Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney on the Surprises and Reinventions Behind Her Blockbuster Debut
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, a debut novelist in her 50s, worked for many years as a nonfiction writer before taking a serious stab at fiction at the age of 48, with the encouragement of her friends and husband. She attended the low residency MFA program at Bennington College, where she began work on her novel, The Nest, which was subsequently sold in a seven figure deal to Ecco.
The Nest tells the story of the dysfunctional Plumb family through the struggles of adult siblings Melody, Beatrice (Bea), Jack, and Leo, as they battle over an endangered large family inheritance. It’s a deftly told, and sometimes humorous, tale about overcoming old resentments and growing up emotionally as a family and as individuals.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney over coffee and pretzel croissants at the bustling City Bakery in New York on a recent weekday before her book launched. She is a humble and grateful writer, as well as a warm and funny person. We talked about the importance of writers (and friends) helping each other out along the way, about self doubt and breaking down writing myths, and about the importance of dedicating yourself to your passions when the time is right for you.
Catherine LaSota: You’ve said that writing fiction or writing a novel was a secret goal of yours. Why secret?
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: I wouldn’t say it was a secret goal — it wasn’t like I spent all these years secretly wanting to write a novel. I spent a lot of years thinking that it wasn’t something I wanted to do, I think sort of as a protective mechanism. Because I didn’t think I could. I tried writing fiction in my late twenties in a very half-assed sort of way, and, unsurprisingly, was unsuccessful at it. And I just sort of convinced myself that I loved fiction, I loved reading, and it’s a really important part of my life as an observer, but not something that I could actually do.
CL: Because you thought you couldn’t?
CDS: Yeah. I just thought that if I tried, and I really couldn’t, then I wouldn’t love fiction anymore. It was such an elaborate labyrinth of defense mechanisms. But then I was trying to get out of corporate marketing writing and do something else, and I was writing personal essays, and I liked that, I loved that. But, I quickly realized I don’t love writing about myself.
CL: Why do you think that is?
CDS: Because I don’t think I’m all that fascinating! And, I’m not comfortable exposing people in my life who don’t choose that. Also, this time period was around 2003, 2004, and it was really the rise of, the proliferation of, personal blogs, and personal essays, and mommy blogs, that, as a reader, were in ways really, really enjoyable. But I knew I was never going to write about my kids — it felt like such an intrusion, a violation of privacy. You know, they’re old enough to understand.
CL: It’s interesting that you’re not comfortable with exposing the people in your life through your writing, because that very thing happens with the characters in your book: one character exposes another’s secrets through her fiction writing.
CDS: I wrote something for the Times Magazine when they had a one-page humor column called “True Life Tales.” It was just a funny story about me taking the kids to a museum in New Jersey, and they wanted to go through the public touch tunnel–it’s like sight deprivation, and you literally need to crawl through on your hands and knees.
CL: That sounds terrifying.
CDS: It’s terrifying! But it was a funny recounting of that story, and they ended up not taking it, but I worked on it for a while because this editor really liked it. And my older son was probably 10 or 11 then, and he read it, and he said, “Oh, my teachers are going to read this!” It was something funny he said that was in there, and it didn’t feel like it would be embarrassing to me, but it was to him. It was a real moment of, oh yeah, they have their own lives, and their own embarrassments, and their own social circles, and that’s not cool for me to be exploiting what I think is hilarious about them.
CL: Maybe your kids will write their own stories someday.
…that first thing I wrote was terrible, and I knew it was terrible. But the difference for me between trying it when I was 28 and trying it when I was 45 was that I realized that terrible didn’t mean I couldn’t do it.
CDS: Maybe they will! So anyway, I did place something else on the “True Life Tales” page, and I was trying to figure out how to write the things I wanted to write that could actually be published somewhere. I was working on a different essay, about a friend of mine who had died, and I couldn’t place it anywhere, but I got some nice rejections. I showed them to my friend Liza, who had her MFA from Columbia and was just on the other side of having two small kids, and she wanted to start a writing group to get herself back into writing. She read my essay and said, “I think you should just write it as a short story.” And I said, “oh, I can’t write fiction, I’m not going to do that.” And she said, “What are you talking about?” She was so dismissive and incredulous about that thought. She said, just do it and let me read it and I’ll help you figure out, and if you’re not doing something right, I’ll tell you, and I’ll give you writing exercises. So I did. And that first thing I wrote was terrible, and I knew it was terrible. But the difference for me between trying it when I was 28 and trying it when I was 45 was that I realized that terrible didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. It just meant I had to work harder on it. I was like, oh yeah, of course. And there was one page that I wrote and I thought, that’s one page I’m not embarrassed by. If I can do one page, I can do 15 — I just have to spend time on it.
CL: That fear of not being able to do it–I think all writers go up against that fear at some point, often throughout their whole lives. How do you get past that fear?
CDS: For me, it felt presumptuous. I didn’t grow up knowing people who were artists. It kind of felt like saying, I’m going to be an actress, or, I’m going to be an astronaut.
CL: But people actually do those things!
CDS: I know! Once I let go of that, I was just like, oh yeah, this is just like any other writing I do — it’s just time and knowledge and figuring out what the craft tools are, and putting in time.
CL: It sounds like having your friend, someone who was outside of your writing, encouraging you, was very important.
CDS: Right. That’s the story of my life the last seven years up until this point, just having a lot of outside people say, “Why aren’t you doing this? What’s wrong with you?”
CL: Did it have to reach a critical mass of people saying that? Did you have to hear it a certain number of times to believe you could write fiction, to act on that encouragement?
CDS: My kids were getting older, and the work that I was doing when my kids were younger was not particularly lucrative. It was more that I needed to be working to maintain my sanity and be out in the world. So once I didn’t need the flexibility of that work anymore, I really wanted to commit more fully to a career, and I knew I didn’t want it to be the thing that I’d been doing. Or, if it was going to be the thing that I’d been doing, I needed to find a way to make it more interesting. And then that just happened to coincide with me having people in my life who were going through the same thing in different ways and different places, and all of us kind of supported one another.
I’m friends with Jill Soloway, and she would repeatedly say to me around this time, “You are a beautiful writer. Why aren’t you spending more time writing what you want to write?” We had an internet group of women all over the country who were all connected in some way, and we had a private website that only we could access, and we checked in every day. Sometimes we posted work, but it was mostly just discussion, and working out problems, both personal and professional, and parenting, and relationships, all of that stuff. Everyone was creative and feeling isolated for whatever reason, so it quickly became this very intense, intimate, wonderfully supportive group. Like what I imagine consciousness-raising to be in the 70s–and maybe it was, I was a kid then, so! (laughs) It was fun, because everyone was a really good writer. It was fun to do, to hang out in a virtual space with people who are funny and clever and honest.
CL: That’s so smart, because there are people who try to get writing groups together–myself included–and just coming together to talk about your work all the time…
CDS: It’s a drag!
CL: It’s a drag!
CDS: It’s really true, and I think I really needed that in that point in my life. I really needed people who were already creatively successful to be saying well, you should be doing this, too.
CL: Like they were bringing you into the fold?
CDS: Yeah, or just saying, what are you afraid of? And then I finally went, “yeah, what AM I afraid of? I’m not a lost, possibly slightly depressed, 28 year old — I can probably figure this out.” It was really empowering. I feel really lucky to have had so many people, during the last seven years, who have really encouraged me.
My husband is my biggest fan and cheerleader, and I think he was always kind of frustrated that I didn’t commit to doing something creative a little sooner, and so when I did he was really excited.
CL: This sounds so familiar.
CDS: Good! Good! I think it’s a really common story. And I can tell you from doing the low residency program at Bennington that it is a common story. And sort of the same trajectory: you know, I tried it when I was younger, and I wasn’t really successful at it, and I hated everything I wrote, and so I gave up, and then I had another job, and then I had some kids, and now I’ve got some time, and I’m going to try again. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing, because there are certainly pitfalls to committing to that when you’re really young. You’ve got some years probably when there’s not really a lot going on.
CL: Or you’re still trying to figure yourself out…
CDS: Who you are, what you’re writing about. And what you are about. I mean, obviously, there are people who are the exception. I’m reading The Girls by Emma Cline right now, and there’s someone who’s figured out a lot of shit at 26.
CL: You could say, well, why was I not that way, where I could figure it out when I was that young? But you’re a different person, and you write different things, and you have a different life.
CDS: Exactly, exactly, exactly. It’s really hard to let go of that. I think that moving to Los Angeles was also huge for me because all of my friends out there are creative people who are sort of hobbling it together without such a great attachment to the result, because that’s what you have to do if you’re in comedy, or in television. It’s not quite as precious, and that was really inspiring to me, just seeing my friends work so hard on things that would maybe have no outcome, but be really invested in, well, this is what you do, this is your job. You’re just doing it every day, you’re saying yes to pretty much everything.
CL: Why do you think it’s like that in LA and not in New York?
CDS: I think Los Angeles is a place where the boundaries are more liquid, and the firmament isn’t so set. I absolutely believed, especially when I lived in Park Slope, and having so many friends who are writers, that that should consume me, and I wasn’t on it.
CL: Like you had your identity and writing fiction wasn’t it?
It’s just more rigid in New York, at least that’s my perception. Los Angeles is a town of people who are constantly reinventing themselves.
CDS: Like my friends who were writers had started really young, and that was their path, and this is their reward, and there was no entryway onto that. The opposite is true in Los Angeles. It’s not a straight shot for everybody. Everybody is up and down. You could be writing for a show, and then the show ends, and you’re back at ground zero. The next time you’re looking for a job, it could take you six months, it could take you years–so, in the meantime, you’re going to fill in here or fill in there, or maybe start a podcast. It’s just more rigid in New York, at least that’s my perception. Los Angeles is a town of people who are constantly reinventing themselves. You can literally be a waitress one day and the star of a TV show the next day. You can be 65 years old and be cast in a movie and all of a sudden have a career.
CL: You lived in New York for about 25 years, and then moved to Los Angeles and wrote this novel, The Nest, that takes place in New York. Even though you had lived in the city for more than two decades, with a place like New York, you can live here forever and never figure it all out. Did you find yourself doing much research for The Nest, and did you enjoy that process?
CDS: Yeah, I did a lot of research. I don’t know how you write fiction without doing research. The job is so much harder if you’re not doing research, because research gives you details, which is what you need to make it feel true. And it’s so easy. You have no excuse for not doing research if you’re a writer, because the internet!
I’ve been a writer for a long time, a nonfiction writer, and when I started freelance writing, if you wanted to do research, someone in the office had to have a subscription to LexisNexis, or you had to go to the library and look things up on microfiche.
CL: I remember microfiche! There’s something very romantic about researching that way, the way you can discover things.
CDS: There is something very romantic. Really early on in my career, I was writing about the Statue of Liberty, and I got to go out on the island and do research in their private library, and they have these enormous bound journals of old newspapers. It was really cool. I was able to read the newspapers on the day that the statue opened up.
CL: Let’s talk some more about the writing of this book and what led up to that. Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?
CDS: I started writing fiction here in New York, and then I got sidetracked for about a year when I moved my family out to Los Angeles. I picked it back up once we were settled in Los Angeles, and I felt like, ok, I’m 48, I’m giving myself one year to figure this out, one year to really commit to writing fiction, and at the end of the year I have to say yes, this is the thing I’m going to focus on, or I have to figure out what else I’m focusing on. I took classes at the UCLA Writers Extension, and because UCLA was so far from my house, I was doing it online, and I realized I wanted to be in an actual classroom, not a virtual classroom. I heard about low residency MFA programs, so I applied to programs. I decided to go to Bennington, and that was great, that was life changing
CL: What did the MFA program give you?
CDS: Deadlines. Community. Feedback.
CL: Different community than you had with the online friends, and the workshops?
CDS: Yeah, because I didn’t really know any fiction writers. Bennington really allowed me to prioritize fiction writing in my life in a major way, because I’d made this commitment, I wasn’t going to blow it. I was really determined to get everything I could out of that program, and to learn as much as I could, and take advantage of every opportunity that was given to me. I did, and it was exhilarating. It was just really thrilling. I still have this feeling every day where I’m, like, my job is reading books!
CL: Isn’t that awesome?
CDS: Yes! I so vividly remember that first term at Bennington. I was very nervous about the amount of work I had to generate every month, but I also thought, I am required to sit in this office and read fiction for several hours a day. I honestly felt like a fairy godmother had made my wish come true. It was really amazing. I had great teachers, and teachers whose reading and writing aesthetics were very different than mine in some cases. It was really valuable to have someone hand me a reading list of people I never would have gravitated to on my own.
And then just being at the residency, there are ten-day residencies — that felt like such an incredible luxury to me. Even though you’re staying in a dorm room, you think, I have my own room! I don’t have to think abut what other people are eating all day for ten days. I only have to spend every day, morning to night, talking about fiction, hearing about fiction, listening to the guest lectures, meeting with faculty, and it was…exhilarating is the only word I can think of.
CL: You worked with Bret Anthony Johnston while at Bennington?
CDS: I did. I was in his workshop in second term. Paul Yoon was my teacher, and Paul and Bret ran the workshop together, and I got to know Bret then, and we became friends. Then he was my thesis advisor a year later. I had started working on The Nest just a couple of months before that. I thought it was going to be a short story. I was having a really hard time with it. It very different in tone than the stories I had been writing.
CL: How so?
CDS: I think I was doing the thing that most people do when they get into an MFA program, trying to write more “literary,” trying to mimic the people who are venerated, which I think is not a bad exercise. So the things I’d been writing were a little bleaker–I mean, humor always crept in, but it was always a little more wry than actual funny, and they were sadder.
CL: Did you enjoy them as much?
CDS: No, I did not (laughs). So I started The Nest, and it was just coming out in a different kind of voice, probably more akin to the type of voice I was writing before coming to Bennington. I sent it to Bret, and I was pretty sure that he was going to say, no, let’s put this one aside. I thought he’d say, let’s go back and work on your old stuff. But he called me up and said, “I think you’re having a hard time with this because I don’t think it’s a short story. I think it’s the beginning of a novel, and, I don’t want to freak you out, but if you can do this for 300 pages, someone’s going to want to publish this book. Why don’t we just work on this for the next three months?”
CL: What did it sound like to you when he said that?
CDS: I felt someone took handcuffs off! I wasn’t looking forward to working on the stories that I’d already written. There were two that I liked, but I’d been working on those since before I’d applied to Bennington, and they were so sad.
CL: What work had you applied to Bennington with?
CDS: I applied with the story that came out of the personal essay that I couldn’t sell, and I applied with something else that was a little lighter. I was really excited (when Bret encouraged me to keep working on The Nest). When I sent it to him, I said, “this is my favorite thing that I’ve done while I’m here.”
CL: That’s probably a good thing to recognize, right?
CDS: Yeah, but I also knew Bret. We were friends, he’s an amazing teacher, and he was in the final weeks of finishing Remember Me Like This. We had a shorthand already about writing and reading — we think the same way about writing and what’s important in writing, we talk about books a lot, and we generally agree on stuff, so I knew it was just going to be a brain dump. I knew he was going to teach me everything he had figured out about writing a novel in three short months, he was going to help me. And he did. I learned a lot. So when I graduated I had like 125 pages that I’d written, which was great.
CL: That is awesome. Was there a lot that surprised you in the course of writing the novel?
CL: The novel opens with this scene of siblings starting in separate bars, and then coming together for lunch. Did you have any kind of a mapping out after that of specific points you wanted to hit?
CDS: In that first conversation with Bret, I said, “how much do I need to know about the ending?” And he said, “All you need to know is where you want to leave off each character emotionally. Not what’s happening plot-wise, but where do you want to leave them emotionally?” He also asked me if I knew where Leo would end up, and I did have an idea about that. A little past the halfway mark in writing it, I figured out what was going to happen for the rest of the book, in very broad strokes.
CL: Did the writing become easier or more difficult at that point?
CDS: It almost becomes harder, not quite as fun, because you’re not discovering as much stuff. I think when you reach the point in the first draft where you are just writing what you know is going to happen, that becomes harder, and I really slowed down. And I actually went away for a week by myself, because I really felt that I just had to fucking get through it. And then once that’s done, you go back, and then it becomes fun again, because then you start to see things you didn’t notice before, and threads that you can pull back, and pull forward. That’s my favorite part.
CL: You chose to write about four siblings in The Nest, and you have a book trailer where your friends are talking about their relationships with their siblings. Do you have any siblings?
CDS: I have three siblings. I’m the oldest of four.
CL: You’re Leo!
CDS: I am Leo! And I realized in horror halfway through the writing of the book that I am a Leo. How awfully Freudian is that?
CL: Yeah, but you’re not writing an autobiographical novel.
CDS: No, I’m not. And when I first started, there were three siblings, and then I realized the dynamic of four siblings is so deeply ingrained in me that I wanted there to be four, because I know how that works.
CL: Were any of the characters more difficult for you to write than others?
CDS: Melody was the most difficult for me to write. She came out in the first draft a little too cliché, a little too suburban housewife, status-conscious, a little more of a type. I really worked on her in the revision. I did a lot of work, trying to make her a more rounded person.
CL: She’s now a very sympathetic character in a lot a ways. She’s a fighter, and she works very hard.
CDS: Yeah, I think so. I think I just hadn’t tapped into that part of her for whatever reason. Also, in the first draft, Bea was a poet, which was such a ludicrous decision on my part. I didn’t want to write about a fiction writer, I thought that was…
CL: …a taboo thing for a fiction writer to write about?
CDS: Yeah. And Bret kept saying to me, “I don’t know if this is going to work.” And he read the first draft, and he said, I have to tell you, it’s not working. We talked about ways to fix it, and once I just gave in to making Bea a fiction writer, the story came so fast, it was so much fun to write. It was a really good lesson for me in not thinking about how something was going to be received, and just writing what makes the most sense to you.
CL: It sounds like you went through a series of breaking down fears about what you should or shouldn’t do: a fear of writing fiction, and a fear of writing about a fiction writer in your fiction.
CDS: I think that there are things, especially in an MFA program, that you hear all the time. One of them is, you can be sitting in workshop, and someone will be writing a story about someone writing their first book. So you kind of absorb the message that this is a first novel trope that you should avoid. But I think that is usually in the context of someone who is young, writing an autobiographical novel.
So when I was doing the revising, and once I realized that I’d put this artificial constraint on myself with Bea, and that it wasn’t good for the book, I really just popped the clutch. I thought, no one might ever buy this book, no one might ever read it, it might just be my “drawer novel,” so I’m just going to write whatever the fuck I want to write. I’m just writing to make myself happy.
CL: And then you sold the book! And people seem to love it.
The book takes place in New York City, it references the publishing world, there’s a literary agent as a character, there’s a fiction writer–I thought, no one is even going to ask to read this thing…
CDS: I’m going to have to remind myself of that a lot in the coming months. When I started writing a query letter, when I was looking for an agent, I thought, “I’m sunk!” The book takes place in New York City, it references the publishing world, there’s a literary agent as a character, there’s a fiction writer–I thought, no one is even going to ask to read this thing, or they’re going to read the first ten pages and get to the literary agent having a conversation with Bea, and I kept joking with Bret that they were going to leave it on the subway, on a subway bench. I just thought, I really thought, man, this is not the way to write a book that someone’s going to be interested in.
CL: You were wrong.
CDS: I was wrong. But when you read about finding an agent or what agents look for, it’s like, “well, I don’t want another book that takes place in New York City about someone trying to sell their novel.” I get what they’re talking about, but it’s very easy to let all of those voices come into your head in ways that don’t even apply to you.
CL: Well, there are all kinds of writing rules that exist because a lot of it is done badly, but you can also do anything, really, if you do good work.
CDS: Exactly. If you work hard enough on it, you can do whatever you want.
CL: Are you excited for your book tour?
CDS: I’m excited about it. I like talking with people about the book. I’ve been doing bookseller stuff, and that’s been really fun. Booksellers rock, and they’re so thoughtful, and interested, and I love hearing their thoughts about the book, and everyone wants to tell me their family money problems, and that’s awesome.
So, yeah, it’s fun to interact with people, with readers.
CL: I love that you say booksellers rock. They’re kind of the ultimate readers.
CDS: Bookstores are the best! My real secret desire is to have a bookstore. Maybe someday. I just love booksellers — those guys are so smart, and they’re so committed and passionate. That’s really been, so far, the best stuff I’ve been doing for the book.
CL: So what’s your writing practice like now? Do you have a routine?
CDS: I do. I like to write pretty early in the morning. Depending on where I am in the work process, I can write for two, maybe three, hours, and then I read or do research, and then sometimes, if things are going really well, I go back to the document again in the later afternoon. That happens when I’m deep into revision more than when I’m in a first draft.
CL: Are you working on new material now while you are touring?
CDS: Yeah, I’m trying to get a new book going. I’m at the very beginning, so it’s going very slowly. But it’s going.