Therese Anne Fowler, A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD

Therese Anne Fowler, A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD

Zibby Owens: Therese Anne Fowler is the New York Times best-selling author of novels Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and A Well-Behaved Woman. Her most recent novel is A Good Neighborhood. Raised in the Midwest, Therese moved to North Carolina where she currently lives. She holds a BA in sociology/cultural anthropology, and an MFA in creative writing from North Carolina State University.

Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Therese Anne Fowler: I’m so glad to join you.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what A Good Neighborhood is about?

Therese: A Good Neighborhood is a contemporary suburban drama that is really about the conflict between these two families, one black and one white. The conflict initially arises over the fate of this damaged historic oak tree in the black family’s backyard. It gets really complicated by this developing romance between the two family’s teenagers. These two situations lead to consequences that none of them could have foreseen.

Zibby: Or me as the reader, by the way.

Therese: Well, good. That’s what we want.

Zibby: I did not see that coming. Did not see the ending coming. You wrote an interesting explanation at the beginning of the book. You said, “A Good Neighborhood is very different from the historical novels I’m known for, and to change course could be a career risk. Yet these characters and their intertwined fates, the story of their conflicts and the fallout that ensues felt urgent to me. To write their story felt necessary, a kind of activism in our troubled and troubling times.” Tell me more about this.

Therese: As everybody in the book world is aware because of the controversy that surrounded the publication of American Dirt, this is a fraught time for mainly white authors who are writing stories about people of color. This is not news. This didn’t just start with American Dirt. It’s something that has been ongoing. Because that’s the case and because I knew I was taking on the possible subject of appropriation, was I going to be held to a different standard than, say, a person of color writing this story? I want to stress that I think that the standards are correct. People of color are, in most cases, right to be sensitive about the way that white authors have been, in some cases, appropriating their stories or just badly writing these stories and getting more attention than those people of color get for their books. All of that being the pool that we’re swimming in right now made it so that I felt like I needed to address this head on in my author’s note to help readers know that I’m mindful of those problems. I take them seriously. I wanted to make sure that I followed the advice that I got from Zadie Smith, which was to write about whatever you want about, but just make sure you do your homework. That’s what that note is about.

Zibby: Was that like a frantic, “I better write a note before this comes to print”?

Therese: No, not at all because I didn’t really expect there to be any particular controversy. The timing of American Dirt coming sort of close to the timing of A Good Neighborhood‘s release makes this a front-and-center issue. Rather, the note was just me, like I say, being mindful of this being the situation and wanting to just address it in case people did have questions about what I had done and why I had done it. Most of the people who raise issues of appropriation are not telling white authors, “You can’t write about these things.” I think that message comes later in the piling on, the terrible vitriolic culture of Twitter and people who don’t actually engage with the issues but just want to kind of get into the fight. People who actually are thoughtful about these matters recognize that anybody ought to be able to write anything. It’s just that you need to make sure that you don’t do it badly.

Zibby: When Zadie Smith said make sure to do your homework, how did you do your homework for this book?

Therese: I did a lot of research into — well, I’ll back up for a second and just say there are five characters in this story whose points of view I take. Two of those characters are African American. One of the things that I knew I needed to make sure I did was not to just presume that I could represent those voices authentically just because I grew up in a very diverse community, for example, or I had a black boyfriend when I was in fifth grade. Does that make me an authority? No, it does not. I was writing about my own culture in this novel. Because I haven’t been a black person, I needed to find out what it’s like to be black in America today. I watched lots of personal accounts. I read lots of personal accounts. I made sure that I wasn’t just reading summaries of what some expert thought that it was like, but actual accounts from the people who live these lives in America today, and then do what every novelist has to do. That is just to represent every character authentically and not to create stereotypes; just look out for the landmines that white authors have found themselves stepping on in the past and try very hard to not make those for myself; and then ultimately to have sensitivity readers make sure that I hadn’t still screwed up inadvertently. One of the things that was so interesting to me about the situation with American Dirt was when I read the book, which was very early before publication, I did not see the problems. You read it, didn’t it you?

Zibby: Yeah. I didn’t see the problems either.

Therese: Right. It’s because we’re not Mexican, or Mexican American. We can’t see. We can’t know what we don’t know. I think we have to respect the opinions of people who do know and get those opinions early if we can so that we don’t end up with a book that causes this complete utter, I think outsized, controversy.

Zibby: Agreed. I think the note was great.

Therese: That was a really long answer to your question.

Zibby: You do write from a lot of different character’s perspectives, but you also adopt this universal we from the people in the neighborhood, which I found to be really interesting and a different convention than I’ve seen in other books. Tell me about that decision.

Therese: That’s the collective first person from the writer’s standpoint. That’s a storytelling choice that is not made very often because it doesn’t really suit stories, generally. In this case, I was really interested in the fact that this was going to be a cautionary tale. Usually, we choose between two points of view. We have first-person point of view where we’re hearing directly from the character, or we have third-person point of view where it’s like the author voice telling the story through the character’s point of view. The collective first person lets me kind of have the best of both worlds. It gives this intimate look at the community because the “we” is the neighborhood telling the story. It also lets me have that voice disappear and just share what the characters’ experiences are. It goes way back to the beginning of, really, the history of storytelling, which was an oral event originally, and then classic literature where we have Shakespeare, for example, having a narrator introduce to the audience, the story that they’re about to see performed on the stage. It just felt like the right choice. I didn’t know if I could pull it off because I’d never done it before. I guess it worked.

Zibby: It worked for me. I thought it was neat. It’s nice when things are a little bit different. I read a lot of books. It’s nice to have something —

Therese: — Yes, you do read a lot of books.

Zibby: It’s just nice when something’s a little different. As long as it’s done well, it’s nice. Somebody’s thought through something a little differently. One part of the book that I found particularly interesting was that Julia, the mom, had children by two different dads and in very, very different stages of her life. I know that we always say with kids, I’m a different mom to my five-year-old than I was to my almost-thirteen-year-old. I’m like a totally different person. That’s true, but this really is like she was a different person.

Therese: It really is, yeah.

Zibby: She had a different financial situation, a different lifestyle, a different relationship with the guy. Everything in her life was different. Ultimately, the stepparent relationship and all of that becomes a very central piece of the plot. Tell me about your decision to do that. Then it made me wonder, do you have any stepchildren of your own? Are you close to any families who — the half-brother-half-sister relationship is sort of underexplored. That was a long question.

Therese: It’s true. I don’t have any half-siblings, but I did have a whole bunch of stepsiblings when I was growing up. Julia and I have some things in common, fortunately not the teenage, unmarried, pregnant part of her life. I got married really young. I had kids young. Then I remarried.

Zibby: What do we mean by young? How young?

Therese: God, I was eighteen when I got married.

Zibby: Really?

Therese: Yes, right out of high school.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Okay.

Therese: Bad decision, and not a shotgun wedding. It was not one of those situations. I was just determined and stubborn and thought I knew what I was doing. I got married young. I had my kids when I was in my mid-twenties. Then I was divorced when I was thirty. It was really a hand-to-mouth life a lot of that time, even growing up. I came from a blue-collar family. We did not have much in life. I was always striving, so that helped me a lot with Julia’s character, this young woman who was not educated and who had a child quite young and who just wanted to do better and be better, not just for herself, but for this daughter that she had when she was just nineteen years old. That helped me really get into the space of Julia’s head.

Then the whole having a stepparent thing was something that I personally had plenty of experience with, and a lot of bad experience, although, not exactly what Juniper has in the story. There is an aspect of my life where a person in my life behaved that ways toward me. Fortunately, it wasn’t my stepdad. We don’t want to give too much away about any of that for the book. All of these things informed the story and informed Julia and this parenthood situation where Juniper was born when she was a struggling single mom. Then Lily is born ten years later when she has married well and lives this much more comfortable life. It was something that I thought a lot about because of the guilt that mothers have sort of built into them anyway. Then to think about what the younger child has versus what the older child had to deal with, it just felt really emotionally heavy, but in a good way that I can identify with and I hope a lot of readers can identify with, but not too many, or in the right ways.

Zibby: Now I’m really curious about your life. You got married when you were eighteen. You had kids in your twenties. Now you’ve written all these amazing books. By the way, I read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald while I was nursing my third child. It will forever be stuck in my brain because I had it propped up by the pump. It was my go-to book for that whole period of time. It makes me think about just the agony and the — oh, my gosh.

Therese: That’s so interesting. What an association.

Zibby: That was my escape. You were completely my escape. Now here you are years later. Anyway, so how did you go from that to becoming a best-selling novelist?

Therese: Oh, well, it was easy. No, it was so not easy. Oh, gosh, that’s kind of a long and tangled pathway. When I got divorced at thirty, I put myself back in college. I’d taken some classes when I was like twenty years old, but I didn’t get very far with it. I went back to school at thirty to finish my degree. I got a degree in sociology and cultural anthropology. I really thought that that was going to be my path. I thought that I would just spend these three and a half years in school. I had to pay for everything with scholarships. I sold cars at CarMax part time. That was my job. It was just this cobbling together of finances and schedules and everything just to get to a place where I would be able to be a better provider myself. I didn’t want to have to be like Julia and marry into money in order to support my kids. I was in my last semester of undergrad. I took this class. It was a lit class in which I was given the choice to either write a short story or do a twenty-page research paper for the final project for that class. This will sound like a brag. I guess this is a brag. I was on track to graduate first in my class. I really, really did not want to screw that up, so I chose to write a short story thinking this will be much easier and take a lot less time than doing the research paper. It was just a completely practical decision. When I turned that story in, the feedback I got from my professor who was himself a writer — jump forward a second. Fifteen years later, I married him.

Zibby: No. Seriously?

Therese: I did, fifteen years later. At that time, he was just the professor who also was a writer and who told me that I had some promise as a fiction writer. It was as if my fairy-godfather had come and waived the wand over my head and said, “If you want to be a writer, why don’t you give it a try?” And so I did. I just completely changed course. I started writing. Instead of going to grad school for a PhD in sociology, I went to grad school for an MFA. I wrote a bad novel first. That was in between those two paths. You fail forward, I guess, is the path. Every time I didn’t get published made me just want to try harder and do better. That’s been sort of the path of my career, try to do less bad in each book until you have a success.

Zibby: Wow. I think you’re the first person who has said, I went into writing to give myself a state of financial security.

Therese: It’s astonishing to me that it actually worked out that way. It didn’t go quickly. My first published book paid well enough that I could keep writing. It was a miracle.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Then you ended up marrying the guy. How did that happen?

Therese: Oh, gosh. That was after Z was published. Let’s see. That was thirteen years after that semester that I’d taken his class. I’d known him all throughout there. He actually taught in the MFA program that I took. We’d been friends for a long time. We were not friends that way until after we reconnected in 2013. It was really strange, but it was really great. Suddenly, we recognized we had this thing that we did not know was going on. It wasn’t going on, but we, in retrospect, said, “Oh, we did always really like each other.” It just was very different.

Zibby: Are you still married?

Therese: Yes, we’re still married.

Zibby: Oh, good. Okay, great.

Therese: It’s only been a few years.

Zibby: You never know.

Therese: No, you absolutely don’t.

Zibby: Well, that’s a great story. I love that.

Therese: We went way off track here.

Zibby: I love this track. This is so fun. Tell me about the process. You got your MFA. When you sit down now to write your books, what is it like? Has it changed from your first book? Do you have a way you like to write? Do you outline these stories? I know they’re usually historical fiction, but what’s your process like?

Therese: I have to get really inspired by or excited about something first. I have lots of ideas. Then I spend a lot of time with a writing journal just figuring out, is this actually a worthy idea? Is this an idea that is just an idea and not a novel? You know what I mean? Some things have a great premise, but then when you try to work them out, you realize, no, that’s at best an article. Once I’ve decided on what I’m going to do, if it’s a historical novel or something that just takes a lot of research, then I’ll spend as much time as I can stand digging into all of the depths of information about, whether it’s the Fitzgeralds, or I wrote about the Vanderbilts in my most recent novel, and then I just sit down and I get to work. I write full time, which means that that’s really all I do. It’s all I should be doing, instead of being on Facebook for two hours in the morning. I treat it like a job. I have a word count goal, usually 1,500 or 2,000 words a day. I just move forward. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I just believe that writers are sometimes not prepared. I just try to make sure I’m prepared to do the work. I love it. I love writing so much. I usually have a kind of burning need to tell this particular story. You talked about reading Z. That came about because I got angry about how badly misrepresented Zelda is or was, I hope not so much now that I have published that book. It certainly was before. I just felt like, dang it, I’m going to try to set the record straight on this.

A Good Neighborhood kind of was born similarly because it started with this oak tree in my own backyard. Because the oak tree is such a big element in this novel, maybe that is apparent that I have a personal connection to that. I had real anxiety over this tree in my own backyard because next door to our house was this old house that had been torn down. A new house had been built. The driveway had been poured so that it went all the way down the property line and was totally — half the tree’s roots had been covered by this garage and this driveway. The problem didn’t show immediately, but I had the kind of anxiety that Valerie comes to have in the novel, which is like, oh, damn, my tree is maybe dying. Then at the same time that all that was going on was this — what would we call the culture these days? — this toxic culture of this resurgence of white supremacy and sexism and environmental degradation, all these things that I thought were solved when I was growing up in the seventies and eighties. It seemed like all this progress was backsliding. I just felt like, I have things to say about this. What do I do with all this anxiety? It wasn’t like a conscious decision of, oh, I’ll write a book about it. No. It was more like the characters start making themselves known to you in your mind. Then you start writing. I had a lot of anxiety too over whether my publisher would be happy with the fact that I was not doing a historical novel. I just had to do it and see what happened.

Zibby: Wow. Has anything gripped you since then? Are you working on anything else?

Therese: I am working on something else, but it’s a little too fresh to talk about it publicly.

Zibby: So when we hang up, will you whisper it to me? No, I’m kidding.

Therese: I don’t have my elevator pitch.

Zibby: It’s okay. Can you say, is it historical fiction or not? Can you say that?

Therese: It is not historical fiction, no.

Zibby: All right. I won’t ask you any more. We’ll play twenty questions. It’ll be like with my kids. Is it about a boy? Is it about girl? No, I’m kidding.

Therese: It’s always about a boy and a girl, isn’t it? Every story is about a boy and a girl.

Zibby: Just curious, by the way, has your book been optioned yet? It seems like such movie material.

Therese: A Good Neighborhood, it’s out with people, but no takers so far. If you’re listening, Hollywood people… No, I have a terrific film agent, so I’m sure she’s putting it into lots of people’s hands.

Zibby: Good. It’s very visual anyway. Just to read it is so visual. It’s great. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Therese: Find a job that you can count on. You should probably not leave that in the podcast. No, for real, the best advice that I think I could give anybody is — well, it’s kind of two things. Don’t try to be the best, just try to be good enough, and to persevere. The biggest difference between the successful author and the unsuccessful author is perseverance. That’s my advice. That seems so easy from my side of it. When I look back on the career that I’ve had so far, honestly, just trying to write well enough to be published, that’s a big deal all by itself, and then not giving up when the rejections come, because the rejections always come. Even when you’re well-published, if you are changing publishers for some reason, for example, and you have to go back out on submission with your book, you’re going to get rejected. Every successful book I know of had lots of rejections. Did you read Water for Elephants? Do you remember that novel?

Zibby: No, I’m embarrassed to say. I have it, but I have not read it.

Therese: All right, we won’t tell Sara Gruen that you haven’t read it yet. Most people know about what a success story that was. A lot of people don’t know that Sara’s original publisher rejected that novel. That’s why Algonquin ended up publishing it. Writers should be aware.

Zibby: Mitch Albom told me when he was on my show that Tuesdays with Morrie got rejected like eighty times.

Therese: Well, there you go. Oh, and The Help is another example of a novel that was widely rejected.

Zibby: You just never know.

Therese: We all have those stories. Z was rejected, actually.

Zibby: Can I ask you one more question which is really random? Tell me about your nose ring because I don’t often see that.

Therese: What do you want to know about it?

Zibby: When did you get it? How long have you had it?

Therese: I don’t remember.

Zibby: Long time?

Therese: Ten years, maybe. Wait, you have to see something else, actually. People listening won’t be able to see this.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. We are on Skype, by the way, for people listening. I am now looking at the most incredible tattoo situation. This is a multicolor extravaganza going up and down her arm. We have some sort of flower, heart, swirly business on her shoulders.

Therese: No, not hearts. It’s just flowers.

Zibby: I felt like it’s sort of heart shape on the edges. Okay, no.

Therese: It’s swirly.

Zibby: Swirly. Wow.

Therese: People will be like, what is going on on this podcast?

Zibby: Ooh, we’ve got a Z on her neck, which is great.

Therese: I have a Z on my neck. That’s it. That’s the sum total of all of my ink. I have a pierced nose and I have tattoos, things people would not have known about me until now.

Zibby: Aren’t you glad we turned the video portion on? There you go. You never know what you’ll learn when you turn on the camera.

Therese: Right, go on podcasts, talk about tattoos. I think this is a good practice, actually.

Zibby: Yeah. Maybe this should be your podcast, tattoo artist talks or something. I don’t know.

Therese: I’m fascinated by tattoos. I haven’t written about them at all yet. Maybe that’s to come. Do you have any?

Zibby: I do not. I’ve been scared by the whole I’m Jewish and they won’t bury you if you have a tattoo type of thing.

Therese: I understand that. My mom’s side of the family, we are Jews on my mom’s side. My uncle has a tattoo, and he gets that a lot. He just goes, yeah, whatever. Not worried about it.

Zibby: It’s true. That’s part of it. I’m so indecisive. I feel like I would change my mind and be like, wait, wait, no, I want something else.

Therese: I don’t know how old you are, but I got my first tattoo when I was forty-one, I think. Late bloomer.

Zibby: Wow. I’m forty-three, so it’s just about my time.

Therese: I got a guy. I can tell you where to go.

Zibby: Great, okay. Well, I’ll call you if I need it. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Therese: It’s been a pleasure, Zibby. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you.

Therese Anne Fowler, A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD