Laurie Frankel, FAMILY FAMILY

Laurie Frankel, FAMILY FAMILY

Zibby speaks to New York Times bestselling author Laurie Frankel about FAMILY FAMILY, a propulsive, funny, and strikingly tender novel about a famous actress and adoptive mother who finds herself in trouble when she criticizes the new movie she’s in.. because of its negative portrayal of adoption. Laurie explains why she is motivated to challenge prevailing adoption narratives and why it is so important to represent all kinds of adoptive families. She and Zibby also talk about the book’s social media and cancel culture aspects, and then Laurie reflects on her writing journey (it all started with Shakespeare). She also shares her book recommendations and best advice for aspiring writers.


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

Laurie Frankel: Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled to be here. I appreciate so much your doing this.

Zibby: Of course. As I was just saying, I’m obsessed with this book. Love the voice. I love all of it. It’s so original. Oh, my gosh, it’s hilarious, even all the malapropisms. I can’t even say that right. Just all these funny things you do, it’s all the way through. It’s just so first rate. I loved it. Tell listeners what Family Family is about.

Laurie: First of all, thank you. I appreciate it so much. It’s such a weird time after the book has left my hands but before it’s in anyone else’s. It means the world to me. Family Family, it’s about a family. It is about adoption. It is about not just one adoption, but a lot, and a lot of different kinds of adoption, which was sort of the idea that I went into it with. Then it proved much, much more complicated than that. There are lots and lots of books about adoption. So often when we talk about lack of representation, we really mean a lack. That’s not the problem with adoption. It’s not that there is no representation. It’s just that the representation is so negative. When it isn’t negative, it’s this, then a miracle occurred. They settled for each other. It wasn’t terrible. I hate that story, so I said, I have to tell a different one. It took me a long time to figure out, okay, how do you tell a story if your point is that it’s not really terrible? It wasn’t that these horrible things happened. That is why there is not just one, but a variety of adoptive families in this book. It is also about a movie star. It is about social media and cancel culture and scandal that we get caught up in and rile up ourselves. It’s about dream jobs and the way in which dream jobs are dreamy, but they are also jobs, which is something that I think about all the time because I definitely have a dream job. It is dreamy, but it is also a job.

Zibby: You achieved your goal in such a creative way by having the main character — I always forget everybody’s name. What is her name?

Laurie: India.

Zibby: India. Of course, India, there was a whole backstory of that name. How did I forget that? Having India be the movie star who’s in a movie about the adoption that’s then not with the right depiction, it’s this whole meta thing that you set up. You know, it’s funny, I just went to the screening of All the Light You Cannot See. Have you been watching that?

Laurie: I haven’t yet because the book was so good, and I just felt, oh, is it going to do it justice? I don’t know. I will, but I haven’t worked up to it yet.

Zibby: I was out in a place. I had to go see it. I was a little reluctant. It’s really good. Anyway, the star was there. She’s low sight. She was talking exactly as you are about representation. She’s like, “All the depictions of no-sight or low-sight people have you with this cane and this and that. This is not what it’s like. It doesn’t have to be the story. I don’t look spacey and that I can’t –” It’s just what you’re saying. It doesn’t have to be a sob story. Where are the flip sides? Why is there only one narrative?

Laurie: Yes, exactly. Where are the flip sides? Why is there only one narrative? I think some of the answer to that question is narrative involves misery. There have to be low points in order for you to go up again. There has to be this arc. It’s by definition. That just means you have to find a different way to tell about it and to talk about it. I also think these are complicated, complex issues, which makes them really wonderful things to talk about for four hundred pages, but not for four hundred characters. They don’t lend themselves well to sound bites or to posts. I need ten hours from you. I need you to sit down and let me tell you a story. That makes it a wonderful thing to write a novel about. Also, that’s a high bar, basically.

Zibby: When you put it that way, that you need ten hours, I’m like, oh, no, no, I don’t have ten hours for you.

Laurie: That’s right.

Zibby: Then when you read it — your chapters are also short and punchy. Time disappears. Reading time is not like regular time. When you’re reading something good, you lose the clock entirely. That’s what this book does. You can’t sleep. You want to finish.

Laurie: Yay!

Zibby: It also doesn’t feel like four hundred pages. That would also be like, forget that too. It’s these short sections all linked together.

Laurie: I hope so. I feel exactly that way. As a reader, I want it to move. I want to be turning the pages. If it does, you can take as long as you want. If I’m slogging through it, then I feel like, no, no, no, we got to pick up the pace. You’re right, ten hours is a lot of time to ask of someone, especially now, but probably always. When you put it like that, okay, give me ten hours, and we’ll do this thing, your immediate reaction is, no, I don’t have ten hours. I think as writers, we have to earn it.

Zibby: It’s really amazing anyone reads anything when you put it that way, right?

Laurie: It’s really amazing. It is. I am therefore so grateful to people for doing it. Myself, I do spend almost all my time reading books, so I feel like I know what that transaction is.

Zibby: How did you come up with the characters? Were you ever into acting? I feel like it’s so deep into that world as well, that whole aspirational and wanting to act but not being able to sing. Even when India realizes, oh, my gosh, this is what I’m meant to do, not everybody has that feeling.

Laurie: No, not everybody has that feeling. I am a theater fan. I am a deep, deep — I love the theater. I love musical theater. I love musicals, unlike India. I love plays. I love the theater. I always, always have. I cannot sing, but it turns out I also cannot act. That’s pretty much going to be a barrier for me. It is really interesting to love something as an audience member and have no sense of wanting to or being able to do it yourself. For me, that contrast with reading, which I also am a huge fan of and I’m doing all the time, eventually, that spilled over into wanting to do it myself, wanting to write books myself. That’s not on the table for me for theater. In some ways, it’s a pure love. It is just something that I have always loved but never aspired to. It’s also true that my academic background is in Shakespeare. I taught playwriting. I’ve taught play reading. I’ve taught drama and theater, all of that stuff from an academic standpoint. That’s very, very different, but it did give me a place to start as far as research went. It’s super fascinating research. It is an interesting world to be immersed in from that perspective. All of that was a pleasure.

Zibby: Then when was your first attempt at fiction?

Laurie: One of the things that I think is interesting is that I am a novelist, consummately. I think the way people want to give you their star signs, I am a novelist in this core of my being sort of way. It’s what I want to read. It’s what I want to write. I had tried to write short stories, which seems like the entry point and the most direct answer to your question, but I didn’t want to write short stories. I wanted to write novels. I think that you cannot know whether you can write a novel until you have actually already written a novel. It is a really difficult thing to sit down and try to do because they’re long. They take a really long time. If you want to know if you can write a sonnet, you can sit down and try to write a sonnet. If you want to know if you can write fiction, you can sit down and write a short story. It might take weeks. It might take months, but that’s a tackle-able sort of a goal. I just think it isn’t true with long form. I did not know that I could do it until I had already done it. I was teaching in Baltimore. Then I fell in love with a person in Seattle and moved out to where I am still and got a teaching job out here. I had this block of time, like six months, between jobs for the first time in my life that I had time to actually sit down and say, is this something I can do? I have no idea. I figured it out after I had done it. I had read ten thousand novels. That seemed like pretty good training. I just don’t think there’s any way to know whether you can get from the beginning to the end of the thing without doing it.

Zibby: Very true. When you were structuring this novel, who came first? Fig? India? One of the other characters? Did it all just come together?

Laurie: It’s such a good question. India used to die in the first sentence of the book.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, okay.

Laurie: I know, which is really remarkable given that she’s certainly the heart of this novel. I don’t think it’s really much of a spoiler to say that she lives through it, but she did not used to. She was always a huge part of the book, but she was kind of hanging over it because we knew that she died. Simply, it was just too sad. She had too much life in her. It colored the book in a way that it was too costly. Therefore, I had her kids too, so Fig also. They came together. I had Fig’s voice in my head from the beginning. She’s ten. She’s a very smart ten-year-old. She’s a precocious and smart ten-year-old, which is how I like my kids. Therefore, that voice is really clear and I think easier to write because of that. You empathize with her immediately because she is a child and she is smart and curious and originally, because she had lost her mom. Pretty much everything else about this book changed over the course of it. I cut three hundred thousand words from this thing.

Zibby: What?

Laurie: I cut three hundred thousand words from this book. That’s nearly three times as many words as remain. It has two timelines, one of which I dragged to the trash can and redrafted from scratch.

Zibby: Wait, which one? Which one did you trash?

Laurie: The present timeline because she used to die. Then we had this whole aftermath. We were getting the story of her past leading up to her death. Then we saw her legacy. That had to go. It just had to go. It is also true that I started this book on March 3rd, 2020. It went really well for a week, and then my kid came home from school for a year and a half. The whole world got derailed. I think there is no way to have been writing something and not have this get derailed as well. Everything changed.

Zibby: To your writing of Fig as a ten-year-old, I have a ten-year-old daughter, and so this was spot on. I have boy/girl twins who are older. They’re sixteen. There were so many things I was like, she got that right. Yep. Uh-huh. That one, yep.

Laurie: Awesome. Yes. I love that note. Thank you. That’s great.

Zibby: Even the agent character, the sense of humor in this very subtle — I chuckled out loud multiple times. You’re not doing slapstick. It’s this very sophisticated but hilarious comedy that you have to know the words that are — it’s just so great. It’s like a hidden code or something. I don’t know. Do you know what I mean? You might miss it.

Laurie: Yes, thank you. I love that. I hope so because that too I think contributes to what you’re talking about. I want to earn your ten hours. I want you to be amused.

Zibby: Do you make yourself laugh when you’re writing? Do you chuckle at all?

Laurie: I don’t think I do. I see the jokes coming, and I think, oh, yeah, that’s going to work. That’s going to be good. They come to me just a few lines before they come into my head, maybe a few lines before they actually come out of my fingers. I think, yeah, okay, that’s going to be nice. That’s going to work. Once I’ve established the characters and edited them and revised them a lot, they start to talk. I hear them. They surprise me as if I were reading it. I feel like that’s what you’re writing to, to get to that point where the characters are amusing you.

Zibby: Interesting. Did you work alongside your editor? I know this is not your first book. You’re wearing a shirt that says “Edit.” To go through that many words and changes and all of that, I feel like to do that alone in a room, you’d tear your hair out.

Laurie: Yes, there is definitely some tearing of hair. I did work with my editor a lot. She is a person who has a lot of notes. We do go back and forth, but I did almost all of that three hundred thousand words of cutting before she saw it. I had done most of the major overhauling before I sent it out to her because I like her. I want her to think well of me. I don’t want her to see it until it’s really pretty good. It wasn’t working. Sometimes I think, okay, this is working, but it could be better. Then I will do those large edits. I have to talk myself into them. This one, I didn’t have to talk myself into because it just was not working. Because it was the present timeline, I was having to do a lot of machinations because the world was changing. Every morning I woke up, it was somewhere different. You’re like, oh, well, you can’t have the scene at school because school is closed. Oh, we can’t have the scene in a coffee shop because the coffee shop is closed. Those people can’t run into each other at the grocery store. It was that level of thing. Also, it was just admitting to myself, look, I can’t kill this woman, so I have to find some other way of telling this story. I will say, though, that I am an editor. I am a person who writes really terrible drafts and then iterates them, just write them again and again and again until they get better. It is frustrating. It is not the linear approach to novel writing or a human being or really any of those things. If I could do it a different way, I certainly would because there is that hair tearing, but I can’t.

Zibby: That’s just the way it is.

Laurie: That’s just the way it is.

Zibby: I found it really interesting — this is part of the flipping the narrative we were talking about earlier. When India is going through all these birth mom albums and scrapbooks and learning everything and then finding the one that’s different and the way she talked to — oh, my gosh, I’m forgetting her name too.

Laurie: Camille. Camille?

Zibby: Camille. She’s like, “I don’t want these letters that are like, ‘Dear Mom…’ This is your child. Don’t even talk to me about it like that.” That’s something that I hadn’t read either. Tell me about that.

Laurie: That is exactly why. You hadn’t read that either. I hadn’t read that either. There are a lot of implicit assumptions about adoption that we’re not looking at very closely, and for a lot of reasons. I think it isn’t serving anyone to make those boxes really narrow. I don’t think anyone is ever served by really narrow boxes. This is my fifth novel. They’re very different from one another, but this is what I’m always on about, is wider ranges of normal. Make the world a better place for everyone. In the case of adoption and in the case of birth moms in particular, I think it is all really well-intentioned and trying to hold space for and trying to honor, and yet I think we are often doing people a disservice when we say, this is how you must feel. This is how you are always going to feel. This is how this is going to go. I just think it’s dehumanizing because everyone else might feel any of any different number of different ways about anything at all, whereas we say birth mothers have to feel this way in this order about this thing. That’s the only thing that’s acceptable. There are lots of reasons for that. They are really loving reasons in a lot of ways, but I think they’re ignoring human complexity and confining people in ways that I think are not serving anyone in the equation. I wanted to look at it more deeply and more complexly. Complexly? Is that a word? More complicatedly. More closely. Again, I think this is the beauty of novels. From a character perspective, not from a policy perspective, not from a social media perspective, not from a twelve-hundred-word article perspective, let’s really look at this and look at this person as a person, see where we are.

Zibby: I love that, oh, my gosh.

Laurie: Thank you.

Zibby: Where are you, by the way, with your next book? Do you hate when people ask you that?

Laurie: I don’t hate when people ask me that. In this case, it is a complicated question. At the moment, because I’m in this pre-pub place, I’m mostly doing stuff for this one still. I have started the next one. I have always started the next one. I feel like novels are really daunting, and if you don’t start the next one, then you will never start it. You stand at the bottom of the mountain, you’re like, no, that’s too tall. I can’t. I can’t. I feel like it is good and useful to always be in the middle of something new. It is also true that because I revise so much and so thoroughly, I probably wouldn’t tell you what it’s about anyway because writers are superstitious and weird about things like that. If I did, you’d come back and say, what happened to that novel? I’d be like, that changed into something else completely and entirely. It goes through these huge changes.

Zibby: It’s good to know that’s normal, though, right?

Laurie: I guess, yes. I never know whether people find this heartening or really demoralizing.

Zibby: Personally, I find it heartening, so that’s good.

Laurie: That’s really good. It’s really good.

Zibby: You said you’re a really huge reader. You only read fiction. What are some of your all-time favorites or something you’ve read recently that you love?

Laurie: Let’s look at my many books on my bookshelf. This is the book I’m recommending to everybody these days.

Zibby: I keep hearing great things about it. Is it really amazing?

Laurie: It’s amazing. It’s so amazing. I read it years ago because the publication on this one has been so slow. Now I’m reading it again. It’s just fantastic. It was the fantastic the first time. It’s fantastic the second time. It’s timely. It’s amazing.

Zibby: We Must Not Think of Ourselves.

Laurie: We Must Not Think of Ourselves. It takes place in the Warsaw ghetto. It’s historical fiction. It is World War II. It is not cheerful, but it is hopeful. It is not a depressing book. It is a remarkable book because you know how it ends, but also, you know how it ends. It is a book about one person in particular who is keeping an archive. That is a true story. That archive survives. You know that it survives because you’re reading about it. It is a really remarkable book. I love all of her books. That is the best one, so take that. I am also recommending to everybody now, Naomi Alderman’s new book, The Future. She’s another one, I love everything she’s ever written. I did not think that she could top The Power. I felt like The Power was an essentially perfect book. This book, it blew my mind. It blew my mind. It was one of these books where every three pages, I had to put it down and go, okay, what? It’s that level of thing. It’s very smart. It’s about tech billionaires behaving badly and the rogue geniuses who want to fix it. It is epic in scope. She too manages to do it. It’s four hundred pages, and you can’t stop turning them. I’m recommending this book to everyone. In the well of all-time favorites, this book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler, it’s a book I recommend to everyone who will sit still long enough to listen. If people have not read this book, the thing to do is to read it without reading anything about it. Don’t read the reviews. Don’t read the back. Don’t even look at the cover if you can help it. It’s got a twist, and you want to preserve it if you can, though it’s really fantastic even if you know it. She is definitely in my all-time, all-time favorites. Gosh, I could do this all day long.

Zibby: I know. I was like, you should have your own show. I’m just sitting here watching you. This is great.

Laurie: All day long, I could do this. Percival Everett is someone I am forever recommending to people to read. The Trees is another one that just — speaking of funny, this book is a laugh-out-loud funny book about lynching and race in America. Gosh, that is a remarkable combination. He’s amazing. This is a man with thirty-some novels. He writes one a year. They are unlike anything else I ever read by anybody else. The one that’s coming out next year is called James. It’s Huck Finn from James’ — it’s amazing. He’s amazing. He’s amazing. Anyway, as I say, I could do this all day long, so you should cut me off.

Zibby: I’m going to just come to you for all my book recommendations. This is great.

Laurie: The world would be a better place if people would just read what I told them to, I think.

Zibby: Do you do anything? Do you post your lists and make a whole thing about it?

Laurie: I don’t, actually. I’m asked often enough in ways like this. I Zoom with a lot of book clubs. They always ask that question. That’s a really good question for book clubs to ask. I don’t. I don’t have any sort of a — it would be a good thing to do, a Substack or something like this where I just, every month, told people what they should read.

Zibby: You should. Let me know. I can help you set it up.

Laurie: Awesome. Thank you. That’d be awesome.

Zibby: I know you’ve already given a lot of advice, but if there’s one more piece that an aspiring novelist out there should know or even just somebody working on a follow-up who’s adrift or whatever, what is your advice?

Laurie: You are adrift because I think one of the unfortunate things about novel writing is that what you learned writing the last one doesn’t actually help you with the next one because they’re so different from one another. That’s not an uplifting piece of advice. I have two. One is, read everything. That’s everyone’s best advice. It’s because it’s the best piece of advice. A thing I tell students all the time is the advice that you’re given about writing, all of it, take it or leave it. It works for the person who’s given it to you. It may very well have absolutely nothing to do with your process. Except that one. You got to be reading. There’s no point otherwise. Figure out what it is that you might read that is going to drive and steer your writing . It’s not like if you’re writing this, you have to be reading this and this and this, but you got to be reading something in order to support the process and the voice and the whole idea of it. I just think it’s nonnegotiable. Personally, I am always writing about what I am reading. When I’m teaching people how to write, and therefore, they have to do what I say, I make that part of the curriculum. This is the other one. Edit. That’s the other piece of advice. Fear not the fact that your draft is crap. It’s going to be crap for a while. You can make it better. You will. That too is not like, oh, I’ll just go through it one or two more times, and then everything will be fine. It takes me hundreds, hundreds of times of going to the beginning and writing through to the end and fixing things and going back to the beginning and writing through to the end. That’s okay because that is part of the process. That is my other piece of advice. Don’t despair. Edit.

Zibby: Love it. Laurie, thank you so much. Thank you for the thought-provoking entertainment and all of it from Family Family. I am a huge new fan. I’m sorry I’m only coming to you now, but I am delighted. I feel like I’ve discovered this gem that everyone knew about. They’re all like, well, yeah, of course. I’m like, okay, fine. Okay, fine. I was just late to the party.

Laurie: Welcome. Thank you so much, Zibby, for doing this. This is a pleasure. You are a delight. I’m thrilled and grateful.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye, Laurie.

Laurie: Bye.

FAMILY FAMILY by Laurie Frankel

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