Interview: Claire LaZebnik of Epic Fail and Families and Other Non-Returnable Gifts

Posted on September 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Claire LaZebnik is the witty and wise author of two new books, both highly recommended.  Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts (for adults) is the story of Keats, the “normal” child in an unconventional family with poetically-named siblings Hopkins (a brilliant doctor) and Milton (a reclusive computer geek) and divorcing parents who disapprove of her long-time boyfriend.  Epic Fail, for YA (young adult) readers, has the daughter of the new principal of a tony prep school meet the son of Hollywood stars in a Pride and Prejudice-style romantic comedy.  LaZebnik is as much fun to interview as she is to read and it was a treat to get her to answer my questions.

You are a big Jane Austen fan — which book is your favorite?  How has she influenced or inspired you?

My favorite Austen novel used to be Pride and Prejudice, because it’s the most unabashedly romantic of them all.   Darcy and Elizabeth spar so beautifully while they’re falling in love–the romantic tension is phenomenal.  I’ll never get tired of rereading it.  But at some point after college, I started to prefer Emma.  Emma is such a wonderfully flawed heroine. She’s conceited and overly-confident and a snob, but she’s also smart and beautiful and lovable.  And Mr. Knightley is . . . <happy, dreamy sigh because words can’t capture how I feel about him>  . . .  There’s just something about the way he’s guiding her and loving her and forgiving her all at the same time that I find even more romantic than the Elizabeth/Darcy sparring thing.  But I had to grow into that.

Austen’s inspiring because she was limited to writing about the world she knew, which was a very restricted world of parlors and teas, but she still managed to capture an entire universe of human behavior.

Also,  Austen wrote in her sister’s house, in the midst of chaos.  I do most of my writing downstairs, surrounded by the family and pets, in the midst of chaos.  If she didn’t complain, I’m not going to.  (Okay, that’s a lie.  I always complain.)

When you began Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts, the story of upheavals in the life of an unconventional family, did it start with an image or a character or an incident?

With a contrast actually: I wanted to contrast a middle-aged mother who’s dating a bunch of different men with her young daughter who’s in a longterm relationship.  I like that they both play against people’s expectations.

Why do we all feel like outsiders in our own families at times?

When you’re a kid, you buy into your family’s mythology.  You believe that the way your family does things is the right and proper way to do them–maybe even the ONLY way to do them. Then you leave home, go to college, fall in love, get to know other people’s families, go into therapy . . . and you suddenly have a different perspective on your childhood.  You walk into your old home and realize that there was nothing universal about your upbringing, that it was specific to your family and that certain aspects of it probably could have been better.  And once you realize that, it can be strange and alienating.  You can go home again but you’ll never look at it quite the same way.

How do you have a first-person narrator tell a story so that the reader understands some things before she does?

A friend once told me that even though her boyfriend was difficult and jealous, she loved him and intended to marry him.  I could tell she was actually trying to gather the courage to break up with him.  Sometimes we telegraph our intentions before we even acknowledge them to ourselves.  And that’s what happens with my narrators sometimes–they manage to communicate to the reader their underlying emotions without stopping to examine them.

You have some vivid and sympathetic portrayals of characters with social interaction issues, not often seen in novels.  What does this add to the story?

I just think it’s realistic: I know lots of people who have mild agoraphobia or autism or depression, and there are times when these things can really interfere with forward momentum.  So I find that interesting to include in a novel, especially since how their family members deal with it–whether they’re supportive or enabling or dismissive–reveals a lot about those characters too.  And I think readers really root for someone who’s struggling to overcome any kind of inner paralysis.

Do you have a particular audience in mind when you write?

My editor, mostly!  I’ve had the same editor for my last four adult novels.  She’s wonderful–smart and receptive and kind–and I feel like if I can please her, I’m on the right track.  She’s also kind of the target audience for the book–she’s young,  and well-read.

Why does Keats, the “normal daughter,” remind you of Marilyn in the old Munsters TV show?

Cousin Marilyn was the odd man out in the Munsters, because everyone else was a monster and she was blond and pretty and human.  Keats, who’s competent and lucid and socially outgoing, feels like she’s the weird one when she spends time with her brilliant, quirky, incompetent relatives.  Normalcy is relative: out in the world, Keats is normal, but at home she’s the oddball.

How did you pick the three poets that inspired the names of the main character and her siblings?

That’s such a good question!  I didn’t even realize how much I was hoping someone would ask that until you did.  Yeats is my all time favorite poet, so I would have liked to have named my protagonist Yeats but that’s just TOO weird.  No one even knows how to pronounce it.  But Yeats makes me think of Keats . . . and that seemed much closer to a real name.  So she became Keats.  Hopkins wrote my favorite line of poetry, one that’s stuck with me for decades–“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things“–so I’m fond of him.  Plus, Hopkins sounded like a cool name to me.  And Milton is a real name, and also one of the greatest poets of all time, so he seemed like an obvious choice.

What has surprised you most about readers’ reactions to your books?

Their concern about characters I haven’t thought that much about.  I don’t want to ruin anything, but one character does get his heart broken in this novel, and several people emailed me to say, “I’m very worried about him–please promise me he’ll be okay.”  Someone even asked if he could get his own sequel. In all honesty, I hadn’t given him another thought once he was out of the picture . . .  but it’s kind of gratifying to know that readers feel that invested.

Your books are very funny — what makes you laugh?

Many things make me laugh, but my kids most of all.  Like, a few months ago we were all trying to figure out what movie we should go to and my husband and I wanted to see “127 Hours,” so we were describing it to the kids, and my 11-year-old son said, “I don’t think I should see that movie and I don’t think I should have to be the one to point that out.”  Every time I think of that, I start laughing again.  He was so right.  And it was such a great way to put it.

What was the first piece of writing you got paid for?  What did you do with the money?

Wow.  I’m not positive, but I think it was probably an essay I wrote for GQ magazine.  My sister was a magazine writer at the time and they asked her to do an “All About Adam” essay (I don’t know if they still have that feature–women writing about men) and she was too busy but she told them they should give me a shot at it.  So I did and they bought it and that was the beginning of my magazine career.  I think it was like a dollar a word, so a few hundred dollars, maybe?  I’m sad to say that I’ve never been one of those people who earmark earnings for something special.  I always stick checks in the bank and they just become part of my savings, although sometimes I will think, “Well, that last check paid for this” when I buy something indulgent.

What’s the best thing about writing for a YA audience?

The fan mail.  I get the most mind-blowingly wonderful emails from teenage girls.  They care deeply about the characters and really want to connect with me to discuss them.  And a lot of them are interested in a writing career, so I love having the chance to encourage that.   I answer every email I get.  If someone’s taken the time to write me, I’m going to let her know how much I appreciate it.

Your characters often use humor to connect with or deflect each other — how do you create the humor personality of each character?

My romantic leads tend to “find” each other through their similar senses of humor.  I often have the main characters tease each other in a way that other people in the book just can’t keep up with.  I’m not interested in snarky or nasty humor–there has to be a positive and playful energy to it.  And they have to know when it’s time to be serious.  Not everything should be a joke.

What is it about the Elizabeth/Darcy conflict that makes it so enduring and relatable?

I don’t know if I’d say it’s relatable so much as it’s a truly satisfying fantasy: I mean, the most sought-after bachelor in your social circle falls in love with you AGAINST HIS WILL.  He knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t help himself.  It’s the most romantic thing in the world!  And the reason he falls in love with her is that she’s so funny and smart.  Honestly, there are so many clunky romances these days where you never actually see the attraction, where the authors assume that having characters be rude to each other is the same as Elizabeth and Darcy sparring.  E and D are never RUDE.  They’re smart and witty and have good conversations, even before they fall in love.

How is high school like Austen’s insular communities?

There’s a clear hierarchy to both, one that might not be obvious to outsiders, but is very clear to anyone inside the community.  And those social divisions are almost impossible to cross or change–it’s very rare for someone in one group to fall in love with someone in another, and if it happens, it sends ripples throughout the entire community.  Plus everyone knows everyone else’s business–it’s virtually impossible to keep a secret!


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