Author Interview: Ann Leary

If you haven’t read Ann Leary’s books, you need to! She’s real and relatable and tells it like it is in her new book of essays, I’ve Tried Being Nice (June 4 2024).

From Amazon:
Ann Leary is the New York Times bestselling author of a memoir and four novels including The Good House. Her work has been translated into eighteen languages, and she has written for The New York Times, Ploughshares, NPR, Redbook, and Real Simple, among other publications. Her essay, “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” was adapted for Prime Video’s television series, Modern Love. Her novel The Good House was adapted as a motion picture starring Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline. She lives with her husband in New York. 

Praise for I’ve Tried Being Nice:

“In funny and unpretentious essays on topics that include selling a beloved house, interacting with fans of her famous husband, Denis, becoming an empty nester and recovering from alcoholism, Leary shares stories from a lifetime of wanting to be liked.”
The Washington Post, “10 Noteworthy Books for June”

“Everyday struggles, from marital discord to feuds with neighbors, provide rich material for novelist Leary’s thoughtful, humorous, and brutally honest essays. As relatable and refreshing as a good talk with your wisest friend.”
The Boston Globe, “75 Books We’re Most Excited to Read This Summer”

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It was such a pleasure to get to know you, Ann, and to learn about your writing process and advice for authors. Reading your book of essays, I’ve Tried Being Nice, was incredibly enjoyable! Thank you for sharing your personal journey from addiction recovery to the ups and downs of midlife, along with all the other stories in between.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing career and when (and why and how) it all started? 
I studied writing and literature in college; I was a writing major, but I was an avid reader from a young age. We moved quite a bit when I was growing up, so I spent a lot of time in libraries, especially when we moved during summer months and there wasn’t really a way to meet kids my own age. My first published book was my memoir, “AN INNOCENT, A BROAD.” It was published about 20 years ago, and I’ve since had four novels published, as well as short fiction and essays. I love writing personal essays, but I really prefer writing fiction. I enjoy escaping to another time and place every day when I’m working on a novel.

What was the inspiration behind your latest book of essays, I’ve Tried Being Nice (June 2024)?
I’VE TRIED BEING NICE is the title essay in my new collection.  It was inspired by an incident I had with a neighbor a few years ago. She was letting her dogs run all over our property and I tried being nice and asking her politely to control her dogs. Then one day, she really made me angry. I confronted her with the words, “Look, I’ve tried being nice…” And you’d have thought I’d unholstered a pistol, she was so unnerved. It turns out those words are quite off-putting – in the best possible way.  The essays cover many subjects – some are about my childhood, my experiences as a young mother, a celebrity wife, real-estate junkie, animal lover and a mediocre student of everything from banjo, dog training and ballroom dancing. Some of the essays were previously published but most are original to this collection. But there is a common thread which is about being a life-long people-pleaser and how that has changed now that I’m at a certain age.

The Good House was such a fresh (and funny) well told story about alcoholism. The main character, Hildy Good, was a unique character yet so relatable too. Was she made up or based on a friend or family member?
Thank you for the kind words about THE GOOD HOUSE. Hildy was entirely made up, but in coming to understand her, I drew on a few women I know. Real New England Yankees – in the best possible sense of that term. I wrote the book when I was in my forties and Hildy was a sixty-year-old, but I felt like I knew her inside and out. She did struggle with alcoholism, as I have, so I was able to draw on personal experiences when writing this novel. Of all the characters in my novels, I missed Hildy the most when I was finished writing that book.

Which novel/memoir was the easiest to write? What about the most difficult? And why?
See Ann’s books here
THE GOOD HOUSE was probably the most enjoyable to write, once I figured out whose story I was telling. I originally wrote almost an entire draft in the 3rd person. The plot was supposed to be about a psychiatrist and his affair with one of his patients. Hildy Good was just a peripheral character. But that draft was – well, dull. The only time I felt that the story came alive was when I wrote about Hildy. I decided to try to tell the story with her as the narrator and then the book started almost writing itself. Hildy hijacked the novel; it ended up being about her. That was very surprising and satisfying. I worked very hard on my novel, THE FOUNDLING. I researched it and wrote it for over seven years. But I wouldn’t say it was the most difficult to write, because I loved doing the research. It’s set in a eugenics asylum in the 1920s and is loosely based on the experiences of my grandmother who worked in such a place. I was absolutely fascinated by the subject matter, the time, the setting and the historical characters that inspired the book, so I loved writing it. It just took a lot longer than my other books. 

What line or passage in I’ve Tried Being Nice stands out for you the most? Do you have any other passages in any of your books that really stand out for you?
I think first pages of books are incredibly important. When I’m browsing in a bookshop, I really don’t look at the summary on the jacket—the “flap copy” as they call it. I read the first page or two. If I like the writing and the voice of the narrator, I’ll buy the book. An engaging plot is great, but if the writing is formulaic or dull, I probably won’t enjoy the book. I know I’m not alone in this, so when I’m writing, I really work and rework those first pages. I’d say that the first pages of THE GOOD HOUSE and THE CHILDREN are my favorites.

How long does it take you from idea to the time you finish your final edit on most of your books? Any secrets behind your process?
My books usually take about a year to write, but a few have taken longer. I get up between 5 and 6 in the morning and like to write until early afternoon. My confidence and intelligence seem to wane as the day goes on, so I need to take advantage of the early hours. One piece of advice I have for writers is to try to write every day, even if you feel “blocked.” Also, when you’re writing something that is working – say you’re at a place in a novel where the pace picks up and you’re really flying along, resist the temptation to keep writing into the night. I like to stop while the story is working, that way, when I come back to it the next day, it’s still alive and I can’t wait to jump back in. If I continue to write until I’m in the doldrums again, it’s just harder to pick it up the next day.

Who are some of your favorite authors and why?
I have many favorite authors, including Shirley Jackson, Don DeLillo. Patricia Highsmith, Joan Didion, John Cheever, Toni Morrison, Edith Wharton, Vladimir Nabokov, Sarah Waters, Susan Orlean… I have too many to list, actually, but there’s a start.

Thank you, Ann!

You can read more about Ann and her books on her website here:

 

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