Naomi Krupitsky, THE FAMILY

Naomi Krupitsky, THE FAMILY

Debut novelist Naomi Krupitsky joins Zibby to talk about her book, The Family, which is an instant New York Times bestseller as well as a Read With Jenna Book Club and a Barnes and Noble Discovery pick. The two talk about how the relationship between the two protagonists was inspired by Naomi’s own lifelong friendships, the research she did to help make her story feel more immersive, and what her journey to publication looked like. Namoi also shares how she had to stop watching The Sopranos while working on this project to prevent herself from writing anything too similar and what she is currently reading.


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

Naomi Krupitsky: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: Yay. You said you’ve had a month off from doing events. I feel like there was this huge media storm around your book and everything, getting it chosen by major book clubs. It’s been amazing for you. What is it like now that you’ve come off the ride for a second?

Naomi: It was a month unlike any month that I have experienced in my life, the month of November. I simultaneously was navigating just feeling so grateful that the book is getting this audience — the exposure that I’m getting, the exposure that the book is getting is really rare. I felt really lucky. At the same time, it felt super unnatural for me to be in the public eye in that way so suddenly. I feel a lot more like myself now. If we had talked a few weeks ago, you would’ve gotten this shell of a person. Now I feel more like a human being. It’s been really wild and really exciting.

Zibby: Maybe this is what I should do. I should just always schedule my interviews a month or two or three — actually, I have been doing that, not on purpose.

Naomi: You get more of a human being.

Zibby: Which is good, which is what I want. For listeners who aren’t familiar with your book yet, could you tell them a little more about what it’s about?

Naomi: Sure. The Family is the story of Sofia and Antonia, who are young girls growing up in Brooklyn at the beginning of the twentieth century, sort of in the middle of the twentieth century. They’re best friends. Their apartments share a wall. They really grow up alongside one another. Their families are mafia families. Their coming of age is juxtaposed against the backdrop of Brooklyn really growing and expanding and also against the danger and deception and excitement inherent in their family’s jobs or cultures.

Zibby: I listened to this book, by the way. I did it on many walks up and down this big hill. Every time did it, I’m like, okay, let’s see what the girls are up to. They came on the walks with me. I was struck, particularly by listening to it, your writing is so good. It’s just so good. Some of the sentences just took my breath away. Obviously, you’ve been recognized, but you have so much writing talent. I love when great talent is recognized. Just wanted to say that.

Naomi: Thank you. I really care about language. It’s important to me. I’m really grateful that some people are connecting with that. I will just slide in here that the audiobook for this book is incredible. It’s read by Marin Ireland who I threw out there as a name that, in my wildest pipe dream, this is who would narrate my book. She agreed to do it. At any moment I can, I tell people, listen to it. It’s so good.

Zibby: It was so good. It was great, so great. You did such a good job, too, of all the different characters. I think about them and the scenes that they were in, like the scene in the hotel or the house or whatever by the water when one character gets taken out of the book, so to speak.

Naomi: Really good non-spoiler. It’s hard to talk about.

Zibby: The aftermath of that loss as well, and I won’t say who or anything, but just the way you depicted the effects of that in the home especially and on the widow or widower were so profound. You could just see it. You said things like, the indentation in the couch from where this person would sit all day and the way her skin was sort of frozen, and her hands, all these tangible things. You were just right in there in both apartments. Then you would go across the way. You would go to the big, boisterous Sunday dinners and have all that. It was just incredibly immersive. How did you learn to write this way? Is this something you’ve always done? Has it always come naturally? Have you always loved the visual elements of writing? That was a lot. I’m sorry. I’m rambling.

Naomi: I love hearing all of that. I’m getting better at taking compliments about my writing, but it’s still a little bit, I want to crawl under the table and then go “thank you” from down there. Something that’s important to me in any art — for me, it’s writing; it’s always been writing — is figuring out, what can this do that no other medium could do? For me, in literature, it’s this kind of immersive storytelling where you can be in the physical space and you can also be in the heads of the people who are there. The emotional topography can have this almost physical effect on the room. I think that’s something, at least for me, that writing has always been able to do, that fiction has always been able to do, that I don’t think any other medium can do. When I’m writing, I’m really thinking — I don’t know if I’m thinking while I’m writing, but while I’m editing and while I’m thinking about what’s important to me, it’s, how can I tell this story through writing in a way that I would be unable to tell it in any other medium? That’s definitely present for me. I think that that has a lot to do with the breadth of each moment and the way that I’m dipping into different character’s heads and dipping into the physical space and dipping into the past and just trying to bring the moment into this three-dimensional or multi-dimensional, almost tangible thing, if that makes sense. That was a rambling answer to a long question.

Zibby: That’s okay. Good. I feel better now. That’s so interesting how emotions change the physical topography of a place. That’s a really interesting way to look at it. You also write about people’s relationships. It’s not just, you’re describing a character. It’s the friendships even between the two girls and all that unspoken ebbing and flowing as people age, and different friend groups. Yet you totally captured it, the wishing that Sofia would ask something about Antonia. Should she reveal this? Should she not? The friends at school and how they were so close together and then, at the new school, had their own lives and then when they got intimate with guys, what that was like — anyway, when you’re thinking about depicting relationships among your characters, it’s one thing to imagine the characters, but it’s another to have them all be interacting in this little ecosystem. Tell me a little more about that.

Naomi: This is my first novel. It really spiraled out of control, in a way. I mean that in a loving way at this point. I started with these two girls. Really quickly I realized, well, in order to know them, I have to understand their parents. Then I have to understand their parents. Then I’m going to understand their children. I’m going to see how their children were formed by them. A lot of my editing process was my editor going, “Okay, we cannot do six generations. It’s not going to work for this novel. You can know all that, but the readers don’t need to know all of that.” The reason I said it’s my first novel is because I don’t know if this is something that will always be at the fore for me. For this novel, I wanted to know the characters for their whole lives. Sofia and Antonia were going to have a lifelong friendship. I knew that. I knew that to keep it interesting it was going to have to feel real. It was going to have to ebb and flow the way that a real friendship would.

I think one of the things that people connect to and that was important to me is the juxtaposition on the one hand of these little moments where Antonia really wishes that Sofia would ask her something, but she won’t. Then on the other hand, getting to see them over such a long period of time makes you feel like you understand their friendship in a different context. It’s how I think about my friendships and my long-lasting relationships; on the one hand, these little, tiny, crystal-clear memories that feel like a turning point. On the other hand, how are we the same people and how are we also different people than we were ten years ago? How is this the same relationship? Since we’re different, how is it also a totally different relationship? How does the relationship become sort of its own character? I thought about that a lot. I’m really glad that a lot of it came through.

Zibby: Even how you brought in World War II and the Holocaust and the one Jewish character who comes over, and he’s working in the deli, and how he ends up where he ends up from the very beginning through and how even the family and all of the people reacted. How opportunistic were they going to be? Just to see all that develop, to see the business angle that they saw and to know, this is what it was like in the US at this time with all this going on — I always find myself wondering — so much of historical fiction takes place in Europe or where it was going on, but there’s not a lot, or maybe I just haven’t read it lately, in the US where it’s removed but still, of course, a huge thing. How do you process that? Did you have an interest in that time period? Did you have to do research or talk to people?

Naomi: I ended up doing World War II kind of as an accident because the book started when it did. They were going to be teenagers during World War II. It ended up being sort of fortuitous because it was a really tense, incredible time in history and then also a really intense time for them. They were sixteen or seventeen. That ended up working really well in concert. I definitely tried to pair what was going on in history versus what was going on in their lives so that it felt like political tensions and world history were sort of interacting with the ebb and flow of Sofia and Antonia’s lives. I did some research. People always want to hear about the research. It’s so funny because internet research is like, I can go on YouTube, and I can hear the radio announcement from D-Day. I can look at Brooklyn, a specific block in Brooklyn, and then I can look at it ten years later, a photo of it.

In some ways, it wasn’t this big digging process. I would get to a point and I would realize that I needed context or that I didn’t understand what it would’ve felt like at that moment. I would do a little digging around and usually get down a path or two that ended up not mattering, an internet hole. Then I would be able to take out the context that was going to help me shore up the world that I was building. In terms of creating a world that feels real, at least, my argument, what I think is that a lot of it has to do with commitment, so my commitment to the world. If I say, this is how they felt, and I say it in a way that you as the reader believe that they felt that way, then it feels true. It is, of course, about real events that happened in history. I did do research in that regard. A lot of it is just about creating a world that feels immersive enough that readers are willing to take a chance on it. A speculative novel can feel real in that way. I think that’s more what I was going for.

Zibby: Interesting. I loved how you depicted the power, similar to Sopranos — I’m sure you got that a trillion times. When you see the backstory of somebody, nobody is all good or all bad. You see the humanity behind someone and the intimate moments where Sofia’s dad — there was something like he was rubbing her mom’s back. There’s something with the shoulders. There was this one little moment. I was like, wow, I’m in there, and him trying to fall asleep one night next to her. They’re so human. Everybody is so human. It just was really amazing because it felt like I was living and breathing in these spaces. Bravo.

Naomi: Thank you. Of course, I took a lot from The Sopranos. Although, I actually had not finished the series until two weeks ago. I was watching it as I was writing. Then I would have to take a long break because I knew I was going to get this comparison. I wanted to not just write The Sopranos, so I had to keep myself away from it a little bit. What I think The Sopranos is so masterful at is making you love these people who are murderers and criminals. I think that’s what makes the world a better place, that empathy that art can give you for somebody who you think you might otherwise have nothing in common with and that ability that art has to make you ask, well, what would it take for me to do something violent to protect my family? There’s a line for everybody, I think. People who have a really rigid moral reaction and they’re like, they’re criminals, I often feel like those are the people that could stand to think a little bit about where their personal line is, what they would do in a situation where you’re called on to do something you never would’ve thought. What would it take for you? I wanted you to be able to relate to them. I wanted you to be able to feel like you understood why they were doing what they were doing even when you disagreed with it and even when it felt really different from what you thought you might do yourself.

Zibby: Where did you come from? Where’d you grow up? What was your family like? How did you develop into you?

Naomi: I was born in Berkeley, California. I spent a lot of my teenage years going back and forth between California and Alaska where my dad moved when I was eleven. I was in an interview once where somebody was asking me about the multiple perspectives in the book and whether I had ever been torn between perspectives. I have not been able to stop thinking yet about watching my parents become two different people. That’s a little bit more Freudian than I necessarily feel like I can get, but I definitely think there’s something there for me about wanting to understand where different people are coming from. Then I went to college at NYU, so I moved to the East Coast. I was there for about ten years. I came back to San Francisco in 2018. I sold this book in the summer of 2018. I was traveling. Then I edited for about two and a half years when I got back. That was a really, really long, intense process.

Zibby: So you didn’t get an MFA?

Naomi: I did not get an MFA. I applied to art school, to MFA programs. I applied to only a few, and I didn’t get into any of them. I spent six months being really bitter and depressed about it. Then I started this book.

Zibby: Wow. Turns out you didn’t need it.

Naomi: I think people sometimes gain a really invaluable sense of community from their MFA programs. I also think mostly what I was looking for was time and space to prioritize writing and a structure that made me feel like I could prioritize it. I have had to just figure out how to do that for myself.

Zibby: Were you doing anything writing-related or adjacent those ten to fifteen years before it came out?

Naomi: Most of my post-college years, I did different kinds of odd jobs, some related to writing, some not, all of which gave me time and space to write. I worked for weird, little startups. I did work a little bit in publishing for a while. I worked as a nanny a lot. I taught yoga, just anything I could do to pay my rent and give me free time.

Zibby: I keep interviewing authors who said that they were a nanny at some point. I’m like, where were all these great people when I’ve been looking for nannies for my kids? No, I’m kidding.

Naomi: I don’t think I was an exceptional nanny, actually. When I think back on it, I think I wasn’t the greatest nanny of all time, but I did really appreciate the time and space that that kind of work gave me. I really like kids. I think kids are honest. They’re weird. They’re cool. I think being exposed to that can make you a better artist.

Zibby: I shouldn’t have said that. I have amazing women who have been childcare providers.

Naomi: I assume that now you’ve found some.

Zibby: Yes. Oh, my gosh, that’s funny. When you were writing this, did you show it to anyone regularly? Did you just sort of toil away privately at night on your laptop? What was that like?

Naomi: That’s the biggest, most intense part, for me, of writing a novel, is every morning getting up and convincing myself to work on this thing that’s sitting on my computer that’s getting to be fifty thousand words long or sixty thousand words long that I’ve been working on for two years. I don’t even know if it’s really a real thing. It’s a mental gymnastics that I can’t really believe that I did when I look back on it. I think that as daunting as it is to write a second book, not having to do that is such a privilege that I kind of feel like I have no excuse. I did show it to people. I have a really supportive and smart partner who’s one of my first readers. My mom has read the book maybe more times than I have. I have really good friends that I can send it to. There’s something so intense about writing a book and not knowing if it’ll ever be anywhere other than on your laptop. In some ways, it’s really freeing. In some ways, it’s just inconceivably crazy to have spent so much time doing something and not know where it’s going to end up.

Zibby: I know it’s your first novel, but did you try another draft and just put it away? Did you try short stories? Or this literally was just like, hey, I think I’ll try to write?

Naomi: No, no. This is another in a series of many, many things that I’ve done. I’ve written poetry. I’ve written short stories. I wrote a novel-length collection of short stories at the end of college. I think I always wanted to write a novel, but it was so intimidating. I had never started something that kept my attention for long enough. My whole life was leading up to writing a novel. It wasn’t like one day I sat down and thought I’d try it.

Zibby: I know. I was like, wow, that’s humbling if that’s the case.

Naomi: No, no, not at all.

Zibby: You just obliquely referenced a second book. Tell me about that.

Naomi: The second book — it’s not a book. It was one of my senior college projects. It was a series of short stories, kind of interconnected narratives. They all took place in the same town, each of them based on a different story from Greek mythology, but very loosely based. It took place in a Southern town in a modern time. There was this old, crazy lady that I based off of — I took inspiration from the story of Medusa and all of these different things. I really like that kind of reinterpretation of a classic trope or an archetype. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that. I would not call that a second book.

Zibby: That was really interesting. I meant that one might be coming next.

Naomi: Oh, I would love that. I have not started one. I know lots of people that by the time their book comes out, they’re like, I have a draft of my second book. It took me so long to write this book. It was so intense to be in the world of editing and then for the last year, in the really intense and public-facing world of publicity for it that my main project this year is getting back into my own head and my own body and my own creative space and figuring out what’s in there. I’d be happier if I was writing.

Zibby: What’s the short version of the story of how you sold it?

Naomi: I finished this draft in the fall of 2017, the novel that I wrote by myself. I spent three months querying agents really doggedly, like a few a day for many months. I had a spreadsheet. I had a hundred people. I interned for a literary agent in college. I looked up her website because I was going to send her my query letter and hope that I could get her to read the letter and actually, of course, hope that she wanted to represent me, but all I was going to say was, will you critique this letter? Somebody that I had gone to college with and been in a French class with once who I was Facebook friends with turned out to be an agent at her agency. I wrote her. I said, “Dana, this is so weird. I just came across your bio on Elisabeth Weed’s website. I would love to talk to you about this thing I’m doing.” She said, “Great. Send it to me.” After all of that legwork, it ended up being kind of a personal connection. Dana and I, we have the best chemistry. Finding an agent was something I was sort of nervous and bitter about. I thought an agent was going to be a middleman, somebody standing in between me and my editor. Instead, I don’t think everybody has this, but I really found a creative partner. That relationship has been this really important, steady constant for me. We edited for a few months together. We sold the book that summer, 2018.

Zibby: Wow, that’s awesome. I love The Book Group. I didn’t realize you were with The Book Group.

Naomi: I love The Group Too.

Zibby: They’re awesome, all the ladies there.

Naomi: They’re wonderful.

Zibby: That’s really exciting. What advice would you have? Somebody’s just starting out. This is a wunderkind success story.

Naomi: It is.

Zibby: Can it happen to anyone? Should people keep trying? Do you regret anything? Are you particularly proud of anything or think anything worked particularly well?

Naomi: I can tell you what worked for me. No, it won’t just happen to anybody. There are so many people that deserve this that won’t get it. That’s something that I’ve had to come to terms with too. I think that I worked really hard on this book. I am really grateful for the success that it’s getting. I think there are lots of people that work really hard and never get even a fraction of this sort of validation or attention. I will say that it’s not a fair world in that way. There’s just more talented people than there is space in the behemoth of modern publishing. I will say that, for me, what worked was doing everything in a way that felt good. I think I made all of my decisions with a lot of integrity. I wrote because I cared about the characters and I cared about the book, and so I could convince myself that even if nothing happens, I’m learning. I’m growing. I’m spending time with people I love in this book. I’m spending my time in a way that feels crazy some days and really fulfilling, others. I’ve managed to surround myself with people who have my best interests at heart. One piece of advice that’s concrete that I might say is, wait for the people who care about the same things in your book that you do. I was lucky. These were the first people I ended up with. I think if I had ended up with people that I could tell weren’t going to work as hard for me or didn’t care as much, it would’ve been really hard to say no to that. I would encourage people to wait for the right fit in your team if that’s where you get because that’s been just invaluable.

Zibby: I know you started the conversation by saying that the book, there were things that were done uniquely through literature in telling the story, but is this going to be a movie?

Naomi: I’ve had lots of conversations this fall with producers and film people. That’s a very new world for me. I’m assuming it will be. I’m talking to lots of people. They see it as really cinematic. I really like adaptation. I think it’s interesting. I’m really excited to see what the right person can do with this book. No concrete plans, but I’m hoping it will be.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you so much, Naomi. You really gave me exactly seven and a half hours, or whatever it was, of entertainment and, really, transportation in the most metaphorical way or whatever. I didn’t say that very well. You really just took me into this whole other world. I loved it. I’ll just say that.

Naomi: Thank you. That’s what I look for when I read. Every time somebody tells me that that’s what happened to them with my book, I am just really honored. Thank you for saying that.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Now I have to just quickly ask what you’re reading or some book that you feel did that for you.

Naomi: I have been fully unable to concentrate on reading anything since my own book came out. The first book I enjoyed after my book came out was How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu, which is coming out in a few weeks. Right now, I’m reading Song of Solomon, which is my last Toni Morrison. I’ve read all of the others. I’ve been saving this one for a rainy day. That’s obviously going to be on my top ten books of all time along with every other Toni Morrison novel. I’m going through that as slowly as possible.

Zibby: Good for you. This was awesome. I can’t wait to eventually read your next book and just follow your career. Well done.

Naomi: Thank you so much. Good luck. You seem really busy. You’re doing a lot of incredible things.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks. Take care.

Naomi: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Naomi: Bye.

Naomi Krupitsky, THE FAMILY

THE FAMILY by Kimberly Harrington

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