Author Q&A: Leigh McMullan Abramson

Elena Bowes catches up with debut novelist Leigh McMullan Abramson about her pageturner of a New York family saga, A Likely Story

In A Likely Story, the only child of a famous American novelist and east coast society maven, is gripped with writer’s block and a mid-life crisis when she can’t follow her father’s successful path. Her life is further upended when her adored mother dies and the daughter discovers some shocking secrets about her family. This is a story with many themes – the double-edged sword of nepotism, imposter syndrome, the loneliness and challenges of being a writer, maternal guilt, how success doesn’t always bring happiness, and how life events can change flawed characters helping them to grow and develop. 

 The New York Society Library – both your main character Isabelle Manning and you  write there. Is this a great place for writers to work? If so, why? And more broadly, what advice would you give aspiring writers, a sometimes very lonely career choice. 

The New York Society Library is a true New York gem and my favorite place to write. Not only is it a beautiful space but it’s a wonderful place to do research and be surrounded by other writers. It’s impossible not to feel inspired. In college and law school, I was always more productive in a library and the same is true for writing. I also met two of my best “writer friends” at the library so it is certainly a good place to connect with other writers and, as you say, make the profession less lonely!

26 is an organisation for writers so your novel, which touches on the struggles of writing, will surely strike a chord with 26’s members. What makes a writer a writer? You discuss this in an interview claiming it’s easy to know when you’re a lawyer, a past career of yours, but a writer is more nebulous. Is someone a writer if they’ve never been published but still toil away at say the New York Society Library. Or must one be published? At which point did you start calling yourself a writer?

This is a question I have thought a lot about! I didn’t tell people I was a writer until I was publishing freelance pieces. And I didn’t feel fully comfortable identifying as a writer until I had a book coming out. But I don’t think that’s right necessarily. I think if writing is something you take seriously and do regularly as if it’s a job, then you are a writer. 

Your novel is written from four points of view which really helps establish the four fascinating main characters. You also jump around in time. And you have a story within a story. In short, your novel is layered and complex, like the unpeeling of an onion. Did you map your plot and chapters out before starting the novel? 

I start with the types of characters I want to write about. I have an idea for a story and where I want to end up, but I don’t map everything out in detail because so many ideas come to me as I am writing.  It takes me a while to get to know the characters and that helps inform the types of decisions they will make and the specific plot turns. 

I actually did not have the book-within-a-book until I had written several drafts of the main story. In the early drafts, I just referred to this amazing manuscript and the reader was going to have to take my word for it. And then after taking some time away from the manuscript during COVID lockdown, I reread it and felt it really needed actual pieces of the mystery novel in the book. 

Authorship – each author or painter in your novel gets vital editing help from someone else, without which the work wouldn’t have been created. This raises the question of who the actual artist is and how should people be credited. What do you think? 

Creativity is often a layered effort with many people contributing to the end result. The acknowledgments section of any novel will make that clear! I do think there is a single author of a work, but there can be may contributors (who should absolutely be credited).

Did you grapple with how to introduce your story within a story. Your first excerpt occurs on page 27, but you don’t explain who wrote this manuscript until more than 100 pages later. And then several pages later, there’s another twist. It’s very clever. How easy was it to figure out how to interweave this internal story?

Yes, grapple would be a polite word for it! Ha. I had to make sure that the snippets of the novel were revealing but not confusing. I wrote the ten manuscript pieces as its own document so I could make sure they flowed together and implied a full 350-page narrative. And then I tried to make sure that the mystery manuscript came at regular intervals (around every 30 pages) and was in sync with what was happening in the main narrative, i.e. not giving anything away or over-shadowing it. 

You say that ‘the family language is the written word.” Claire’s motivation to write was different than her daughter and husband’s. Claire didn’t seek fame. How would you describe her writing goals? 

I think Claire had the most genuine creative impulse out of the three of them. She was really trying to write as an outlet to express herself and to explore a side of herself she felt compelled to keep hidden. I think Claire realized she had talent and there was a part of her that wanted it to be known.  But that part of her was in conflict with her desire to protect Isabelle (at least until very late in the story)

Miss Muffin, the cat – I wasn’t sure if her role was comic relief or something more symbolic connecting Isabelle to her late mother. Can you offer some insight? 

I think a bit of both. For Claire I think the cat represented something she wanted to control. She perhaps felt that she could not control Ward and nor could she control the troubles Isabelle was having with her book. But she could do something about the cat defiling her flowers. And then for Isabelle, during her grief, capturing the cat feels like taking up the mantle from her mother, doing something that would please her.  And then ultimately the cat becomes her companion. 

Someone joked to me that in most stories the woman starts out alone with the cat, but in mine, that’s the ending, which made me laugh. 

You write about Manhattan and Sag Harbor, two places you know well. I think getting the setting right helps relax the reader. If the setting is accurate, the reader can trust the author and get immersed in the story. What’s your feeling about the setting’s role in a novel?

I absolutely agree. I think getting setting right plays a huge role in building trust with the reader. I am very grateful to a copywriter at my publisher who corrected my mistakes about the route Ward would take to the psychiatrist in Riverhead – even something that minor could throw a reader off. 

Did you know you wanted to write fiction versus nonfiction? And if so, why?

Not always. I was a lawyer and when I first transitioned to writing, I wrote a lot of nonfiction articles and essays. I do prefer the freedom of fiction though. 

What books are you excited to read?

I am reading mostly for research on my next book right now, but I can’t wait to read Lorrie Moore’s new book, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home. I am also eager to start Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake. 

Tell us something surprising about yourself. 

Maybe not surprising since you’ve read the book, but I share Isabelle’s fears of driving! Spending time in Vermont I have overcome them to some extent, but I don’t know if I am getting on the FDR any time soon

Thank you so much. I loved this book, a real page-turner with such colorful flawed characters that I was really rooting for them to change. 

Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions!!! 

– Interview by Elena Bowes 

 – Image credit: Deborah Feingold

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.