Guest host Julie Chavez interviews award-winning author and repeat MDHTTRB guest Corie Adjmi about The Marriage Box, a fascinating coming-of-age novel about a young Jewish Syrian girl whose family moves back to the Orthodox community, forcing her to reckon with new customs–like getting married at 18! After revealing the story was inspired by her own life experiences, Corie describes the baby steps she took over twenty years to get this book out into the world. The two also discuss the “marriage box”, teenagers, music, and perfectionism.


Julie Chavez: Corie, thank you so much for being with me on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” so we can talk about The Marriage Box. I’m thrilled you’re here.

Corie Adjmi: I’m thrilled to be here. Thanks.

Julie: I’m so glad. I found this book so interesting. I can’t wait to talk a little bit about it. I have lots of questions for you. As I was reading, I was marking passages. There were so many things in this book. I’m an elementary librarian, and so I talk to the kids a lot about how books are windows or mirrors often. For me, this book really was a window into a world that I’m not as familiar with. I live on the West Coast. I am not Jewish. I’m not Syrian. I really enjoyed having a peek into pieces of one individual life. It was just a really well-done book. Congratulations.

Corie: Thank you so much. That’s great to hear.

Julie: I’m thrilled. Let’s start with this. Would you mind please telling the listeners, what is The Marriage Box about?

Corie: The Marriage Box is about Casey Cohen, a young girl who grows up in New Orleans in a pretty all-American kind of lifestyle in the seventies. She goes to a college preparatory high school. She’s a cheerleader. She gets herself into some trouble. Her parents, they’re concerned. They decide they’re going to go back to where they both were raised, which was the Syrian Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. To them, it was familiar. To Casey, it was completely foreign. It seemed like overnight, their ideas about what they wanted for their daughter changed. Casey thought she’d go to college. Then when they got to Brooklyn, her parents wanted her to get married. The book opens with this eighteen-year-old protagonist getting married. Even though she swears she won’t do it, she does.

Julie: Thank you. I’m terrible at describing things because I either tell not enough or too much because I’m pushy. I just want to put it in someone’s hand and be like, just read it. Stop asking me questions. Just do what I say. That was perfect. That was fantastic. Here’s where I want to start. Did you have the idea for this book — did you start with the characters? Did you start with the story?

Corie: I have to confess that The Marriage Box is based on my real life.

Julie: I did not know that. Wow.

Corie: It is totally fiction. All the things that happen and the details are fiction, but the premise, what I just told you, pretty much happened to me, except for I didn’t get into trouble. We didn’t have to move because I did anything wrong. I was a pretty good kid. My parents did decide when I was sixteen that they wanted to come back into this world. It was pretty drastic for me, the change, the culture clash. I knew nothing. I didn’t speak Hebrew. I didn’t know any Arabic. I didn’t know the foods that were eaten in the community. We didn’t keep kosher. We didn’t keep Shabbat. I knew nothing.

Julie: What a jarring experience at that age too.

Corie: I think the age was a very big deal. Sixteen is when you’re figuring out who you are and what you want to be. Everything was just turned upside down, pretty much.

Julie: That is fascinating. I’m sitting here thinking, did I miss something in these materials? Is that out there already?

Corie: I do really think of it as a work of fiction, but the inspiration came from my experiences.

Julie: Gosh, I bet there was so much to draw on. That makes so much sense now for me. All the pieces are clicking in. I just was so fascinated by this. It really makes me feel better to know that you didn’t get into big trouble because I really — as a mother of teenagers, reading about Casey, I was like, please don’t. Oh, no. What are you doing?

Corie: Exactly. I was a goodie-goodie, really.

Julie: Thank goodness for that. I’m sure your parents were very happy.

Corie: Then when we moved, I cried for a year.

Julie: I’m sure you did. You moved at that age. Has this always been a story you wanted to tell?

Corie: I didn’t know that I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t discover writing until I was mid-thirties.

Julie: Wow. How did that happen?

Corie: I was a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher. I was doing my graduate work at Bank Street College for teachers in Manhattan. I did my thesis on storytelling, but basically, to use story in a classroom to learn about students, to teach to — whatever, it’s a grade tool in a classroom. In doing that paper, in telling stories, in understanding the importance of storytelling, I wanted to keep telling stories when I was done. I took a class at Gotham Writers Workshop. I just took a fiction class and wrote a short story. My teacher said, “I think you have talent. Maybe you want to go to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference,” which I had never heard of. It was just one step after another, really tiny baby steps. I got one story published, then another.

Julie: That’s incredible.

Corie: Writing short stories was, I wouldn’t say easy, but it came easier to me than writing a novel. One morning, I just woke up and said, I think I’m going to write a novel. It was a totally different experience.

Julie: I’m so interested to hear about that because I had that on my list of questions for you. Your first collection was a collection of short stories. I will say the pace of The Marriage Box definitely had echoes of short stories for me in the way that you structured it. I also really liked that it was spare in the best ways where it’s not overwritten. Nothing’s overexplained. That actually also adds to the tension for me. What was that experience like? You sat down and said — by the way, I love this — I’m going to write a novel. We’ll see how this turns out. How was the experience?

Corie: I’ll tell you that was twenty years ago.

Julie: Okay, so it was easy. No problem. It’s been seamless since then. Great, we’re done here.

Corie: Twenty years in the making. I took a long time figuring out how I wanted to tell this story and working on my craft because, like I said, I came to writing kind of late. I had to catch up with a lot of reading. I managed to get through graduate school with very few English classes. I was not very well-read. I had a lot of catching up to do.

Julie: When you say you weren’t well-read, what’s one book that comes to mind that you thought, “I have never read X, and I, for sure, should’ve”?

Corie: The only class I had taken in college where I even had to read literature was American playwrights, so really nothing. Then just on my own, trying to catch up. Really, it was the book, Wally Lamb, She’s Come Undone. It was very accessible. It felt very raw and natural and easy. It wasn’t like one of the classics that just felt like something untouchable. I think it was that book that was a real inspiration for me just to sit down and tell the story, just tell a story.

Julie: Just tell a story. I love that. I read She’s Come Undone when I was teenager and then read it again. I was just thinking it’s one I’d like to go back to. That is such an incredible story and incredible book. That makes me feel better, too, because my classics knowledge is horrible. I really need to work on that too. I’ll make a little list. Maybe you can make it for me in your spare time when you’re not releasing a book. It’ll be perfect. Wow, twenty years. You were working on your craft. Were you working on this on the side, or was it like it was just percolating and preparing?

Corie: What was happening is I was also writing many of the short stories that are in Life and Other Shortcomings, my first book. Those were easier for me to manage just because — I was raising five children too. I was home with kids.

Julie: So you’re saying that it’s busy to raise five children?

Corie: Yes, yes.

Julie: Oh, okay. Of course. I’m kidding. That’s insane. I have two, and I get sweaty just thinking about that. Continue.

Corie: It was hard to find the time. Then when I found the time, I wouldn’t have enough time to read a three-hundred-page document. A ten-page short story or a twelve-page short story was manageable. I was writing short stories at the same time that I was working on the novel. What happened with the novel was I’d have to put it away, sometimes for really long periods of time, like six months. Then when I went to pick it up, it would just take me two or three hours even to get back into, what was I trying to say? Where’s the thread here? What’s the vibe? Just get back into the emotion of it. Then time would run out. I’d do the whole thing all over again.

Julie: That makes complete sense. Someone recently was telling me that fiction is a mood. Writing fiction is a mood, and so accessing that mood. Especially, like you’re saying, when you’re in the throes of those busy years of life where coming down off of that takes so much effort as it is, so to actually sit down, you’re right, oh, I just found the thread, and ding, we’re done.

Corie: I’d say about ten years ago or eight years ago when I was able to take it a little more seriously — not seriously. That’s not the right word. I was able to devote some time to it and really focus on it.

Julie: I love that you make that distinction. I think that we can be hard on ourselves at times and think that we’re not serious about something because we’re not able to create time for it or sufficient time for it. That is sometimes the rhythm of life and the way that it goes. It sounds like that was sort of waiting for you until you had space for it.

Corie: Exactly.

Julie: That makes sense. Your language is so impressive. There were parts of The Marriage Box, lines that I marked and wrote out, just even, “as he closes his eyes, tiny doors shutting.” Some of your lines were so powerful. One of the characters, at one point, says, “You young people, you never know when to call it quits.” Things that really stood out to me. When you write, does it take you a long time to craft sentences? Do those come out really naturally? How does your process look? It feels so crafted.

Corie: Thank you. How does it come out? I think dialogue comes out easier for me than other parts of the story. If it’s not dialogue — the “tiny doors shutting” was just something that I saw in my head. I agree with you. I like sparse writing too. I try to write how I like to read or what I like to read.

Julie: I think you really achieve it. That makes sense. You’re right. That image, “tiny doors shutting,” I could see it. I really like, too, the layers of your writing. I feel like the prose is tighter, but the meaning is as deep, which is really hard to achieve. I think you’ve just done a brilliant job with it. I really enjoyed this book. I’m excited for it to be out in the world.

Corie: Me too.

Julie: You’ve written one of each, short stories in Life and Other Shortcomings and now The Marriage Box. Do you have one that you prefer?

Corie: I have to say that The Marriage Box is my baby. It really feels like a big thing in my life that I struggled with and loved and kept close to me for a really long time. I reached for a coffee cup that I hadn’t seen in a while the other day. It says, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” I used that coffee mug for years every morning as I would write The Marriage Box. It was my reminder. That mug really means something to me. When I pulled it out the other day, it sat so beautifully. Here I am. It’s twenty years later. It’s happening. I really can’t wait for it to happen.

Julie: I’m so thrilled for you. What a beautiful feeling. Thank you for sharing that. There are those full-circle moments where you think, this is finally the thing. It sounds like this one was close to you and also hard-won. There’s something about the things that we really have to strive for that makes them sweet.

Corie: Yep, persevere, for sure. I could’ve quit so many times.

Julie: Taking your lessons from that, if we’re talking for other writers, what are your thoughts on perseverance?

Corie: I would say for me, it paid off because I really wanted this. I think that’s the goal or the challenge, is to be curious about yourself. What do you really want? If you really want it, maybe you’ll keep working towards it, hopefully. For other people, if it’s not that important, they might have stopped. I also was always getting enough positive feedback in the world, whether it was by sharing parts with a writing coach or winning a contest or publishing a piece of it or something that kept me going. I knew I had something. I believed I had something. I just wasn’t done with it. I just couldn’t stop. I did ask myself that question over and over again. Is it time to stop and I’m not paying attention? Am I going down the wrong path? Is this not the right journey for me? I struggled with that but then really tried to, like I said, pay attention. It just kept guiding me to keep going.

Julie: I really love hearing that. I like how you’re framing that. The focus isn’t on the “skill” of perseverance. The focus is on, what do I want? What matters to me? What’s right for me? Then if you’re staying in line with that, then it’s worth it to pursue here.

Corie: Yes.

Julie: What a gift. I’m so happy for you.

Corie: Thank you.

Julie: That’s just so thrilling to come to the other side of a long journey like that. Let’s talk a couple other things I wanted to talk about with this particular book. Like I said, minus the whole “teenagers’ lives can really go off the rails” situation, which is very true, I really liked the way that Casey’s parents — the way their relationship was. It really felt very true in a lot of ways, and in hard ways because teenagers can be tricky. Did you draw on that from your parenting experience, from your childhood experience, or neither? Was that just how you saw Casey and her parents?

Corie: Definitely, part of it, the main gist of it was the angst that was happening between me and my parents during that time, during that first year. Like I said, I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was sad. I was angry. I was being difficult, for sure. I drew on that emotion. I don’t remember the rest of the question.

Julie: I don’t either because I’m just enthralled by what you’re saying. Everything that you’re saying, I’m just like, wow, that’s so true. What you were saying makes so much sense to me, that that toughness — you answered it. I was asking where you got that vibe or that feeling for Casey and her parents. That makes sense. You were drawing on what is natural for teenagers, and then you’re heightening it by this huge life shift, and especially for Casey since things were already fraught before they went. It was funny because as I was reading it, I thought, wow, in some ways, it is easy to write a teenager going down the wrong path because basically, you just know what’s right, and then you choose the opposite for them. Hey, you shouldn’t hang out with that person, so hang out with that person. See what happens.

Corie: Exactly. There’s no judgement. Okay, do this.

Julie: If I were trying to blow this up, what would I do? Perfect. The point of my question was that the way you wrote that was very truthful. It felt very true to, like we’re talking about — that time of life is so particular and has its own taste to it where you just think you know everything. Your parents are really dumb in those years, and so the idea that she’s having to push against all of that and they’re trying to do what’s best for her.

Corie: They think they’re doing what’s best for her. Part of what I like to play with in that whole dynamic is their expectations of her. Just because that’s what they want for her doesn’t mean, necessarily, that that’s what she should do. Although, she does.

Julie: That’s so true. Good point. I’m going to have to take notes on this for my therapist. This is just that constant game of — the parent-child relationship is so fascinating anyway. There’s so much to mine there. You’re exactly right. Maybe they’re rescuing her from one thing, but are they dooming her to something else or putting her in something else? That makes sense. Tell us about the title, The Marriage Box, for people that don’t know what the marriage box is.

Corie: The marriage box was actually a real place. It was in a beach club area that had a pool. Behind the pool area, there was a roped-off section for the teenage girls to go there, and boys would go ask them out on dates. In this Syrian Jewish community, marriage is a really important value. That’s a big goal, especially for the girls. I wanted to have nothing to do with the marriage box. That’s where the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls were hanging out to get these dates. I did not want to get married. I got a job as a waitress in the snack bar. I put that in. I just wanted to not be a part of it. They used to call the area the marriage box.

Julie: That’s so fascinating. That was one of those window moments where I was like, that’s not a thing I knew existed. We’ll put that on the list of things I learned. When you came into that world and you weren’t necessarily, like you said, keeping kosher, observing these other customs and traditions, what was that like for you in terms of trying to belong there?

Corie: Interesting. Really hard because a part of me was trying very hard to hold onto who I was. It was a very scary time, like we talked about before, when you’re trying to figure out who you are and your identity. Now to just be doing things very differently, it felt very scary to me to let go of who I had been in New Orleans. I was, on one hand, holding onto that, but on the other hand, finding myself in situations that were really uncomfortable and even embarrassing sometimes because I didn’t know the laws of keeping kosher or what was allowed and not allowed in a lot of different areas. Eventually, I started to follow more as it felt more comfortable to me. In the beginning, I was resistant.

Julie: That makes sense. I could see how that would be. Music is a huge theme in this book. I loved it. Was that something that you held onto during that time, that transition just to keep you grounded in who you were becoming, in what felt like your old life?

Corie: Absolutely. I used music then. Also, writing it in the book was so much fun.

Julie: I bet. You had so many good songs in there. I was trying to explain to my kids the other day how you had to wait for things to come on the radio. I remember calling the radio station to request the song I wanted. Everything’s so at their fingertips now. Reading about those songs and remembering how exciting it would be for those to come on, I loved that part of it. Are you still a big music person now?

Corie: No, not really. I love music. It’s not like I don’t love music, but I just don’t even know what’s current anymore. There’s a Marriage Box playlist that I listen to a lot.

Julie: Perfect. I’m going to pull that up because I bet it’s fantastic.

Corie: If you have trouble getting it, I’ll send you the link.

Julie: As I evidenced earlier, sometimes technology goes awry for me. You never can tell. I love a good easy hack. A couple more things I wanted to hit on. There’s something in the book about how — I never want to give too much away, which I don’t think this does. You put it this way, “Inherent in choosing is loss.” Is that something that you find true in your life? Was that something that was thematic for you that was staying there? I’d love to hear more about that.

Corie: Honestly, that was something I learned probably too late. I learned that kind of recently. I always have trouble making decisions. Then when that was framed for me that way more recently, let’s say four years ago, it made sense. It was so obvious. For whatever reason, it had never landed properly. It just made sense to me and felt right. Then it was easier for me to give myself a break when I was being hard on myself for having trouble for having to decide something.

Julie: Are you a perfectionist?

Corie: I don’t think so, but all those little quizzes and stuff kind of tell me I am. I don’t know. Maybe my kids would say I am.

Julie: That’s my favorite answer ever. The quizzes keep saying, but I’m sure they’re lying. I’ll find one that affirms what I believe.

Corie: What do those quizzes know, or my husband?

Julie: Never ask a spouse. No, no, no. Trouble lies that way. That really resonated with me because I do tend to be a perfectionist. I am often laboring under the idea that if I make all the right decisions, that I can be happy and that things are going to go perfectly, really. This idea that to say yes to one thing is to say no to someone else, you’re right, there is a freedom there where it’s okay. We’re choosing this and choosing it more fully. With the whole of yourself, acknowledging what you’re letting go feels like such a better way to live.

Corie: I think it’s easier than either trying to hold onto everything at the same time, and/or what you’re trying to do also sounds really difficult because how could you exactly plot and know your every move to give you the perfect life?

Julie: I can confirm it’s a terrible way to live. I don’t endorse it. Don’t it, anyone.

Corie: Nor my way. It took twenty years to write the book to get to that sentence.

Julie: That’s incredible, though. I love hearing that because it feels so universal to the way that books are created. We’re working our best at them, but also, there’s an element of what’s meant to be, what it’s supposed to be. I love that. The other thing I noticed in this book was that there are unlikely people that speak into Casey’s life especially. They weren’t characters I expected that would have an impact on her. Was that something that you set out to do? I don’t want to tell too much, like I said. Is that something that you thought of, that this person was going to be a real catalyst for her, or was it more like that developed as you wrote?

Corie: I think it developed as I wrote. I definitely had a fascination with that character and all the questions around who this person is. It started with just a fascination. I surprised myself with what was going to happen. I think that’s fun. I think it’s fun when you surprise yourself because then the hope and the wish is you surprise your reader as well.

Julie: Yes, you did surprise me with that one. It was delightful. I loved it. What is one thing that you think is a huge misconception about the Orthodox community that you wrote about in the book?

Corie: That the Orthodox community is one thing, that the entire Orthodox community looks, acts, and believes the same things instead of looking at it like any group of people, which is diverse and complex and nuanced. I think when you say Orthodox Jewish, people have a very specific visual that comes to mind. While that is absolutely a part of the culture, it’s more than that. That’s what I was looking to explore and show and represent.

Julie: What is one of the beautiful parts of that community that you see since you’ve been inside it and around it?

Corie: Of the Orthodox community?

Julie: Yeah, of the Orthodox community.

Corie: Oh, my gosh. I can talk about the Syrian Jewish .

Julie: Yes, I would love it.

Corie: They are really generous people, really generous, kind, hardworking, people who really care and who support not only one another, but important endeavors in the world. They’re really warm, good people. Family is a huge value in the community. That resonates with me. For someone like me or Casey and/or both of us, belonging is nice. Community life is nice.

Julie: Yes, absolutely, as long as you can, for you, stay out of the marriage box.

Corie: Exactly. Yes, it is nice. Of course, as any community, there are pitfalls. I talk about gossip and other things like that in the book and the things that are not necessarily the best qualities of the community because it is tight-knit and close. Overall, really lovely, lovely group of people that I’m proud to be a part of.

Julie: You do have a lovely honesty in this book that you’re speaking of now too. It’s people that are doing their best to love each other and to build toward what they believe is most important. It’s really cool to see that in the book too. Even in the characters that are more flawed, you see that. I think there’s a lot of grace that you put into this book. I think people are going to love it. I’m so excited.

Corie: Thank you. I really appreciate all you just said. That was so nice.

Julie: I mean it. This was a delightful surprise for me because I had not heard about the book. I’m so glad Zibby gave the opportunity to talk to you today. I just want to leave everyone with the fact that they need to — in addition to a playlist, I think in your spare time, you need to do a skin-care routine because you have the most stunning skin of anyone I’ve ever seen. We’re going to leave it with that. That’s the main takeaway. Read the book. Buy the book, obviously. Also, maybe you can just instruct us all because I did not believe you were a grandmother.

Corie: Thank you. That’s super nice.

Julie: My pleasure. I’ll be sure to let them know that we need to get some video on this so that it can be key for all to see. Corie, congratulations. Thank you for the time and for your thoughtful answers and for your wonderful book.

Corie: Thank you so much. This was lovely. So nice to meet you. Talking to you has been great.

Julie: You too. I’m so glad.



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