Debut Author Snapshot: Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

Posted by Goodreads on February 29, 2016

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The four flawed, relatable Plumb siblings who come together in Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's debut novel, The Nest, have been counting on getting money from a joint trust fund when the youngest Plumb turns 40. It's not that they need it, but, well…they could really, really use it. So when the oldest brother commits a stupid indiscretion with expensive consequences and the money—which they call "the nest"—is put at risk, the family gels and fractures in unexpected ways.

The story is full of sharply drawn observations of status anxiety in our current times—observations that Sweeney had plenty of time to gather while living in New York City and now Los Angeles. She shares her inspirations for writing about dysfunctional families and discusses what it is like to start writing fiction later in life.

Goodreads: Tell us about your inspiration for The Nest.

Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney: I think one of the main inspirations for the book was that I grew up in a very Irish-Italian Catholic environment, and almost everyone I grew up with had lots of brothers and sisters. I'm the oldest of four, and growing up, I always described our family as "small"—and it was compared with most of my friends' families! So I've always been interested in sibling dynamics, and those relationships just become more intense as everyone ages.

From a plot perspective, The Nest is about four adult siblings fighting over money, but I believe the book is really about the one thing all of us inherit simply by being born: our place in a family narrative. 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 often are assigned other convenient labels—the smart one, the pretty one, the funny one—that may be rooted in truth but are still very reductive and hard to shake off. I'm also interested in this notion that because you share DNA and a history with people, you will necessarily share values or a common vision for the future. Sometimes you will and sometimes you won't, and either way is OK!

I think the characters in The Nest are struggling with something we all have to face—to differing degrees depending on circumstances—but all of us eventually have to reconcile the story we inherit with the one we want to write for ourselves. And breaking free from that family narrative can be really hard. It's hard to own your own desires and take responsibility for your own choices—and mistakes. The Nest is definitely a book about making mistakes and discovering who in your life will forgive you and help you recover and support you when things are tough. Sometimes that discovery reveals unexpected generosity and strength within a family, sometimes it reveals failures and limitations, and sometimes it results in expanding your definition of family.

"I borrowed some details from the last place I lived in in Brooklyn for Stephanie's house. Hers is not an exact replica of mine, but certain things inside are, like the carving of a woman's face on one of the marble fireplaces. I put it in Stephanie's living room and made a few revisions to how she looked, but this lovely lady was in our kitchen. I used to sit at our kitchen table before my husband and kids were awake and stare at her face and think about all the families that had passed through that house since it was built in 1867. And while I was writing the book, I made this my Facebook banner so that every time I clicked on my Facebook page, I would see her face and be reminded that I should be writing."
GR: Each of the four Plumb siblings are experiencing troubles of their own making. On the surface they shouldn't be very sympathetic characters. How do you balance skewering your characters and finding compassion for them?

CDS: Well, you have to find compassion for them! I think that if all you do is write to skewer (which is quite fun, and I recommend it in doses) but fail to recognize a character's vulnerability, they're just not as interesting. They're certainly not as interesting to me as a writer, and I think that gets telegraphed to the reader. When I finished the first draft of the book, I knew that some of the characters were flat on the page, and I quickly realized that they were the characters I didn't feel much empathy for—I had written to show them as shallow or greedy or social climbers—almost to shame them, and the result was that they felt more like types than real people. In revision I worked hard to try to understand each person's vulnerabilities. Not to make them likable per se, because I like unlikable characters, but to think more fully about their fears. I asked myself what would break each character's heart. If I came to a chapter that I dreaded working on, it was usually because I didn't love the character yet, and I knew that was a problem. I didn't let go of the revisions until I felt empathy for each person in the book. I wouldn't necessarily want to spend a holiday with the Plumbs, but I do love them in spite of their many flaws.

My late friend David Rakoff, in addition to being a gifted writer, was a gifted maker-of-things. He used to create these elegant tiny chairs any time he had a champagne-cork cage to work with. He made one of these for me one night when we were all out to dinner and the second one the day he came to look at our new house in Brooklyn and we opened a bottle. They sit at nearly eye level in my office, reminding me of David's talent and support and work ethic, and they made it onto page 223 of the book, sitting on the shelf where Jack and Walker keep remembrances of friends who have died.
GR: What are some of your favorite books about dysfunctional families?

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CDS: I'm not sure I've ever met a dysfunctional family novel I didn't like. Certainly The Corrections is near the top of the list. I also love Atonement, On Beauty, & Sons—to name just a few. I'm reading Tessa Hadley's The Past, and I think everything she does is great, and this is no exception. She writes beautifully complicated, real, struggling families.

GR: What moved you to start writing fiction later in life? Did your previous writing experience help or hinder the novel-writing process?

CDS: In my early forties I became frustrated with my job because the small marketing consulting company I was working for was struggling in the wake of the tech-bubble bursting (in 2000) and the horrific events of 9/11. At the same time, my kids were becoming older and more independent, and the freelance work I valued for its flexibility as a parent of small children stopped being as important to me. I started thinking about what kind of work I wished I was doing and decided to try to write from a more personal place. I was writing—and submitting—personal essays when a friend suggested I turn one into a short story. She ran a small writing group, and that's when I started to dip a toe into fiction, this was around 2005 and I was living in New York at the time. I worked in fits and starts, and shortly after relocating to Los Angeles in late 2008, I decided to take some classes at the UCLA Writer's Extension, which led to me applying for MFA programs, which led to me landing at the Bennington Writing Seminars in 2011 when I was 50.

I don't exactly remember when I decided that Tommy's dog was going to be named Frank Sinatra, but I did early on, and I knew I wanted the dog to have blue eyes. I found this picture online and pinned it to my bulletin board, and in my mind this is exactly what Frank Sinatra the dog looks like.
I have always loved fiction and am a lifelong avid reader of mostly fiction, but my desire to write it is pretty recent. My previous writing experience, which was primarily marketing copy—writing for brochures and newsletters and websites—didn't really impact the writing of the novel in terms of the day-to-day writing. I think my experience working as a freelance copywriter might have made it easier for me to understand how important revision is, how much I'd have to write what I wouldn't use, how to absorb critical feedback. When you're writing copy for someone's annual report, you can't get ego-invested in the result because it doesn't "belong" to you. I think that helped me be clear-headed about having to cut things from the book that weren't serving the story, even though I might have loved the pages. I'd let myself feel sorry about it for a few hours and then let it go. And it feels utterly amazing to be published. Writing a novel is a very solitary task, and there were many days when I wondered if I was delusional and many days when I ignored my real-life family for the pretend family in the book. So it's wonderful to know other people will actually read it.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

CDS: I think I'm working on a new novel, but it's a little too early in the process for me to be certain. I love the part of writing a book when you become totally immersed in the world of the book, and I'm hoping to be back in that place very soon.

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Andrea (new)

Andrea I can't wait to read your book after reading this. You have made me smile on a dreary morning.

message 2: by Robert (new)

Robert Porte Can't wait o get my hands on a copy! And I hear you will be reading at Powell's Books in Portland in March

message 3: by Melissa (new)

Melissa I I need to get a copy of this book! This post is awesome and the pictures are fantastic! Just tweeted it. Hopefully more will see this. Too great to miss. Thank you!

message 4: by Bianca (new)

Bianca so excited for this book to be released!

message 5: by Kate (new)

Kate Harrington Looking forward to reading this now and all your other suggestions. Loved what you said about finding empathy for all your characters. I'm also inspired to get to work writing my own books. It's never too late.

message 6: by K.G. (new)

K.G. Fletcher I just had my 50th bday & my debut novel is being released in December of this year! Congratulations on your debut! I wish you must success!

message 7: by Destiny (new)

Destiny Thanks for the great book recommendations! I ended up adding them all to my want to read list after reading their summaries. Along with your book, of course. I'm really looking forward to reading The Nest.

message 8: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Craddock I can't wait to read The Nest! Loved seeing your photos, too!

By the way, I have both you and KG (above) beat. I self-pubbed my first book in 2014 when I was 64 years old after a 30+ career as an elementary teacher. I agree with Kate (above), "It's never too late".

message 9: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette Loved the book! The writing was excellent. I recommended it to my book club and we are reading it this month. By the way, the oldest first time author I'm aware of is Harriet Doerr. She published her first novel, "Stones from Ibarra", when she was in her seventies. So Cynthia, you are young by comparison.

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