On Being the “Oldest Living Debut Novelist”
Bethanne Patrick in conversation with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Each time a new book gets snatched up for a lot of money, its author winds up getting a lot of attention. This year’s spokesmodel is Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, whose debut novel The Nest was won by Ecco in a hot auction; Sweeney walked away with seven figures. Since her story is about a family inheritance, it’s kind of wonderful that she now has a nest egg of her own.
Sweeney, however, is not planning to rest on these laurels. She’s 55 and has a recent Bennington College MFA under her belt; she plans to keep writing and publishing. Formerly a marketing copywriter in New York, Sweeney now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. She spoke with me by telephone about the wild ride she’s been on since The Nest sold.
Bethanne Patrick: You live in Los Angeles now, but your novel’s main character is, in some ways, New York City and its environs. Is that correct?
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: Correct! I lived in NYC for 27 years; I’ve only been in LA since 2009. So I am and consider myself a New Yorker. Once I realized I was writing a book that really could only take place in New York I was excited because I thought: I’m going to spent time in NYC in my head! I got very excited about cherry picking the places and scenes I wanted to use. I moved to New York about three weeks after I graduated from college. I knew when I was a kid living in Rochester that I wanted to move to New York City as soon as I possibly could, and I did.
BP: Did you always consider yourself a writer?
CAS: I was a journalism major in college, and I took the first good job offer I got when I left, which was in corporate communications. I knew the thing I could do to make money was write, and I always wanted to write, but I didn’t always want to be a novelist. I wanted to write creatively, but in the world I grew up in that wasn’t really a thing you did for work. By the way, despite my story, it’s even less a way to support yourself now!
I grew up in a very middle-class suburban environment: You went to college to get a job, not to be an artist. I tried to write some fiction in my twenties but gave up very easily, got discouraged very easily. I think I attached a lot of shame to that. I really didn’t want to try it again. I thought I can’t do this because it’s not coming easily to me. I must not be good at it. Once the years went on and my kids got older I worked as a freelance marketing/branding consultant. I loved the flexibility but as I got older the work was really not that compelling to me.
BP: What made you decide to get your MFA?
CAS: I got the MFA because I was trying to figure out how best to proceed since time wasn’t on my side, being in my late 40s when I started. An MFA really accelerates the entire process of learning how to write fiction. I had also just moved to LA and didn’t know a lot of people but wanted community for my writing work. And structure, and deadlines, and feedback, and to put pressure on myself. I knew that at the end of two years I would be able to answer yes or no to the question of whether or not I could write a novel. I also realized that the worst possible outcome was that I would be a better educated person.
BP: Did you come up with a process after getting your degree?
CAS: A friend and I used to call my MFA journey “Project Empty Nest,” long before The Nest was a glimmer in my eye—but I didn’t make that connection until later. New York City is full of energy, it’s exhilarating, but it’s hard to find space and solitude there for writing—at least for me. The reverse is true in Los Angeles. I mean, hummingbirds in the bougainvillea, it’s all so beautiful! You really need to get yourself out, here in LA, to find people—and when I found myself alone much of the day I started taking writing classes.
These days, post-MFA and post-book deal, I get up early, exercise, and then touch base with my East Coast tribe of friends and family. Then I shut off the Internet for a few hours. When I’m writing something new I usually have an hour or two in me at most; when I’m in revision, I can go longer.
I take a break, spend the afternoon reading and researching, and then… well, I’m still trying to figure out what to do in that span between when I’m done working and when my husband comes home. I used to be needed from 4 pm on. Now that my kids are in college, that space is sort of amorphous. I’m having a hard time resetting and figuring out what to do. Friends say knit! Embroider! Meditate! But… Anyway, I spend five to six days a week in this pattern, now.
BP: Did you feel any urgency due to being in midlife instead of just starting out?
CAS: I think while I was writing the book I felt a real sense of urgency because I really worried that my age would work against me in finding an agent and selling a book. I really was felt hot breath of mortality on my neck in a time may be running out kind of way. I can tell you now that’s SO not true. I made the mistake, not a mistake, it’s a normal thing: During my MFA I would go online to various industry publications, just looking for information, and again and again I would read and be infuriated by the phrases “Well you know we want younger writers of course.” One article I remember so clearly had an agent saying something like hey you know all those middle aged women going to MFA programs let’s be honest they’re really probably not great writers…” I remember reading that and thinking FUCK YOU! That is such a not even thinly veiled misogynistic thing to say. I really worried about that, and I should not have paid it any attention.
I thought: Am I the oldest-ever debut author? Thinking in those terms is such a cultural devaluation of female voices past a certain age. It’s unfortunate and I do think it’s starting to change. I think there is a groundswell of frustration about the privileging of young voices versus old.
BP: What does “the writing life” mean to you now?
CAS: I thought I could just relax—but it’s sort of my personality not to relax!
I’m really itching to get back to writing. I started a book, but it’s very, very new and I still haven’t quite figured out what it is yet. I suspect that when I am able to get back to my routine it won’t really feel like “Ahhh, now I can revel in writing!”
My big breakthrough in the time it takes to finish came when I was polishing what I thought would be the final draft of The Nest. I had it in my head that it had to be done by a certain date. I happened to be driving and was listening to an interview with Darcy Steinke. The interviewer said “What’s the reward for all of this?” Steinke said, in a matter-of-fact way, “The reward is the work, and if the work isn’t your reward, you’re pretty much sunk.”
I realized I was never going to be in the same situation again, the point at which I was only writing for myself and having fun writing. This will never happen again, I thought—once your manuscript is out there it’s all about writing for a contract, then about writing your next book, and so on. I remember the moment perfectly. I thought: Slow down. Enjoy this! I made the decision to pop the clutch and do whatever I wanted to do with the book and really entertain myself. I took an extra few months to get it done. It was totally worth the time.
BP: Tell me about what “inheritance” means to this novel.
CAS: Thinking about themes is the stuff that happens in revision, and it doesn’t always happen consciously. I wasn’t even thinking about this when I was first writing, but now I know that what this family’s real inheritance is—and what everyone inherits—is their spot in the family story. You have no choice as to your place in that story: Oldest, youngest, boy, girl, smartest, funniest, klutziest, and so on. Those identities are really hard to shake. What the Plumbs are struggling with in a very delayed way due to their hopes for money is how to reconcile the family narrative that you inherit with the one your write for yourself. What to take with you and what to leave behind are really difficult things because they involve other people’s expectations and feelings. That, to me, is kind of the nest, every character is struggling with that in some way.
BP: It’s impossible to protect children from every eventuality, isn’t it?
CAS: Yes, old or young! I’m the opposite of my helicopter-parent character Melody. So many times I’ve said to my kids: Are you super-bummed-out that I never come to school things? Meaning not a concert where they’re soloing, but committee meetings and stuff like that. In The Nest I’m not trying to make any points about financial legacies or savings or about money. I am trying to explore how we know when we’re over invested in our children’s lives, in different ways.
BP: Your book has a pretty awesome cover blurb, from Amy Poehler. Did that make a difference to its success?
CAS: It certainly makes a difference in the sense that Ecco had no choice but to put some oomph into the marketing!
BP: Do you think that awesome cover is designed to appeal to a female audience?
CAS: I don’t think my cover is gendered/female. But what happened in the cultural conversation that attaches prestige to being marketed to that smaller masculine buying public? I want men to read my book, of course I do. I don’t actually believe they’re so narrow-minded that they won’t pick it up because it has gold birds on it! I’m not sure when or why, but I started getting a lot of questions about the cover and I was surprised by them. I think the main thing about getting parity for books by women is to make the covers fit the content of the book, rather than—as Meg Wolitzer pointed out in her tremendous essay some years back—having books “for women” with gauzy photos of hands and ribbons and such.
But even if The Nest is being marketed as a book for women, here’s a weird thing: Women buy 85% of literary fiction. Why wouldn’t you want to market to the people who are reading? Why is all the prestige connected to the 15% male market? That’s my question. I don’t know the answer to it. But it’s real.
BP: Now that Los Angeles is home, do you find literary community there?
CAS: The LA literary community is awesome, unbelievably supportive and enthusiastic. I can walk to Skylight Books from my house and it’s been great. Everyone here is really generous with their time and advice and support.
BP: Which writers influence you—past and present?
CAS: I’ve been a voracious reader of fiction my entire life. I just love literary fiction. Anything by Ian McEwan. “The Corrections” was a huge influence on me, Austen and Wharton, I could just go through my bookshelf and point out the authors I owe a debt to, including those who might not be apparent in my style. E.B. White’s essays, Grace Paley, Deborah Eisenberg, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro. Alice McDermott has been a huge influence.
In terms of contemporaries: Bret Anthony Johnston and Paul Yoon. I really admire Jamie Attenberg and Laura van den Berg. I’m a fan! I’m a big, big fiction nerd fan. I basically kind of eat up anything that comes along. I have so much admiration for anyone who writes a book. There’s a part of my heart that will admire the effort of anything. I read to love things, not to hate them.
BP: I asked about the blurb, but not the woman. How do you know the divine Ms. Poehler?
CAS: Amy and I met shortly after she moved to NYC, around 1996. We met in what I call “the book group.” She is an avid reader who loves fiction, and we love to talk about books. She was extremely excited when I told her I was going to get my MFA; she’s really an inspiration to me as someone who is supertalented but who has an incredible work ethic, and really believes in lifting up the people around her.
It was the strangest thing. I had a marketing meeting with Ecco and they asked about possible blurbs. I mentioned Amy and said I would ask her. Hours later my husband and I went out for dinner, and there was Amy at the restaurant, having a meeting. We didn’t want to bother her, but she came over and sat down with us and said “When do I get to read your book?” When I told her I was planning to ask her for a blurb she said “Yes” then and there.
She’s also fierce. There were a couple of times when I was writing and would be having a little crisis of confidence, as you do, and if I saw her, she wouldn’t tolerate it. She won’t let you be frightened. “You’ve got this,” Amy will say. “Just do the work.”
I had dinner with her just days after selling the book and to say that was not a scenario that I ever imagined happening does not begin to cover it. I said to her “I’m feeling embarrassed and unworthy. And guilty.”
She said “I would have told you to ask for more money. Every writer who finishes a book should be getting millions of dollars; writing mine was the hardest work I’ve ever done.”
Stop questioning the worth of yourself or what you’ve done. That’s a really awesome friend to have.