Funhouse Mirror: An Interview with Laura Zigman on “Separation Anxiety”
By Meredith MaranMarch 2, 2020
But Zigman really got me, and got to me, in 2012 with her video series, Annoying Conversations. Its stars were a couple of stylized cartoon characters who turned quotidian conundrums like “I’m Going Food-Shopping (At 5 Different Stores)” and “Does Panera’s ‘Soup Bread Bowl’ Come with Bread?” into a cumulative animated digest of our times.
Now, at long last, Zigman holds us up to her funhouse mirror once again. In keeping with Zigman’s autobiographical métier, the protagonist of Separation Anxiety is Judy, a woman Zigman’s age who faces many of the author’s own marital, parental, financial, and social struggles. Judy is the go-kart that takes us on a careening ride through the first-world-problem worlds of progressive private schools, esoteric spiritual retreats, reluctant divorce, and middle-age malaise, all the while wearing the family dog in a baby sling as a self-comforting buffer against all that ails her and her ilk — which is to say, us. “This one’s only semi-autobiographical,” Zigman laughingly told me, “because wearing my dog is something I only dreamed of doing in real life.”
Author photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.
MEREDITH MARAN: You’ve had quite an unusual publishing herstory. You wrote the hugely successful 1998 novel Animal Husbandry while working a full-time job. Four novels followed. But your new book, Separation Anxiety is your first in many, many years. Explain, please.
LAURA ZIGMAN: For a decade, starting in 1985, I worked in New York publishing house, mostly as a publicist. My goal was to have an apartment where I couldn’t reach my microwave from my bed. My other goal was to write my own book. I wrote Animal Husbandry over the course of almost six years, on work vacations, and after I left New York for a calmer life in Washington, DC. It was published in 1998 and made into the movie Someone Like You in 2001. In 2006, I published my fourth novel, Piece of Work. At that point, my career was humming along. Then, nothing. For the next 13 years.
What went wrong?
Until I published Piece of Work, life was fairly easy and full of possibility. After that, life went dark. From my early 40s to my early 50s, I had cancer, and I lost both of my parents and several friends, and I lost the version of myself that identified as a writer. Worst, I lost my voice. I was ghostwriting, which solved my financial problems. But writing in someone else’s voice made me a ghost to myself.
There is so much rejection in publishing. So. Much. Rejection. For years and years, whenever I actually wrote something, like the start of a memoir or a novel, or a personal essay, or a spec script, or a television pilot, all I got was rejection, even if initial responses were positive. Perfect example: I got the news that the film option on my fourth novel was being dropped the night I went into surgery for breast cancer.
Everything that could have gone my way those years did not. I felt utterly defeated by the feeling that my luck had turned, and I was powerless to turn it back. So, I shut down. A writer-friend pointed out years later that writer’s block is less an inability to write than an avoidance of rejection. That piece of advice, in particular, helped me get unstuck.
What got you writing again?
Finally, the balance shifted. Amazing friends helped. They believed in me more than I believed in myself. I regained enough resilience to know that metabolizing rejection was better than never writing again.
I started by renting a shrink’s office by the hour. Then, in four-hour blocks of time, I sat in a strange therapist’s Eames chair, and stared at the framed New Yorker cartoons on the wall, and tried to write something. Anything. Some days I just played games on my phone. Eventually I made enough progress to start posting #amwriting on social media, along with all my writer friends who had never stopped writing.
Three years later, I finally finished a draft of Separation Anxiety.
Unlike most autobiographical novelists, you admit that your fiction draws largely from your own experiences. Why not cut to the chase and write memoir?
You’re right. I’ve always written what I call semi-autobiographical fiction: stories based on the sometimes-painful-always-hilarious stages of life that I, and everyone I knew, was going through. So yes, I’ve thought about writing a memoir about growing up in a family that lost a child — my sister died when she was seven and I was three. I just wrote a “Modern Love” piece about it. I wanted to write a book about how that experience affects your worldview, your future sense of hope and fate. My parents are gone now, and there’s a freedom in that.
But in the end, I didn’t think I had enough for a memoir. Fiction allows me to take the pieces of my life, arrange them into a tragic-comic situation, and go from there. Those pieces are my starting point. Fiction gives me the latitude to create what I hope is a much more interesting story than the truth I’ve started with.
Let’s talk about the way we originally connected: your video series Annoying Conversations, which I and many other writers followed fanatically.
In 2011, while I was deep in the swamp of my writer’s block, I discovered a free online platform, Xtranormal, that allowed users to write a script, choose from a selection of animated characters, design their facial expressions, and post a finished scene, all within minutes. The instant gratification was exactly what I needed. For a short time every morning, I forgot I had writer’s block.
Annoying Conversations was one tiny step I took during my 13-year dry spell to trick myself into writing. I wrote scenes about how weird it is to be invited to a friend’s house for dinner when no dinner is served (“Why Wasn’t There Dinner When We Were Invited For Dinner?”), and how you should never ever ever admit that your husband has a bald spot (“What Bald Spot?”), and how I would drive around weeping and singing to Adele’s song, “Someone Like You” (“Driving Under The Influence of Adele”). I created a protagonist named XtraFrenemy, who was always complaining about writers getting their Stupid Writer Feelings hurt.
Speaking of Writer’s Hurt Feelings, before I could figure out how to monetize the series, the platform went out of business. So that, as they say, was the end of that.
You’ve made a career of that rare thing, intelligent humor. How do you make smart people pee their pants?
That’s really a compliment. One of my writer-friends, the novelist Jillian Medoff, calls me “The Che Guevara of First World Problems.” I could not possibly love that more.
Life is full of annoyances and absurdities and horrors that I try to force myself to see as funny. It doesn’t always work. My husband and I are renters in Cambridge. For two years the couple above us ran a yoga studio over our heads. It was decidedly not funny. I cannot tell you the rage we felt about the situation. It consumed us!
The only relief we got was when we’d tell our friends about the misery we were living with, and people shared their horrible neighbor stories. When you share your pain, you create a tiny community of shared misery. And that’s a beautiful thing!
This new novel is, in part, a parody of otherwise intelligent people’s obsession with their dogs. In fact, your entire career could be summarized as a brilliant love-hate send-up of people like you. How do you balance self-love and self-hatred; mean versus innocent humor?
It’s hard to be funny without occasionally veering into a tone that is either mean-adjacent or truly mean. Meanness was never my objective. In real life, the joke is always at my own expense. I tried to be conscious of that in this book, to make the jokes at Judy’s expense, even if that occasionally made her seem flawed — as they say when it comes to women’s fiction, “unlikable.”
Life had been so painful for me for so long, the last thing I wanted to do was to go for cheap jokes at my characters’ expense. We’re in a different world now. There’s a lot that isn’t funny in this political climate — people are vulnerable and truly at risk, and that’s a serious thing. That feeling seeped into this book when I was writing it.
There isn’t a single character in this book who I didn’t view through a lens of total compassion. Which is what I learned during my decade of pain and misery: everyone is suffering. Everyone is going through, or has gone through, indescribable loss and pain. We’re all fellow travelers, fellow sufferers, making our way through life. I try to see everyone as doing the best they can. Except for the yoga-people who lived above us.
Meredith Maran is the author of a dozen books including The New Old Me and Why We Write. She’s a contributor to The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications.
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