I’m not sure why it took me so long to crack open Shari Goldhagen’s beautifully touching, intense debut novel Family and Other Accidents, but once I did, I was hooked and barely got up as I devoured the whole thing. Telling the story of orphaned brothers Jack and Connor Reed, Goldhagen paints a gripping, detailed portrait not just of the brothers, but of the families they each create, the family they could be, and the family they’ve lost. Recounting 25 years in their lives, starting with Connor as he attempts to pass his driving test and lose his virginity while Jack pursues a high-powered legal career, she sees them through jobs, moves, affairs, illness, and parenting, highlighting the estrangement that can come about when family members love each other but have no idea how to express this emotion.
Deftly handling the male characters, as well as delving into their partners’ and children’s perspectives, Goldhagen spins her tale of overworked, unemotional Jack, and trying-to-be–a-family-man Connor, highlighting the differences between the brothers, and their chosen wives and lovers. In evocative chapters such as “In The Middle of Nowhere, Dying of Salmonella” and “The Only Pregnant Girlfriend He Ever Married,” she lets their stories draw the reader in, never casting judgment on her often misguided, uncertain protagonists, but showing the ways their actions have a ripple effect amongst their chosen loved ones. Recalling exes and surviving affairs, mistakes, and miscommunication, the brothers grow up slowly, learning painful adult lessons as they figure out how to be men, husbands, and fathers. With a couple who bond over knowing all the words to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” a know-it-all Harvard hotshot wife, kids conceived by deceit and surprise, an affair with an intern who “does great research and sucks cock like it’s a second vocation,” while the ghosts of their workaholic mother and John F. Kennedy haunting them, these vivid characters are fully fleshed out, and fully flawed—in other words, markedly human.
Goldhagen, who has written for New York, Complete Woman, Celebrity Living, National Enquirer, and Life and Style, among others, brings her Midwestern roots to bear as her fictional families bounce between Cleveland, Boston, and Chicago, evoking powering descriptions of both urban and suburban life. Gothamist emailed Goldhagen on the eve of her book’s release (Family will officially launch tomorrow in both hardcover and paperback, with a reading by Goldhagen at Corner Bookstore) about her earliest writing ambitions, the ideal setting to write a novel, her favorite celebrity run-in, and being half of a dual author couple. (Full disclosure: I’m a friend of Goldhagen’s).
You've told me that from an early age you knew you wanted to be a writer. What's your first distinct memory of writing, and how has your ambition changed over the years?
I remember being three or four and dictating stories for my mom to transcribe, then I would illustrate them. They were usually about Batman and Batgirl; I was always a fan of the whole Bat Family, really. As I got older, writing stories proved a really great way to get through math class.
As to how my ambition has changed over the years, I guess I always figured by the time I was as old as I am now (29 and fourteen months), that I’d have at least five best sellers, a giant house, and a really cool car. I mean, I still have plans for world domination and all; I’ve just pushed back my timetable a bit.
Were there previous attempts at novels before Family?
There were times when I would get all jazzed about some new project for like five minutes, and then write 10 pages and lose interest. Calling them attempts at anything would be very generous.
Your novel centers around two brothers, Jack and Connor, who are orphaned when they're 25 and 15, respectively. Where did the initial idea come from, and how did it change as you worked on it?
The novel began as short story I wrote when I was a senior at Northwestern. It was about this couple, Jack and Mona, having a really bad vacation (it’s now the chapter in the book called “By Being Nice, By Being Young”). There was one throwaway line in there about how Jack had taken care of his younger brother for a few years after their parents died. And for some reason, I just kept thinking about it for years.
I sincerely believe that most of why we are the way we are is because of our families, and I guess I was just curious to see if the reason that this couple was having such a bad vacation was a result of deep-rooted family troubles.
The book follows the brothers over 25 years, and alternates viewpoints, from their own to their partners' and children. Was there any character you most identified with or feel is the main protagonist?
I’m a bit of a character slut, in that I identified really strongly with whichever character I was working on at the time. Since a lot of the book is about different perceptions of certain events, it was kind of like listening to multiple friends telling you their side of an argument.
Family's being released simultaneously in paperback and hardcover, an unusual move. What's the reasoning behind that, and are there going to be different marketing campaigns for each? Why would someone buy the hardcover when they could get the paperback more cheaply?
It was Doubleday’s decision, but I think the reasoning behind it is to try to reach as broad an audience as possible. It makes sense, and I wouldn’t be surprised if publishing started doing it more often. Most readers would probably rather spend 10 bucks less on the paperback, but for those who may want to give the book as a gift (and everyone should do this, because my book makes an excellent gift), a hardcover might be more appropriate.
Do you want people to finish the book questioning these possibilities and the future of these characters, or content with how you've ended things? Is there any possibility of a sequel?
I would love to have these characters rolling around in the heads of readers long after they finish the book; it’s nice to have them in the world and out of my head. There’s no sequel in the works per se, but I am curious about what happens to some of these people, so I’m not ruling it out.
Was writing Jack, who keeps any emotions he has very tight to his chest, so that others often realize he feels them before he does, a challenge?
Writing across gender is always a challenge, but I tried to write Jack in a way that was fair and balanced. We’ve all known people who aren’t particularly open or expressive, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have an interior life. More accurately, we hope that they have that life.
Obviously the novel is not autobiographical, but are there any elements from your life, perhaps your own relationship with your sister, you drew from in aiding you?
On the surface, the book seems pretty removed from my life: I have a sister, my parents are still a huge part of my life. But I think it would be pretty damn near impossible for a writer to completely exorcize herself from her fiction. There are plenty of scenes I’ve stolen from my experience. For example, a few years ago our family dog got sick and died, and it was this horrible traumatic thing. In the book a family dog dies, and even though it’s not my family, I certainly drew on my own first-hand knowledge. And Jack and Connor’s musical tastes—an odd mix of Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel and The Talking Heads—sounds suspiciously like what’s on my iPod.
Along the same lines, the novel is set in large part in Ohio, where you grew up. How has your Midwestern upbringing impacted your fiction, and your writing career generally? Has it given you an edge or insight that native New Yorkers lack?
I think that so much of who we are is a result of the things and people that happened to us in our youth. I grew up in a suburban house in Cincinnati, and I’ll always bring that with me no matter where I go—it will always be the lens through which I see the world. I’m not sure that gives me an edge, but it certainly gives me a much better sense of the geography of the heartland. I’ve found that a lot of native New Yorkers don’t realize just how massive Ohio is—and often assume that Cleveland and Cincinnati are just a few minutes apart.
You said in another interview that you kept tinkering with the book six months after you were done. Were there major plot points that changed or things that got omitted? How different is the final book from your first draft?
I have all the original versions, and they’re virtually unrecognizable. I ended up cutting a lot of scenes that I loved because they ultimately just didn’t fit. Sometimes I have fantasies about doing something with those pages, but I also have fantasies about winning an Oscar or an Olympic medal or running for the Senate.
The Daily News recently reported that Jennifer Aniston is going to be producing the movie version of the book. What's the status of that, and in your dream lineup, who would play the main characters?
I can’t comment on the Jennifer Aniston thing, other than to say that I think she would make a splendid Mona. As to the rest of the cast, hmm. I think that Dermot Mulroney or Clive Owen would make a good Jack; Jake Gyllenhaal as Connor; Reece Witherspoon as his wife, Laine; and my sister, an actress who goes by the name Jackie Holland, would be perfect in the role of their daughter.
The original title, which is now a chapter title, was The Next Generation of Dead Kennedys. How did the Kennedy mystique play into the brothers' interaction, and what did the Kennedy family symbolize within the novel?
I had a poster of John Kennedy over my desk growing up (like Jack and Connor do in the novel), and I think my mom did as well. And maybe, if there’s no one to come along and inspire us in the coming years, my children will have that poster over their desks.
I think that the reason the brothers Kennedy remain so culturally resonant forty-plus years later is that these were people who were very pretty and very flawed, but they inspired and continue to inspire hope.
Part of the novel was written at the MacDowell and Yaddo colonies, and the rest while you were working various full-time jobs. What's your ideal setting for working on longer fiction? Do you need the solitude to be productive or do you prefer to mix writing into the hecticness of city life?
While I loved my time at Yaddo and MacDowell, I’m not sure that there’s an ideal setting for a writer. It’s more important how a writer feels about the project. When I’m really engrossed with what I’m working on, I can’t sleep because I’m too excited to get up and write. When I feel that way, I’ll scribble sentences down on fast food napkins or scraps of paper in the bottom of my purse. On the flipside, when I don’t feel that way, I could be riding a unicorn over a rainbow and it wouldn’t help.
You bill yourself as a former "celebrity stalker," having worked for The National Enquirer, Life and Style and Celebrity Living. What's been your craziest adventure, and which was the most challenging?
Once Britney Spears gave me the finger. That’s kind of the highlight of my journalistic career right there.
Who would make you starstruck if you ever encountered them?
Writers who I really respect make me nervous. Movie stars are probably used to it. You can pretty much be assured that if you get flubbery lipped around George Clooney, it won’t be the first time that happened to him. But it’s my greatest fear that I’ll be on a subway or in line at a bakery next to John Updike or Tom Perrotta and say something really dumb.
You teach fiction at Gotham Writer's Workshop and for private clients. What's the biggest mistake or problem you encounter in your students' work, and how do you counsel them?
One of the biggest mistakes that beginning fiction writers make, in my opinion, is that they draw from life, which can be great, but then they remain so intent on telling the story the way it happened that they lose sight of what the story could be. The ironic aside here is that some of our memoirists seem to have the opposite problem of late.
You live with your fiancé, Deadspin's Will Leitch, and at present both of you write full-time out of your apartment. What are the biggest pluses and minuses about being a dual author couple? Do you read drafts of each other's work or each do your own thing and just read the final product?
Like the rest of the country, I just finished reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which talks at length about how Joan and her husband, author John Dunne, lived and worked together in symbiotic bliss for thirty years. Will and I, well, we’re not quite there yet. We bicker over what music to have on, and sometimes distract each other by doing interpretive dances until the other looks up. But I think we’ll get better—I mean, I’m sure Joan and John used to throw things across the living room at each other in the early days.
And it’s wonderful to have a partner who understands what you’re doing. I’ve had other people in my life love me in spite of the fact that I was a writer, but I think that Will views it as a perk. I know I feel that way about him.
Before you and Will started dating, you had your share of bad dates, including one you told the New York Post about involving your "brave" ordering of chicken fajitas. How does dating in New York compare to dating in the Midwest?
I actually didn’t do much dating in the Midwest, I just always seemed to have a boyfriend. That’s probably the main difference. People tend to get married much earlier where I’m from. So in the Midwest if you’re still single in your mid-twenties and you meet some guy who doesn’t appear to be a child molester or have four heads, he becomes your boyfriend. In New York, there are so many single people that things tend to stay very casual for a long time. There are pluses and minuses to both I suppose, but I don’t doubt that one of the reasons that Will and I ended up together is that we’re both displaced Midwesterners.
What's next for you?
I’m taking suggestions. . .
Photo by Paul Sarkis
Shari Goldhagen will do a reading, signing and Q&A on Tuesday, April 11th at 6 p.m. at Corner Bookstore, 1313 Madison Avenue. She will read from her novel on Tuesday, April 18th at Grace Reading Series at 7 p.m. at Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction, 34 Avenue A, and on Wednesday, April 19th at 8 p.m. at Rocky Sullivan's,. 129 Lexington Avenue. Family and Other Accidents is available in bookstores now and discussion questions can be found at Goldhagen's website. Visit www.sharigoldhagen.com for more information and her full book tour schedule.