The Lauren Fox Interview

If you're of the female persuasion, you've probably had an intense, toxic friendship at some point in your life. (And if you're not a female, I bet you've probably heard a female complain about one of these friendships.) Today's interviewee, writer Lauren Fox, recently published Friends Like Usa book about the thrill, heartbreak and agony of a close friendship gone confoundingly awry. Reading it will make you want to reach out to someone in your own life who used to be there -- and now isn't.

What are some of your favorite books by other authors that address female friendships?

It's strange, but I think that many books that address female friendship as a deep and primary connection are about girls or young adults.  It's as if we come of age and that gut-level connection and desire is supposed to shift from friend to romantic partner.  I think there's a paucity of books that really honors and examines intense female friendship as some of the most serious and defining relationships in a woman's life.  That said, I love The Group by Mary McCarthy, Commencement, by Courtney Sullivan and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (which is, of course, not entirely about females and about a whole lot more than friendship). Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, which is primarily about cruelty among young girls, also blew me away and absolutely defined the dark side of female friendship for me a long time ago

Just as an armchair therapist, why do you think friendships between women seem so much more fraught with high emotion than those between male best friends?
Oh, that's such a good question.  I don't know - maybe because women are encouraged to talk about and explore their emotions more than men?  Maybe male friendships are just as fraught, but men are more quiet about it, less able to verbalize what is painful between two people and, conversely, more willing to tamp it down in the interest of keeping things peaceful?  Boy, I really don't know.  Love is hard.  When you recognize that, whether you're a man or a woman, and are willing to work hard for an honest and deep connection, maybe it's just bound to be complicated.   

I enjoyed your book as a reader but as a writer, I also noticed what a nice publicity push it got from your publisher. At what stage in the process were you alerted to its media presence, and was this different from your experience with Still Life With Husband?
I'm so lucky to be published by Knopf, to have an amazing publicist and team of people working on getting the word out about my book.  I'm pretty sure it's not this way with every publisher, but Knopf has published both of my books, so I'm just really grateful that they have done so much to get my book out there and into the hands of as many readers as possible.  As soon as the book was officially done, the publicity wheels started turning.

In another interview you say, when it came to working on Friends Like Us, "I kept hearing phrases from the reviews of my first book in my head and feeling paralyzed, by both the praise and the criticism. I felt like I couldn't live up to the praise, and I took the criticisms as confirmation of my worst fears." What fears were those?
That I suck?  Yep, that's the one. 

How (or did?) this experience affect how you took in feedback for Friends Like Us?

I would like to say that the experience of being reviewed made me a more mature and reflective writer, that I recognized the subjectivity of the experience and am now free of the judgment and self-recrimination that comes from having my work evaluated by others.  But, nope.  It's still really hard.  Negative reviews are a knife in the gut. I think you have to be kind of porous to the world and overly sensitive in order to be a writer, and then of course the major downside of that is that reviews just get under your skin.

In terms of the writing/editing process, did you take any other lessons from Still Life With Husband and tried to work on Friends Like Us in a different way?
Whatever I tried consciously to do differently in the process of writing Friends Like Us was completely lost to the experience of writing it.  It's only my second book, but I'm pretty sure that writing every book is such an entirely different experience, based on the weird alchemy of writing, and of the pragmatics of one's life and the changes that take place from year to year. (For example, I didn't have children when I started writing Still Life with Husband; when I began Friends Like Us, I had two young daughters.)  Friends Like Us took me twice as long to write, and was both more arduous and more satisfying, in the end.

Plot-wise or character-wise, what changed most significantly in FLU from when you first began the story to what we see now?
There was a zombie apocalypse that my editor thought was a little out of place, and of course the scene with the tap-dancing elephants was changed dramatically (because it turns out they can't really tap dance)...  no, um, let's see... mostly the changes in character were sort of minor and fluid, all the way through.  You adjust for complexity and subtlety throughout the process.  It's the part of writing that isn't carefully plotted, the part that is about discovery.  At the beginning, I thought that Willa needed to have more defining characteristics to really distinguish her from Jane - because I wanted them to be similar, but not so similar that you couldn't tell them apart.  I actually changed Willa's name halfway through the book, which helped me figure her out.  Ben needed to be more unlikable and more traumatized at one point, and I thought Jane needed more flaws as the plot unfolded, so that a reader wouldn't take her side completely.  

Willa is the narrator of the book, so we sympathize with her, but she's far from an angel in the story. Was it difficult to make your protagonist somewhat dislikable?
I think it would have been difficult for me to make a completely likable protagonist.  My goal has always been to create flawed but sympathetic characters.  I don't know if I've succeeded, but life is complicated, and we all do crummy things, for our own self-interest or because we're misguided or because we think our actions are not crummy and only later realize they are, or because we're young and confused, or for other strange and fascinating reasons.  The mistakes are what's interesting to me -- the ugliness that complicates and sheds light on the beauty.

How often do you hear from readers who share their own tales of friendship breakups?
Fairly often.  I've even read a couple of reviews from readers who said that the book hit too close to home and was painful to read.  (One reader told me it reminded her too much of a recent friendship break-up.  She said, "It was a really good book, but I didn't enjoy reading it!"  I wasn't sure how to take that.)  I think most of us have one or two or three sad stories of lost friendships. I think they teach us how to be better friends.

What other titles (if any) did you consider for FLU?

How to Become a Millionaire Overnight.  Eat, Pray, Love.  The Bible.

Do you have any completed books in a drawer that likely won't see the light of day? If so, what were they about and how do you know whether it's best to let them be as opposed to working on them continuously?
Oh, you bet I do.  In a way, they are versions of the two books I did publish.  They just stalled out, either blessedly early on in the process or soul-crushingly late.  I think, with those abandoned novels, you work on them and struggle with them and think that they're going to shape up, until the moment you realize they won't, and then your spirits lift and your heart breaks, simultaneously.

What do you think your next book will be about?
Can't say!  I literally can't say, because once I start talking about what I'm working on, it somehow dries up and floats away like dead leaves.

What advice do you have for writers with children on how to find time to write?
Why do you ask?!  My parents are here in Milwaukee, and they are insanely wonderful and devoted grandparents who actually call me and ask when they can take my kids.  Since you can't hire my parents, hire a babysitter if you can.  I remind myself all the time how lucky I am to have my two remarkable daughters -- and that helps when I feel frustrated that they take away from my writing time, which of course they do.  I write when they're at school, when they're at my parents... sometimes I wake up early and write while they're asleep.  Just do what you can and don't hate yourself for all the times you can't.

What TV shows do you watch regularly?
My husband and I just finished watching Deadwood, which I know ran about ten years ago, but we just discovered it and plowed through it.  We like to get recently released series and watch them in intense bursts, like fever dreams.  We've watched Dexter this way, and also Big Love.  I'm also a fan of The Walking Dead and Mad Men. 

What are you reading now?
Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, and Making Babies, by Anne Enright, and Stealing Magic, by Marianne Malone, which is one of my daughter's books.  I like to have a different book in every room of the house, because I'm so lazy that I don't want to carry books from room to room. 

What are some of the biggest misconceptions out-of-towners have about Milwaukee?
My husband is from Dublin, and even though we've been together for almost twenty years, most of his friends and extended family think that Milwaukee is either Chicago or Minneapolis.  He still gets emails from friends in Ireland saying, "How's Minneapolis?"  So, that it doesn't exist... and/or that we still make beer.  Actually I don't know - do they still brew beer here?

How does it feel to be the 319th person interviewed for
It's cool.  I'm pretty jealous of #254, and I feel sorry for #44, and what happened between me and #119 is nobody's business but ours.