In Conversation with: Lauren Grodstein

November 2, 2010

Lauren Grodstein’s second novel takes the family drama and turns it up a notch:

A skilled internist with a thriving practice in suburban New Jersey, Pete Dizinoff has a devoted wife, an impressive house, and a son, Alec, on whom he’s pinned all his hopes. But he never counted on the wild card: Laura, his best friend’s daughter—ten years older than Alec, irresistibly beautiful, with a past so shocking that it’s never spoken of…

Bouncing between the mundane and the creepifying, and blurring the lines between them, this novel is surprising and engaging, and we’re thrilled to offer you a behind-the-scenes look at A Friend of the Family.

WORD: The New York Times Book Review blurb describes the book as “Suspense worthy of Hitchcock.” Who/what were your influences during the writing process?

LAUREN GRODSTEIN: This might sound corny – okay, I’m sure it sounds corny – but I honestly felt like Richard Ford’s Independence Day held my hand throughout the writing of this novel. Whenever I felt stuck or lost, I opened to any page in that book, which I’ve always admired, and delved into the rich and idiosyncratic voice of Frank Bascombe, the protagonist. I especially liked the passages in the book where he’s trying to sell a problematic house to a problematic couple. Ford really let himself go when he was writing these scenes, indulged in long descriptions, rounds and rounds of dialogue, and to me it all works beautifully. So I used those chapters to give myself license to try to do similar things, explore the workplace environment a little bit, place one chatty scene after another.

W: In the “Short Note from the Author” at the end of the book, you talk about getting into the mindset of Pete (the narrator). Personally, I’m curious about what it was like to get into Laura’s head — she was a character I found unnerving and terrifying, but also creepily sympathetic.

LG: In order to moderate or complicate Laura’s evilness (is that a word? Evility? Evilitude?) I tried to give her certain characteristics that were very similar to my own – our names are similar, for instance, and we’re the same age, and we both grew up and went to high school in northern New Jersey. I think by keeping her experiences close, in certain ways, to my own, I was able to keep her from being a cartoonishly horrible person. I empathized with her, and I knew her very well. And when you know someone well and empathize with her it’s hard not to see her in three dimensions, even if two of those dimensions are pretty horrible.

W: What do you think of the cover? It features an extreme close-up of a young woman, presumably Laura, rather than a man like Pete or a family shot, which would also be appropriate.

LG: I really love it. But I also loved the first cover, the hardcover jacket, which depicts a man wading into an ocean, looking for all the world like he’s about to go in over his head. It’s a metaphoric cover but I think it works really nicely.

W: The novel revolves around the choices parents make in order to protect their children. You’re a parent yourself — how did your own relationship with your children come into play during the writing process? Is it hard to separate out your own views on parenting from your characters’?

LG: I wrote the novel before I got pregnant with my first child, my son, who’s now two – which shows you how long it can take to go from drafting to bookstore. But I will say I don’t know if I could have written some of those scenes, especially the one in the library bathroom, if I’d already had my own child. People read those scenes and were slightly aghast at how violent they were, and my reaction was, hey, people! Toughen up! It’s not like this is a Saw movie or something! But now I read them and feel my own heart start to pound. Parenthood changes everything, even how we read.

W: What are you working on next?

LG: The kid finally, finally, sleeps sort of reasonable hours, which means I am finally, finally, working on a new novel. Phew!

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