
Right right, I mean I totally completely agree.
What are friends for?
I've completely exhausted every relationship around me. And there's so few professions like ours, where laypeople can help you. Like my friend is a pediatrician, like I can see patients for her. I can't start giving kids measles shots to help her out.
No you can't do that, but you can counsel her on her marriage.
Yes, exactly, all the things I obsess about, yeah.
Do you suffer from distractions around all the ancillary stuff, like the cover design, and making the bestseller list, and movie rights and foreign rights, or are you pretty decent about keeping your head into the story and letting the rest go to the agents and publishers?
Well I try not to think about any of that when I'm writing a book. But once it's done, I do care who it's submitted to. I mean I'm careful about which producer, I had known Alfonso Gomez-Rejon for years, and I knew he was right for it, and so I went to dinner with him and gave him the book. So I will get involved.
You're super present.
Yeah, I am once it's done. Yeah, I think it's important to be present for anything you can help your, it's your baby.
Nobody loves it like you love it.
Yeah that's right.
That's what I always feel. Do you miss Nora terribly as you do creative work?
It must just always be there, because it was the way you played together.
Yeah, we were just, we were close.
But I just want to say she taught me so much, that I really do carry her with me, in terms of, in so many ways. Not just how to cook a dinner, but all sorts of stuff she taught me about writing and screenwriting. She left me with so much knowledge, and so she's with me when I write.
Is there one thing in particular that you always think about that she would say?
No, but there's just tons. There's just tons of things. Like bringing a third character halfway through, like two-thirds through the book, or one-third through a story, a new character helps the story. I mean just little things she would say like that and I'd go, ah yeah, that's true.
Yeah, that's cool. Do you feel like you have a favorite relationship that you love to think about? This is about marriage, but of course you've written about sisterhood and the parent-child relationship, is there one
You mean in fiction or in life?
Well I just got married, so I'm madly in love, so that's good.
You're a newlywed.
Right so, I'm happy.
Yes he is.
He's 26 years old. (laughing)
And anyway, so that's a big part of my life now.
Yeah, and do you feel like you've said everything you want to say about sibling relationships?
Yeah, I think I did that in Hanging Up, which was my first novel. When you write your first novel, I always think you should stay very close to home, because it's so hard to write a novel. There's nothing harder than writing a novel. So stay in an area that you actually know inside and out, and I try to keep it close to the bone. So I wrote about being a middle child.
And did that create tension in your life?
Well my family's all writers, all my sisters are writers. Hallie is a mystery writer, and Amy writes, she just wrote this amazing YA book called The Castle in the Mist. So in our family, you're allowed to write whatever you want. And everyone has to keep their mouth shut.
Yeah, that's nice. It's kind of essential actually for the whole crew, the whole enterprise. And do you feel like you have a creative sweet spot, like you feel like you're happiest in a novel, or do you need it all?
It depends on the story I want to tell is. I think novels are the most personal for me, and they matter the most, because you don't collaborate they're really just pure stories.
Yeah, and is there a creative experience or experiment that you have yet to try? Like do yo have something on your agenda that's way out there that
No I don't actually. I mean I'm thinking about my next novel, but no.
You're just gonna be a married gal like frolicking on the beaches around the world.
Yeah, we're going around the country. We'll do some stuff.
That's so cool. So I only have a few more minutes with you, but I want to give you a little speed round, is that alright?
Okay great. Name a book you wish you had written.
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. Do you know that? It's so whimsical, it's magical.
Yeah. What was the last story that made you cry?
Probably the Kate Atkinson book, is it Life After Life?
Yes, Life After Life.
I love that book.
Cool. If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
Then Again. (laughing)
Who can't you live without, creatively speaking?
All my writer friends.
Yeah, are you in a big cabal?
No no, just all my girlfriends are writers and every time I have a problem, I just phone up one of them, and they're happy to talk to me.
Where do you live?
I live in New York.
But you know, the phone is long distance.
Yeah, I've heard that. It's like not even extra charges anymore. You don't even have to wait until after five.
If you could get everyone in the world to read just one book, what would it be?
Well there's no just one book. Okay, there's the Diary of Anne Frank.
There's my husband's book, which is brilliant, which is Sex in the Forbidden Zone, and it's all about women harassed, what harassment and sexual exploitation is about, and why men in power do it to women and it's really profound. And then there's this book called the Amazing Book of Facts for Kids of All Ages. And it tells you what to do if you're attacked by a shark.
Aren't you supposed to punch 'em in the nose?
I don't know how I knew that.
You do not need this book, but I did. (laughing) And I love this book. It tells you everything you need to know about life.
So Amazing Book of Facts?
The Amazing Book of Facts for Kids of All Ages.
Those are three great recommendations. Thank you so much, it's so fun to talk to you.
I do admire everything you do.
Thank you. (jazzy upbeat music)