Nell Freudenberger, THE LIMITS

Nell Freudenberger, THE LIMITS

Award-winning author Nell Freudenberg joins Zibby to discuss THE LIMITS, a heart-wrenching and humane novel set in French Polynesia and New York City about three characters who undergo massive transformations when the pandemic hits. Nell reveals her fascination with the ocean and coral research (she even scuba-dived in Belize to authentically portray the underwater!) and then discusses her protagonist, a scientist torn between her love of science and her familial obligations. She also delves into the themes of unique family dynamics, step-parenting, and what happens to relationships under pressure while reflecting on some of her own experiences as a parent.


Zibby: Welcome back to Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books. Nell, excited to talk about The Limits. Congratulations. Thank you so much. You're welcome. Okay. The limits. Talk to me. Tell the audience what your book is about and where the idea came from. And by the way, this is one of the coolest covers ever, by the way.

Neil: I agree. 

Zibby: Do you love it? 

Neil: The first try. I loved it. Yeah, absolutely. It's thrilled. Yeah. So I started writing the limits because I had become sort of obsessed with the deep ocean. The book is about a scientist named Natalie. She's French and she works on the island of Maria in French Polynesia, which has been a epicenter for coral research for decades.

And she loves the deep ocean because it's almost totally unexplored. It's like an alien world. It's full of creatures that scientists have never seen before, but she's pulled by all of her ties on land. She has a teenage daughter named Pia, who is going to New York to live with her father and her new stepmother, sort of against her will.

And her stepmother, Kate, is a New York City school teacher. And she, neither she nor Pia, is prepared for the amount of time that they're going to spend together because of, Quarantine Kate also has a student named Athena, who is like a lot of the students who I worked with during the pandemic is a girl dealing with her schoolwork, but also with caring for her nephew.

I found that a lot of teenage girls during the pandemic had suddenly had childcare responsibilities in addition to everything else that goes along with being a high school senior. So the book, I mean, I think when I start, I don't know what it's like for you, but when I start writing, I usually don't exactly know what the book is about.

And I had this amazing teacher in my MFA program, Brian Morton, who said that themes, the themes in a book are just the writer's obsessions. And I've always remembered that. So I think this book for me is about the way that the natural world is changing and how it puts pressure on our most important relationships.

Zibby: Wow. Yeah, I think you're right about that. The Obsessions. I feel like writers... 

Neil: well, Brian's right. 

Zibby: Yeah, I can't Yeah, Brian's right. Sorry. Without You're right to quote Brian. We can, you know, this is, it's coming from you today. I remember Dani Shapiro saying, like, she realized that she's been writing about her father ever since, and then by the time she wrote Inheritance, where she realized her father was not her father, she's like, oh my gosh, I've been writing about this search for Father the whole time.

It's like that, right? You don't even know that it's in there and it comes out. Right. So you have this set during the pandemic and you have points of view from the doctor. What's his name? Ken. His name's not Ken. 

Neil: Stephen. 

Zibby: Stephen. Sorry. 

Neil: You can call him Ken if you want. 

Zibby: No, it's okay. Stephen.

I'm very sorry. So Stephen is carrying the weight of being a doctor throughout this crisis and having to come home and As we read in the news, you know, all the doctors coming home and taking off all the paraphernalia and then having to sort of re engage. And there's this one element of the storyline where he has a, I mean, I don't want to give anything away maybe, but can I talk about it?

Neil: I think it's okay to say his wife is pregnant. 

Zibby: Okay. Pretty early in the book. Okay. So he has a patient, who passes away from COVID, who's pregnant, which is devastating. And then as he's fighting to save that patient, he finds out his wife is pregnant. And how can he, or maybe the patient had already passed away, but anyway, how can he celebrate in his own life when he can't, when he feels so helpless in his professional life and sort of that juxtaposition and how.

Much pain he feels just being in that moment. Talk to me about, about that. 

Neil: Yeah, I mean, I think that Steven is someone who is a smart guy who's worked really hard and also has a lot of resources and he just hasn't come up against a lot of situations where he is not in control. 

Zibby: Mm hmm. 

Neil: Before. And so COVID kind of stops him for that reason.

I have a really dear friend who works at SUNY Downstate, which is a hospital that has actually a lot fewer resources than the one where the character works. And she said, and she, you know, we were always telling her what a hero she was. And she said, that is the opposite of the way that I feel that I came home from work.

Tell me one day she came home from work and she said to her husband, today, I found a charger for a man on a ventilator, you know, so that like his family could have a, a FaceTime with them. And she's like, and that's the most useful thing I did today. And this is someone who was trained as an infectious disease specialist before, you know, unlike Steven, who's a cardiologist who's shunted into this work and has to kind of learn it on the fly.

She actually was the person who was most sought after during, during that time. And she felt that helpless. She felt that, you know, what she could do was find a charger. So it's just, it was just amazing to talk to her. through that time. And I think some of Stephen's, she was very helpful reading through those chapters for me.

Zibby: Did you always know, well, I guess you didn't since you didn't have an outline, but as Stephen's storyline and all of the COVID stuff, if you will, came out, were you surprised by that? Were you like, Oh, of course, because obviously this is on my mind right now. Or did you think about, you sort of hiding it. I know that their authors have been divided.

Like, do you just pick a time where it's, you know, unclear when the time is that you're not betraying reality by not having COVID? 

Neil: Uh huh. Yeah. And you see it with TV shows too. It's like, are they going to wear masks or not? 

Zibby: Right. Exactly. 

Neil: I guess I don't think of it so much as a COVID book because I've always been a novelist who write, I've always written about the time that, you know, a little earlier than when I'm writing.

I'm a contemporary novelist. I have never. I've tried historical fiction when I've tried speculative fiction about the future, it's been kind of a total disaster. Love to be able to do those things successfully, but it's not the kind of idea that I usually have. So this book has to do with COVID because I'm publishing it now in 2024, but it would have been really false for me to take the pandemic out.

And also it worked as an engine to get people into small rooms together, because I think what I'm always most interested in is family relationships under pressure. And that was just, you know, that was true for everyone in different ways during the pandemic. 

Zibby: So interesting, I guess. Well, you make everybody very sympathetic.

Right? Like the stepmom. Like, I have a stepmom. My husband is a stepdad. Like, I think about this particular relationship a lot. My kids are about to have a stepmom. So how she feels about Pia coming to stay, you know, that, that sort of cringey awkwardness at the beginning and how to foster a relationship that's productive and all of that.

Tell me about that and not sort of succumbing to the evil stepmother. 

Neil: Yeah, Ann Patchett writes about that so beautifully too. I, yeah, I also have a stepmom. There's, I don't think she would mind me saying, there's a moment in the book where Pia kind of is texting with her cousins in France and she's saying, she's making fun of her stepmom.

And she says, like, the worst thing about her is, like, when I come into the room, she, like, jumps. Like, I startle her every time, as if I'm a robber, you know, in my own home, and that was very much taken from my own experience. And I have a really close relationship with my stepmom, who I love dearly. But when we were first spending time together in the house that I grew up in, I found that I kept startling her when I walked into the room and it was just this sense of, Oh my God, you know, I can't, you know, I, I can't do anything right.

You know, my own, what was, you know, my home. And so I was just trying to get at the complexity of that relationship. I mean, there are a whole bunch of caregiving relationships in the book that are, you know, mothering relationships that aren't necessarily mothers and children, but you know, Athena is very much a mother to her nephew.

And I also wanted to, you know, I think there's sometimes there's Negative stereotypes about young women who are taking care of children, whether or not they belong to them, they're their own biological children, but the love in this relationship. And I worked closely with one of my students who I've just stayed close with.

It was her nephew who really inspired the character in the book because he was constantly coming into our Zooms. We work on college essays together and constantly coming into our Zooms and he's always wearing the Spider Man costume. I mean, there was just like never anything else. And she was like, you want to put on some clothes?

And he's like, no. And I just thought these were things that I didn't deal with until my early thirties and I found them overwhelming. And just to watch teenagers doing this at the same time that they were doing school was humbling and inspiring and, and the love, you know, is just, is very powerful too, to see, you know, it's not, it's not all drudgery.

Doesn't matter who you are. It's, it's really, it was pretty beautiful to see. 

Zibby: I love that. And you have obviously Natalie, who's the mother and actually I found it so interesting how she. ends up reconnecting with her ex, which I did hear about happening a lot during COVID. Did you hear, did people do that?

Neil: I was, yeah, I was curious about that. That was kind of not, I love writing letters. And so that's where that sort of came from, but I wasn't, I didn't know, I didn't connect with any exes during COVID. So I was curious if other people were. 

Zibby: Yes. I mean, not me, but I know I have one. But I do have one, you know, very close relationship and they, the exes were like each other's best friends through it unexpectedly.

So yeah, it was fun to see that in your, in your writing. Your writing itself, of course, is so beautiful, which it always has been. I've been, You know, as I told you last time, I'm such a fan of Lucky Girls and all of that. How has your own writing sort of progressed through your career and how much focus do you put on like getting sentences at the sentence level sort of better, if you will, or like how much focus do you put on the, the words and the sentences?

Obviously I'm putting no focus on my words today because I can't get a sentence out of my mouth. 

Neil: I certainly can't do it in speech. I think that's why we're writers, right? We like to do it over and over again on the paper. 

Zibby: Totally. Can we just put this podcast on paper, please? Right. But how much attention do you spend on like the, the, at the sentence level versus getting it all on the page and then editing and things like that?

Neil: I mean, that's, the editing is my favorite part. I've always been an editor's writer, I think. From the first story that I published that you were talking about in The New Yorker, that It's a story that was very much written in the editing. I mean, I had a draft, but I went in and it completely changed.

And that's where I do my best writing, you know, once I have something down on paper and then to go in and kind of rip it apart and find whatever thing is that's missing. And I do love line editing. I mean, I, there's, I'm never happier than when I'm changing tiny things to make a sentence feel like musically correct, like rhythmically correct, but.

I think it's kind of a trap. It needs to be done, but it doesn't need to be done on the first round or even the second round, you know, because if you get into that, or if I get into that obsessing about language, then often it's kind of because I'm avoiding doing the hard stuff, like saying this person doesn't belong here.

This person should be someone else. I mean, I think with the last book that we talked about, it's told from the point of view of a physicist who's a woman. There was a physicist in the book, but he was in the first draft, but he was a man and he was not, he didn't tell the story. And when I had that.

realization that she should really be telling the story, and she hadn't known enough about physics to make it believable. It was like my heart just sank. Like, you know, there's just so much work ahead of me, right? But you gotta get to those sinking moments. I think for this book, it was knowing that I would need to learn how to scuba dive to be this good.

Get to tell this character story enough. It was really terrifying. I was like very, I mean, I've always wanted to do it, but it, it scared the hell out of me. And how, where did you learn? How did you do it? Well, you know, online first, and then, then in a pool in New York City, a beautiful New York City public pool.

And then finally, thrillingly in Belize, I went there to a place where I could do the open water, you know, the paddy course. And my husband took care of the kids. And I went out on the boat and I, the first conversation that I had with a scientist who actually works in Moriah, she told me about going on an early morning dive, which is very much the first, the opening scene of the book and going down and you always dive with a buddy and going out over the edge of this reef and the, you know, the reef drops off and then it's just blue, right?

It's like going over a cliff and feel, she said, you know, even with all her experience, she had this dive where she felt this vertigo. She felt like she was falling and she was kind Swimming out over the edge and her partner had to like pull her back because she was kind of mentally losing it a little bit and I thought, wow, that's such an incredible moment and something that I will probably never experience because that's an expert diver and the first time I'm telling you the first training dive.

I went down that exact. It was that, I mean, I guess that's much, it's much more common than I thought. There's, there's a place where the shelf, you know, drops off and we kind of went over that edge. And I, I just was so, I didn't feel vertigo. I felt just like, so moved kind of to be seeing this stuff, which I guess is common, but just the, the life on the reef.

I mean, the sponges, you know, I mean, I kind of knew what a sponge was. Was I knew it was related to coral, but there were these things that were, they were shaped like vases, you know, like your grandma might have like a, a tall vase in her living room with some like dead flowers in it or like pussy willows or something.

They look like that shape and they're bright yellow or purple and they're alive, you know? I mean, and it's just, it's like meeting an alien. I was so, I mean, I'm kind of embarrassed to say this, but there was one time where I sort of cried underwater, like so blown away by these other worldly creatures. 

Zibby: I think that's beautiful. That's amazing. And no, I don't dive. You were like, maybe you do. I do not. 

Neil: I'm suggesting. I really loved this course. Yeah and I went then when I was in Maria, I went a couple more times and it was incredible there as well. I mean, just what you see is unreal down there. 

Zibby: So this is the trick. You have to invent a character who's doing something you've always wanted to do and therefore convince your husband to take care of the kids.

So you can go do it under the pretense of work. 

Neil: It's for work honey, we got to go to the bank for work. 

Zibby: I love it. Well, what else is on your list of things you want to learn how to do that you're going to make an excuse for? 

Neil: You know, I think I always want to be learning something when I'm working on a book. And I, you know, whether it's like a language, like my first novel, I've learned very badly to speak a tiny bit of Chinese.

Took a long time to learn really, really bad rudimentary training. And then the last book, it was more the physics, just getting comfortable with what physicists study. Cause I hadn't studied that much in college. Yeah. So I don't know what the next one is. I'm working on short stories right now and those are pretty close to home.


Zibby: Wow. 

That's so funny. 

Well, I've heard short stories are so much harder than full length books. This is the word on the street to like get everything into the story that you would have to get in a book and be so much more, you know, intentional about every single word. 

Neil: To me, it feels like a different exercise in a way like the thing that is easier about it is that you see the light at the end of the tunnel much sooner.

And so, you know, when something's not working, it doesn't feel like this enormous expenditure on something that might or might not go forward. But it does feel, I imagine, I don't poems, but I imagine it feels as different to me from writing a novel as a story would from a poem. Like they just, the idea is completely different for me.

It always is, is a very specific kind of sentence long thing that's happening, right? I remember that first New Yorker story was about someone coming over to eat cheese in the afternoon in Delhi because I knew this, I had this landlady in Delhi who had this special friend. He was like her gentleman friend.

I don't think they were involved, but they maybe they had been at one point. And he really loved cheese, French cheese, you know, European cheese. It was like a kind of mark of sophistication for him. And he would disparage Indian cheese, you know, like paneer that you have like sag paneer or whatever. And he would bring over this cheese and they would have like a cheese hour and this, that story.

I don't think there's any cheese eating in that story, but it started with the scene in the living room with these two sort of old lovers. So it's always like that kind of idea. With the novels, it's more like a person, just like a person occurs to me and I want to kind of see where they go. And no people have occurred to you lately?

Just like, it's mostly cheese eating these days, Zibby, that kind of thing. 

I wrote a story about soccer, maybe you, I 

don't know if you're like involved in travel sports, but I wrote a story about like the travel soccer tournament because I have spent so much time at them and yeah, I just had had an idea about a group of parents.

I wanted to write a story in the first person plural and the we voice and so I was thinking about teamwork, like what teamwork is for, we are always encouraging our children to learn teamwork and like, how do we, are we really setting much of an example as adults being part of a team and accomplishing things?

Zibby: I like that. Yeah. My, uh, I, my older kids are now in boarding school and high school. So that's the great thing is like, I don't have to take them to all the things they just like appear and I can go meet them if I want. Yeah and they have, you know, zooms or not zooms, what do you call it? Live streams of a lot of the games.

Neil: Live streams. Yeah. Yeah. 

Zibby: That's nice too. And are you reading anything good these days? 

Neil: Yes. I just finished last night. Have you read this book? This Other Eden by Paul Harding. He's the head. He wrote Tinkers. That book is beautiful. Beautiful. Okay. I recommend it. I'm excited to start Paul Theroux's novel, Burma Sob, because I've always loved George Orwell.

And I was excited. So my favorite book that I read last year is Karos, the Jenny Erpenbeck novel, and I saw that that was on the list for the International Booker. So I was excited about that. I got to go hear her speak at the Center for Fiction. 

Zibby: Wow. Amazing. I didn't realize that you lived in New York, by the way.

I don't know why. I, have you, have you lived here for a while? 

Neil: I was born here. Yeah. It's been, it's been a long time. Um, I grew up mostly in Los Angeles and then I came back here after college, but yeah, I've been here since 1998. 

Zibby: Okay, 

Neil: Well good to know. 

Zibby: Me too, more or less. 

Neil: Yeah, yeah. And then I, just in terms of stories, I also really love After the Funeral that Tessa Hadley.

Zibby: Oh, I loved that. Yes. 

Neil: Yeah. So good, right? 

Zibby: Yes. So good. 

Neil: She's like one of those writers you just feel like held in her hands. Like you're in the hands of an expert and you're just going to go wherever she's taking you. 

Zibby: When I read Free Love, I posted about it or something. I was like, how? Because that was the first time I had read her.

I was like, how did I not know about Tessa Hadley? And everybody, of course, was like, oh yeah, we love Tessa Hadley. I was like, she's so under, and maybe she's celebrated enough, but not mainstream enough here or something. I don't know. I just think she's so great. 

Neil: Yeah, I agree. What about you? Do you have anything you're especially recommending?

Zibby: I mean, there's this book called The Limits. It's pretty good. I don't know. That was my latest, um, Oops, sorry. My daughter texts me night and day. Sorry, hold on. I forgot to turn off. 

Neil: I love that. In the opening of your novel, the text at 3:00 AM and you know the importance of social media posts at three in the morning.

Zibby: Thank you for reading. It's nice. 

Neil: Yeah, of course. Yeah. So much insight into those relationships and it's very relatable for me at this stage. 

Zibby: How old are your kids? 15 and 12. Mine are 16, 16, 10, and 9 so. Yeah. We're close. We seem to have escaped travel soccer. So I feel victorious about that. We did travel baseball for a year, and I was like, we are not doing this again.

My son like wasn't even that into it. And he would like sit in the dugout like eating snacks the whole time and I'm like, if you are not into this, I'm not wasting the weekend anymore. Like, you have to be passionate about it or forget it. So, yeah. 

Neil: We have a passionate soccer player, but the other one is, is not so interested.

So it's, it's a limited time that we'll be doing this. 

Zibby: Well, this was so great. I love chatting with you. The book was great. I feel like you got so into these different relationships so that I could feel every single thing. Like, I felt like I was the interloper myself, you know, again. So, uh, yeah, it was really great.

Thank you. 

Neil: Thank you so much for having me. 

Zibby: Okay. Well, I hope to see you in person. 

Neil: Yeah. I know. That would be great. I'm right here in Brooklyn. 

Zibby: Oh my gosh. Yeah. I was just there. 

Neil: All right. Bye. 

Zibby: Take care. Okay. You too. Bye bye.

Nell Freudenberger, THE LIMITS

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens