In Leigh Stein’s debut novel, The Fallback Plan, Esther Kohler graduates from college, moves home, and imagines affliction and suburban annihilation while loafing in her parents’ new TV room — which used to be hers. Between some recreational Vicodin and rounds of Mario Kart and beer at her friend’s apartment, Esther begins working as a babysitter for her neighbors. Amy and Nate Brown have recently lost a baby, and Amy secretively works on an art project in the attic while Esther weaves clover chains with their young daughter, May, in the family’s yard. As she becomes close to May, Esther’s role within the family grows complicated. Amy seeks out greater companionship from Esther, who begins an affair with Nate. As she weighs her desires against her responsibilities to other people — especially May — Esther grows up a little more.
Stein takes on familiar coming-of-age questions with a poetic voice and her own sense of humor, juxtaposing Esther’s daily life with a screenplay: The Littlest Panda, a retelling of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe starring pandas. The story echoes Esther’s growing pains, as well as the itchy, house-bound boredom and lingering anti-Semitism of her surroundings.
Stein is also a poet, and her early work reflects the same kind of self-aware voice, looking over the murky possibilities: “I could be any of a lot of things,” she writes in “Based on a Book by the Same Title.” “A wrist, a ghost, a harbor, a rope. I could/ be the one who doesn’t know the language./ I could be the reason they take you first./ I could be the last person to see you alive.” Dispatch from the Future, her debut book of poetry, is forthcoming from Melville House Press. She’s currently working on a second novel.
Annie Strother met with Stein after her reading at DC’s Politics & Prose, where they discussed baby pandas, writing prose vs. writing poetry, and funny books by women.
You said you wanted to write a book about babysitting, and this is sort of a contemporary governess novel — it touches some of the social themes that those traditionally did. Where did the book come from? What interested you about babysitting?
When people ask me if it’s autobiographical, I say the characters are based on people that I’ve known, but the plot didn’t happen. But the closest thing that did happen in my own life is when I was twenty I had a babysitting job in Brooklyn for this woman who, by the end of our relationship, seemed to me that she was paying me to be her friend. She basically quit her job and stayed home with me and the baby and would just talk to me for eight hours a day and then ask me to stay over for dinner. I felt I was stuck in this relationship that felt very one-sided. So that’s what I tried to capture when I was writing about Esther and Amy’s relationship, that Esther just gets swept up in this family and doesn’t know what her role is.
And I also, like I said, wanted to write about babysitting because it’s something I’ve done my whole life and I’m interested in how you negotiate being an adult but also being child-friendly. I’m a role model to children, but I’ve written this book that has drugs in it, for example… How can I be an adult, and be with children, but be both things?
And, how do you juggle your own anxieties but put on a brave face?
For most of the book, Esther is imagining the worst possible thing, even as she gets what she hopes for.
And she’s trying, as you said, to put on a brave face for May, and little does she know, May has this very dark side. May has seen what’s going on in her family and kids are like sponges, they just pick up this stuff. Esther doesn’t realize how mature May is until later in the book. But that’s something I’ve also just noticed from working with kids. They know what’s going on, on a deep level.
You work with children and work in children’s publishing. Did that influence May’s character?
May is my favorite character, and she’s the one not based on anybody. She just took over the book. I hadn’t read the book in like a year, and then when I reread it for proofreading purposes, I don’t remember writing May at all. I remember writing the other parts. I had a student who was four and would say, “Can I tell you something?” and then ask another question. So that I stole for May, but other that, May is her own creature.
Esther is an actor and you teach acting. What has the relationship between acting and writing been for you?
I think writing is a way that I can still perform but from a safer distance. I can be inside in my pajamas and still be creating characters or writing dialogue. I feel like a lot of my writing starts with dialogue, it’s almost like I’m writing a script, and then later on I fill in the other stuff. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve been trained as an actress and I’ve read a lot of plays, but I just hear voices, I think about the other stuff that’s going on in a scene.
You’ve talked about returning to writing after acting.
Yeah, during acting school. Growing up I was in all the plays, and I always played the character part. I was always the funny aunt with the accent, or the funny character part with the accent and the weird birthmark or something. And then I got to New York and I was in serious acting school, and I was cast in dramatic scene after dramatic scene. I was like the ingénue, and I was crying, and I was supposed to be in love with my husband’s brother and all this stuff, so I was exhausted, and I’d just go back to my room and stay up all night writing stories. And that year — I was nineteen — I had my first short story published. I was just reading Margaret Atwood novels non-stop, and I just changed what I thought I wanted to do: “That’s it, I’m going to be a writer now.”
The book is set in Chicagoland and it captures a lot of Midwesternisms really well: the ironic twists in conversation that come up when people say, “Sounds good,” when they’re really feeling pretty bad; or the hostility that can occur within these suburban environments. What interested you about that landscape, outside of the fact that it’s where you grew up?
For one thing, it’s easier for me to write about the place that I’m not in. And for another thing, the longer I live away from home the more I pick up on the little idiosyncrasies of where I’m from, because you don’t notice it when you’re there, like the potpourri and Hobby Lobby and all these kitschy, suburban craft projects that I just grew up with. And I do feel like there’s this Midwestern passive aggressiveness where everyone is nice to you but you have no idea of whether not they like you. It’s almost a relief to live in New York, where I can tell if someone likes me or not right away. Part of me feels self-conscious that I’m going to put down where I’m from, which I don’t mean to do. But I definitely think there’s a passive aggressiveness there.
There’s a lot about Esther’s character that struck me as being particular to the “Facebook generation,” so to speak — the simultaneous over-sharing and under-sharing that occurs. But it seemed those qualities could also present a challenge for characterization, all that sharing and withholding, in a first-person narration.
I hadn’t thought of that. One thing is, since I started writing the book in 2007, Facebook has changed. I think there’s a part of the book where someone is poking [Esther] on Facebook. No one does that anymore, but at the time that’s what people were doing. Technology is changing so fast that my book must feel very contemporary but to me, I’m like, “Ah, I’m four years behind!”
I also think [that] with our generation, there isn’t any shame. We’ll say anything. We’ll say what we make an hour, or we’ll say what our rent is; we’ll just share it. There’s no reticence, and I think that’s kind of bizarre but I’m also used to it. I think because I grew up online more than in real life — I’ve been blogging since I was fifteen and I’m used to just writing about myself as a diarist — maybe that’s why Esther just gets to think whatever she wants to think, because she’s an extension of me. I think that comes from an online culture.
The book is very funny, but I thought it was also an unusual and candid portrayal of depression and what it can be like: it’s not A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s someone who’s getting up and going to their job.
I think Esther’s jokes come from her being depressed. She’s making jokes to make herself feel better, or to show that she’s special and creative that she can make these jokes, when really, she is depressed. I’ve been doing the bad thing where I read my reviews, which I know I’m not supposed to do, but the negative reviews are starting to make me laugh… the negative reviews, some of them are like, “This book isn’t funny at all,” as if they were tricked. “This book was actually very serious and sad.” And then some people are like, “This book wasn’t serious at all, this book was just all funny.” So I’m getting both criticisms where people are expecting it to be one or the other, and I think it’s both. But for some reason, it’s unusual. It’s like I’m not allowed to have both. I can’t write a sad story with jokes in it.
Esther is fantasizing about being crippled, that’s also been a hot button issue for some people, they find it to be so ridiculous. But I think it’s because depression is internal, and you can’t point to your missing leg and say, “This is how bad it feels.” …Esther is wishing for this outward manifestation of how sad she is on the inside, and that’s where her invalid fantasy comes from.
You handle some shifts in the narrative with the panda subplot. Oftentimes it will move into a nebulous emotional state, even as it has this light facade that she’s narrating to May. How did you come up with the idea of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with pandas? What was the process of integrating that into the narrative?
I think it was very organic. I just think in the first chapter, when I was just imagining Esther going back to all her childhood books, looking for something to do with her life by rereading all these all books that she loved as I child, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — I don’t know why I chose to keep running with that.
I also didn’t reread any of them myself because I didn’t want to ruin it. So many of the books I loved as a child I don’t want to go back to, because they exist in my mind as if I lived them, not as if I read them. I don’t want to reread them as an adult, who is a writer, looking at the prose style. I just let the fantasy of it take me away, and the Hannukah, and her meeting the White Witch, I just tried to remember it as if I had lived The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, instead of reading it.
A friend of mine had this girlfriend, who was very cute, very adorable — obnoxiously adorable. She would just talk about baby animals; Google baby animals. I thought it was so obnoxious. I wanted her to grow up. And then one day I Googled it and I was like, alright, it’s pretty cute. …. I would use the baby pandas to keep myself writing when I got stuck on the other parts of the plot.
You talked a little tonight about worrying about being typecast as chick lit.
I have all these disparaging things to say about chick lit, and I haven’t read chick lit, honestly. If I read it, maybe I would really like it, I don’t know. I watch The Bachelor, why wouldn’t I like chick lit?
I don’t want to be stuck in this ghetto where men never read my book and I can’t be in the boy’s club. It’s the same thing with being a “funny woman.” I can’t be called funny, I have to be a funny woman — like it’s so anomalous it has to be called out. I love Tiny Fey’s book, I love Mindy Kaling’s book, there’s more funny writing by women coming out, but I think it should just be funny books. [Right now] it’s still where it’s “funny” or “funny women.”
You wrote a lot of this book in New Mexico. What was the timeline of the project?
I started in 2007. I was living with my parents, and I met a guy at an audition. We started dating, and he said, “Let’s move somewhere and you can write a book and I’ll work.” I thought that was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard in my life. I had money saved because I was living at home and I working — I was teaching acting, singing, and piano to children — and we moved everything to move to Albuquerque, which we’d never seen before. I lived there for six months and I wrote every day. I think I was writing a thousand words a day on a good day, and I was also waiting tables at a burger joint.
So that’s how it started. I think the commitment to doing it every day really helped me, and also, just not knowing what I was doing really helped me because I had no anxiety about what was going to happen.
Then our relationship ended and I had to move back in with my parents again. I ended up getting a job at The New Yorker through a friend, so I moved to New York and didn’t touch it for awhile. I touched it again when my agent found me through my blog. … I was like, “I’m writing this novel, it will never be done.” She was like, “Oh! Can you send me the first fifty pages and a synopsis?” And I didn’t even know how it was going to end, so I had to… make up an ending where I was like, “There’s go to be this thunderstorm, and they’re going to learn all these lessons about loss and life.” And she was like, “That sounds great! Keep writing it.” The ending’s not that, but having her on my side really helped me to finish it, and she really helped me to finesse the ending and get it to where I wanted it.
You’re also a poet, with a new collection coming out this summer. Can you work in the two genres simultaneously, and how do the two interact for you?
I feel like poetry is part of my identity in a way that prose is not. I feel like prose is something that I do. That I sit down and say, “I’m going to do this thing,” and I set goals for myself. Poetry has always been this magical experience. The more prose I write the less poetry I write, which is sad, but it also doesn’t feel like a choice. I think this is how composers must feel, they hear a song and then they write it down. That’s how poems were always to me, I just hear it, or lines come into my head and then I memorize them and write them down later. That’s happening less and less, which is sad, but I’m just waiting for it to come back.
Are you worried?
A little bit; it’s kind of been a long time. But I think it’s because I’ve been writing prose lately. I think it’s just a different way of working, and being receptive to different things. I’m sure it will come back. But the voice might be changed.
You’re going on a book tour right now, which is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence. What has it been like to be on tour?
I thought it would be a very glamorous writing vacation… And really it’s just been very tiring and lonesome, honestly, and like Groundhog Day. But then it also feels ungrateful to say. I feel like I have to say, “I’m so grateful,” because I am! Because I’m on a book tour which not many people get to do. But really, it’s like being an actress, and you’re always performing, and you’re always on, and you’re always talking. And then you’re totally alone.
But I do like giving readings. It does make me nervous, I won’t pretend that it doesn’t. It is a different experience reading your own words — and my book is in the first person — versus performing in someone else’s plays, and a costume, and the lights are in my eyes and I can’t see anybody. It’s a very different experience, reading the book.