Taffy Brodesser-Akner's parents got divorced when she was 6, but she didn't really think of her debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, as "a divorce book."
"I don't like to think that a divorce haunted me ..." she says. "I'm intolerant of the people who use their parents' divorce into adulthood. I think, why can't you get over it? ... And, yet, look at me: This somehow became my art."
But people kept asking her husband, "Why is your wife writing a divorce novel?" and he'd answer: "She's obsessed with divorce. Everyone in her family's divorced. Some of them are divorced twice."
Fleishman Is in Trouble tells the story of Toby, 41-year-old doctor, who has recently ended a marriage with Rachel, a high-powered talent agent who was the star earner of their Manhattan family of four. Then one morning, Rachel drops the kids off just before dawn — and disappears.
Brodesser-Akner has been married for 13 years — which is the amount of time her parents were married before their divorce. "Now I feel like I'm in this unknowable land," she says. "What are you supposed to do now? My husband comes from a happy home. He does not really understand these questions, but he is very tolerant of the fact that I have them."
On online dating boosting Toby's chronically low self-esteem
What I did back in the '90s when I was dating ... was show up in my disgusting human form somewhere and try to look people in the eye, and try not to look too needy, and try not to look like I needed too much love, and try to be aloof enough, and try to be stylish enough. ...
[When Toby] enters his divorced life suddenly there is this whole new world of dating and suddenly there are women who want him, and he has these questions: Maybe if he had not automatically assumed that people wouldn't want him they would have wanted him more back then, too? He doesn't know. These are the questions that haunt him.
On loving the interactions of online dating
The way people interact with him is shocking and delightful to him. He loves how nobody seems to have a hidden agenda. He loves how everyone is honest about what they want. Back when he was dating the first time there was subtlety, and there were "bases," and there were things that sneak up on you. And now it was all just laid out on the table in front of him like a giant feast. Women would send pictures that were designed to arouse him ... dirty messages throughout the day, and he thinks: What a wonderland this is.
On telling the husband of one of his patients that she has liver disease — and feeling oddly envious
The woman is unconscious but he watches the man cry over her bed. ... He watches him be incredibly tender with her and all he could think is that he, Toby, never wanted a spectacular marriage. He just wanted a regular one. He just wanted the uncomplicated emotion of: This is my person. I love her. I want to protect her. I am sad if she is sick. I am happy if she is healthy. And he feels that he's been deprived of that by the fact that his plan for his life ... just didn't work out.
On the double standard for married couples and divorced couples
[Readers realize that] everything that Toby says about Rachel is something that they could be accused of now. ... Sometimes my behavior is forgivable in my marriage and God forbid I should ever get a divorce — but if I did, that very same behavior would be looked at as completely reprehensible. I think the amount of people who are struggling to find their footing in this new world where we are supposed to have these equitable marriages — and that women are supposed to be as successful as they want to be — and that perhaps nobody told the men. ... I think more and more you're going to be hearing people who say: Oh my God, the things that Rachel says are things that I've said.
On questioning the institution of marriage
I think that it's always a good time to say: Where did this whole thing come from? Well, it came from the Bible and it came from the government. ... It's always a good time to say ... Do I listen to the Bible in general? Do I listen to government recommendations in general? And ask ourselves: What is the thing we're getting into? What are the partnerships that we're getting into and are they as effective as they were supposed to be? ...
It says in the book: Marriage is like democracy. The worst form of government except all the other forms of government. Meaning: Marriage is a good place to be for as long as two people agree that they still want to be together. I've seen too many people locked into marriages.
On what writing celebrity profiles taught her about writing fiction
Oh my gosh. Everything. ... [In writing profiles] you can't change the facts, and you can't make things up, and you can't blur lines. What I found out was that the more interesting story is people who are two things — people who contradict themselves. People who try to be good and aren't always. I saw how much readers will love it if you can speak to a person's contradictions. ...
Once I was practiced at doing that through all of these profiles then I feel like I was able to write an effective novel about a person who is a good father and still leaves his kids every night so that he could go have sex — and still call himself a good father and still be called a good father. That's the main thing I think that translated.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Taffy Brodesser-Akner's debut novel is drawing praise as quite a debut. "Fleishman Is in Trouble" is the story of a man - Toby Fleishman, 41, a hepatologist, just recently divorced from his wife, Rachel, a high-powered talent agent who was the star earner of their family of four in Manhattan - with, of course, a place in the Hamptons. But Toby is bearing up under the rejection and weekend visits with his children, Hannah and Solly because women on a dating app suddenly seem to find him urgently attractive. Then, one morning, Toby awakens to learn from a text message that Rachel's just dropped off Hannah and Solly before dawn. And day after day goes by - camp for the kids, care for Toby's patients, dating, anxiety, wondering all the while what's happened to Rachel. What's happened to their marriage? What will happen to all of us?
"Fleishman Is in Trouble" is by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a staff writer at The New York Times magazine, whose work has appeared in publications from GQ to Cosmo to Texas Monthly. And she joins us in our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER: Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.
SIMON: Toby has what they definitively call low self-esteem.
BRODESSER-AKNER: Yes (laughter).
SIMON: What makes him so urgently attractive?
BRODESSER-AKNER: What makes him so urgently attractive is his existence on a dating app and his sudden availability and the change in the culture that has evened things out to the point where you can appear how you want to in one of these apps and, suddenly, there are women who want him. And he has these questions. Maybe if he had not automatically assumed that people wouldn't want him, they would've wanted him more back then, too. He doesn't know. These are the questions that haunt him.
SIMON: I have a favorite little scene that I read in the book, and it gives you some idea of Dr. Fleishman's character. He has to tell a man that his wife has a liver disease and needs a transplant, and he finds news about an illness harder to deliver than news about a death.
BRODESSER-AKNER: Right. Death's reputation precedes itself, right?
BRODESSER-AKNER: Like, it's easy to tell somebody definitive news, whereas when he's giving this particular diagnosis - which is about a disease called Wilson's disease, a liver disease that will not kill you, though, complications from it might but might destroy your life - that's the harder time he has, giving someone hope.
SIMON: In fact, he gets a little envious - doesn't he? - of seeing the closeness between the man and the wife as he's giving them the news.
BRODESSER-AKNER: He watches the man cry over her bed. And all he could think is that he, Toby, never wanted a spectacular marriage. He just wanted a regular one, and he feels that he's been deprived of that by the fact that his plan for his life, which - when he got married in his 20s - it just didn't work out.
SIMON: You wrote an essay, recently. You had a revelation that your parents' divorce might have been the creative spark in writing this novel. How did that happen?
BRODESSER-AKNER: Well, you know, I thought that I was being a good cultural reporter by noticing the friends of mine who were coming to me and telling me that they were getting divorced, had this whole new way of dating, that they - you know, when my mother got divorced in her early 40s, you know, she felt so old. And here they were showing me how much life they had in them left. And I thought I was doing the kind of responsible journalist thing, which is writing about the cultural moment. And, along the way, people would ask me questions. They would say, why are you writing a divorce book? And I thought, well, no. I'm writing a book about marriage...
BRODESSER-AKNER: ...Distilled through divorce. I only found out about it through my husband, who - when people would say to him, is it strange that your wife is writing - you know, most first novels are coming-of-age novels. Why is your wife writing a divorce novel? And his answer was so simple.
BRODESSER-AKNER: He said she's obsessed with divorce. Everyone in her family's divorced. Some of them are divorced twice. Her parents got divorced when she was 6. I don't like to think that a divorce haunted me. And yet look at me. This somehow became my art. And then, I looked at the sort of evidence. And, this year, I've been married for 13 years, which is the year my parents got divorced. And now I feel like I'm in this sort of unknowable land. What are you supposed to do now?
SIMON: I must say - as the days roll by and Rachel doesn't return and sends no word, you find yourself - I found myself as a reader going from worry about where she was, what might have happened, to anger.
SIMON: Of course, without giving anything away, you find there's something going on.
SIMON: Let me put it that way. How do you keep from having people turn on Rachel too early?
BRODESSER-AKNER: Some of them do. But, more than that, what I'm hearing are the amount of people who are so disturbed because everything that Toby says about Rachel is something that they could be accused of. I always think of that, that the - sometimes, my behavior is forgivable in my marriage. And God forbid I should ever get a divorce. But if I did, that very same behavior would be looked at as completely reprehensible. And I think the amount of people who are struggling to find their footing in this new world - where we are supposed to have these equitable marriages and that women are supposed to be as successful as they want to be and that perhaps nobody told the men that we were given permission for that - I think, more and more, you're going to be hearing people who say, oh, my God, the things that Rachel says are things that I've said. It sounds like a miserable book. But I do want to say that...
SIMON: No, it's not.
BRODESSER-AKNER: ...I think that there is - (laughter)...
SIMON: It made me laugh a lot. It bubbles with the insights and funny situations.
BRODESSER-AKNER: All right. Thank you.
SIMON: Sounds like I'm writing a blurb, but it does make you wonder about the institution of marriage.
BRODESSER-AKNER: It does. I mean, I think it's also always time to ask ourselves - what are the partnerships that we're getting into? And are they as effective as they were supposed to be? Or do they just recall old depressions for us all the time?
SIMON: You, until you became a novelist, were known for writing terrific celebrity profiles.
BRODESSER-AKNER: Thank you.
SIMON: Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow. What do you learn from writing celebrity profiles that transfers?
BRODESSER-AKNER: Oh, my gosh, everything. I was trying to write screenplays before I went into journalism. And the reason I couldn't write these screenplays or I couldn't write them well is because I was writing them in a really cynical way - you know? - with these heroes and these villains. And nobody had real humanity to them. And then, when I started writing about people, what I found out was that the more interesting story is people who contradict themselves, people who try to be good and aren't always. Once I was practiced at doing that through all of these profiles, then I feel like I was able to write an effective novel about a person who is a good father and still leaves his kids every night so that he could go have sex and still call himself a good father and still be called a good father. That's the main thing I think that translated.
SIMON: Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Her novel "Fleishman Is in Trouble." Thank you so much for being with us.
BRODESSER-AKNER: This is an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.