Julie Buxbaum, ADMISSION

Julie Buxbaum, ADMISSION

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Julie Buxbaum: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to do this.

Zibby: Me too, finally. I feel like we met so long ago now. It was months and months. I’m delighted we’re doing this.

Julie: Thank you.

Zibby: As I just was telling you, you’re a really great writer. It was really a pleasure to read this book, and so topical. Can you please tell listeners what Admission is about?

Julie: Admission is about this girl, Chloe Wynn Berringer, who at first glance seems to have everything. She just got asked to the prom by the boy she’s had a crush on since middle school. Her mom, who’s a B-list celebrity, is on her way to the B+ list. She just got into the college of her dreams. She is living the life until one day her doorbell rings at six AM in the morning. The FBI shows up to arrest her mother in a nationwide college admissions scandal. From there, her entire life falls apart. It basically asks the question, first of all, what did Chloe know and when did she know it? Will her mother go to jail? Will she go to jail? More importantly, it fundamentally asks, what does it mean to be complicit?

Zibby: And what does it mean to want to achieve? What does the success really mean? What does achievement mean to her mom? What does it mean to her? Just adding my two cents.

Julie: Yep, and at what cost? What are we selling?

Zibby: At what cost? Exactly. You had this interesting note at the beginning about how you were mid-work on another novel and then this whole scandal broke. You felt you were cheating on the characters you had been writing on by wanting to write this book. Tell me what that process was like. What happened?

Julie: When the story broke, I started reading the articles just like everybody else, except I wasn’t like everybody else. I became unhealthfully obsessed. It’s all I could think about. I used to be a lawyer, and so I ended up reading the two-hundred-page complaint. I got suddenly really wrapped up in what wasn’t being covered by the media. I felt like the media definitely focused on the adults, for good reason because they were the ones who were arrested. I kept thinking about what it must be like to wake up one morning and have your entire reality change fundamentally and what it must be like to be the teenagers at the center of this huge media fallout. Then I started thinking about this character, Chloe. I fully understood who she was from day one. Slowly, that story started to unfold in my mind. I knew exactly what was going to happen. I took a few days to just figure out if there was a full novel there before I sent that email to my agent and editor being like, hey, can I drop the book I’m writing and write this whole other thing? Is that okay? I just knew. Every once in a while as a writer, you can see the whole thing. It doesn’t happen often. It’s super lucky when it does. In this case, I could just see it. I did. I thought about it for a few days. Then I called my agent and editor. I was like, “Please don’t kill me, but can I write this whole other book and put aside the hundred and fifty pages I’ve already written?” They were totally game. They were like, “Just as long as you write fast,” and I did.

Zibby: What happened to those characters that you cheated on? What happened to that book?

Julie: I have reconciled with them. We’ve been hanging out lately. I’m working on that book now.

Zibby: See, so it all worked out.

Julie: It did. It’s funny. I kind of feel like they’re still a little mad at me. They’re a little bit slower to show themselves. It hasn’t been as natural a process as Admission was. It’s partially, I think, because I left them. They’re like, I’m a little pissed off, Julie. I’m not going to reveal myself as easily this time.

Zibby: There is no lack of you bringing your characters to life. You are in conversation with them. I guess that’s what it takes. To make them seem so real in a book, you have to actually believe that they’re real.

Julie: They do feel very real to me. I realize that sounds a little bananas. Often in the novel-writing process, there seems to be some outer force that you can’t control. You just have to let yourself be open to it. Sometimes it’s easier and sometimes it’s harder, which is probably one of the most frustrating things about what I do.

Zibby: I have to say, I feel like some characters in fiction are so real that I still think about them the way I would an old friend. As the writer, you must have to have that to the nth degree to be able to convey that to the reader. I mean, this is obvious.

Julie: One weird thing about that, though, is they feel so real to me when I’m writing the book, but once the book is out in the world, I actually completely let them go and stop thinking about them. They sort of now no longer belong to me and now belong to the reader, which is something I didn’t expect. Often, I’ll revisit a book I’d previously written for some reason, maybe an interview or something. I’ll be like, oh, my god, I have no memory of having written any of this. It happened in a whole other state. It’s really bizarre.

Zibby: That’s sort of how I feel about the kids’ whole childhoods, the beginning years. I’m like, I know I was there. I see the pictures. I don’t know what your first word was. I don’t remember.

Julie: There’s no processing whatsoever. You’re just getting through it.

Zibby: Yeah, just getting through.

Julie: The whole thing is like childbirth, I think. Making books and childbirth are ridiculously similar. One’s a little uglier.

Zibby: I feel like, though, the way you’re saying about sending your kids into the world, you’re almost a surrogate. You’re acting as a surrogate for the child versus the mother, in a way, because then you just say goodbye.

Julie: You hand it off. Exactly. I think surrogacy is actually a really great example.

Zibby: Now that we nailed that… Like you, by the way, I was totally riveted and obsessed with the admissions scandal, probably not quite as deep a dive into the whole thing as you took. It was hard not to wonder and think about, oh, my gosh, these poor kids if they didn’t know. Or did they know? If they didn’t know, how that would feel and to feel like that their parents had so little faith in them, in a way, that they would be willing to do all of this behind their backs. What does that say about their confidence? How are these kids going to process? When you were doing all this research, did you end up talking to any of the actual people this happened to or any celebrity children or people who have had some scandal like this happen to them? Was it more your imagination?

Julie: No, I intentionally didn’t because I wanted to make sure I told my character’s story, and that’s a fictional story. I wasn’t trying to tell the actual college admissions story. Those people will probably write their own books one day. I didn’t want to steal their stories. I was more interested in this particular character who is wrestling with what she knew and what she didn’t know. I found I had real empathy for her, but I didn’t always like her. I thought that was important as the author, not to be a hundred percent on board with everything she did because she made a million mistakes throughout the book. What was more interesting to me was the thematic concept of willful ignorance and doing a deep dive into when we know things but don’t really know them, or we know things but we don’t want to know them, and what that feels like in our bodies and our minds. I did do some research on shame and vulnerability, though.

Zibby: Not that you had to. I was just wondering. When Chloe tells her mom when she overhears her mom trying to basically sell her diagnosis of ADHD which she doesn’t even have so that she can take her SATs on time, she was like, “Time isn’t the problem. Not being able to figure out the answers is.” Tell me about this, how she first started to get some glimmers and how that came to be.

Julie: I think what’s so interesting about the college admissions scandal is that it’s so much bigger than the college admissions scandal. It just sort of highlights all these bigger issues that are going on in society. The people who were arrested in the college admissions scandal are not the first people to get their kids a diagnosis to get them better times on a test. This has been going on for years and years and years where people literally pay a doctor to give their kids a diagnosis so they get more time on a test not only in high school, but for when they go to college so they can do better there too. It’s just one of the many ways in which people who have a lot of money can buy their way into better outcomes for their children. It’s this interesting space where kids who are at the center of it may or may not know whether a diagnosis actually fits. They’re not an expert. An adult is telling them that it fits. It goes along with this whole thematic question of over-trusting experts, in a sense, buying your way into more information as opposed to trusting your instincts.

Zibby: Interesting. Do you feel like your book is trying to give some sort of lesson or take a point of view on it? Were you trying to do that, or were you just trying to paint the picture and let the reader decide?

Julie: I don’t like to moralize. Instead, I like to have characters wrestle with questions. I think a lot of these questions don’t actually have answers, or definitive answers at least. Instead of taking this higher moral ground, instead, I just wanted to examine these questions that have come up for these particular people and also come up in my everyday life too as a parent.

Zibby: It’s so true. It’s always like, how do you make sure your kid has the opportunities for success, but within reason? They are who they are. That’s why I feel one of the saddest parts is maybe Chloe, she shouldn’t be at that particular school. That’s not going to be the right college for her. Maybe she’d be really happy at a different college that would be a much better fit, and not just Chloe, but so many people. I personally have moved my kids’ schools so many times because I really believe they need the right school for them. It might have a great name and all, but if it’s not the right fit, it is not going to do anyone any favors in the long run. I think that even when I pulled my kid out of one school, people are like, you’re so brave. I’m like, I’m not brave. This is my child. I’m trying to maintain their sanity.

Julie: I think that’s exactly right, but I think it’s really difficult to figure out actually what the right thing is for your kid when you’re living in this larger community of people who are telling you something different than what you believe. If my neighbor’s kid is having her daughter take Mandarin in fourth grade, should my daughter be taking Mandarin? No, my daughter should not be taking Mandarin. She’s not interested in Mandarin. There’s always this moment of, if my larger community is doing something and all these other kids are getting this advantage, am I hurting my child by taking this different stand? I think it gets really complicated.

Zibby: It’s really a shame because I feel like in mothering or parenting or fathering or whatever, these questions come up. It’s almost like you’re being taught to not trust your instincts at all, and in the most intimate relationship in your entire life where you know the person better than anything. It really, actually, makes no sense when you think about it. I’m just like you. Oh, everybody signed up for this class. I don’t know. Do I care if my daughter can needlepoint, whatever it is that everybody seems to be doing when I know it’s not right?

Julie: I totally agree. I think there’s also this weird culture of putting your kids first above the community. That’s also really uncomfortable. I haven’t quite figured out how you make that all work. I’m trying to think of a really basic example. There was this piece in New York magazine maybe five, ten years ago. I remember reading it. It stuck with me. They posed this question about ethical parenting. One of the questions they said is, say your kid has this really important standardized test tomorrow, but just before your kids goes to bed you notice they have lice. Do you keep them up late combing out the lice, or do you pretend like you haven’t seen the lice and you send your kid to school to take the standardized test so they won’t be tired and they’ll be best prepared but your kid probably knows you know they have lice? What lesson are you teaching your kid by sending them with lice? What lesson are you teaching your kid by keeping them home up too late for the SAT or whatever test it is? There are a million micro-examples of this in parenting where you have to balance — I think a lot of people tend to put their kid above the community when we should be putting the community above our kids.

Zibby: I’m talking to you now in the midst of the coronavirus. We’re all stuck at home. This is so timely.

Julie: We’re all hoarding toilet paper because we want to make sure that we have enough at the expense of our neighbors. I know I’ve spent many hours talking to my friends about, what is hoarding here? If I can get that extra box of wipes, should I? Should I save it for someone else? It’s impossible to know any of these answers. I feel like the first step, at least, is to notice our privilege and to grapple with it.

Zibby: The grocery store where I am ended up limiting people to two items. You could only take two of the same types of items. They were policing it at the end because there was no internals checks and balances. It’s obviously hard for everybody to know.

Julie: And then also to remember that we’re talking about toilet paper in the coronavirus. Five seconds ago, I was talking about Mandarin lessons. Mandarin lessons do not matter. As parents, we sort of forget our privilege bubbles. For a second, it does seem like it matters, but it doesn’t matter.

Zibby: No, it doesn’t matter. None of it matters, really. Now that we’re home, all those extracurriculars, we don’t need them. I don’t know about you. My kids are in school. Then they had stuff after school, especially my littlest guy who’s still in preschool. Now all the after-school places are getting in touch to be like, we’ve developed a Zoom thing for after school. I’m like, no way. If I could get them through a couple hours of school, are you kidding me? Forget it. He’ll just play. During the year at school, you don’t say that. You don’t have that same attitude.

Julie: I think there’s something really important about teaching our kids, first of all, how to be bored, how to be resilient. These are the exact opposite of the things that are taught by overscheduling them and making sure they’re taking Mandarin and everything. I don’t know why I keep bringing up Mandarin as the example, but I think you get my point.

Zibby: Yeah, I get your point.

Julie: I feel like I’m going so way off topic. I’m so sorry.

Zibby: No. You know what? I find this really interesting. This is what it’s all about. Everybody out there who has a child or who has friends with children or whatever, this is the culture. This is the pressure. Your book is just a total perfect example. It’s the cherry on top of the whole thing. That’s the wrong analogy. This is like the — I can’t even find the words — the extreme example of the whole phenomenon. I think it’s topical.

Julie: The reason why it struck such a chord with so many people, the scandal itself, is I think it works its way down through all segments of society. It’s not just the very top. I think middle-class parents are also struggling to keep their kids doing all these things. Competitive parenting has sort of taken over as the model and the dream. Not dream, the parenting you’re supposed to be doing when in fact it’s making all of us struggle.

Zibby: When does it end? When is it okay? Is it okay to have an SAT tutor? All these things that we take for granted. Should nobody go out and buy those SAT books? How far back do we have to go?

Julie: That’s one of the questions I wanted to ask with the book. I don’t know. My character starts to question all of those things. This is someone with great privilege who hasn’t actually taken the time to examine her own privilege. One of the great joys of the book was forcing her to do that.

Zibby: I love how in the beginning her mother — and I love how you say going from a B to a B+ actress. How does one even know that they’re crossing that threshold? That’s my question. In the beginning, she has this whole photoshoot for, I think, Marie Claire where she’s making pancakes. She’s dressed in all color-coordinating clothes. Her friend comes over and is like, basically, “What’s up with your mother?” She’s like, “Oh, no, photoshoot. She would never be doing this on a Saturday morning. That’s not the type of mom she is.” It also raises into question just the very crux of the mother-child or parent-child relationship and that trust. I know I mentioned this before. What does it say if your mother is saying that she doesn’t believe in you, really? What does that mean?

Julie: Exactly. One thing that was really important to me when writing the book is, yes, the mom is the villain of the story. At no point does anyone question her guilt except for maybe the mom herself. Everyone else knows she is guilty. That is at no point part of the story. She is also an incredibly loving mother and cares deeply about her child. Obviously, she goes about it completely the wrong way, but at no point do we doubt whether she loves Chloe and wants what’s best for her. She just got confused, I guess. That’s probably the kindest way to put it, messed up in her own way of trying to do what was best for her daughter, also what was best for her. There’s a whole reputational angle to all of this as well. It poses the question about whether this kind of parenting, this hyper-snowplow, clearing all obstacles for your kid so your kids can climb as high as they can possibly climb is actually what’s best for children. It teaches them that we don’t think they’re capable. Whether they see it or not, they eventually learn that lesson that they couldn’t do it on their own. I think that’s really dangerous. That’s what we see Chloe coming to terms with.

Zibby: You did a good job. I feel like this such a good book club type — people are going to sit around and be like, what do you think? What would you do in that situation? It’s such a conversation starter because it’s a topic that’s on all of our minds. It’s great.

Julie: If anyone out there is doing any Zoom book clubs, I am free because I am not leaving my house.

Zibby: I just started a Zoom book club, actually.

Julie: I saw. That’s awesome.

Zibby: I just did that. Maybe we can make that work. Let’s see what else. One thing that I also thought really propelled this story along was how you did alternating chapters between now and then until it basically all came together. That was so cool. How did you come up with that? Was that part of your initial vision when you saw the whole thing?

Julie: Yes, exactly. I knew that from the very beginning. I had never done a before and now type thing. With this particular story, I felt like it needed it for narrative suspense because the then of her — let me just explain what it is in the book. The book starts with the FBI coming and arresting Chloe’s mom. Then it flips back to the fall of her senior year when she’s applying to colleges. Then each chapter goes back and forth between then and now. I felt like the narrative suspense of the then needed us to already know what happened in the now. Each action, we’re watching from this way higher narrative level of knowing what’s really happening while Chloe doesn’t actually. I felt like the narrative suspense wasn’t, did they cheat? The narrative suspense is Chloe’s awareness of how much they cheated and when.

Zibby: Yeah, which is super interesting.

Julie: I felt like it unfolds in a different way because of that.

Zibby: It made it really page turning, plus the short chapters. It wasn’t a thriller at all, but it had that same kind of intensity, pacing, as one of those types of books, I thought.

Julie: Thank you. I really wanted it to be propulsive. I wanted you not to want to put it down.

Zibby: I was going to say propulsive, but I feel like I’ve been using that word so often.

Julie: It’s a slightly gross word, right?

Zibby: At first, I heard it and I was like, ooh, propulsive. Then I overused it. Now I’ve put propulsive back in the drawer for now. But yes, propulsive.

Julie: I feel like it’s kind of like moist. It just has a slightly off grossness to it.

Zibby: In terms of what’s next, you’re working on your new/old novel and resurrecting it. Is that your full time — are you able to work on it now while you’re in isolation?

Julie: Not really. I’m trying. I’m trying very hard. I’ll be honest. I have not figured out my quarantine rhythm. Having two kids home, homeschooling, keeping my house in order, cooking three meals a day plus snacks — so many snacks. I don’t understand all the snacks. My kids want dinner every night. Every night, they want to eat. Theoretically, I am writing, but I have not actually had the focus required to write the way I need to write right now. I actually haven’t been reading as much as I want to be. I find my brain is so scattered, but I’m trying. I’m hoping next week I’ll figure it out.

Zibby: I’ve been hearing that a lot. You’re not alone in that.

Julie: I need to quit Twitter. I think that’ll change things for me.

Zibby: I do not let myself look at the news until the evening otherwise I can’t get anything done during the day. That’s my newest thing. The world could burn down. If something major happens, my husband will tell me. I don’t look. I just don’t look.

Julie: That’s really smart.

Zibby: What advice do you have to aspiring authors?

Julie: My number-one piece of advice to aspiring authors is to read, and to read everything, but not to read as a reader but to read as a writer. When you’re reading a book and it particularly works for you and it’s flowing and it’s magic, stop the magic, rewind, and figure out why it’s magical. Why does this character matter to you? Why is this plot interesting? On a sentence level, why is the prose singing for you? If you’re reading a book and it kind of isn’t capturing you, do exactly the same thing. Ask the questions. Why isn’t it working? What is this author doing? What is this author doing right? What is this author doing wrong? Every book is a masterclass in novel writing. Then sit your ass down and write. That’s the other important tip. You got to write.

Zibby: I love that. Thank you, Julie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for the book and this really interesting discussion.

Julie: Thanks so much for having me. I probably should’ve talked more about the book. I’m sorry I went off on this whole — .

Zibby: No, this is all related to the book. It’s not like we were talking about learning bridge or something.

Julie: How to source toilet paper. We didn’t go there.

Zibby: Exactly. Hang in there. Take care. Thank you. Bye.

Julie: Thank you so much, Zibby. Bye.

Julie Buxbaum, ADMISSION