It makes perfect sense that bookseller Kathy Schultenover fell in love with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s novel, The Nest. As our Parnassus book clubs manager, Kathy can always spot a crowd-pleasing novel that combines great writing, interesting characters, and discussion-worthy plot. No wonder she adored this contemporary tale of the Plumb family — four adult siblings and their spouses, lovers, and children — dealing with the fallout after one of them blows through the family inheritance. It’s funny and light, relatable and insightful.
Kathy also found the author’s career path fascinating. After decades in corporate communications and nonfiction writing, Sweeney decided to try her hand at fiction, getting her MFA from Bennington’s low-residency program and ultimately turning a short story she worked on there into The Nest, which became an immediate New York Times bestseller when it was published this spring. It also became an inspiration to everyone chasing a creative dream in midlife: Sweeney started learning the ropes of fiction in her late 40s and is now in her 50s. Take that, whippersnappers.
Sweeney will join us here at Parnassus on Thursday, June 23, along with our favorite local wine enthusiast Dan Hutchinson for our Wine with the Author series. But first, she took a few moments to answer some of Kathy’s questions. Here’s their conversation:
I notice that you come from a family of 2 sisters and 2 brothers, like the Plumbs. How many parallels are there between your own family and this fictional one?
CS: I’m happy to report that there are virtually no parallels between my real family and my fictional family. I say with love and gratitude that my family is not interesting enough to center a book around. And not only is there no trust fund coming to us, but my parents made it abundantly clear when we were very young that they were not leaving any money behind and when they died (they are still very much alive) we should take out all our family vacation photo albums and remember that the trips we took together were our inheritance. When my siblings and I argue these days, it’s usually about where we’re going to eat dinner.
Have you ever met a family that’s not at least a little dysfunctional? Do you think they exist?
CS: I’ve met people who claim their family is not even a little dysfunctional but I’m not sure I believe it. I do know I’d much rather hang out with the dysfunctional families because they’re bound to be more interesting! Not necessarily Plumb-level interesting, but there’s nothing like massive agreement to ensure a dull gathering.
Tell me about your choice for their family name, Plumb. It brings to mind so many things: plum(b) crazy, plumb the depths…
CS: I wish I could take credit for thinking of any of those things, but the name popped into my head almost the minute I started envisioning the family (which never happens, by the way, I agonize over names and often change a character’s name over and over trying to get one that feels right). I wanted a name that could sound WASPy but not be too burdensome (Worthington) or familiar (Roosevelt). And I just like the sound of the word and the fact that it had a visual component that is a piece of fruit. It also sounds a little funny which appealed to me. I do think when something comes easily during the writing process and ends up working on lots of different levels that it is your subconscious working on your behalf. Most of those things only become apparent in revision or when someone else points them out, but I don’t believe it’s accidental. I am very grateful to my subconscious for handing me Plumb.
An inheritance causes all sorts of chaos in this story. What kind of non-financial inheritance do you hope to leave your own kids?
CS: My kids are 19 and almost 22 and they have grown into lovely, kind, independent, creative, interesting adults. I’m not sure how much credit my husband and I can take for any of those things, but the fact that we all still enjoy one another’s company and look forward to spending time and traveling together is the only legacy that I hope endures. I am also happy to report that they are enthusiastic readers and I will take all the credit for that even though I probably only deserve 99.9%.
Did the amount of buzz brewing about the book before it even arrived on shelves make you feel any pressure?
CS: Well, it certainly made me anxious, but that’s not the same as feeling pressure, which implies you can or should take action to provide relief. Anxiety is just pointless worry! I live in Los Angeles now and spend most of my time by myself, in my office — far, far removed from the New York literary community and pretty removed from the world of publishing in general. Fortunately, a lot of the buzz never made it to my house, probably dwindling off somewhere over the Continental Divide. I think it might have been different if I was still in New York because publishing is just in the ether there, the way film and television are here in Los Angeles.
I also didn’t have any point of comparison, so although people kept talking to me about “the buzz” I didn’t fully understand — or believe — a lot of what they were saying. Or maybe it just failed to impress because I have a fairly strong cynical streak. I’m married to someone who works in the entertainment field — as do many of my friends — and I have certainly absorbed the message over the years, by watching and listening to them, that buzz is often meaningless, so I took it all with a healthy dose of skepticism. I felt pressure to do my piece of book promotion as enthusiastically and well as I could, but I would do that in the absence of buzz because I’m responsible and diligent and I love my publisher and I want to work as hard for them as they have for me.
But once the book goes out in the world, there are a million little things that go into making it a success and the process, for the author, is really one of ceding control, watching and hoping for the best.
What skills from your earlier days in corporate communications and marketing serve you best as a fiction writer now?
CS: I’m a fairly disciplined writer in terms of habit. I don’t really believe in inspiration or muses; I believe you need to find the writing habit that works best for you and then show up in that place every day and, on the good days, inspiration will meet you half way. On the bad days, you do other kinds of work — reading, researching, interviewing — whatever keeps you connected to the thing you’re working on. When someone else is paying you to write something within a certain time frame, you can’t be precious about it, you just have to churn it out. Creative work that you undertake on your own is another beast, of course — more demanding and complicated, much more vulnerable to the distractions and frustrations of life, but I am able to apply some of the discipline I learned from my previous writing life to the current one.
Fill in the blanks!
If you could go back and tell your 30-year-old self something, it would be:
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.
The first thing you think of every morning is:
1. So many birds!
2. MUST HAVE COFFEE
Favorite guilty pleasure:
Reality TV, especially if it’s on HGTV.
Last thing that made you laugh:
An episode of VEEP. Everyone on that show is top-notch.
Favorite thing about the real-live bookstore experience:
Wandering the aisles and discovering books — old and new. Also, talking to the booksellers and getting their excellent advice and wisdom. The best part of promoting The Nest has been getting to meet so many booksellers!
Best thing you’ve ready lately and/or what’s in your to-read stack:
Coming off of book tour/promotion, my to-read stack is horrifyingly and embarrassingly huge (must stop watching HGTV in hotel rooms when traveling!). It’s right here next to me, so here a few titles that jump out:
What Is Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
High Dive by Jonathan Lee
Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh
Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
The Muse by Jessie Burton (July)
Nicotine by Nell Zink (October)
And I have a hankering to revisit all of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but I will probably hold off until I make a dent in my to-be-read pile.
Friday, 6/24 – Brad Thor, Foreign Agent, in the store at 6:30 p.m.