Describe your latest book.
Young Jane Young
is about Aviva Grossman, who decides she wants to go into politics, and, like many young people who wish to enter that field, becomes an intern. She ends up sleeping with her boss, who is a married congressman. The book is about how this mistake affects every aspect of her life, and the lives of the women around her. It's about the ways it doesn't affect the congressman’s life, even though he is as much or more at fault than she is. The book takes place over about 16 years. Aviva is a college junior when we meet her and a grown woman with a daughter of her own by the end of the story.
For me, the reason I tell a story is as important as the story itself. I wanted to write about women and politics. Specifically, why women don’t go into politics or attain higher office in the same numbers as men do.
I should add that I finished writing this book last summer, and we finished the final edits on the day that Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election. I had imagined that this book would be coming out into a very different world.
What was your favorite book as a child?
My dad was given the World Book Encyclopedia
for his bar mitzvah, and I loved that encyclopedia so much. It had amazing illustrations with cool plastic overlays, and I thought its 26 volumes contained all of the knowledge of the world. I spent many childhood hours reading that encyclopedia. And now, of course, there are no encyclopedias. We don’t need them anymore, because in theory the Internet is a much better encyclopedia. And in some ways, it is. It is far more egalitarian than my dad’s encyclopedia, which was quite racist and sexist in terms of who and what it chose to include. But I think there’s still an argument to be made for encyclopedias, and particularly the process by which they are researched and edited.
When did you know you were a writer?
Yesterday, I knew I was a writer because my writing — in various forms — was insulted a half dozen times before lunch. Some days, I know I’m a writer because I feel sorry for everyone, and although I’ve had an easy life, I suspect there’s nothing I wouldn't do given a different set of circumstances. Still other days, I know I’m a writer because I seem to remember things that other people forget. And I can really hold on to a grudge. (I know I answered this question a bit obliquely.)
What does your writing workspace look like?
At the moment, messy. That’s how you know I’m not getting much writing done. I need order to work. I can promote a book with a messy desk, but for whatever reason, I can’t write new work that way.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Something I think about a lot is why women are 51% of the population, and yet have fewer than 20% of the seats in Congress. Neither the state where I live, California, nor the state where I was born, New York, has had a female governor. My grandmother was born into a country where she couldn’t vote. When I consider these facts, it doesn’t seem so insane that Hillary Clinton did not become our president, because we’re not used to voting for a woman for anything. I wonder whether, if you are a woman, there is a case to be made for always voting for the female candidate no matter what. I would have a hard time voting for Sarah Palin, for instance, and yet it cannot be denied that in the recent rounds of health care legislation, the Republican female senators fared better than their male counterparts. The greatest issue facing our democracy is the fact that it does not manage to represent the people who live here anymore. I don’t believe I’m the only person who cares about these things, by the way.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
For whatever reason, my last book was really popular with inmates. I got a great letter from an inmate, with turns of phrase so memorable that I sent it to my agent and my editor. I googled him because I wanted to know what he had done: he was a convicted murderer and a veteran. But he was also one heck of a writer. People are complicated.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I used to think that the worst thing that could happen would be if I spent years on a book and no one read it. But then it happened. And it was fine. I moved on. I wrote another book.
I am slightly embarrassed by how much emotional energy it takes for me to tweet or put anything online. I sometimes wonder why this thing that other people seem to do casually and naturally is such a big deal for me.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I just read Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage
. It has a great premise (if your spouse went to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, how long would you wait?), great characters, and is socially relevant. It’s all the things I want a book to be. It’s coming out early next year.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
What’s that quote? “Your collections collect you.” I’m trying not to collect anything these days. I have four porcelain sumo wrestlers that I’m fond of.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
I sold underwear and bras. I’m still great at guessing a woman’s bra size.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
It depends on what constitutes a literary pilgrimage. Is a book tour a literary pilgrimage? I’ve done a lot of those. I once lived on the same street in New York City as Dorothy Parker
. I had lived there for maybe three or four years before I noticed a little plaque that said she had lived on that street, too.
I went to Key West as a kid, and I remember all of Hemingway’s strange six-fingered cats roaming the streets. Is it a pilgrimage if it’s a trip your parents made you take? I’ve wanted to sleep in the Metropolitan Museum of Art ever since I read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
What scares you the most as a writer?
A world without bookstores. The diminishing size of book review sections. Being underestimated. Getting a brain tumor. The Cloud, which I use and try not to think about too much.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title?
Young Jane Young
is my fourth novel for adults and my ninth novel if you include the work I've done for younger readers, which I do. Almost every book I've ever written, including this one, has been called my debut by someone. So maybe: The Endless Debut
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I don't have one. I’m more offended by pretentious language. Beautiful writing, what we call “good writing,” is often dense, overwritten, and unclear. I hate that far more than a person using “literally” wrong or some such mistake.
On a semi-related point, I used to speak with students from time to time, and it’s amazing how often they’re confused by the difference between writing with good grammar and writing to be expressive and to tell an emotional story.
Do you have any phobias?
Driving near precipices.
Share a Top Five book list of your choice.
I’m about to go on a long book tour, so I’ll give you five comic novels I love about travel, or in which a character at some point packs a suitcase. I feel like this list is more for me than for you. I’m trying to get excited enough to decant toiletries into 3-ounce containers.
by Andrew Sean Greer
I read this last summer, and I have rarely read a novel that is more accurate about the writing life. My friend, who is also a writer, called it sad, but I thought it was hilarious. It is either exactly the right thing or exactly the wrong thing to read before going on a book tour.
by Elif Batuman
I liked the part set at Harvard as much as the part set abroad.
Spend It Foolishly
by Mary Gallagher
This is out of print, but it’s a very funny novel about a woman who takes a two-week trip to Europe and decides to stay.
by Vladimir Nabokov
The older I get, the more complicated my feelings toward this novel become.
The Accidental Tourist
by Anne Tyler
Can you really wash your clothes in the bathtub while showering? Maybe I’ll find out!
÷ ÷ ÷
is a New York Times
bestselling author whose books have been translated into more than 30 languages. Her eighth novel, The Storied Life of A. J . Fikry
, spent more than four months on the New York Times
Bestseller list, reached #1 on the National Indie Bestseller list, and has been a bestseller all around the world. She has also written books for children and young adults, including the award-winning Elsewhere
. Young Jane Young
is her most recent novel.