Laura Zigman, SMALL WORLD

Laura Zigman, SMALL WORLD

Zibby is joined by bestselling author and repeat MDHTTRB guest Laura Zigman to discuss Small World, a tender and quirky novel about two newly divorced sisters who move back in together and finally confront a tragedy of their past–the death of their disabled sister. Laura reveals how her own life experiences inspired this story, sharing the intimate details of her sister’s passing, her childhood in a sad household, the stigma around therapy in the 70s, and her recent desire to learn more about her past. She also talks about her book’s most memorable elements–the fascinating sister dynamic, the hysterical neighborhood app poems, and the tragicomedy of it all. Finally, she reveals the new projects she has in the works!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Laura. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Small World.

Laura Zigman: Thanks for having me. I am thrilled to be back.

Zibby: Your book was so good. I feel like it’s particularly good knowing what you relayed in the book about your own personal background and how it tied into the story. Would you mind sharing for listeners what Small World is about, but also your personal connection to it?

Laura: Sure. The book is about two adult divorced sisters who move in together after their divorces. There’s that comic element of what that would be like. It was a real opportunity for me to finally write about my family. In the novel, the two sisters, Lydia and Joyce, are thrown together in this situation, and then they end up dealing with their childhood. In their childhood, they had a middle sister, Eleanor, who was developmentally disabled and physically disabled with cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. She died when she was ten. That completely shaped their childhood, as those things do. For my family, the truth of my story was that I had a sister. I had an older sister, oldest sister, Sheryl, who was born first. She died at seven from a very rare bone disease. My sister, who lives in LA, my sister Linda, and I, she was five and I was three when our sister Sheryl died. We really didn’t know her, so it wasn’t that kind of sibling loss. There are all kinds of things like that. We didn’t really know her, but my parents did, and so we grew up really shaped by this experience because it completely changed our parents and who they may have been. It was also the 1970s, and things like that weren’t really — therapy wasn’t really a thing yet and all that. My sister and I now as adults, we talk about this stuff. There’s not that much to talk about for us in terms of, we didn’t know her, but we talk about what it was like to grow up in that kind of environment. Lydia and Joyce in the book are very much shaped — their circumstances, again, are slightly different because their sister lived with them. Their sister was the absolute main focus of their mother, Louise, who was a real activist for disability rights in the seventies. That’s very different.

Zibby: Your sister did live you, or she didn’t live with you?

Laura: It’s funny. She lived with us. She was born in 1958. Then at six months old, she was diagnosed with this very rare thing. Both my parents are gone. My father was so, I use the word obsessed. I don’t mean it in any way other than he was obsessed with her for his whole life. There was a part of me that didn’t want to ask too many questions because I sort of felt like he talked about it so much and that I was kind of tired. By the time I was in my fifties, I was tired of hearing about it. It’s kind of like, well, I’m here. My other sister’s here. I regret that so much. I regret not asking more questions. After they were both gone, I did get really curious, a little too late. In the research for this book, I did find a few photographs. There was one in particular of Sheryl with my sister Linda, and they were at home. Sheryl must have been about two, maybe two and a half. I’ll never get an answer because there’s no one to ask. I had the picture framed for my sister because I thought, wow, they actually did overlap. My sister Linda was probably six months old or something like that. It’s one of those things. I just wish I had more information. My sister Sheryl was institutionalized at a place called Fernald in Boston. Those records are sealed. You have to get a lawyer. Even then, the records may not exist. I’m just so curious. Luckily when you write fiction, you can take a few facts and then make your own story out of it.

Zibby: I saw that you said Caroline Leavitt worked at Fernald as an intern, which I couldn’t believe. Small world.

Laura: Yeah, and — I’m so bad with names lately. Eileen Myles, the poet, she worked there. There are all these people that worked there or had something to do with Fernald, which was a really well-known place, good and bad.

Zibby: The scene in Small World when — I feel like it’s not giving anything away, but if it is… When their sister goes and the scene where they’re waving goodbye, oh, my gosh, and then the going back to the house. I finished reading this book, and I just held it in my hands. My husband Kyle was like, “I always know when you finish a really good book because you just sit there, and you hold it and look at the cover for a really long time afterwards.”

Laura: You know what’s really interesting/funny about what you just picked out? When I was doing some research and I couldn’t really get any information because of the nature of the privacy laws here in Massachusetts, I contacted a guy. He’s a writer. He teaches at Harvard School of Government. He’s this great guy named Alex Green. He’s an expert in all of these issues. He put me in touch with a person whose brother lived in the same building that my sister lived in at the same time. I actually got on the phone with him. I was so curious. I was like, “How often did your family go?” He described that he had a big family. They would all get in the station wagon, probably one of those paneled station wagons, and they would drive over. Their mother would go up, and all the kids and the father would stay in the station wagon. They would wave. Then she would come down, and the father would go up because the kids weren’t allowed to go up. It was just this incredible visual thing. It was an amazing thing to be able to talk to someone who remembered that kind of thing.

Zibby: It’s not surprising the details are so vivid. There are so many things. You also have the dynamic, in their fifties, of the two sisters, one of whom is probably on the spectrum of some kind, but never overtly whatever, and how she’s dealing with — I love how you even said at some point, she’s not like this with everybody, but she notices people’s shapes and then says things. It’s a totally different way of interpreting another person, which I thought was really interesting. The longing that — what are these characters’ names again? I’m blanking on all of —

Laura: — Lydia and Joyce.

Zibby: Right, Lydia and Joyce. Joyce has this sense of longing for her sister so much. She’s finally come home. Of course, in your signature wit, you’re like, it’s about time already, isn’t it?

Laura: You don’t have a sister, right? You just have a brother.

Zibby: I have a brother.

Laura: There’s the comedy and the tragedy with siblings. Just like Lydia in the book, my sister moved away to California right after college. She went to . She just wanted to live on the West Coast. I totally understood, except that it was very far. For years, I always imagined, what would it have been like if we had lived closer? In some ways, it would’ve been great. Our kids would’ve been — in other ways, it was probably a good thing that we lived — because then when we’d see each other, it was really nice. You miss out on all that. Joyce is definitely — all she wants as a younger sister is to get her older sister’s attention. There’s so much comedy. When I thought about the setup for this, which was sort of based on a real situation where we lived in an apartment in Cambridge, Mass — the people above us, new people came and moved in. All of a sudden, there was all this noise. Just like in the book, they had built an actual yoga studio above our heads. It was a business. I was like, this is a house. It was very comical and maddening. Now when maddening things happen like that, I think, this is just my next book. I thought, I’ll write the same thing. A couple lives downstairs and upstairs. Then I thought, I just wrote about a couple. I don’t ever want to write about another couple or about marriage. Then I thought, oh, what if they were sisters? Sisters really push each other’s buttons too. I knew if my sister moved in with me, part of her would be like, yeah, it’s very annoying, and then the other part would be like, I’m so much more chill than you. I want to take the yoga — you know what I mean? She would want to sort of engage. It was really fun to write those parts.

Zibby: It reminded me of the funny troupe of performers who came in in Separation Anxiety. I’m like, who are the characters? Who’s blasting onto this scene and shaking things up? That was funny. The attention you had to all the details of their conversations and what you can say and what you can’t say to set each other off, you just nailed that. When Lydia rearranges all the furniture and Joyce comes home and is like, “Okay, I can’t say this, but I can’t say that. I can’t do this, and I can’t do that. She wins if I do this,” it’s so funny.

Laura: Thank you. Whether it’s a sibling or your parents, it’s a minefield with family. There’s just so many triggers with what you say and what they say and how they trigger you. It’s funny to me. It’s really funny. Now it’s funny. There was a time when that kind of stuff wasn’t funny because it was real. Now it’s like, oh. We get along now. Everything’s fine. There’s a lot of humor in it for me.

Zibby: It’s like everybody’s really driving a bumper car in the family. You have to either back up or — you have to be so careful. To your point about how people didn’t talk about it as much in the seventies and everything, you have another scene where the mom takes the two girls to the beach soon after. I don’t know what is wrong with me. I can’t remember anybody’s names. Their sister goes to —

Laura: — Eleanor.

Zibby: Eleanor goes to the institution. She’s on the beach with the other moms. She says she’s never read as much because the moms don’t want to talk about — oh, no, this is after Eleanor passes away. She says, nobody wants to talk to me about having a dead child. They want to talk about nothing, whatever. She’s like, what could I do? I just read. I’ve never felt so alone.

Laura: That’s the thing. It was hard being raised in a family that was sad. Yet who could blame them? Like I said, it was the seventies. My father ended up going to a therapist, but it was still very much like — my parents were first generation. For my mother, the fact that he was going was like — first-generation people like that were often like, you were mentally ill if you were seeing a psychiatrist. That’s how they pronounce it. You’re seeing a psychiatrist, like you’re going to have a breakdown. It was very shameful. I know she was embarrassed that he was going. For her, she didn’t talk about it much. Just like in the scene, no one wants to talk about that. No one wants to talk about it now either. Most people who lose a child — you did a great interview with Rob Delaney. I blurbed that book. I saw him in Boston. He’s amazing. There are so many people like him. Who wants to talk about it, usually? Except when people like him really open up that conversation, they make all the people who have been through it — you’re like a pariah. People think it’s almost contagious. They don’t want to hear about it. There was a really amazing piece just last night on about the siblings of Newtown and Sandy Hook and what those siblings of those kids — it’s been ten years — what they feel. That’s a conversation that needs to be had too because they’re sort of the forgotten people in it. There’s so much grief to go around, but that’s a whole aspect of it that I’m glad is finally getting some attention to.

Zibby: Grief and joy go hand in hand so much too. Sometimes people are happy to talk about someone because they get to think about them and talk about them and share. I just interviewed Lois Lowry, which was really amazing. I had read that she had lost a child. I was sort of afraid to ask. Can I ask her about this? I gently asked. She totally lit up to talk about him. She’s like, oh, my gosh, he was so amazing. I was so happy, then, that she was talking about him. If you’re always afraid to ask, you don’t know. You assume you’re bringing on pain, but like you said in the book, like I forgot, like I was going to forget.

Laura: It’s great. I know you’re publishing some people who are writing about grief. It’s so much in the public conversation now, sadly, because of COVID and all that. It is something that is really helpful for people, especially for whom loss is really fresh or for people who have had years and years of it with this expectation that they’re just supposed to move on and get over it.

Zibby: It’s almost impossible to get through life without having any grief. How does one do that if you live long enough? You might as well figure out a way to deal with it. The marriage between the parents is also really interesting, the effects on the marriage and what happens when there is an event like this. That’s another thing that you never know. You hear so many marriages split up after a loss of a child, but then there’s this closeness, like what Rob Delaney talks about, in the throes of it, the passion, and how you cling to each other. I found it interesting how you depicted the relationship between the parents.

Laura: For the parents in the book, the father was an orthodontist, and he was sad also, but Louise, the mom, was just so committed to this inclusion, so everything revolved around Eleanor. The whole family dynamic revolved — Eleanor was the center of attention. That’s a great thing too. There’s just always a cost. No matter what you do, whether you have special needs kids or non-special need kids or whatever, your choices are always going to be wrong for somebody or cost somebody. If you do the great thing of putting the special needs child in the center, then you feel like — in this particular case, Joyce and Lydia were slightly neglected. It was the seventies, so benign neglect. I’m a little older than you, so I was truly raised in the seventies. I did have a shoelace with a key on it, but everyone did. Nobody talked about their feelings. Are you eating? Are you this? You’re fine.

Especially for Joyce and Lydia, they just were not really considered. They were walking and talking. They didn’t need help. They weren’t in a wheelchair. They didn’t need help eating or anything like that, so they were fine. They were fine, but they weren’t fine. That’s always the case. The father had a little bit more sense of that, but he obviously wasn’t much help in that regard. Louise really was committed to that. It was a parents’ movement in the seventies. My parents were actually both very — Sheryl died when she was seven. There was a parents’ group. They stayed involved for probably over twenty years fundraising and doing all kinds of stuff, which was incredible. We knew those families for a really long time. Most of those kids — they were called retarded children at the time — they were in their forties and fifties when I still knew them. It was kind of amazing that they stayed in that world.

Zibby: Wow. Then of course, you have all the poems, which are so creative, the poems that you made from the message board, the Neighbor Next Door or whatever.

Laura: Do you have Nextdoor, the app?

Zibby: I have it for LA, yes. It’s really funny.

Laura: I have a friend who is a professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore. He’s a big American studies professor. He’s an old friend of mine. A couple times a year, he’ll post on Facebook. He’ll just take his — I don’t know if his is Nextdoor or just a regular thing, listserv. The absurdity — he would just take a post straight from the site. He would cut it into stanzas, lines, and it would be a poem. He hadn’t changed a word. I was like, I love this so much. I want to marry it. I just became obsessed. Then I was like, I’m going to try it myself, and so I did it. The first one was a lost cat. I was like, oh, I’m obsessed. I could do this for a job. Will somebody pay me? Then of course, nobody would. I wove that in. I was so excited at the beginning that I think my first draft I turned in to my publisher — I was like, “No, the poems are real.” She was like, “Oh, you can’t do that.” I was like, “But they’re so good.” I loved the fact that they were real. Then I took them all out, and I did my own.

Zibby: I assumed they were real.

Laura: They were so good. The real ones were so good. I did have to redo them for legal purposes, but I was inspired. I had all these little folders that were lost cats. Then there was tons of weird stuff and then bad neighbors. You have turkeys, big turkey threads. I had lots to work with. Then I just did it myself. There were so fun. I also want to explain they could’ve been much better poems if that was the point, but they had to be kind of based on…

Zibby: They couldn’t be that good because it had to be believable. You were so funny too. You’re like, why do people keep losing their cats? Can these people just keep their cats inside, please?

Laura: Honestly, enough. They don’t want to come back. You write. I’m sure you procrastinate as much as the rest of us. I found when I was writing this book, if/when I hit a wall, I would say, okay, I’m going to go on Nextdoor. I would just troll and look for potential poems. That was always a great way to kill some time.

Zibby: I don’t procrastinate. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Laura: You should start trolling on Nextdoor.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s a great distraction to my . Did it take you a long time to do this one? It couldn’t have. I feel like it just came out so fast.

Laura: It’s funny. I sold it right during COVID, so the summer of 2020. I was like, oh, I’m home in my house doing absolutely nothing. I’ll have this done in six months. Of course, that didn’t happen. By the time I actually got to it, I was a little late with it, and so I was terrified, which is always the best way to write, absolutely terrified. I did it pretty quickly, six or seven months. It really felt like the book I’d always wanted to write, the story I’d always wanted to write. I know that you told a lot of personal stories in Bookends, which was great. I know that this, for me, was the story I always wanted to tell. There’ll hopefully be others, but I feel like we all have that story about ourselves that we feel if we just tell this one piece of ourselves, people will understand us, truly.

I always felt like I never really understood that I had a different childhood. People have much, much worse, dramatically worse. I just meant I didn’t understand that my family was different. All our families are different, but mine was different in a particular way that I didn’t really understand until I met other people who didn’t grow up in a family that had a dead sister. It just was a very particular kind of thing. Now when I talk to people — people have come out of the woodwork and will message me. It is so common. In fact, I’m doing some coaching. I recently met with someone. I got this vibe just from what she was saying. It turned out, dead sibling. There’s a particular kind of thing that happens. You minimize your own needs. You feel like you don’t want to bother people with your stuff because they have enough to — that kind of stuff. It’s a particular kind of profile. When we meet each other, we kind of know we have the same thing. It’s fairly uncommon, as things go.

Zibby: I know this is not the biggest deal in the world, but one of the heartbreaking scenes for me was when the girls would come back from college or wherever they were, and the beds were never made. Instead, their beds were mattresses covered by files that was really about the advocacy resulting from the other sister. I think of what a big production I make when my kids come home from boarding school or something. Their mom couldn’t even get her own stuff off the bed. It’s such a metaphor.

Laura: That’s exactly the right thing that I was — yet if you’re the child of that, you also feel like you can’t really be angry because the person is doing good. It makes it even more complex in terms of how you see it and what you feel entitled to feeling. It’s complicated. My parents did stuff like that. I always felt like I shouldn’t be upset because, look, they were suffering. Yet I’m home. Aren’t you glad? Aren’t you glad I’m here too? It was very complicated. I think deep down, I was angry, really angry. That’s why I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I was like, I’m tired of not being seen, that kind of thing. It’s like childlike, but you kind of always felt like they were occupied by something else.

Zibby: A child not feeling true love in their own home, and true appreciation, it’s not something you can just get over. It doesn’t matter what the reason is. The end result is the same. It’s a loss. It’s a loss for you too. Sad. I’m really sorry.

Laura: There was other good parts of this to it too. I just always wanted to write about it. Hopefully, there’s a lot of funny stuff in it too.

Zibby: There is. There is.

Laura: There’s a balance. I also feel like the stories I want to tell now have both — it’s like Catherine Newman’s book, which is salty sweet. You’re sobbing through the book and laughing through the book. Isn’t that what we want to read now? The real stuff.

Zibby: Yours was like that too. It’s the same hand over heart, and yet I’m laughing. What can we look forward to after this one? What’s next?

Laura: We’re hoping that the Separation Anxiety TV happens. We’ve got Julianne Nicholson, the great actress from many, many things, including Mare of Easttown. That great production company, Wiip, they’ve optioned it. They’re moving forward. Hopefully, there’ll be some good news one of these days. She’s great. Then I’m starting work on another novel called Gloom Chaser. Gloom chaser is a candle. I became obsessed with the Kardashians last winter. I started to watch a lot of Kardashians. Then I got kind of obsessed with Kris Jenner, and so I downloaded her memoir. In the beginning of her book — she was raised in La Jolla, California. Her grandparents had a candle store. I bet you’re wondering why I’m telling you this story. She talks about her grandparents’ candle store, how she loved these candles. Her favorite candles were the gloom chasers. I was like, oh, my god, I love that word. Gloom chaser is a beverage. It’s a drink. It looks like a martini. Gloom chaser candles are stained glass votives. You put the little candle in. You light it, and the gloom gets chased away. It’s about a woman who gets divorced and moves to the North Shore of Massachusetts and starts a new life there. Gloom Chasing. We’ll see.

Zibby: Amazing. Wow, I can’t wait to read that too. It’s so great. Laura, thank you. Thanks. This time went so fast. I had a million other things. The book was so good and meaningful. I feel like you gave the little bits that you were willing to let escape from the vault. Really meaningful. Now everyone can sort of look back and rethink all of your past work through a different lens and all of that.

Laura: Thank you. Thanks for reading it. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It was great. Thanks. Bye.

Laura Zigman, SMALL WORLD

SMALL WORLD by Laura Zigman

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