Author Q&A: Amy Poeppel

Elena Bowes talks to Amy Poeppel about her hilarious, heartwarming novel, The Sweet Spot.

Amy, I absolutely loved The Sweet Spot. How did the idea for the book come to you?

Thank you, Elena! I knew from the start that I wanted to write a book about a group of people in Greenwich Village who are strangers at the outset of the story but whose lives become unexpectedly and hopelessly intertwined. Greenwich Village is a very special little corner of New York City; it is as lively and loud as any other neighborhood in Manhattan, but it has the look and feel of a charming town. I decided to invent a brownstone on Waverly Place and fill it with people, their problems, and their pets. I didn’t want the family living there to be overly comfortable in their fabulous house, so I gave them dated appliances, hideous wallpaper, and a noisy dive bar operating out of the basement.

I also wanted the book to be a tribute to the numerous female friends I have who have been through all kinds of upset, challenge, and change and have managed to reinvent themselves in exciting and inspirational ways. I am fascinated by how resilient women are when they discover that their lives are perhaps not what they thought. And I always love finding the humor in life’s many surprises.

The Washington Post said “Poeppel puts more planes in the air than an ambitious air traffic controller yet manages to gracefully land each one.” Tell us about plot — do you make it up as you go along, have a 30-page detailed outline before you start writing, or something in between?

I wish I could outline! Unfortunately, I really don’t know where the book is heading until I’ve spent time writing pages and pages. Often that material, while helpful for background, never makes it into the book. I begin with a premise – in this case a woman who is left by her husband of almost thirty years — and then I invent a cast of characters, figuring out who I need to fill out a family or help move a storyline forward. As I get to know these characters, I come to understand how they would react in certain situations, what they would say and do. Eventually, I can imagine how I want the entire novel to conclude, but that doesn’t usually happen until I am quite far into the writing process.

Oh, the havoc the wronged Melinda likes to wreak. How much fun was it pondering her vengeful schemes, and which was your favourite?

Is there such a thing as too much fun? Because yes, I had a truly great time coming up with all manner of revenge schemes for Melinda to exact on her enemies. I think the most fun for me was her attempt to place in her nemesis Lauren’s charge all of the school pets, including one possibly pregnant gerbil.

What was the most challenging part of writing this heartwarming comedy?

It was probably keeping all of those “planes in the air,” to use the metaphor from The Washington Post. It’s tricky to hold so many storylines aloft and keep them moving forward in a way that is both propulsive and accurate. I have many (close 3rd person) narrators, and I wanted each voice to be very distinctive and I needed to keep in mind who knows what and when. For example, I wrote one chapter from the young daughter Waverly’s perspective, and in that particular scene I had a lot of fun considering what she has learned about all the adult drama around her and what her father has gathered. In many cases, Waverly knows far more.

Your characters are each so colourful and well-portrayed. Do you have any tips for wannabe novelists on creating character?

Creating characters is my favorite part of writing. We get to make people up from scratch, figure out who they are and how they think, and then put them in all kinds of situations — from amusing to absurd to devastating. I love this part of the writing process, where I get to put myself in the shoes of people I’ve created… and then fill in and adjust as I figure out more and more about them. It’s fun, of course, but it’s also something I take very seriously. An undeveloped character, or one who behaves in such a way that doesn’t ring true, can ruin a book. I never feel like I can give advice — especially since writing is a fairly new profession to me — but I would suggest writing monologues in the voice of each character to get a sense of voice. I did that unintentionally when I wrote The Sweet Spot because I initially wrote the book in 1st person from Evelyn’s perspective. It didn’t work for her to tell the whole story, but I got to know her character quite well by working out how she viewed the world around her.

Your characters’ dialogue flows so smoothly.  I read that you think novelists could learn a thing or two by reading more plays. Can you explain?

I did a bit of acting about one hundred years ago after I graduated from college. I think the act of reading a playwright’s dialogue – both on the page and out loud – is a terrific exercise. When I’m writing, I read all of my dialogue out loud and I edit, edit, edit until it sounds right to me. I want it to be quick and sharp but above all, it has to sound the way people actually talk. I always recommend taking a look at, for example, the dialogue between George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I’m amazed and inspired by those lines every single time.

At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a writer, and can you tell us about your path to become one?

I have always loved books and have always been an avid reader. When I was very young, I thought I would become a librarian, a profession that I still think would have been a good fit for me. Instead I became a high school teacher, sharing my love of fiction, plays, and poetry with 11th and 12th graders. It wasn’t until my late forties that I started writing. I finished a novel and sent it to an agent who told me she could not sell it but that she liked something about my voice. She suggested I try again. I wrote my next book, Small Admissions, which was published when I was fifty. Although I sometimes wish I’d started writing sooner, I think I needed to experience life, raise kids, live in many different places, and see the humor in life’s highs and lows before I could write convincingly about people, families, and communities.

What books are you excited to read?

I’m really looking forward to reading Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson and I Have Some Questions For You by Rebecca Makkai.

Tell us something surprising about yourself.

I live part of the year in Frankfurt and speak truly mangled but well-intentioned German.

If you could meet the 21-year-old Amy Poeppel, what advice would you give her?

Be patient! It will turn out that your experiences — the exciting, the humiliating, and the absurd — are all valuable and will make you empathetic, creative, and forgiving.

Thank you so much for writing this truly entertaining, enjoyable piece of fiction.

– Interview by Elena Bowes

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