Interview: April 4, 2014
Holly Peterson is a former journalist and the bestselling author of THE MANNY. Her writing has been published in the New York Times, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and numerous other publications. Her latest novel, THE IDEA OF HIM, brings readers back into the world of the Manhattan elite. This time, it’s about Allie Crawford, who is forced to face the reality of her “perfect” marriage when she finds her husband cheating on her. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Bronwyn Miller, Peterson talks about why women sometimes fall in love with “the idea of” men, why it’s important not to marry someone for his or her résumé, and why leaving a relationship can be easier than staying in one. She also discusses her own writing habits, and how Allie is a complicated character whose messy life any woman can relate to --- regardless of her social status.
Bookreporter.com: Congratulations on the publication of your second novel, THE IDEA OF HIM. How was writing this book different from that of your debut novel, THE MANNY?
Holly Peterson: This book took a lot more time, as I was going through a divorce and unconsciously and consciously adding emotions and fears of my own into the narrative. Allie, a working mom with two young kids, is married to a dashing, narcissistic man named Wade, and the marriage is crumbling as the book begins. The book deals with Allie’s fears of being on her own once she realizes she has fallen more for the idea of Wade than the actual person. That reality is scary, and makes her cling to various other men as life rafts while she tries to find her strength not only to leave, but to feel okay doing so. It’s filled with humor and tears and sex and romance, and I hope your readers enjoy it and recognize parts of themselves in it.
BRC: THE MANNY was a statement of the times when it was published. What was the inspiration for THE IDEA OF HIM? Did you intend to incorporate the troubled economy into the narrative from the beginning?
HP: I did intend to incorporate the downturn into the narrative of the NYC heavy hitter power crowd. It’s not something we can ignore as so much of the turnaround has only benefited the one-percenters. So much of the country is struggling and suffering. Yet I write about a specific breed of the power class in New York that really made it on their own --- the “meritocracy” class who had a great idea, did something differently and worked like dogs to reach the top. This isn’t the country club crowd of inherited Park Avenue wealth that I wrote about in THE MANNY. This is a far more sophisticated group of people with an enormous amount of neurosis and drive that never extinguishes itself.
BRC: Allie has to juggle the needs of many demanding men --- her magazine editor husband, Wade; Murray, her difficult and demanding boss; even her screenwriting professor, David Heller. But so much of her struggle with men harkens back to losing her father at 16. How formative is that father/daughter bond when it comes to romantic relationships later on?
HP: Well I think seeking Daddy is a big reason people fall for the “idea of him” --- either to replicate their fathers or to please their fathers with suitable husbands. They end up being bored to tears by their mates. In Allie’s case in my book, she loses her father at 16 in the very first chapter, so her quest to replace him is much more profound. When she meets the dazzling Wade, whose electric personality reminds her of her father’s ability to command a room, she is brought so deep into his magnetic field that she falls for him. She, like so many women, forgets to check off important items like a) is he nice and able to be loyal, b) do I actually like spending time with him, and c) is he intensely demanding 24 hours a day and can I deal with that?
BRC: James is Allie’s touchstone --- the one person who probably knows her best, but things never seem to line up for them to have a romantic relationship. Do you think someone can be your soul mate without being your mate for life?
HP: I think the one who “got away” is the most painful and that anguish lasts forever on some level. The best sex you ever had, the most you ever laughed, that one from our youth that got away, in my case with the French sexy accent, that I always wonder about. Why didn’t that work out with him again I ask myself…God he was cute and we had such a connection…hmmmmmm…now I’m divorced, maybe I should go find him…
BRC: Did any one character prove more of a challenge to write? If so, which one?
HP: Allie, the main character, goes through a very intense process of self-discovery. Making her “likable” and “relatable” is very important, so the audience is rooting for her. If she’s not happy in the marriage, you don’t want the audience to say, “Well then why did she marry him, she’s an idiot for doing so…” You want to create really complex characters who try their best to choose and get tripped up by emotions and fears and stumbling blocks that are understandable and very, very real. That takes an immense amount of time and delicacy, layer after layer of frosting to create that. Any character is very difficult if they are real.
BRC: Cunning Jackie Malone is different from Allie, especially how she views relationships and sex: “Sex is what you make it. It’s just a release if you want it to be. Ask any man…It doesn’t mean anything to me, if I don’t want it to mean anything to me.” But Allie thinks she’s kidding herself. Do you think this difference of opinion is based on age or experience? Do you think millennials view sex in a more casual way than the generations before them?
HP: I don’t think they view sex more casually. I spend a lot of time with millennials when I surf, and we talk in the water endlessly about this topic. I think they hook up in more clever ways, I think they put themselves out there in bizarre public ways, but I don’t think they are having “more” sex or more “free and open” sex. I just think they are meeting differently. I also think because of porn, men are needing more visual stimulation during sex because insane levels of porn are so readily available to them. There is a whole discussion about how men from various decades have sex in my book. Read it to find out!
BRC: What do you think is the biggest misconception women have about marriage?
HP: That a “partnership” will work. You need intimacy and a best friend. Don’t marry the résumé or you’ll be bored. And remember, if you marry for money, you’ll work for it every day.
BRC: What would you like readers to take away from THE IDEA OF HIM? Do you think many women fall prey to that perfect ideal of a man and marriage?
HP: I want women to feel strong about themselves. I want them to feel free to leave a relationship that doesn’t make them happy if they have fallen for “the idea of him.” Once reality hits, its very scary to leave --- which I know from experience and divorce --- but it’s okay on the other side. Being alone isn’t as terrible as we think it is, and clinging to a man who isn’t right is worse, in fact. That nauseous, anxious feeling we have when he isn’t right eats away at us, and I think paying attention to that and moving on is the way to go.
Remember: Female friendships, your passions, your work, your creativity, your families, your kids…all of that will pull you through any hard period. And, like anything scary, it’s never as bad as you anticipate. We fear Saturdays on our own, but, in fact, what is better than a night in our sweats and takeout sushi after a hard week? A breakup is real re-booting of our lives --- and sometimes a much needed one.
BRC: Allie is a busy working mom, trying to balance home, work and personal life. You’re also a busy working mother of three. What else do you have in common with your protagonist? What do your children think of your writing success?
HP: I think every woman in America works hard and tries hard to do the best for her family. Allie is completely relatable to women of all geographic areas because she is trying to make it all work out, and some of it just isn’t. Yes, I feel that way all the time. There’s always something amiss in my life.
I think my kids like that I write because they like having me home for dinner and late afternoons. It is a great job for moms, as I write after 10pm or get up early at 4am to do it. That’s the best way to work, when no emails are coming in to distract me.
BRC: I’m always so curious about writers and their writing schedules, especially ones who are as busy as you are. Do you schedule your writing time like a 9-to-5 job? Typically, how long does it take you to complete a novel from start to finish?
HP: THE MANNY took me six months to write and 18 months with my publisher to fix. THE IDEA OF HIM was three full years start to finish. It takes a huge amount of time to polish and make sure everything makes sense and doesn’t drag and characters are revealed properly. It’s such a testament to the writer’s dedication to see a full book to completion, I must say.
There’s a lot of brain wattage that goes on at the wee hours to fix a novel…my brain literally hurts as I look at paragraphs I can’t seem to fix, and it drives me crazy and makes me feel like I can’t do anything right. I’m sure we all feel that way about our work, though. Writing is very solitary, so when it’s up to you alone to fix it, it can feel very lonely sometimes.
BRC: In your acknowledgments, you mention that “writing is great company. Fictional characters are in your head all the time just like the real characters in your life… For two years I walked, ran, showered, cooked, and mothered with Allie, Wade, Murray, James, Tommy, and that elusive but on-point Jackie in my head…all intriguing company.” Many writers describe the practice of writing as extremely solitary, but it sounds like you were never alone! Do you enjoy the process of writing when you’re doing it, or do you feel, as Dorothy Parker put it, “I hate writing. I love having written”? Do you find the readings and signings that come with publishing a new novel rewarding or daunting?
HP: I love launching books because I am a connector. I love to meet people, talk to them and I have no fear about asking for favors from my friends, so I think I’m pretty good at getting the word out. I kind of hate writing and I kind of love it. It’s such a challenge. I don’t think I’m terribly literary, but I do think I know how to weave a good narrative together, create characters that you hold onto and make a book move like a locomotive. I need that energy when I read in the ADD/distractible culture we live in. I personally need action when I read, so I try to inject a huge amount of that for my readers.
BRC: You worked as a producer for ABC News for more than a decade. Do you think your time in journalism informs your fiction writing? Did you know you wanted to be a novelist even then?
HP: I write entirely reality-based fiction. There is not one thing in my books that wouldn’t happen in real life, so my journalism absolutely has fueled my fiction writing. In fact, it’s allowed me to write scenes that are well reported, well documented and very accurate, which I honestly think the reader appreciates. They like the details of how the powerful live, and they like that they are fully accurate and believable even if, in another sense --- in the sense that their behavior is strange! --- they can’t quite believe it.
BRC: You enlisted your friends to make a fun, tongue-in-cheek video for THE MANNY. Will you do something similar for THE IDEA OF HIM? One of the co-stars in the video, Carole Radziwill, is also an author herself (THE WIDOW’S GUIDE TO SEX & DATING and WHAT REMAINS). Did you meet during your ABC News days? Do you discuss writing with each other?
HP: No video this time. This book is a more serious character study of a woman leaving a relationship, or trying to find the strength to…and the audience won’t know what happens or which man she ends up with until the final page! There is tons of sex and romance in this
book, but Allie is trying to figure out the path that will make her most happy.
Carole is an old friend from ABC News, and we have discussed how hard it is to write…we both go away to do it. In her case, out to Oregon to her sister-in-law’s house, and in my case, to surf spots where I can surf during the day and write all night.
BRC: What are you working on now?
HP: I’m writing a book about the Hamptons. A murder mystery!