Lauren Belfer, ASHTON HALL: A Novel

Lauren Belfer, ASHTON HALL: A Novel

Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author Lauren Belfer about Ashton Hall, a moody mystery about an American mom and her neurodivergent son and the summer they spend caring for a relative and unearthing the dark, buried secrets of an English manor house. Lauren talks about her character’s neurodiversity (an element rarely portrayed in fiction) and the important themes she explores in the book–marriage, infidelity, and the financial prison that often confines stay-at-home moms. Finally, she reveals the inspiration behind the book (it involves a grandiose British mansion, a sinking cottage, and free-roaming cows!).


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

Lauren Belfer: Thank you, Zibby. It’s an honor to speak with you. I just wanted to take a minute to thank you for all you do to bring readers and writers together. It’s really extraordinary, the work that you’ve done. I also want to tell you how much your memoir, Bookends, has meant to me. If there are people listening who haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I hope they’ll read it very soon. The section about 9/11 was particularly powerful and meaningful for me. I thank you for writing that and doing that in addition to everything else you do. You’re always giving to others. I hope you never lose track of your gift as a writer. To share your experiences with the rest of us, it’s very meaningful.

Zibby: Thank you. Oh, my gosh, that is so nice. What was your 9/11 experience like? Was it similar?

Lauren: In fact, I was at my hometown, Buffalo, New York, on 9/11. My first novel, City of Light, takes place in Buffalo in 1901. It was made into a play that ran for four months at one of the theaters in Buffalo. That was opening night, was 9/11. As it happened, I was there by myself. My husband and son had come up for some receptions for the opening, but my son had to start school. They went back. Everyone I knew was okay, but I wasn’t able to reach my husband or speak to my son for a couple of days after that. Of course, initially, you had no idea what had happened. My husband had gone down to start jury duty that morning and got off the subway in Lower Manhattan and saw the buildings on fire and turned around and walked back uptown. As hard as this was for me and my family, it was nothing compared to what you went through losing a very close friend. It’s just horrifying. As you say, it just vanished to thin air, finding out nothing. It sort of chokes me up even now to think about that.

Zibby: Wow. It’s not about comparing. It was an international event. It was a huge thing. It was horrific, the scale of loss and the suddenness of it. It shouldn’t be you versus me at all. We were all in it in different ways and different fears and experiences. So many people had it much worse than me. It’s not like that. It’s not a sliding scale of trauma. Anybody feeling like they have lack of access to the people they love the most is just horrific, in this instance and other instances. It’s terrifying. It doesn’t go away. To transition to your book, there’s also a lot of scary stuff and trauma in this book as well. Maybe you should tell what it’s about. Then I’ll go into my whole thing.

Lauren: Ashton Hall is the story of a mother, Hannah Larson, and her young son Nicky. Nicky is neurodivergent, so he sees the world differently from others. Hannah has given up her career to care for him. The book begins when Hannah and Nicky go to England to care for an aging relative who rents an apartment at a stately home, the Ashton Hall of the title. Soon after they arrive, Nicky, who’s very curious and never obeys the rules, he goes exploring in a deserted part of the house and discovers a quite terrifying secret from the past. Then Hannah is caught up in unraveling that secret. Nicky and Hannah learn what it’s like to live in England, a very different culture, even though we all speak the same language. The emotional focus of the book really is on the relationship between Hannah and Nicky. I wanted to write about parenting neurodivergent kids. Many, many families experience neurodiversity, but I have found it’s very seldom portrayed in fiction, particularly from a parent’s perspective. It was really important to me, throughout the course of this book — there are a lot of themes in the book. There is this exploration of the past. I tried to keep the relationship between Hannah and Nicky right at the front. Young Nicky, who is very difficult in some ways and so charming and so wonderful in other ways, to me, he’s the hero of the book. His journey through the book is what really motivated me as I wrote it.

Zibby: Nicky, you do such a great job of showing all the different ways where his neurodivergence is playing out and how even in those moments — you have a scene at the beginning with Peter — right? Peter was the boy who he played with in the — maybe I got the name wrong. Anyway, they met each other. Yeah, Peter, whose mom was the Upper East Side mom with the ponytail, right?

Lauren: Right.

Zibby: Just how even something as simple as playing football spontaneously in Central Park with another boy can lead to one of his big outbursts because all of a sudden, he became fixated on how many bridges or how many signs there were in Central Park. Hannah knows it’s coming. She feels those beginning inklings and is bracing herself because it could go in so many different ways, including Nicky harming the other boy. Then in fact, throughout the book and even towards the end when Nicky does inflict a great deal of harm on himself and the mom — not to give anything away. That scene in particular was so powerful. What do you do when the person you love has something going on with him that it makes them hurt themselves and the ones they love even though they don’t mean it? What do you do with that? How do you parent your way through it? How do you navigate that and keep your love intact and all of that? Even Hannah, at one point, says of course she would put herself on the line. It’s her child. Whatever he needs to do, she’ll be there. Talk a little bit about that.

Lauren: It’s very, very hard to be a parent of a child who has these issues because you always want to be there for them. They do often have these swings. I want to be really quick to say that, to begin, to say that the ideas of neurodivergent, neurodiversity, those are new terms. As I talk about the book, I find that a lot of people have never heard those terms before. Maybe we should say at the beginning that neurodivergent, neurodiversity, those are umbrella terms. They encompass autism, ADD, ADHD. Neurodiversity, it’s a really good term because no child is just one thing. I don’t think it’s right to just label kids and say, you’re autism spectrum, you are ADD, and limit them because kids are always evolving, obviously. They’re alive. They’re growing. They’re changing every day. When I portrayed Nicky, I wanted to show him as a little boy just like any other little boy, but he has these extremes of behavior when something triggers him. At those moments, he kind of escapes himself. He doesn’t even understand himself at those moments.

Hannah, as his parent, as you say, she knows it’s coming. She’s waiting for it and trying to react in the best way that she can. She so often feels like a failure as a parent. I think one of the hardest things for parents of neurodiverse kids is that they get so little support from the outside, from other parents. They’re often told, you should just give that kid a slap. Give him a spanking. Older people say that, not younger people. You’re not giving enough discipline. Or they go on the other side, and they’ll say, you’re too strict with him. Just let him do whatever he wants to do. I’ve even heard stories of people calling the police when kids are losing control on the street. The parents are struggling to control them. Bystanders can interpret that as a kind of abuse. Call the police. Just to say that it’s very difficult. It’s very complex. I wish the world outside the parent-child relationship would be more forgiving and more understanding and give more support.

Zibby: Do you have a neurodivergent child? Does that come from you, or is this totally fictional?

Lauren: I don’t want to violate anyone’s privacy, so I’ll just say that I know this situation from my own family and from my husband’s family. This has led me to do a lot of reading over the years and learn about the experiences of other parents too. What I’m writing here come from the heart, we’ll say.

Zibby: Got it. You obviously had the whole through line about Nicky and his many ups and downs and this new remediation attempt, essentially, in London where he does fare much better, especially at the start, and goes through all of that and witnessing how he copes with loss and just all the triggers can throw him off. There’s also, I found, another very interesting storyline with Hannah and her husband and what it means to be faithful in a marriage and what monogamy looks like and what it means to sort of hide your true love. Can two relationships exist at once? I don’t know if you’re comfortable talking about this or if you want to save it. I found this very fascinating, her husband’s whole line of argument presented in such an analytical way about things that are so completely not of the brain, but of the heart.

Lauren: Thank you for keying into that part of the novel. I don’t want to give away too much for people who haven’t read it yet. As you say, Hannah’s husband has unusual ideas about what constitutes fidelity in a marriage. One thing I was trying to get to there is that — I’ve often heard men talk about having open marriages. It’s something that recurs throughout history. Men often feel entitled to an open marriage of one kind or another. If women want to have the same, they’re not entitled to that no matter what the circumstances, no matter what genders are involved, what sexual orientation is involved. I wanted to look at that from a woman’s perspective and a woman who needs that marriage to support her son. She needs the structure of her marriage, but she sees that if she stays there, she has to be a kind of second-class citizen. There’ll be one set of rules for her husband and another set for her. Can she live with that? Can she balance that out?

In the end, she decides that she can’t live with that inequality, with one set of rules for him and a different set of rules for her, so she takes that leap into the unknown of trying to raise her son on her own and finding out that she can do that, that she’s better off, and that if she has another love relationship, it’s going to be one of equality and hopefully one of economic equality too. That’s an issue I wanted to explore in the book too. Hannah finds herself trapped in her marriage because she’s given up her career to raise Nicky. Nicky needs her extra attention. Yet when there’s trouble in the marriage, she doesn’t have anything to fall back on. I think so many women are encouraged and, indeed, want to give up their careers for the joys and rewards of taking care of their children. That’s wonderful, but I always have in the back of my mind, what happens if something goes wrong? Even the best divorce lawyer, it doesn’t usually work out that the woman has the kind of life and support that she had before.

Zibby: You wrote about this. You said, “I was jolted again by my dependence on him. Before we got married, I’d done something stupid. I’d neglected to hire an attorney of my own to review the prenup drawn up by his attorney. I couldn’t afford an attorney, and I also couldn’t conceive that Kevin and I would ever divorce. Although I didn’t remember every detail, I knew the agreement would limit whatever settlement I received.” Then you go on and talk more about this thing. You said, “Again, I saw how powerless I was. My dependence made me captive to Kevin’s decisions on how we’d live our lives together. The idea of separating from him felt like an abyss, emotional and financial, and yet I couldn’t simply give in. Everything inside me rebelled against giving in.” Then you talked more about the sense of trapped powerlessness when it’s her livelihood as well as her emotional outlet. Then what happens next? Even when he almost turns against her and sort of critiques her parenting of Nicky, which is really impossible at times — there’s almost no good way to make a difference. You just have to go along for the ride and do your best. It’s incredibly, incredibly challenging. How the financial constraints turn — how he turns on a — what’s the expression? Turns on a wire or something. He turns so quickly when he feels threatened and uses that to fall back on, which I found particularly despicable.

Lauren: I often find people on the outside of a situation like this — it’s the same as I was saying with Nicky. People will say, just leave him. Why doesn’t she just leave him? They give you that harsh advice when life is so complicated for women and for wives. It’s never that easy just to say, he’s being horrible, leave him. You can’t once you’ve created a family and you’re enmeshed it. As a mom, to take such responsibility, you don’t want to give up these things your child needs. It’s so, so hard. Again, I wish people on the outside would be more supportive to say, this is really complicated. All these things that you’re weighing, there are no snap judgements here, no quick resolutions.

Zibby: Lauren, it must have taken you a while. This novel has so many layers and settings and feelings and plot twists and all of that. Tell me about the writing of it.

Lauren: I first got the idea when I was in my early twenties. I received an invitation from an acquaintance to stay at a private apartment at a British stately home called Blickling Hall. I don’t know about you, Zibby, but when I was growing up, I worshipped all things British.

Zibby: Yes, I was a royal fanatic.

Lauren: The royalty, exactly. When I received this invitation to stay at Blickling Hall, I was completely thrilled. Because I was staying in a private apartment — it’s still incredible to me to think about this. When the public rooms closed for the day, and so the outside of the house was locked, there was an unlocked door in this apartment that led right into the public rooms, the magnificent library and the dining room. I could just wander at will through the house. I made a bit of the journey that’s described there, going through the gib doors and going into the attics and seeing the room filled with rolled-up carpets and the room filled with chairs and having this feeling that I was walking farther and farther into the past. I started making notes for a novel to be set there. I didn’t really do anything with the notes when I was in my early twenties. I wasn’t ready, probably, to write the book that became Ashton Hall. Then years went by. I did get married, had my son, raised my son. Then one day about ten years ago now, my husband received an email. He’s an academic. He received an email inviting him to spend the equivalent of a semester at an institute at Cambridge University. He said to me, “Look, this is really this fun thing, an invitation to go to Cambridge, but I’m not really interested. It’s never something I’ve done.” I said, “Wait just one minute. I’ve always wanted to live in England. You tell them that we’re going to do it.” He was very skeptical. Very kindly, he said, “Okay.” Before you know it, we were packing our bags. We went to England. The institute rented a cottage for us that was built in 1642. I thought, amazing and romantic, a cottage from 1642.

When we got there, it was barely heated. It was sinking into the ground. It was drafty. All the water from the house, except for the toilet, went out through a pipe into an open cesspool in the garden. The landlady explained that it was my job as the woman of the house to go out every morning and stir this cesspool. This was an England that I knew nothing about. I also didn’t know that there are cows wandering around Cambridge with grazing rights going back to the Middle Ages. We had to walk across a park to get to the center of town. There were cows all over that park. It’s like cows wandering freely in Central Park. It was just not what I expected. The people we met were wonderful and so kind to us and so welcoming. That was fantastic, but the actual day-to-day living was such a surprise. I wanted to dramatize that, too, in the novel. That’s a strain that goes through the book. One day, I was finishing up my third novel and thinking about my fourth. Then one day as I was wandering the historic streets of Cambridge, it suddenly came to me that I could take Blickling Hall, where I had stayed decades before, and move it to the outskirts of Cambridge and then fill it with people that I cared about and explore its past. It was this moment of insight. Everything that was going to be in the book just came pouring into my mind all at once. I was ready to start work.

Zibby: Wow. How long did it take to write?

Lauren: About six years. My books always take a really long time because I go down a lot of research rabbit holes. I also love doing the research. It’s always a back-and-forth. Because I was writing a lot of it during the pandemic, that prompted me to explore medical practice in the Tudor age. Part of the mystery of the book concerns the Tudor era. It was so interesting to learn that it was women, particularly upper-class women, who took the lead on medical care at that time. I really enjoyed exploring that. It was something that we never think of, that women would’ve taken on that role and had a certain responsibility in the community doing that.

Zibby: As an accomplished novelist, New York Times best-selling author, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Lauren: I always have two pieces of advice for aspiring authors. There’s a cliché that beginning authors are told to write what you know. I always feel it’s better to write what you don’t know but want to find out about. I think it’s that process of exploration and finding out new things that can bring a tremendous sense of life and excitement to a novel. Of course, you’re going to weave in the things that you care about personally. I always do that. That’s the emotional piece that I think readers can find compelling. Find a new setting that you want to explore. Put your characters into a profession that you don’t know anything about. I think that really opens doors in your mind. The other piece of advice is to never give up. The first short story of mine that was ever published in a literary journey — this was before the days of self-publishing online. My first published short story was rejected forty-two times before it found an editor who loved it. In fact, when I got back in the mail, a letter from this editor who loved it, so that’s the forty-third editor, I thought, are you sure? All your colleagues rejected this story. He seemed sure. He published it. Then my second short story to be published did much better. It was rejected only twenty-seven times. I felt like such a great success.

Zibby: It’s all about managing expectations. Wonderful. Lauren, thank you. Thank you so much for sending me your book originally. I’m really glad I got to experience it and get to be part of Hannah’s family for a little bit and take a tour of this English castle, if you will. It was really interesting. I’m glad I got to meet you at the Zibby Awards.

Lauren: The Zibby Awards were fantastic. Thank you for that. Again, thank you for all you do. I really look forward to reading your next book, whenever that may be.

Zibby: You and me both.

Lauren: As I know, it takes a long time to write a novel. Keep at it.

Zibby: Yes. Thank you so much. Take care, Lauren. Buh-bye.

Lauren: You too. Bye.

Lauren Belfer, ASHTON HALL: A Novel

ASHTON HALL: A Novel by Lauren Belfer

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