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Interview: February 15, 2008

February 15, 2008

Julie Buxbaum's debut novel, THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE, offers a peek into the life of a confused almost thirty-something as she stumbles along her path to self-discovery after making a series of life-altering decisions.

In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Buxbaum describes the similarities (or lack thereof) between herself and her protagonist, and discusses how cultural demands can often muddle one's sense of self-awareness. She also reveals how the expectations of writing a first book differed from her actual experience and shares some of her favorite New York haunts, which added flavor to her narrative. The protagonist of THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE, Emily Haxby, is a lawyer. You graduated from Harvard Law School and spent a few years working in a law firm before quitting to write this novel. How similar are Emily's experiences to your own?

Julie Buxbaum: Like Emily, I was a litigator at a large law firm in New York, though my experience was much less eventful, fortunately. I worked long hours and did my fair share of grunt work, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. 

BRC: Toward the beginning of the story, Emily thinks to herself, "Self-awareness is a slippery thing, though, when you find yourself at odds with a 'supposed to' in life." Where do you think these "supposed to's" come from? Do you have any "supposed to's" in your life that you are at odds with?

JB: I think some of those "supposed to's" are cultural; we are taught a paradigm at a very young age of certain goals we are expected to strive for, and for women, these often include marriage and children. Sometimes it's uncomfortable when our wants don't necessarily coincide with those expectations. I try very hard in my own life (and not always successfully) to avoid measuring my own self-worth against other people's expectations. If I had followed all of the "supposed to's" I never would have left the law to write, and that has turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

BRC: In the beginning of the novel, Emily's relationship with her father is strained. She needs his support while she's going through rough times; he seems to be more interested in drowning himself in work. What can you share with readers about this tempestuous father/daughter relationship and why you developed it as you did?

JB: Since THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE is a story of what happens when one delays grief, I thought it was essential to deprive Emily of a strong father figure, at least in any healthy sense. Emily’s behavior mirrors that of her father; both of them refuse to deal with their loss, and both of them drown themselves in work as a form of escape. Given Emily’s model for coping with bereavement, the reader begins to see why it is only 15 years after the fact that she can begin to garner the strength to confront her grief. 

BRC: Emily's grandfather, while suffering from dementia, has moments of clarity wherein he seemingly comes to terms with what's happening to him. And while Emily is distraught over his decline, it almost facilitates her own growth process. Can you share with us what prompted you to write his condition into the storyline?

JB: I wanted to explore the connection between grief and memory, and how the latter can act as double-edged sword. At one point in the novel, Emily says that she is someone who "simultaneously longs for and fears the commitment of remembering." Emily means that she is tortured by both what she can and can't remember, and this is paralleled thematically through Grandpa Jack's Alzheimer's. His courage in the face of death is a direct result of his desire to escape getting trapped in a life without the comfort of memory. 

BRC: Emily's boss, Carl, is beyond inappropriate. The hotel scene in Arkansas had me simultaneously laughing and cringing. Please tell me that scene came from your imagination!

JB: That's what's so much fun about writing fiction! I get to make scenes like that up.

BRC: At first, Emily doesn't report what happened (or didn't happen) between her and Carl to the powers-that-be at the firm, and consequently, he (initially) gets away scott free and continues to harass other women. Unfortunately, Emily's situation --- and her decision not to say anything --- is quite common in the working world. Why did you choose to have her make this decision instead of confronting him outright?

JB: I chose to have Emily take the path of least resistance because one of her defining characteristics is her inability to articulate what she needs. While writing the book, I had to remain cognizant of not what a woman should do in a particular situation, but what Emily would do. At the same time, her decision is also a rational one: in today's world, sometimes it's easier, more practical, to just walk away.

BRC: Ruth says, "I haven't yet figured out who I want to be, dear… We are all making it up as we go along." What do you think it takes for someone to reach this conclusion? Age? Maturity? Experience? All three?

JB: I wish I knew! I realized recently that I keep expecting to wake up one day and have it all figured out: who exactly I want to be or am supposed to be. But I am starting to have the sneaking suspicion that life doesn't really work that way, and that's part of what's so great and inspiring about Ruth. She's 84, and she's excited to still be figuring it out. 

BRC: Clearly, Ruth is an inspired character --- so wise and full of life. Is she based on anyone in your life?

JB: Unfortunately, Ruth is not based on anyone in my life, though I very much wish she was. I would love to have a Ruth! She actually grew out of the recognition that I had robbed Emily of too much, and that she really needed a maternal, or almost fairy godmother-like figure in her life. 

BRC: When Emily reminisces about the time Andrew told her he loved her, she remembers feeling a pressure to say "I love you" back. Why do you think people feel this pressure to return the favor? Where do you think that pressure comes from?

JB:> I think Emily's problem when Andrew says "I love you" isn't the pressure to say it back, it's her inability to do so. She's too afraid of what that actually means, and how vulnerable it will leave her. 

BRC: You pepper THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE with New York landmarks: the Strand, Merc Bar, the Bleecker stop on the 6 train. Do you live in Manhattan or did you grow up in New York? If so, what are some of your favorite haunts?

JB: Although I currently live in L.A., New York will always be home for me because it’s where my family and friends live. I lived at Bleecker and Broadway for a few years after law school, and I spent many an hour lost in the Strand and commuting via the 6 train. I think a huge part of THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE is that it's a New York story. As for haunts, some of my personal favorites are near Gramercy Park. I like to write at 71 Irving and grab a drink afterwards at Pierre Loti. 

BRC: Looking back on your experience writing your first novel, was it as you expected it to be? If not, how did it differ from what you thought the process would be like?

JB: I didn't understand when I started to write the book how all-consuming the process would be. I found that while I was working on THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE, even when I wasn't sitting at my desk in front of my laptop, I was constantly thinking about the material. I was thoroughly engaged and obsessed. 

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

JB: I am currently hard at work on my second novel. I don’t yet have a release date but hopefully it will be some time next year.