Author Interview – Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

headshotHello Cynthia! Thank you so much for taking a chance on me and my little blog! I have read so much about you, since your debut novel made headlines across the internet/media and there’s just a glut of Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney interviews to read! I know you must be so busy with all the book stops and publicity touring, so I’ll try to keep this short!

Even though I usually ask for the 2-minute intro, I’m going to just go ahead and use the bio from your website and then ask for one other “little known” fact about you (your favorite band to listen to, your favorite comfort food, your least favorite smell, etc). Something that not many know outside your immediate circle.

 Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. She has an MFA from The Bennington Writing Seminars. Previously, she lived and worked in New York City for more than two decades, writing copy for a variety of clients, including American Express, McDonald’s and more defunct Internet start-ups than she cares to count. Her non-fiction essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine and Martha Stewart Living.

The Nest is her first novel.

I don’t really like ice cream, which based on other people’s reaction is the most shocking thing about me.

I loved reading this interview on Electric Literature about your writing process and your plot development. I feel like many authors take a different approach, where the story arc has to be completely revealed before they even put an opening sentence on the paper. Do you feel like this method of writing freed you up to write a better story? Do you feel like it was the right method for you? Or will you try anything different in the future?

I know very few writers who know the story before they start writing and I’m not sure I would even want to if I could figure out how to plot in advance. I have a general sense of a situation and characters and the most exciting part of writing, for me, is discovering what the story will become. I was probably a little more than halfway through The Nest when I figured out how I was going to resolve all the plot threads and to be honest the writing became a little less interesting once I knew where everyone needed to end up, the work became more about playing out the inevitable and less about surprising myself. So I’d like to maintain that element of surprise as much as I can in the next project.

The Nest CoverYou’ve spoken in various interviews about the “inheritance” that your parents are leaving for you: one of experiences instead of funds. What kinds of experiences from your childhood do you look back on most fondly? Special trips? Adventures? Classes that really allowed you to explore your passions? My parents have taken a similar approach to my brother and I, and I could not be more grateful to them for the countries I’ve seen, the cultures I’ve encountered, and the broadness and depth of life that they have given me. It’s definitely an inheritance that I hope to leave for my own children some day!

My parents loved to travel and they took us to as many places as they could, sometimes tagging a family vacation onto a business trip of my father’s. We went to Maine every summer starting when I was 10 and we still go to the same small town and my kids have gone every year of their life. My parents rent the same tiny cottage they found in 1970 and my siblings and I rent places nearby. My cousin has even bought a vacation house in the same spot, so that place is deeply entrenched in our family history and no doubt will be for many years to come.

As another note on inheritances, you talk about the inheritance of a “family narrative”. How it’s something we don’t get to choose or control: who else is part of our story, what place we take in the family. And that THIS is where your readers will really get to connect with this story, even if they don’t have to make decisions about what to do WITHOUT a large family inheritance. How do you feel like your own family narrative shaped your life? With regard to your family of origin as well as your married life and your children?

We are all born into a story that we have little control over, including who the other characters in the story are and what part we’re assigned to play out. We just become the youngest or the oldest and all the birth order stuff is potent. For example, I was the oldest of four and the defacto babysitter of my younger siblings and I have to remind myself that I’m not the boss of everyone anymore! My youngest brother has to remind us he’s not “the baby.” Siblings know how to push each other’s buttons quicker than anyone else on earth but, ideally, as we get older we can take each other’s feelings into account and occasionally bite our tongues or soften our judgments. People need to be allowed to grow up and cast off some of the family labels acquired as kids. We’re all trying our best to make sense of the world and so it’s tempting to reduce people to easy identifiers: the bookish one, the funny one, the shy one, the jock. But there comes a time when you want to write your own story and breaking free from a family narrative can be hard. I think my husband and I have tried to show our kids that being open to people and experiences in life is important, as is not letting other people’s opinions or needs define who they are or how they move through the world. The world will always offer up standard definitions of success; the challenge is to figure out what your definition is and to stay as true to that as possible.

New York City plays a huge role in this novel, almost as a character unto itself. You were a New Yorker for 27 years before moving to Los Angeles. Do you feel like removing yourself from the city allowed you to see it more clearly? Or being in a new location helped you to recognize what makes New York so unique?

Both! When I moved to Los Angeles, I missed New York City and I was excited when I realized I was writing a novel that would take place in New York and I could pay tribute to the City I knew and loved for decades. Writing while in California gave me some valuable distance. New York is a very in-your-face city—one of the things I love about it—but I do think the distance helped me render it more clearly. That said, before I finished revising the book, I went to New York City for a week and all I did was go to all the places in the book and make sure I’d gotten things right.

I sometimes try to end on a bit of a personal note if I can find the connection, so here we go:

I’m in my thirties, with two boys (and a third on the way), so this advice that you’d give to your 30-year-old self is so timely for me:

“For the love of God, stop worrying about your children and their homework and their grades and their extracurriculars and instrument practice and should they have another sport? Don’t think about summer activities in terms of college admissions. They will go to college — or they won’t — they will figure it out and be funny and smart and kind, so RELAX.”

From your interview with Parnassus Books (Kaytee’s note: this is my favorite interview… I wanted to pull something from every question and every answer!).

In that same interview, you talk about how dysfunctional families are the most fun to hang out with because they are more interesting. I feel like those two items are almost mutually exclusive though! The most dysfunctional families, in my experience, are the ones that “relaxed” the least when it came to control and their children. On the “relax — dysfunctional” spectrum, where would you put your own family and (grown) kiddos? Is that where you expected to be? 🙂

I’m pretty sure family dysfunction comes in all shape and sizes and endures within all parenting styles. Although I talked about being a more relaxed parent and family dysfunction in that interviewing, I don’t equate the two, and I’m not sure there’s a connection between parenting style and dysfunction. I know dysfunctional families who are super controlling and ones who could have benefitted from a little structure and better control. My point was more about needless worry than parenting styles. Having kids is stressful! I am a born worrier and continue to be. I do wish I hadn’t spent so much time when my kids were growing up worrying about whether I was doing the right thing, or questioning my decisions or second-guessing the kids’ choices . I say this from the perspective of having two older kids, so it’s easy to look back at my younger self and say “Oh, relax.” It’s not so easy to relax when they’re little!

Oh, Cynthia! What a treat to have you on the blog and get to chat with you. You are such a presence right now in the lit world (even chose one of this month’s Book of The Month selections! –> If you want to try it out, click through on my affiliate link and use code JULY35 to get 30% off and a free tote and sunglasses!) and I feel extremely privileged and grateful in that you took the time out of your life to answer my questions. I LOVED your book and can’t wait to see what else comes from you in the future! 🙂

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