Author (and fellow BigLaw escapee) Julie Buxbaum has done it again. Her wonderful second novel AFTER YOU hits stores today and you're missing out if you don't jog to your nearest purveyor of books and fetch yourself a copy. Trust me. AFTER YOU is a compelling modern tale of a young woman in the brutal throes of adulthood and disillusionment. Ellie, AY's exquisitely flawed protagonist, picks up and leaves her husband and her less-than-stellar marriage to head to London in the wake of her best friend's death. What follows is an emotionally-rich and sharply written tribute to the power of love, loss, and literature.
Julie was kind enough to take the time from her hectic pre-publication schedule to answer my rookie questions about life after Ivy, insecurities, and her pitch-perfect second novel which, in the event that I was unclear, hits stores TODAY AUGUST 25, 2009!
You are a fellow Ivy Leaguer (Penn undergrad & Harvard Law). How did your elite education prepare you (or not prepare you) for life as a writer? How did your education prepare you (or not prepare you) for life in general?
I honestly dont know. Im not sure any school can prepare you for life as a writer, if only because the longer I have this career, the weirder I realize it is. More than anything else, I think my education gave me the self-confidence to walk away from a career that I wasnt enjoying, and to pursue something riskier that I knew Id find more fulfilling. I guess my years at Penn and HLS also honed the work ethic required to sit in front of a computer day after day, and to push through when the sentences just wont come. But do I think that an Ivy League education prepared me for adulthood? Nah. Im still waiting for someone to teach me how to be a grown-up.
You are also a fellow former attorney who jumped ship to write. What prompted you to quit your plum job at the law firm? Do you think practicing law made you a better writer, or more tuned into the malaise of young adults and professionals?
Though I had a great job as a litigator, I found that I was bored out of my mind. I would consistently get the Sunday night blues, depressed at the idea of starting another week at the office. It occurred to me that I couldnt think of a single compelling reason to keep pursuing a career that I found so deeply unsatisfying. So, as part of a New Years Resolution, I quit to start writing THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE, my first novel.
Im not sure practicing law made me a better writer, but it definitely affected how I write. I tend to be pretty concise and clear in my work, shying away from too much ambiguity. For better or worse, this is definitely fallout from my legal training. As for being tuned into the malaise of young professionals, I channeled some of those experiences into THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE. I am not sure they came in as handy for AFTER YOU.
Do you see personal insecurities as inspirations for your writing or as impediments to your writing? How so?
What an interesting question. I think neither. If you are asking whether I write my own personal insecurities into my characters, I tend not to. I like to keep a distance between my characters and my own neurosis; we are all a little crazy, just in different ways. As for insecurity being an impediment to writing, I think every writer needs to gain a certain amount of self confidence to put their work out into the world. When I finished writing my first novel, there was a moment when I considered just putting it away in a drawer and not sending it out to a single agent. But I realized Id never get anywhere unless I took the plunge. I find over time exposing your work to the world becomes less and less scary.
In my opinion, Ellie, AY's protagonist, is so compelling because of her very human imperfections and insecurities and her honesty about her own disillusionment (about marriage, and commitment, and happiness). How much of you is in Ellie? Do you believe that many, if not most, young women suffer from some breed of disillusionment about entry into adult world?
I dont think there is much of me in Ellie. No doubt, we are both deeply flawed, but again, I think in very different ways. For some reason, Im drawn to writing charactersparticularly womenwho for various reasons, become disillusioned and want to run away from their own lives. Maybe its a way for me to explore a route that I dont tend to follow in my own personal life? I honestly dont know.
In AFTER YOU, I was interested in looking at what happens when we meet our adult selves and they dont match our expectations. And of course this is a disillusionment many women face when they enter the adult world. How we choose to navigate it is where things tend to get interesting, I think.
I imagine that awaiting publication of a book is quite anxiety-inducing. How do you manage any anxiety you may feel or insecurities that crop up about how the book will fare? Your first novel THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE was very successful and met with well-deserved critical acclaim. Did this make the waiting game for AY's release easier or harder?
Its been much easier this second time around, and not nearly as anxiety-producing. No doubt I woke up this morning (pub day!) with a bit of nerves, but I realize that whatever happens with the book is pretty much out of my control at this point, and I just need to let it go. I wrote the best book I could, and Im really proud of AFTER YOU. So if it turns out only my husband, father and brother buy a copy, it still feels amazing that I accomplished one of my biggest goals in life. Two books, that Ive written, are actually on shelves in bookstores and libraries! I still havent wrapped my head around that.
As a new blogger and soon-to-be-published novelist, I am constantly anxious about the phenomenon of "putting myself out there," about taking the very private craft of writing into the public world. Though I am working on it, I do not have that coveted thick skin and at times I am a big baby, mortally afraid of criticism. Do you have a thick skin? How do you handle reviews, and comments from the public, especially when they are less than kind? Any advice for this rookie?
Its terrifying the first time you put your work into the world, but I promise it gets easier. One thing Ive learned is that everyone has an opinion, and not only will you not be able to please everyone, you are not doing your job properly if you do. This is going to sound silly, but I swear this helps: Find your favorite book in the world on Amazon, you know that one masterpiece that you think is pure perfection. And then read its one star ratings.
The truth is you cant let other people dictate how you feel about your own work. At the same time, I think its important to read youre your own reviews, etc, and see if there is some constructive criticism you can learn from them. I know that I hope that with each new book, my work becomes stronger, and to do that, I need to listen sometimes to those things I dont necessarily enjoy hearing.
Do you find that you learn things about yourself as you write? Is writing therapeutic?
Writing definitely helps me tap into my subconscious and find out what are the questions that captivate me. I always joke that when you write one book, you find out what interests you. When you write two, you find out what you should probably talking to your therapist about. Both THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE and AFTER YOU deal with the lingering aftermath of grief, and how loss can affect our choices in even the most unconscious of ways. Exploring these themes on paper no doubt helps me intellectually deal with something Im mulling over personally.
Do you view writing fiction as an escape? From the chaos of modern existence? From sometimes monotonous patterns of adulthood? How integral is writing to your happiness?
Now that writing is a huge part of my lifeand I came to the writing life sort of lateI cant imagine not doing it. Im constantly writing in my head, so giving it up would be like giving up thinking. It is definitely an escape for me. On days when my work is really flowing, you know those magical moments when the words just come out, and I feel like Ive nailed that perfect sentence or paragraph or plot point, Im a million miles away, living in my fictional universe. Its an amazing feeling, and very, very addictive.
In AY, Ellie travels the emotionally impossible terrain of coping with the loss of a best friend and the loss of a baby. Your treatment of these complex subjects is so nuanced and real. How much of the subject matter is based on personal experience or the experience of people you know? Did you conduct a lot of research to paint such convincing portraits of grief and loss?
Fortunately, none of what Ellie faces is based on personal experience or of anyone I know. But I think once you understand who your characters are as people, its not difficult to take that imaginative leap to understand how theyd react to the situations you throw at them. In terms of research, I did do some on stillbirth, because it seemed to me that it would be a very distinct sort of loss. I wanted to understand what are the common reactions women seem to have to the experience, before I began to personalize it for Ellie.
The book The Secret Garden is central to the plot and symbolism of AY. What role has this book, and literature in general, played in your life? In your decisions to dream big and follow your aspirations to write?
Ive been a lifelong avid reader, and maybe even more than writing, I cant imagine living without that escape. The Secret Garden is by far my favorite book in the world, and one Ive turned to throughout the years for comfort and for therapy. Its just so magical and beautiful, and if you havent read it, I cant recommend it highly enough. When I was struggling with the question of what I wanted to do with my life, I realized there was nothing I felt more passionate about than literature. It became clear that it was time to actually start writing.
What do you want to be when you grow up? :)
Is your next novel in the works? If so, can you tell us what it's about?
I am working on my third novel, but not quite ready to talk about it. Im too superstitious. I feel like talking about it somehow jinxes the whole thing. I told you, Im neurotic!
Don't you just want to have a glass of wine and talk life with this girl? I do. And maybe I will. In September! Though Julie is stationed in London these days, she will be here in NYC for a reading on Monday, September 14th at the Barnes & Noble Tribeca (97 Warren Street) at 7pm. I know that is still a few weeks away and I will remind you, but I will be there and hope to see you there too!
In the meantime, you have your homework. Go out and buy a copy of AFTER YOU. You can thank me later.