Author Laura Zigman spoke to Elena Bowes about her latest book Separation Anxiety, Zigman’s fifth book after a 14-year writer’s block hiatus.
Separation Anxiety is a funny, sad and very real look at middle age disappointments and what pulls us through – the kindness of others. It’s a hilarious read, based at least in part on Zigman’s life although she never did wear her dog in a sling.
Zigman hit success early. In 1997 her debut novel Animal Husbandry became a chick lit hit, was sold in about 22 countries and was made into the 2001 rom-com Someone Like You starring Ashley Judd and Hugh Jackman. Three more books followed, the last coming out in 2006, the same year Zigman’s son was born and that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A lot of other personal losses followed. As she said in an interview ‘it was one thing after another.’ Fast forward 14 years and Zigman’s semi-autobiographical novel will keep you flipping the pages.
Do you have any tips for those suffering from writer’s block?
My words of advice come down to two words: baby steps. When I decided to write a novel – to sit down and try to do something as big as that again – I ended up, without really knowing it, taking a series of baby steps over many years.
I’d had writer’s block for about five years when I discovered the Xtranormal platform where you could select two animated characters, write a script for them, and post a video within an hour. After I made a few of those videos, which I would later call “Annoying Conversations,” I felt something inside of me unwind. It was like I’d found a way to get back into writing without actually having to really write. Writing short scripts almost every day was a way to trick myself into writing: it felt like something fun instead of something fraught. It reminded me that I loved writing.
Eventually, I wrote a full-length script – a road-trip movie about a couple with a young son who can’t afford to get divorced – which my agents loved but couldn’t sell. Those efforts were, at the time, very satisfying and very frustrating: I had a sense of accomplishment and also a nagging feeling of failure that I couldn’t “monetize” those efforts. I felt like I was spinning my wheels.
Eventually, when I stopped doing even those things, I turned to Instagram – posting a photo and writing a few sentences or a short paragraph felt like a triumph: a teeny micro-blog post seemed better than nothing at all. In the long-term it turned out that all those things – several of those short videos and pieces of the script and even one or two Instagram posts – would become part of the new novel. It was like an accidental sourdough starter.
What advice would you give to people who don’t feel like they belong, who don’t feel understood, who feel like they have ‘a bird on their head’?
I always go back to that idea that people who peak in high school are never the ones who amount to anything later in life. The weirder and less conventional you are, the more you feel like a misfit or an outsider, the greater chance you have of doing amazing things. The bigger the bird on the head, the better and more interesting your life will be!
Have you ever been tempted to wear your Sheltie Lady in a sling around the house, or outside in your Cambridge hood?
When I came up with the idea for Judy to wear her dog in an old baby sling, I didn’t even know that dog-slings were a thing. I didn’t grow up with dogs, so when we got one in early 2009 – initially for my son, who was struggling with the loneliness of being an only child – it turned out to be transformative for me.
About a year after we got Lady, our Sheltie, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I spent almost every day with my mother during her illness – bringing food over, taking her to chemo appointments, sitting with her at home while she rested. Throughout that sad time, Lady was my emotional support system: a therapy dog without the vest. I can’t tell you how many times after a long day of watching my mother’s illness progress as we braced for her loss that I came home and hugged my dog and wept. In the 11 years since we’ve had Lady, she has saved us all. So even though I never actually wore my dog, I felt like I did.
Some of your plot twists/chapters really had me in stitches –The Secret Pooper, Off to See the Forehead… How did the pooping idea come to you? And did you attend creativity workshops as part of your research?
There was a pooper-situation in a friend’s private school, and once I heard about it, I ended up reading about several such incidents here in the U.S. and in the U.K. I wanted a little bit of a scandal or mystery to drive the plot, and that seemed like the perfect kind of thing because it’s such a strange and scary thing to happen in a closed community: everyone knows it’s someone they know who’s doing it, but they don’t know who or why.
The creativity workshops were complete fiction – I’ve never been to any, but I think during all the years I was blocked and not writing I had a fantasy that a perfect weekend-workshop existed, and if only I could find it and afford to attend it, I’d be cured of my stuck-ness.
What was your process of writing this book? Did you have it all mapped out from the start or did ideas pop into your head as you were typing? Or maybe a bit of both?
I definitely did not have this book mapped out. I never do. I had the premise – that it was about a couple who couldn’t afford to get divorced and who had a son in a Montessori school and who were broke – but beyond that, I had nothing.
Plots for me are always like a giant neon sign: And then what?? Not knowing really forces me to sit down and see what comes of those threads. Sometimes I would go in directions that led nowhere; other times things would happen and people would appear that I never expected: like Glenn, Judy’s best friend who is dying of breast cancer, and the resolution of the Secret Pooper thread. So much of writing is torturous and unpleasant but moments of discovery and invention make it all worthwhile.
What was the hardest part about writing this book beyond writing the book? And the easiest?
The hardest part was believing that I could do it, that I could finish it – that I could write something I would be proud of and that I would do it before all my friends in publishing died or retired.
The easiest was allowing myself to tell the story I wanted to tell: I had one agent that I submitted it to when I was finished tell me that I shouldn’t publish it, that it was “cringe-worthy,” but that if I wrote another novel she would gladly represent it. After ten minutes of shock and horror, I quickly realized; This is my story, and I’m sticking with it. That felt easy in a way it never had before.
Please describe your perfect reader?
My perfect reader has always been someone with a dark sense of humor, someone who has been through a thing or two, someone who understands that life swings back and forth between beauty and grief without any rhyme or reason.
I think your book would make a great film. Has there been any interest so far?
Thank you! There is interest, but there’s always a great divide between interest and actual movement toward a purchase or an option – especially now, when things have been so upended by COVID and have really slowed down. But development is still alive and well – producers are getting things into the pipeline for when things get better and filming and production can finally resume – so I’m hopeful. I’d love to see this story get adapted for either film or television.
And if Separation Anxiety were made into a film who would you like to see play Judy and Gary?
I’m not the best casting person – that’s a special gift – but I’d love someone to play Judy who has great comic timing and can also make you weep, which is why I could see Kathryn Hahn, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Aniston, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, to name only a few, in the role. As for Gary – I love Mark Duplass, Keanu Reeves, Ethan Hawke – any dude who could play a complicated and loveable stoner-dad.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you like to be?
I think if I hadn’t become a writer, I might like to have become a therapist. I’m deeply curious about people and I ask everyone I meet a thousand questions because I want to hear all their stories to understand how they became who they are.
Professions where you can get paid to do that are fairly limited, and since I didn’t have the science- or test-taking-chops to become a lawyer or a doctor, being a ghostwriter is the closest profession where benign interrogation is allowed.
What would you tell your 21-year-old self?
Chill, relax, keep the faith. The bus you’re waiting for will come. Don’t leave before it gets there.