Life Inherited: A Conversation Between Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Ramona Ausubel




CYNTHIA D’APRIX SWEENEY first encountered Ramona Ausubel’s work through a short story in The New Yorker about a Cyclops filling out a dating profile. She didn’t know then, as she was finishing her novel about four siblings whose inheritance is unexpectedly threatened, that somewhere up the California coast Ramona Ausubel was also working on a novel about a family whose life of financial comfort is upended. The resulting novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, has the same intelligence, sense of play, and heartache as that first story Sweeney remembers so well.

The moment she started The Nest, Ramona Ausubel could tell that it would be a book with lasting power. It has the crackle of a story you resent your relatives and job for interrupting, and the heartbeat of struggle and desire and failure between family members who save and wreck each other. The two novels both work through the tangle of material and familial wealth, providing a whole new way to think about what money does for us, and to us. The two novels — Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut The Nest and Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty — each grapple with the complex issues of family, history, and inheritance.

¤

RAMONA AUSUBEL: I find the subject of money infinitely interesting and complicated. We all think we need more of it — no matter how much we have — even though we know it doesn’t buy what actually matters. Or does it? Not only is money a powerful force in itself, but then there’s the way it functions in our imaginations, which seems almost more profound. At least, it certainly does for the Plumb family in your book, The Nest. How did your thoughts about wealth and fortune change in process of writing this book?

CYNTHIA D’APRIX SWEENEY: My thoughts about wealth were pretty fixed going in, because it’s something I obsessed over while living in New York City for 27 years. I grew up in a very middle-class suburban environment. I thought trust funds were pretend — things that only existed in books or movies. Then I moved to New York and discovered they were real; it was the first time I encountered real wealth, of the inherited kind. Because I lived in New York for so long and through so many phases of life (single and broke, married and broke, married with kid and broke, married with two kids and increasingly less broke, thanks to my husband’s job), I saw how differently people treated and thought about money.

It’s hard, and maybe even wrong, to generalize, but it seemed to me that growing up with money — and with the expectation that money was inevitably headed one’s way — resulted in a weird mix of entitlement and what I think of as stunted growth. If you’re still receiving money from your parents when you’re a parent, it changes the relationship. It makes it harder to draw boundaries, or makes the boundaries blurry in a monumental way. That private school bill might not get paid if you don’t agree to vacation with Mom and Dad at their Hampton house for the entire month of August. It seems to me that a life funded from above isn’t really your own — it’s inherited. We all inherit a narrative and obligations, but when it comes with a check it’s much harder to break free. I was most interested in exploring what happens when the floor falls out from beneath that type of person.

I’m asked all the time if I think parents should help their children financially, and I’m sorry to say writing the book didn’t help me come up with a good answer. It’s very complicated and very personal, but I hope there’s value in asking the questions. If you have the magical answer, please share it.

Part of the reason I wanted to write Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty was because there was once lots of money in my family — there no longer is — and the stories are very mixed: some people took real pleasure in the things their wealth made possible, and many others felt really disabled by it, as if it was this weight they could never get out from. Some relatives even gave most of their money away, specifically because they didn’t want their children to have that burden. Obviously these are first-world problems, but I think making one’s own way is meaningful. I’m glad that I had to do that. That’s not to say I don’t fantasize about a secret trust fund that appears when I’m 40 so that I can afford to send my kids to college …

I’ve been a little surprised by people describing my book as being about money. I think it’s about family, specifically about siblings in peril, and money is just the device I used to put pressure on these people, to see where and how they would break, or not break. But of course it’s about money, too. I remember one of my very first workshops in graduate school, when the instructor admonished us because of inconsistencies in the small details about class and money in some of our stories. There would be a character living in a decidedly blue-collar home, pages later, wearing a cashmere scarf — things like that. Our teacher said to the group: “Money is important. Money matters!” And she was right, money matters a lot — in art and in life.

I’ve been asked this question a lot lately: did you ever worry that building a novel around privileged characters would make it hard for the reader to empathize with those characters?

I worried about whether we could empathize with rich people. The very first threads of this book were written at the same time as the early threads of my first novel No One is Here Except All of Us, which is about poor Jewish villagers in Romania in World War II. I’m sure there were a hundred unconscious and conscious reasons why I needed to write that book first, but one was definitely that empathy was built in. The characters were at the short end of every possible stick, to put it mildly. It took eight years of work to make the story right, but I never had to wonder if we’d feel for those poor people.

But that difficulty, that fear, ended up being a big driver for me while writing Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. Does being impoverished make us more valuable emotionally? Are we allowed only one at a time, material wealth or emotional wealth? That seems problematic for lots of reasons. How rich does a person have to be to cease to deserve empathy? This disconnection is dehumanizing, and it turns both wealth and poverty into these weird, mythic realms.

Right. And this goes back to what you said about the way money functions in our imaginations and how we can demonize wealth and romanticize poverty. Empathy is essential to our survival, and it is triggered, I hope, by the reality that nobody gets out of this life without struggle.

I had the sense that there was real pleasure in writing The Nest; there certainly is in reading it. I love that. Writing a novel is so difficult, and I think we can be infected by the idea that misery is a sign of seriousness — we idealize the grizzled writer at the bar in some colonial-era hotel with a tall glass of rum who hasn’t spoken to anyone except a hooker in two months because he’s so deep in thought about his Great American Novel. Life has all the parts: misery, yes, but also joy and love and the zillions of other human experiences.

I know exactly what you mean about equating misery with seriousness. I always feel like I’m undercutting my credibility when I say I enjoyed writing the book. I waited a long time and had a whole adult life before trying to write a novel. I started an MFA program when I was 50 and I never for a second took for granted how lucky I was to be back at school, doing what I really wanted to do. I promised myself I wouldn’t waste a minute of that experience — I didn’t exactly feel time was on my side! — and I don’t think I did.

There was a part of me that was thrilled, every day, to be writing a book. That’s not to say there weren’t weeks that I despaired of ever finishing the book, or days that felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall, or pages and pages consigned to the trash, or times when I was convinced that the book was awful and nobody would publish it, and on and on; I have all the standard insecurities, and sometimes they were much louder than the joy. But at a baseline level I never lost sight of the privilege of being a writer, of sitting in my office every day and getting to make things up.

I feel the same way. I reserve the right to complain to my husband, but otherwise I feel like I’ve got this golden ticket to spend real amounts of time inventing whatever I want, and I should enjoy that.

Like most novels, yours was written over several years. Something I’ve come to love about writing longer works is how it feels like I’m living two lives at once, and how the membrane between life and art is highly permeable.  How did the book influence your life, and your life influence the book?

One of the most thrilling moments of writing a book is when the membrane between life and book becomes permeable, when you’re deep enough in the story that it almost seems as if the world exists to feed the ravenous part of your brain that is the book.

I think my sense of place moved back and forth in a very visceral way. I retreated to my old home, New York City, every morning and reemerged in my fairly new home of Los Angeles every afternoon. Sometimes that duality was a little upending, but it was mostly valuable. Seeing New York from afar helped me recognize what I loved and missed most, and what I didn’t miss at all. Landing back in Los Angeles at the end of the day helped me appreciate all that I was learning to love about Los Angeles. Virtually occupying both places allowed them to feed each other and shape the city in the book, which in turn helped me define and shape certain characters.

You are so good at capturing the complex threads that bind families. Is this something you’ve always wanted to write about?

I grew up in an Irish-Italian Catholic environment; almost everyone came from a large family. Our family of four children was considered small. I have been fascinated by sibling relationships since I was kid, and that interest has only deepened as I’ve watched my friends and family navigate their adult relationships, which become more fraught as everyone ages and fortunes diverge. I knew very early on in my graduate program that I wanted to write about adult siblings, but it took me a while to find the right story.

One of the most heartbreaking things in Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is how the characters grapple with sibling responsibility. Even Edgar, who is an only child, feels the burden of satisfying his parents’ unrealized hope for more children. You write: “Edgar had to live the childhoods of all of his brothers and sisters who did not exist.” And it killed me to read about nine-year-old Cricket, who finds herself the de facto parent of her six-year-old twin brothers for a few days, and how swiftly she becomes maternal. I’m the oldest of four, and I think being the oldest imbues you with a certain fearlessness and bravery, but also a deep sense of responsibility. What do you think of sibling responsibility — in real life and in fiction?

Because this is a book about the many things we inherit — money, tradition, status — I found myself thinking about the roles family members are obliged to play for one another. As in: We have this family, and here’s how it works, and each of us agrees to uphold certain values, and we must all do it or the whole thing falters. Which is often great — it’s what makes family bonds so strong — but it’s also very weighty if one doesn’t feel entirely at home in that group. There’s something about sibling relationships that makes this especially poignant. You’re all watching each other choose a life, accept and reject what you’ve been given, fulfill or fail in the promise.

Like you, I am the oldest, and I think I have a lot of those older sibling traits. My sister is almost nine years younger, so I had a long life as an only child before she was born, and I was raised largely by a single mom, so I felt very responsible for helping with my sister. I thought of myself as a caretaker even though I was a kid. This idea of responsibility and care is one of the things I thought about a lot while writing about Cricket and her brothers alone in the backyard after their parents disappeared. Already the children — all of them, but especially Cricket — know so much about the world, yet they are also filled with questions, and bad information, and the desire to do right by each other and their adults. It’s easy to lean on the elders’ rules and stories, but what happens when we’re set free? What world do we create?

Both our books are about that moment when you have to decide what to keep from your family narrative and what to release. Cricket and her brothers get a little glimpse of what that feels like sooner than most; Fern and Edgar face it later than some, but reconciling the history you carry and the future you want is almost always hard. And often painful.

There are so many parallels between The Odyssey and your book. I’m wondering if your obvious affinity for mythology and fairy tale is something that is always simmering beneath the surface of your writing brain, or if it’s something you channel and direct with more intent. I often only notice how I’m using certain elements and their connections in retrospect, during revision. How does that work within your writing process?

My husband and I went to Turkey and Greece on our honeymoon 10 years ago and we listened to an audiobook of The Odyssey while riding ferries from island to island. I’d read it as a kid, and again in high school, and then I was very influenced by Ulysses in college. (By influenced, I mean mystified and wowed.) It’s definitely one of those stories that hangs around in my head; even though, just as you say, I didn’t think about that connection until I was quite a way into Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.

Any time I have a big question in my life, my first instinct is to look for the answer at some physical distance. I haven’t thought about this before, but maybe part of the reason I have that instinct is that in all those myths and fairytales, everyone is always going to seek their fortune in the woods or mountains or seas. Not sure who you are? Try a voyage! Not sure what your home means? Try a voyage!

I love that this book is placed mostly in the 1970s. It feels like the perfect setting for these characters and their individual struggles, which are very much about duty versus desire. The book is set in 1976, which feels like the beginning of a shift from the late 1960s or early ’70s into the ’80s, when America was beginning to realize that its youthful hippie dream was not so great in myriad ways. I found the book so complete and satisfying, and I think it wouldn’t have felt as solid without the ’70s as the backdrop. Do you agree?

I’m glad you were feeling that 1970s vibe! My parents came of age in the ’60s and then were adults in the ’70s — I was born at the very end of the decade — so I have always felt those years were part of the story I inherited. Those years are also oversized in the imagination, and so symbolic. There was the collective-dream-not-quite-realized, and the drugs, and the pill, and sex changed, and gender roles changed, and the idea of family changed. It’s this very recent, immediate, yet oversized moment. There was also a lot of disappointment, I think. So much of the structure of the world didn’t actually change.

The 1970s were also so atmospheric! I had the best time looking at photos and writing about hair and horrendous bathrooms. Our culture is still constantly referencing that time, from modern design to semi-ironic mustaches, yet when you look at photos it’s kind of amazing how far people went in the avocado green direction. Thanks, people of the past, for the great details! The whole time period felt like a distilled essence that I wanted to pour over the book.

Glory says, of her mother: “It’s like she’s trying to prove to me that no matter what we do, we become the people we were always going to become.” True or false?

Oh, lord. True? I don’t know. I can’t decide if I find the idea that we arrive with whole selves intact comforting or upsetting. It’s great if you are content and settled as a person, and terrible if you aren’t at home in yourself. I definitely don’t believe in exact fates, but maybe we can be fully ourselves, yet changing all the time? Maybe. That feels weirdly true.

It feels true to me, too. And hopeful. And perfectly suited to the Voyage cure.

Are you working on something new? Has this book changed or informed or influenced your writing?

I’ve started something new, but it’s very early and I don’t know if it’s going to stick. I’m not sure how — or if — the book has influenced my writing yet. I’m pretty sure nobody who has already written a book is dumb enough to write another one with 10 point-of-view characters; I probably won’t repeat that choice. Writing The Nest taught me how important research is to my writing process, and I’m using research now to try to find my way into the new project. Mostly, I’m trying to remind myself of how little I knew about the book for probably the first year I was working on it, and to remember the enjoyment of creeping along and uncovering the story — the joy of that part of the process where the book is still surprising you all the time.

You’ve been through this a few times before, feel free to throw some advice my way!

If you began to know anything after only a year then you’re way ahead of me! I remember a conversation with my agent about a year after I’d started this book, and the way I described it to him was utterly, insanely different from what it turned out to be. What’s also crazy is that there are many passages from those early drafts that stayed, so it’s not like I put one project down and started another, but instead, as if the story had its own plan and was chugging along and I just couldn’t see it yet.

I always come back to that E. L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

¤

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Los Angeles with her family. The Nest is her first novel.

Ramona Ausubel is the author of two novels and a collection of short stories, and winner of numerous awards, including the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and children.


RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT