The Right Thing: An Interview with Claire LaZebnik


By Nikki Tranter

Same As It Never Was
By Claire LaZebnik

St Martin’s Press (US); Piatkus/Hodder Headline (AU)
May 2003, 352 pages, $24.95 (US)
November 2003, 359 pages, $22.95 (Australia)

Fed up with women’s literature creating heroes out of lazy women who lie, cheat and steal to reach the top, Los Angeles-based writer and mother of four, Claire LaZebnik, decided it was time to take a look at the other side of the coin. And so Olivia Martin was born. Fiesty, ambitious and wicked smart, the 21-year-old narrator of LaZebnik’s fiction debut Same as it Never Was (published in the UK and Australia as Olivia’s Sister) always does the right thing.

When her wealthy father and stepmother are killed in a car accident on their way to Big Sur, Olivia’s life flips when she learns she’s been named sole guardian of a four-year-old stepsister she hardly knows. Suddenly, her world shifts and she’s forced to exchange late night study and New Year’s dates for kindergartens and the Powerpuff Girls—she’s raising a kid while still trying to raise herself.

With Olivia, LaZebnik achieves her goal and then some, presenting readers with a believable and engrossing young woman who gets what she wants through her desire to make the right choices for herself and those around her. This isn’t to say that she makes these choices without a fight—she has a tendency to scream, bitch, swear and bite, but it’s a battle she’s raging with herself, sometimes fighting against those right choices, but knowing all the while the path she must take.

LaZebnik spoke to PopMatters about Olivia, the book, the horrors of Shopaholic and life as a writer and a mum.

PopMatters: How did you find the process of writing the book? Have you always wanted to write fiction?

Claire LaZebnik: I always wanted to write fiction and did write several novels that never got published. I had two previous agents; my current agent, Kim Witherspoon, is spectacular. I wrote personal essays for a few magazines to make some money and stay busy, but then I had four kids in less than ten years and that kept me really busy. For some reason, after my fourth and last, I felt a real hunger to write a real novel and so I wrote Same as it Never Was during Will’s naps, when the other three were in school. I enjoyed it hugely. Honestly. I drove my husband nuts—he’s a TV writer, and he has to write to keep working and support his large family, so he’d be in one room, sweating through a script, and I’d be typing away blithely in the bedroom. For me, my work was taking care of the kids, so writing felt like a vacation. For him, it was just work, of course.

PM: Did you find it difficult to find a publisher?

CL: Getting published was hard. It’s always hard. Kim did a great job of getting the book out there and there were some close calls, but it all ended in rejections until Diane Reverand—my editor at St Martin’s—liked it and made an offer. So I adore her.

PM: The reviews of Same As It Never Was more often than not slot it into the “chick-lit” category. Did you set out to write a “chick-lit” book or has it just been packaged that way to appeal to the genre’s buyers?

CL: I think the book gets put into the chick-lit slot because it’s a quick read and it appeals to women and it has a romantic ending. I’m fine with that. What I find is that a lot of people say to me, “Your book is a lot more serious than it seems at first”—for all that it’s funny and has a lot about Olivia’s love life, I was also genuinely trying to say something both about the importance of doing the right thing as opposed to saying the right thing. There’s a lot in the book about the distinction between those two actions, and about what it’s like to be a parent. I think it’s kind of a metaphor for women my age, who aren’t young like Olivia, but who still feel like they could be in college and sometimes look around and think, “My god, where did these kids come from? Why am I leading this life?” So I feel like I’m sneaking the viewpoint of a 40-year-old into a book that’s being marketed for very young women. I just hope some of them pass it on to their mothers!

PM: Did you have much input in the cover design? The Barbie imagery is gorgeous, but I think Olivia would be very pissed to know she was being portrayed that way!

CL: The cover was a long and laborious process. The first few versions were God-awful. I mean, truly unbearable—photos of hands clasping and things like that. They looked like young adult novels. And not good ones. So Diane brought me into a meeting with one of their designers and I actually suggested Barbies. I had been suggesting Barbie from the beginning, but not like this. My sister bought a series of photos years ago of close-ups of different parts of a Barbie doll and they’re fascinating—I loved the way they were so sexual and yet about childhood at the same time—so I felt something like that would be right for this novel. We batted around the Barbie idea and agreed that there might be a way to capture a bit of the story line with Barbie, if we used a grown-up Barbie and her little sister. We actually used generic dolls. I don’t think you can use an actual Barbie for something like this—trademark issues. We came up with a bunch of ideas, and then the designers went off and fooled around and ended up with this. I had some concerns. Obviously, no man will pick this book up on his own, and it does have a little kid vibe, but it’s strong and humorous and people remember it, so that was better than anything we’d had before. It got mentioned in some design website as being a cover that’s “so bad it’s good,” which I think sums it up. I think Olivia would appreciate the pained _expression on Barbie’s face, if nothing else.

PM: Were you this closely involved in the website design?

CL: I had a lot of input into the website. The guy who designed it is the boyfriend of our former babysitter, so he and I discussed it a lot. But almost all of it was his idea. I think it looks great. I love the way he took the Barbie imagery, but roughed it up to make it harsher and more sophisticated. I wanted them to borrow some of his design for the American paperback (which is coming out this spring) but I don’t think they will.

PM: You said on your website that you found the characters featured in many books aimed at women behaved in “petty and demeaning” ways and created Olivia as a reaction that. Where do you think this behavior comes from? How do you feel having the UK edition of the book compared to the work of Allison Pearson, very much a culprit of passing off stereotypical, often shallow characters as the everywoman?

CL: I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read I Don’t Know How She Does It, but I’m all in favor of being compared to a bestselling book. How’s that for shallow? Since I chose to stay at home full-time with my kids, I didn’t think I’d relate to the juggling of kids and work theme of that book. My main problem with the heroines of most popular fiction these days is that the authors don’t make them good people; there’s this tendency to do the opposite, to make them selfish and dishonest and then have them succeed beyond their wildest dreams. I guess the idea is that the reader can identify with the heroine and feel like she, too, could have the man/job of her dreams without having to improve in any way. Bridget Jones’s Diary is the good example. I think Helen Fielding did a great job of making her an everywoman. You root for her and identify with her. But since then, a lot of writers have made their characters unappealing, as far as I’m concerned, and then just thrown success at them. I honestly hate characters who lie. I read a novel recently—the first Shopaholic book—and was horrified at how the main character lied on almost every page. She never even feels bad about lying. And then she gets everything she wants. I wasn’t rooting for her. I thought she was a horrible human being. So I worked really hard to make Olivia scrupulously honest. I actually said to my editor, “While you’re rereading it, please look for any moments where she doesn’t tell the truth, because I want her to be one hundred percent honest.” She’s not always kind and she’s not always gentle, but Olivia is honest and in the end, she always does the right thing. I felt like she was a better person than I am and I loved her for that.

PM: Do you think [Olivia’s first boyfriend] Joe’s a rat? I know I’ve known so many guys who are totally and completely infatuated with their girlfriends yet still cheat on them, flirt behind their backs. Was that the kind of character you were going for with Joe?

CL: Yeah, that’s basically Joe. The thing about him is that it’s not the fact that he cheats that damns him with Olivia. It’s the fact that he lies. And I felt that way about him as a character. He was actually much more broad originally—total Lothario—and my husband wisely said, “You have to pull him back, he’s not believable, why would she like him?” so I made him more appealing and less overtly on the prowl. I think it improved the book immensely. Olivia’s not an idiot. She wouldn’t like someone who was truly awful. Joe is a great companion. He’s smart and funny and sexy. And he does genuinely love her, I think. But he’s the kind of guy who can justify anything to himself, even dishonesty, and for Olivia, who’s so honest, that’s just unacceptable. But I like Joe. I can’t help it. I’d hang out with him, but I wouldn’t give my heart to him.

PM: Was it a conscious decision to have Olivia sexually inexperienced prior to meeting Joe?

CL: Yeah, I liked the fact that she’s kept herself inviolate all these years—I do believe there are people so cautious and so disgusted by the relationships of their parents that they’d rather keep themselves apart than risk getting hurt. Olivia also says that she really likes sex once she tries it and suspects that she knew she would and that was one reason she was careful not to let herself get carried away too early on. So I don’t see her as the virginal type—she’s actually quite sexy, I think—she’s just careful. And when Joe something says, “You needed a guy like me to break down those walls and get you into bed,” I think he’s absolutely right. A shyer guy would never have gotten anywhere with Olivia. In fact, I imagine quite a few shyer guys did try and she never even noticed.

I was also very careful to make it clear [that whenever sex took place in the book, the characters] always used condoms. I think people should have sex as freely as they like, so long as they use condoms and I wanted to make that point.

PM: I found myself, when I had finished the book, wondering if Olivia’s inexperience would hinder her future with Dennis, that maybe she was too young to get involved with him, not because of her age, but because of her inexperience. Were you ever conflicted as to the direction Olivia would take with Dennis?

CL: My sense about Dennis is that he’s not all that much more experienced than Olivia. He’s the kind of guy who would only sleep with a girl if he really felt he loved her. That probably meant his late wife and maybe a couple of other women in his whole life. In his own way, he’s kind of an innocent. So even though he has a couple of decades on her, he’s not that much more experienced romantically.

I stole the romance from Emma—the older guy with strong morals watching out for the young woman who’s making some errors as she’s learning her way, all the while falling in love with her. So I always intended for them to end up together.

PM: I read a review that criticised the convenience of Olivia’s father’s wealth. How do you respond to that, to the idea that she had it relatively easy—new house, new car, paid help? Does it come down to the story the book is based on?

CL: It was absolutely a deliberate decision. I wasn’t interested in a story about someone who has to pay bills. I wanted it to be purely about her emotional journey and not about hardship. There were other reasons, too—I wanted it to be a humorous novel, not a sad one, so I wanted to make sure that Celia had some emotional support of her own, which is why I liked the idea of her having a caring nanny, who’s really been her main caregiver all her life. The death of her parents became much less tragic that way. Plus, the existence of a nanny meant that Olivia can make a bit of a choice—does she want to be an important part of Celia’s life or not? Without a nanny, she’d have no choice, but this way, she really had to want to become her family. Finally, I live on the west side of LA and I’m fascinated by the rich people here who have kids and then don’t want to spend any time with them. I wanted to capture that with Celia’s parents.

PM: Your husband wrote the “prank monkey” episode of The Simpsons and produced a whole season of Blossom—are you as in awe of him as I am?

CL: Yes, I’m completely in awe of him. He’s had an amazing writing career, but, more importantly, he is—as my friends frequently tell me—the best dad in town. He works long hours, but races home to spend as much time with the kids as he can. He’s very Dennis-like—very kind and decent through and through. This year he’s on staff on a show called Less Than Perfect and is writing an animation pilot for Fox.

PM: How does having a family influence your writing?

CL: Having a family makes it hard to write regularly—I’m a mom first and the writing is just a side thing, something to indulge in when I get a free minute. The kids are proud of me, though—I had a book party here when Same as it Never Was first came out, and they signed books at my side, right where their names are on the dedication.

PM: Your next book is very different from this one—tell me a little about that one, and how it came about.

CL: I co-wrote a book on autism (Overcoming Autism: Finding the Answers, Strategies and Hope That Can Transform a Child’s Life from Viking Press) and it’s coming out this spring. My oldest son was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Several years later, I met a woman named Lynn Koegel. She and her husband run an autism clinic out of the University of California at Santa Barbara. They’re doing absolutely amazing behavioral work, and she really helped my son a lot. He’s now at the head of his class, in a regular classroom, and if you didn’t know his history, you wouldn’t know he had autism. Lynn asked me to write a book with her, and so we did. It describes the behavioral interventions she and her husband have developed from years of research, so people can actually learn to work with their own kids, but it’s all very user-friendly and meant to be integrated into your normal family routines. I wrote a companion personal narrative, talking about how we dealt with various issues in our own family and describing how my son really emerged from the worst symptoms of his autism.

PM: Are you planning another work of fiction?

CL: I also have a fictional short story coming out some time this summer in a collection called American Girls About Town—there were two previous collections, Scottish Girls and Irish Girls. I’m trying desperately to find time to work on my next novel, which I have started, but it’s been hard. I feel like I either have a kid home from school every day (sick or with a day off) or I’m working in their classroom for some reason. Plus I got a puppy—temporary insanity—so even when I’m home I’m spending most of my time cleaning up his messes. Still, I hope to have a rough draft written in the next few months. Emphasis on the “hope.”

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