It isn’t often the manuscript of a 55-year-old first-time author garners a seven-figure advance. (Consider that J.K. Rowling received a mere £1,500—$2,118 by today’s exchange rate—for the first installment of the Harry Potter series.) Read the brief yet engrossing prologue of Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, however, and it will become clear as to how the New York-to L.A.-transplant (her husband is the head writer for Conan O’Brien) landed the deal.
Sweeney’s debut tells the story of the Plumb siblings—Melody, the high-strung mother of twin teenagers; Jack, who is crumbling under the weight of a secret debt; Beatrice, a failed novelist; and Leo, the self-destructive, self-absorbed holy terror—all of whom are left floundering after their communal trust fund was used to bail Leo out of a sticky situation (see: that brief yet engrossing prologue). Moving deftly between narratives, the result is a seriocomic tale of family and money that exudes veracity. Sweeney answered a few questions for us ahead of her Thursday, March 24 event at Barnes and Noble at The Grove, where she’ll be in conversation with Susan Orlean starting at 7p.m..
Your debut novel is receiving fanfare from critics far and wide. As someone who has come to fiction later in life, what has it been like for you to be one of those writers who is seemingly an “overnight success”? With all of the work it took to get to this point, would you even call yourself such a thing?
I’m not sure “overnight success” is a term that ever makes sense to the person to whom it’s being applied, because all kinds of preparation and rejection and fits and starts go into the product—book, movie, song—that makes you a success in other people’s eyes. Certainly my trajectory for a debut novel has been rapid, but my life as a writer has seemed excruciatingly slow at times, so that’s not really a phrase that resonates with me.
The book is set in New York, but you wrote it while you were in L.A. Obviously your knowledge of New York is vast having lived there for 20-plus years, but did you ever find any L.A. influences trying to creep their way into the narrative?
Not really. Once I knew the book was going to take place almost exclusively in New York, that’s where I went in my head every day.
Could you see yourself writing a book set in L.A.?
Sure. I’d love to. I’m working on something now that might be a book set in L.A. It’s a little too early to tell.
You have written non-fiction for quite some time. What was it like to cross over into a new genre? Did any elements of your background in non-fiction take the trip with you?
It was fun to write in a completely different way, but there are always elements of writing that are important in any genre—clarity, sentence structure, choosing the best possible words for what you’re trying to convey. And I definitely used some of my corporate experiences in the book, especially one scene in particular where one character has to go through a series of “ice breakers” during a meeting.
Reading The Nest, I couldn’t help but think of the opening lines of Anna Karenina (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”). Each of the Plumb children embody that maxim. What inspired you to create these unsatisfied siblings, and how hard was it to weave their stories into a single narrative?
I think inherent in Tolstoy’s words—“all happy families are alike”—is the recognition that there isn’t a whole lot of story to a happy family. To take it a step further, happy families might be nice to live in, but they don’t make the most interesting fiction. If you don’t have characters who want something or are struggling in some way, I don’t think the story has much meat. You need conflict. From the start, I wanted to write a story about adult siblings who were in some kind of distress, both as individuals and as a group, and see how they would find their way through the difficulties. Those are the stories that interest me most, and so that’s what I wanted to write. It wasn’t hard conceptually to bring the individual stories into a single thread because they are all needing rescue from the same place. Logistically, it took a lot of post-it notes and index cards and a very large bulletin board.
A lot of this novel is focused on a delusion that money can solve all of our problems. Walker, Jack’s partner, says as much in the line, “Money—and the entitlement that often accompanied just the idea of money—could warp relationships and memories and decisions.” Is that what you intended the takeaway to be for the reader?
I never write with any intended takeaway for a reader. When I’m writing, I’m trying to tell a compelling story that feels true, and what the reader takes away is up to the reader.
Bea is a character most writers can likely relate to. Did you model her on a real person?
No, I didn’t base Bea on one person. There are a lot of people in the literary world and probably in every occupation who burn brightly at a very young and then struggle to maintain their success.
Do you ever worry you’ll turn out like her? Asking for a friend.
I’m sure everyone who engages in a creative pursuit worries about the next project, but I don’t think there’s anything mystical to producing writing that works. You just need to make the time and space to do the work and understand that some attempts will succeed and some won’t. Now that I’ve proven to myself that I can write a novel, I’m excited to work on the next one.
What are three books you would recommend right now?
The Past by Tessa Hadley, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. That one isn’t a recent publication, but I picked up a copy while traveling, and it’s a riveting story that includes both New York City and Southern California.