Leigh McMullan Abramson, A LIKELY STORY

Leigh McMullan Abramson, A LIKELY STORY

Zibby speaks to her longtime friend and debut author Leigh McMullan Abramson about A Likely Story, a wise and compulsively readable book-in-a-book about a struggling writer, her iconic novelist father, and the secrets she uncovers about him after her mother’s sudden death. Leigh talks about her fascination with famous people (hence the narcissist, fame-obsessed father) and her career transition from litigation lawyer to MFA drop-out to published author. Finally, she shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Leigh. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss A Likely Story: A Novel.

Leigh McMullan Abramson: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: As you know — I’ve been saying this since you first sent me this galley and I started reading. I was like, oh, my gosh, this is so good. We have to do events. We have to do this. We have to do that. Obviously, I’ve known you forever, for a very long time. It is such a joy to open up a book and fall in love again with someone in a whole new way through their words. It’s so great. I’m so excited for you.

Leigh: Thank you. Honestly, you were such a satisfying reader. I know you are that for many people, not just me. Thank you for that because it really does make this whole profession worth it when someone reads your work and gives you such a generous, satisfying reaction. Thank you.

Zibby: No problem. You have so much talent. I’m so excited to see the response of this book, how your whole career unfolds. I’m just very excited to watch. I was literally just telling someone on my team downstairs, I was like, “We were in baby group with our babies.” It’s so funny.

Leigh: Yes. I think I met you for the first time at your birthday party in the late nineties, maybe. It’s been a long time.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Leigh, tell us, what is A Likely Story about?

Leigh: A Likely Story is about the daughter of a very famous writer who is trying to be a writer herself. She’s having a very hard time doing it. The book begins when her mother has passed away suddenly leaving her alone with her very famous father and feeling very adrift and very concerned about her career and her life as she’s about to turn thirty-five. She is struggling to write a book. She’s having a lot of rejection. She feels very consumed by that and that she is going to be a failure. As she’s going through the process of processing her mother’s death, she finds something that was left for her. That sets her off on a course — I don’t want to give too much away — that leads to success but also puts her into an impossible situation and has her keeping very big secrets and feeling turmoil in a different way. Throughout that, she and her father have to come to a new understanding of each other and their work.

Zibby: Wow, excellent pitch. One of the things I liked most about the book is how you describe people and situations in such — the way you observe people and things, even the simplest things, like waving people on to get a crowd to be quiet, just the way you say that, people don’t write that motion that often. I’m not being very clear. It’s just one of a bazillion examples. I could open any page and give more. The way you see things and the way you say things, especially about society and especially about writers — oh, my gosh, I have so much to ask. Let’s talk about writers first. Ward is obsessed with his own fame and getting his secret snooping sessions with his own letters and trying to go to stores where they idolize him. Tell me about writing that character, where he came from, and the development of that whole thing. Then also, I want to know about how you started becoming such a great writer, your training, where this came from. Just go on those two tangents.

Leigh: I’ve always been really interested in really successful, famous people because I look at a really famous person and I think, wow, they must feel so good. They must feel so satisfied. I actually think with a lot of really successful people, it’s the opposite. It’s never enough. The adulation must be constant like a drip or they feel anxiety. It leads them to be successful, but it also is ultimately really almost difficult. Something I always think about when I think about this is the movie Soapdish from the early nineties.

Zibby: Oh, my god, I love that movie. Wasn’t it Sally Field?

Leigh: Sally Field is a famous soap opera actress. When she’s feeling bad, she’s not getting enough attention, she has her assistant or manager, who’s Whoopi Goldberg, go with her to a mall in New Jersey and pretend to recognize her so she can spend the rest of the day having people come up to her and signing autographs and get that hit of adoration. When I think about Ward, I think he would also fit into that Sally Field character of, it’s never enough. Yes, he is obsessed with reading his own fan mail. He is doing anything he can to put himself into situations where he will be complimented and have his ego boosted up in the way that he really wants that. That’s something that I always was really super interested in and I wanted to explore with Ward. He’s obviously a narcissist. He obviously does some not-so-great things in the book. In a way, I wanted to look at the flip side of that, which is actually kind of lonely and a little pathetic, ultimately, for him. That’s Ward.

In terms of writing, I always liked to write as a child. My mother writes children’s books. My father’s an artist. I was like, I’m definitely going to do something totally different. I want to not follow in their path. I went to law school and became a lawyer and didn’t really like it very much because I don’t like conflict, which is probably something I should’ve thought about before I went into litigation. I did like the writing aspect of it. I say this in my acknowledgments. I clerked for a judge. She told me that I was very good at writing the story of what happened in the case. She didn’t really say anything about the actual legal part, which is probably weaker. I was helping draft these really long opinions. There was something about that. I remember one time, I thought, I just helped draft this sixty-page opinion. Maybe I could write something that’s long and a book. It me a long time to work up the nerve. I started writing articles and essays and getting them published here and there. Finally, then I did a year of an MFA at Columbia in nonfiction. Then I had a baby. I also had decided that I thought I wanted to write a fictional book, so I only did the one year of the MFA. Then I just started trying it out on my own. That’s kind of how it worked. It was a long, long process, as I think is the case for many, many writers.

Zibby: I feel like the headline should be, MFA dropout makes it big.

Leigh: It’s true. I really liked it. It was just, once I had a baby and I thought — I was in the nonfiction program and thought I wanted to write fiction.

Zibby: It didn’t make any sense. It’s so smart to not waste any more time. When you started this novel, what was the kernel of an idea that really drew you to do it? Then once you started working on it, just take me through that whole thing of how long it took and which directions you went and the whole thing.

Leigh: I had worked on another novel for a while about —

Zibby: — I read that. Lawyers or something, right?

Leigh: Intrigue at a law firm. Then after I wrote it, my agent, who I love so much and who has just done so much for me — she took me on based on that novel but warned me, “No one wants to read about workplace novels about lawyers.” I was like, “You’re probably right.” It wasn’t a thriller. It wasn’t a legal thriller.

Zibby: I was going to say, Chandler Baker, Whisper Network was a huge success.

Leigh: This was more about lawyers’ anguish at their being lawyers. Maybe it was a little too close to home. That didn’t work out. I started writing another novel. My main character is a frustrated writer. I leaned into that a little bit. I wanted to explore artistic ambition within a family. I’m an only child, so the triangular structure of an only-child family is interesting to me. I wanted to think about how ambition is experienced by three members of the same family. That was how the book started. I wrote it — I don’t even know. It took me a year and a half to write a really solid draft. Then I thought, I think this is close. Then it was March of 2020. Obviously, everything shut down. I didn’t even work on it for six months because I was just dealing with having kids at home and not going crazy. Then when I opened it back up in September of ’20, I realized that the major problem with the book was that the whole book is referencing this mystery manuscript, but the manuscript did not appear in the book. I went back in, and I added snippets from the manuscript into the book. That was a real aha moment that I think made the book work much better. I worked on it for maybe another six to eight months. Then it was sent out.

Zibby: What was that like? Did it get picked up right away? It must have.

Leigh: Yeah, it was quick. The process was quick. I actually remember because — I was very nervous. I thought, if this doesn’t work out, I’m just going to have to do something else. My agent was very good at, “I will let you know if there’s news. If there’s not news, you’re not going to hear from me.” I decided, I’m just going to leave my phone inside. I was playing with my daughter outside. At that time, we were living in Vermont. I was playing with her for an hour or two. I came in, and I had seven missed calls from her. She was like, “Where have you been?” Of course, it’s the time you look away, is when things happen.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so exciting. Was it a preempt or auction? Preempt?

Leigh: Yes.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so cool. So amazing. Let’s talk about the character of Isabelle for a little bit, this, as you said, frustrated writer, daughter of somebody very famous, which brings its own set of complications, trying to make her own impression in the world. How did you tap into that? What is that? I know your parents are obviously well-known. Your dad’s posters are gorgeous in Lincoln Center and all of that. I’m familiar with having outsized figures in my life. Tell me about that character and that particular piece of it and what that does to a character or a child or whatever.

Leigh: My parents are not super famous at all, but I understood having a parent that had some kind of public-facing persona and that people thought was very talented in an artistic way. I did have that kind of way to get into the character. I also just felt interested in the idea of being the child of someone so successful and how that’s actually really hard in a way that people may not think about a lot because it seems like that would be amazing. I think it has benefits, but I also think it’s really hard. For Isabelle, she’s also not always a likeable character. She really is doing something which is pretty universal, which is seeking parental approval. She feels that the only way to do that is through being a successful writer. That’s the only way to get her father’s attention and have him really see her as a worthy successor to him. Obviously, through the course of the book, that’s somewhat challenged. She’s very myopically focused on that goal because she feels she wants approval.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me about the decision to have the accident be a part of things.

Leigh: I felt like there needed to be something very jarring to happen to Claire for her to make some of the decisions that she made around her own aspirations. I think as mothers, at least for me, I always feel a sense of guilt, even if it’s not rational, if I take my attention away from my kids, and a sense of, is it going to be okay if I’m not focused on them all the time? Is that going to be okay? How will that work out? If something bad happens to your child — I can understand her feeling like, okay, I just need to focus only on my child, and have this feeling of, nothing else matters. I think that’s something that some parents struggle with, how to balance not just your time, but your focus and your energy. There’s not always connections between those two things. I’m someone who can create connections and very easily feel like, something bad happened, let me retrace how this is my fault. She had a little bit of that. The accident kind of caused her to think that way, and probably not rightly.

Zibby: You wrote Claire so well that I found myself missing her — no, really — along with Isabelle, even these little things about her, like how nobody was scraping the bottom of the pot in the kitchen or the little grocery list, just these tiny little details about her. Then of course, you develop her character so well and everything. I feel like I miss her.

Leigh: She’s probably the most likeable one. Maybe her and Brian are the most likeable characters in the book.

Zibby: Brian is the best friend who, years ago, had a crush on Isabelle. Then they just become really close friends. What made you do that and not have them be in a relationship or have her have a love interest at all, at least in parts of it?

Leigh: Originally when I first started writing it, they were together, actually. I ultimately felt like Brian had to be the stand-in for the reader. He has to be the one who’s able to have the perspective of, this family’s values are kind of out of whack. This isn’t actually normal. The things she takes for granted and cares about aren’t actually the things that most people are so focused on. It was really important to get that perspective. I felt like if he was her boyfriend or married to her, he would not have the right amount of distance. There needed to be a little bit more space between them, at least for most of the book. For the reader to put their frustrations into Isabelle and Ward, he provides that outlet a little bit. I thought he could do it better as not a member of the family, more as the friend, the outsider.

Zibby: The locations also play big roles in the story, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Sag Harbor in the Hamptons and how Ward sort of discovered it and has been there for so long and hates the summer crowd just like all the regulars. You take the reader and the characters back and forth throughout the course of the book. Tell me about developing that sense of place and what that did and your thought behind that.

Leigh: I definitely feel like a setting, I need to know well to write about it. It’s something that I feel like people really enjoy when you get right. It’s annoying if you get it wrong. There was a very nice copyeditor at Simon & Schuster, at Atria, who I will forever be grateful for because she helped me. There’s a scene where Ward is driving from Sag Harbor to Riverhead. She was like, “No, no, no, you’re taking the wrong roads.” I was like, “Thank you.” I had gotten kind of mixed up. It’s the kind of thing that readers, if they know a setting better than you, they’ll notice that. I want to make sure I know a setting really well, so I did do it in New York and Sag Harbor because I felt like I knew those places well enough to really ground the book there. We’ll see in future books. Maybe someday I’ll be able to go spend six weeks in Paris and write a book there. For now, I’m going to have to stick with the places I know.

Zibby: What are you thinking about for your next book?

Leigh: We spent a lot of time in Vermont over the pandemic, so I’m thinking of setting a book there about a woman who inherits a bookstore in mysterious circumstances. It’s slow-going. I’m not a fast writer.

Zibby: That’s okay. I know you have this whole community of other awesome women authors, many of whom have been on my podcast and who I know as well, like Judy Batalion and Elyssa Friedland and Lauren Smith Brody. Who is your whole crew? They’re all awesome in their own right.

Leigh: Judy and I met at Columbia.

Zibby: No way.

Leigh: We are fellow dropouts. and I were in a class together at Columbia. I was pregnant. She had a baby fairly recently. While people in their early twenties were at bars drinking, we were kind of in our own little world. She’s amazing. I love her so much. Her books are so, so good. She’s great. Her book is Light of Days. It’s amazing. Then Lauren Smith Brody and Elyssa Friedland, I met at the Society Library because we were all working on books there at the same time. It’s really important to have because you don’t really have coworkers as a writer, as you know. It is really important to have friends and people you can talk to about what you’re going through.

Zibby: As you were going, did you show them or did you show anyone your pages?

Leigh: I did. I showed my husband a really rough draft that he was like, “This is pretty rough.” He was definitely right. Then he read it again when it was done. He was like, “Wow, this is amazing that it went from that to this.” That was good. Judy read it. Elyssa and Lauren both read it as it progressed. Then when we were getting ready to sell it, we had some cold readers who didn’t know me, had no allegiance to me read it and give feedback, which was really helpful.

Zibby: Having been through this journey and now about to have this be out in the world, what advice would you have so far for aspiring authors?

Leigh: It’s sort of simple. I think it’s just to keep going and not give up. If you have faith in the idea and the work, it’s usually a matter of just persevering. I think that’s really the most important thing. I have to tell myself that as I start a new book. I don’t know how you feel, but I don’t feel like it gets much easier.

Zibby: I don’t think it does for anybody, but even Ward. That’s so great. Here he is. You think it’s so easy for him. Meanwhile, his sales have been declining each book. He’s buying up stock and trying to make an impression. He feels totally insecure about it.

Leigh: There are probably very few authors who are like, I’m good, it’s just coasting from here on out. It probably doesn’t work like that.

Zibby: Ultimately, it’s art. Any creative product you put out into the world, you just don’t know. There’s some sort of alchemy that happens when you’re making something. It’s like, is it going to happen? Is it not? Is it going to come out of my fingers or my paintbrush or whatever? You just have to hope that it happens. You know what I mean?

Leigh: I think that is true. I also think I’d be really concerned if I wrote something and I was like, oh, that was easy. I’d probably be like, I’m missing something. I don’t know if it is what I think it is. I remember reading some advice somewhere that’s like, if you write something and think, this is the best thing I’ve ever written, give it a week. Go back and look at it because it’s probably not.

Zibby: I have to say, your type of writing, too, where the sentences themselves are beautiful — this is a literary writing style. It’s not just what comes out of your head. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful writing. You can’t rush that. You have to think about the words.

Leigh: It’s interesting, though, because some of the phrases and sentences, I thought of, and they made it through the book, but I almost thought of them and then the book kind of around a little bit in some cases. I write a lot of nonsensical emails to myself with descriptive terms and things that I’m like, oh, I want to use that. They come to you at random intervals. If someone looks at my email, they’d be like, what is she — there’s lots of non sequiturs.

Zibby: Then just out of curiosity, and last question, writers who you love or comps you had for this book or “readers of” or whatever, where are you seeing the book? Who are the people you love and all of that?

Leigh: The comps for this book, it’s The Nest and The Plot, those books together a little bit. Both of those books, I really admire and think that the writers are so talented. In terms of books I love that I’ve read recently, Flight by Lynn Steger Strong I just thought was amazing. So, so good. I got a chance to read Laura Hankin’s new book, The Daydreams, which was really good and fun, which is coming out in May. Right now, I’m actually reading a memoir that someone who read my book recommended called Also a Poet by Ada Calhoun, which is some of the similar successful father-daughter dynamic. It’s interesting to read that after having written about some of those issues.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. Leigh, I’m so excited for you. I’m excited you’re being a huge part of the retreat that we have on March 11th in Hampton Bays. Not quite Sag Harbor, but close enough. I’m just so excited for you.

Leigh: Thank you. Thank you, Zibby. Thank you for having me on. I remember when you started this podcast. I was writing. In my mind, I was like, I hope one day I will get to go on this podcast. Here I am. I made it. Thank you.

Zibby: You made it. I still am doing the podcast. Chugging along.

Leigh: It’s amazing. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. I will see you very soon, then.

Leigh: See you soon. Thanks so much.

Zibby: Bye, Leigh.

Leigh: Bye.

Leigh McMullan Abramson, A LIKELY STORY

A LIKELY STORY by Leigh McMullan Abramson

Purchase your copy on Zibby’s bookshop and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts