Reading Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney‘s debut novel, The Nest, was in some ways like watching a master juggler loft a dozen china plates in the air, smiling and relaxed as she guides them each on their intersecting journeys. With her story of an extended family on the brink of collapse — siblings, aunts, uncles, parents, children, grandparents, and lovers — The Nest is a literary journey, a familial cautionary tale, and a romp through New York City. Meet Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.
What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?
Whether you are creating children or characters in a book, it really helps to have a sense of humor about their behavior and to remind yourself of their vulnerabilities.
Whenever I felt a character was feeling too flat on the page, I realized it was because I was doing more skewering than empathizing. In revision, I made myself think about what each character was afraid of and where they were vulnerable and tried to write to and from that place. I think a reader senses your empathy and they sense your contempt — and creating empathy for difficult characters results in a more interesting and satisfying reading experience. I love when I come across a character who is behaving badly but still can break my heart.
Where do you write? What do you love about it?
I write in my office. I never had an office of my own until we moved to Los Angeles eight years ago, so mostly I love that it has two doors that close. Because we live in an old house and any given door knob is likely to fall off in your hand, the doors to my office are really hard to open from the outside — it’s like a little reminder to everyone who is trying to come in while I’m working that they should try to figure out the answer to the question they need to ask on their own first! I also have a lovely olive tree outside my window, which makes me feel like I’m in Italy.
If you had a motto, what would it be?
“It’s never too late” (said the 55-year-old debut novelist).
Who inspires you?
I have so many friends in creative professions who are always working from project to project and they inspire me regularly with their work ethic and commitment. The entertainment industry is tough, but when I see the people I know refusing to sit around licking their wounds when things don’t go well, and just moving on to the next thing — the next script, the next audition, the next opportunity — it fuels my commitment to working as hard as I can.
What charity or community service are you passionate about? Why?
I love this question and I’d like to give a shout to two women in particular I work to support. The first is Lizz Winstead’s Lady Parts Justice. Lizz is a true warrior and activist on behalf of women’s reproductive rights and she does it with a fierce humor and intelligence.
The other organization I’m very involved with is Razia’s Ray of Hope. Razia is a remarkable woman, a true humanitarian. After 9/11, she decided she needed to do something positive in her home country of Afghanistan. She founded the Zabuli Education Center in Deh’Subz, Afghanistan, providing education to the young women in the surrounding areas. She started in 2008 with a small group of girls and the obstacles were enormous. The Zabuli school now has more than 400 students in grades K-12. The difference she’s making in the lives and futures of these young women is astonishing.
What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?
As I count down to publication date [March 22, 2016!], I seem to have the attention of a fruit fly, but I have managed to finish a few books. I really loved The Past by Tessa Hadley. I’m finally getting around to last years big non-fiction books and I’m loving H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison One of the greatest things about publishing a book is that you get to read books before they’re actually out! I started Emma Cline’s The Girls last weekend and I can’t wait to get back to it. I also really loved Rumaan Alam’s Rich and Pretty, both of those are out in early June.
D’Aprix Sweeney lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. She has an MFA from The Bennington Writing Seminars. Previously, she lived and worked in New York City for more than two decades, writing copy for a variety of clients, including American Express, McDonald’s and more defunct Internet start-ups than she cares to count. The Nest is her first novel. Visit her at cynthia-sweeney.com.