Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, GOOD COMPANY

Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, GOOD COMPANY

“The exciting thing about deciding to do something later in your life is that you have all these skills that you just didn’t have in your twenties.” Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney tells Zibby all about starting her career as a writer in her 40s, how the writing process has differed between her two novels, and getting high praise from her son on her latest book, Good Company.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cynthia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: Thank you for having me, Zibby. I’m really excited to talk to you.

Zibby: I have to say, your book, The Nest, was front and center for a whole year of my life. When my husband and I were dating before he became my husband, he rented this tiny little apartment here. We called it the nest. Your book came out at just the right time. We always had it. That was the doormat, essentially. That sounds wrong. You know what I mean.

Cynthia: I know exactly what you mean. I love that story. I haven’t heard one like that. That makes me happy that it has that double meaning for you.

Zibby: Yes, double meaning. Then when I heard you had another book coming, and then the book ended up, of course, being great, I was so excited. It’s full circle because now, of course, I live with my husband.

Cynthia: I hope you live with your husband.

Zibby: Yes. After this year, I don’t know. No, I’m kidding.

Cynthia: The 24/7, 365-day-a-year marriage has been interesting a lot. I feel like I have the easiest, most easygoing husband in the world, but you’re used to people coming and going.

Zibby: I’m like, you used to go on all these trips. How long have you been married?

Cynthia: I have been married twenty-nine years. We’ve been married thirty years in September.

Zibby: How did you meet?

Cynthia: We met at party in New York. I was twenty-six or twenty-seven. We were together five years before we got married, so a lifetime. I’ve known him longer than I haven’t.

Zibby: Wow. I read your article about sex toys in The New York Times.

Cynthia: Oh, gosh. That’s a classic.

Zibby: I know it’s from a while ago, but just to set the stage. You were like, you didn’t even want the book in the house. The peeping Tom, what a story.

Cynthia: Crazy story. That’s such a New York story, though. That was a huge moment for me. I had been working prior to that really just as a marketing and branding person and a copywriter. My kids were getting a little older. I felt like, I really want to write things that I want to write. I had always wanted to do that. For whatever reason at that point in my life I decided to take that desire more seriously. I wrote that piece. I sent it off to John Hodgman who was the editor of that page which doesn’t exist in The New York Times Magazine anymore. It was a column called True Life Tales. It was a humor column. When he published it and said such nice things about me and encouraged my writing, not to be melodramatic, but it really changed my life. Having that experience of The New York Times lands on your stoop on a, as we know, Saturday morning, and to open it up and see something I wrote in there was really a major moment in my life.

Zibby: Wow, as it should be. That’s a big deal. That’s a huge milestone for anybody.

Cynthia: Yeah, it was a big deal.

Zibby: Did you always love to write? Did you ever try writing fiction? When did fiction come into the picture? Tell me the whole thing.

Cynthia: I’ll try and make it short. I always loved to write. I, like most writers, always loved to read my entire childhood, read everything I could get my hands on. When I moved to New York City in my twenties, I had to have a job to pay the bills. I got a job as a writer. I always have worked as a writer, but I worked in the corporate communications, copywriting, marketing. I thought, I’ll do that, and then I’ll write in my spare time. I tried fiction writing. It was really hard. I wasn’t good at it right away. I thought that meant that I would never be good at it. I think I talked myself out of it. I talked myself out of even trying. Part of it was fear. Then I also felt — this is becoming, fortunately, less true. I didn’t know how to access that world. I grew up in a very middle-class family. I didn’t know people who wrote books or were painters or were sculptors. It felt like there was this universe that you needed to have grown up in New York or gone to the right schools or the right colleges or have the right contacts. I didn’t have any role models. I kind of didn’t know how to get there, so I didn’t do it for a really long time and did a good job of telling myself that I didn’t want to do it.

Then I got older. My husband and I made a life in New York. I did know those kind of people all of a sudden, people who were authors and worked for The New York Times and worked for The New Yorker and worked for National Public Radio. That world demystified for me a lot. My kids got older. I started thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I tiptoed into fiction. In the middle of all this, we moved to Los Angeles, which I think ended up being a real blessing. Living in Park Slope, it was very intimidating to say, I want to be a writer. I’m forty-seven years old, and I think I want to write a novel. It just felt like that clubhouse was not accessible to me. I also knew people who had been doing it since they were in their twenties who had figured it out in a way that I really hadn’t. I moved out here, and nobody was looking. I thought, okay, I’m going to give myself a year to figure out if this is really what I want to do. I took some classes at the UCLA Writers’ Extension, which is a wonderful program. My teachers there were very encouraging and said, “You should be doing this.” I decided to go to a low-residency MFA program in 2011, which was great because that really pushed me to write a lot. I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. That pushed me to really produce a lot of work. That’s where I started The Nest.

Zibby: Wow. Then it sold.

Cynthia: That’s the short version.

Zibby: I love it. I’m so interested. This is a great story. It’s also so inspiring. I’m in my forties too. Your life is never over. That’s such a misconception. I feel like the people I know who are my age are actually all doing really cool things. There’s some sort of renewal of energy that comes around now. This is hardly the end. This is the new beginning, especially for moms who have kids growing up, like you said.

Cynthia: I think the other thing that you really discount when you’re feeling intimidated by something is how much you’ve learned from running a family, being a mother, having whatever your first career was. The difference when I sat down at forty-eight and wrote the first piece of fiction that I’d written for a long time — I showed my friend a personal essay. She was like, “I think you should write this as a short story.” I was like, “I can’t write short stories.” She was like, “What do you mean? You just take this, and you make things up.” She looked at me like I was insane. I wrote it as a short story. I read it. Instead of thinking, this is terrible, I can’t do this, I thought, oh, that one paragraph I think is really good. I’ll just throw out the other paragraphs and write more like that. That’s the difference between being twenty-eight and forty-eight. I understood process and creativity and gave more credence to effort instead of thinking that writing fiction was some magical thing. I thought that people who wrote fiction just sat down and it kind of flowed out of them. I think that is true for some people, but not for the vast majority. The exciting thing about deciding to do something later in your life is that you have all these skills. You have all of these skills that you just didn’t have in your twenties. You have experience. It’s really satisfying.

Zibby: And not just the skills, but the perspective that you gain from what you’ve lived through. I think about what I tried to write when I was — same thing, right after business school. I’m like, oh, my gosh. It was right for then. If you took two books side by side, the life I’ve lived now is like fifty-seven lives compared to then.

Cynthia: I don’t want to see Cynthia’s twenty-eight-year-old novel. I have a pretty good idea of what it would’ve been. You’re right. It’s the benefit of getting older.

Zibby: Let’s talking about Good Company now that we’ve — usually, I do that first, but I was so interested. Good Company, tell listeners a little more about what it’s about and how you decided on this particular story to tell next after The Nest.

Cynthia: Good Company is about two married couples who have been friends for a very long time. Three of the people in this little configuration met when they were very young in New York as theater actors. Now they’re in their late forties. In the present time of the book, they live in Los Angeles. One of the characters finds a wedding ring that belonged to her husband that he told her many years prior he had lost while swimming in a pond. The plot is the unraveling of that story and how it impacts the four couples and their marriages and their friendship. To bring it full circle, I actually think what it’s about is hitting that point in your life where you are realizing that not everything ahead of you is opportunity, not everything’s possible, and taking stock about where you are, whether it’s in your marriage or your career. We all hit those moments. It can be triggered by a lot of different things, death, divorce, job loss, finding out that your husband lied to you about where he lost his wedding ring. It is very much a book about middle age. I guess it’s not really a coincidence that after I completely changed my life in middle age, I wrote a book about people facing that moment in their lives and having to decide how to move forward. It’s hard for me now, actually, to remember what I was thinking because I had the idea before I even finished The Nest. I love William Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I remember wondering why there weren’t more books about marriage and friendship and thinking maybe that’s where I should go next.

Zibby: That’s great. I was literally just telling someone yesterday — they were asking, “What kind of books do you like?” I was like, “Right now, I’m really liking books about middle age.” There was no celebration. Nothing told me I had entered it except for I clearly am in it now. No one says, okay, it’s your forty-third birthday, and now you’re going to be in middle age. All of a sudden, every so often people would say, “in middle age like us,” or something. I’m like, what? Books like yours and books like memoirs about people in middle age, I’m always looking to the stage I’m in and the stage slightly ahead of me. What’s coming next? What are my next five years, ten years, fifteen years going to look like? I feel like I use books so much as a guide for that. I think it’s great to have fiction address these questions that we’re all thinking of, especially now.

Cynthia: I think a lot of — I think this is true for me. When I’m starting to think about what kind of book I want to write, I’m really thinking about what kind of book I want to read. It does start with a question for me. With The Nest, I was like, how come more people aren’t writing about family and money? Everyone I know is dealing with it, especially as you reach middle age and your parents get older, in completely different ways, all super dramatic. Why aren’t there more books about that?

Zibby: Tell me about the difference between the process of writing The Nest and writing Good Company.

Cynthia: They were really different. I started The Nest at the very end of my MFA program, which was a real stroke of luck. My thesis mentor, he’s a writer I admire tremendously, he had just finished a novel. I was just working as quickly as I could to send him pages every month for as long as I had him to get all of his real advice and input. We worked on it together for about five months. When I graduated, I had probably half of it written. I had this real sense of urgency, not just because I’m old.

Zibby: You are not old.

Cynthia: Not just because I’m in the middle of my life, but because I had done this thing that had taken time away from my family. They were super supportive. I wanted to prove to everyone that I was serious. I wrote that book relatively quickly. Then when it came out in this way that was completely surprising to me, it really ate up a good year and a half of my life, which was an incredibly lucky thing to happen to me. It took a while to settle my brain back down and be ready to start something new. This book just took me longer. I think that part of it was that I very intentionally wanted to not write something that was like The Nest. I wanted to focus on a smaller number of characters and go deeper with them. It just took me longer. I didn’t write quite as quickly. I didn’t write as much every day as I did with The Nest. At first, that was frustrating. I was complaining to my husband one night. I was like, “I don’t feel like I’m in a groove.” He said, “No, you’re just in a different groove. The Nest was one groove. This is a different groove. The next book will probably be its own thing.” Once I calmed down and accepted, oh, yeah, this is what this book requires, it requires me to go a little more slowly, I was able to enjoy it a little more. I think it was harder.

Zibby: Are you working on another novel already?

Cynthia: No, I’m trying to start. Right now, I’m just doing all the promotion for Good Company. It’s not going to take up, sadly, as much of my time because there’s no book tour. There’s no traveling. I do want to get into something quickly. I’ve also had that idea for a while, so probably soon.

Zibby: Do your kids read your books?

Cynthia: Yeah, they love them. That’s a real joy. My kids are in their twenties. They are excited to get it. They’re just cheerleaders. My older son read it, read Good Company, when he was home for Thanksgiving. His girlfriend was also here. He said he finished the last page of the book and closed the book and said, “Thank god my mother doesn’t write shitty books.”

Zibby: That’s as high a praise as you could ever hope to get from a son. That’s great. I love it. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Cynthia: The advice I always have is, first of all, just read voraciously. Also, read aspirationally. Think about the writers you admire. Read their work. You absorb a lot. Then I think it’s really to understand that to get to the stuff that you love, you have to write the stuff you hate. Every first draft is just lacking. A good friend of mine always says to me when I’m frustrated in the middle of the first draft, “Just remember you’re telling yourself the story now. Then you’re going to get to the end and you’re going to go back and figure out how to make it a good story for the reader.” I try and remind myself of that. Just a really practical piece of advice is, I’m a firm believer in reading your work out loud. It’s incredibly helpful to me. It’s tedious, but your ear hears things that your eye just glances over. It makes everything better.

Zibby: I read everything I write to my husband.

Cynthia: It’s really helpful. It’s really, really helpful. Especially with a novel, there’s always a point, usually when I get the second-pass pages, I read the book out loud. There is inevitably a point where I’m getting bored in a scene. I want to skip ahead. I’m like, no, if that’s happening to me, this isn’t just because I know the book. This needs to be shorter. It needs to be tighter. There’s something missing. It just helps you in all kinds of ways. You can’t believe how often you use the same words. I’ve been writing all my life. I’m used to varying my terms and keeping an eye out for that, but you don’t agonize over every word while you’re writing a book because you can’t. You can’t take that time. You’ve got to get the story down.

Zibby: The last thing I wrote, I had forgotten to read it to my husband. I had sent it to some people. Then I was like, wait a minute, I forgot to read it to him. This is the baseline thing that I do. I don’t even put something on my website without reading it to him. I read it to him in bed. I looked over. He was sound asleep. I was like, oh, my god, it’s terrible. It’s terrible. It was the worst thing ever. He was like, “No, I didn’t mean that. I was just tired.” I was like, “You’re an insomniac. What do you mean?” It’s a good trick. Also, the writing classes, I took a class at UCLA Extension school a hundred years ago. My husband always jokes — we go to LA all the time. We’ll drive by. He’ll be like, “Your alma mater.” I’m like, “It’s not my alma mater.”

Cynthia: Anything you can do to create accountability for yourself is really important. I think protecting your writing time is really important. I try and look at each week. I really treat writing a novel as my job because it is. I treat every day as a workday. It’s a much more relaxed workday than if you were going to an office. I make my cup of coffee. I answer a few emails. Then that’s my block of writing time. A lot of writers say this. In the past year, I haven’t seen anyone, but from the days where you could see people, when I’m really in it, I don’t make any appointments before three PM. I protect that space just to keep myself accountable. If something happens that I have to not work one day between the hours of nine or ten to three, I will work on a weekend. I will make it up. I don’t write seven days a week, but I do really try and write five days a week. Even on the weekends, I try and even just look at the document, look at what I’ve worked on during the week just to keep my head in the book all the time. It helps you.

Zibby: Another author — I wish I could remember who this was. I should go back and search. It was a woman, I know. She said what helped her the most is just opening the document every day. Just open the document. I thought that was such good advice. Once you see it, then you want to start doing something.

Cynthia: The other thing I tell people, especially beginning writers, is thinking is working. When you’re a writer, it’s very easy to get wedded to word count. How many words did I write today? I do set a goal for myself. Especially early on or at transition points or when you reach a place in the novel where you’re not sure where you’re going next, a lot of it is just having that open document in front of you and thinking about it. I’m a pacer. Sometimes it’s walking around my house trying to talk out what might happen or think about what might happen. Sometimes at the end of those days you have no real words to show for yourself, but you have worked. You have worked. As long as you’re putting yourself into the world of the book for some amount of time, you’re working. It’s a lot more satisfying when you can say, I wrote fifteen hundred words today, but it’s all work. It all counts.

Zibby: It all counts. That’s like a play on word count, the expression. How to make words count. I don’t know. Something clever that I can’t think of. Anyway, thank you. I’m sorry we didn’t really go into the nuts and bolts of the book, but I’ve so enjoyed getting to know you. Sorry for that, but you indulged me.

Cynthia: It’s great. I’ve loved talking to you. I’m really thrilled to be invited. Thank you so much for including me.

Zibby: I’ve had your book for months. I feel like I got it first. It was bound with black — they were like, “Here, take it.” I was like, “Of course. Don’t worry.” I got it. I hope to meet you in person someday. I’m going to be in LA a lot this summer. Who knows?

Cynthia: books. I’m in New York all the time. Hopefully, in the vaccinated times we’ll…

Zibby: Yes, exactly. It was great to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Cynthia: Bye-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, GOOD COMPANY

Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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