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Leigh Stein

Leigh Stein currently lives in Brooklyn, where she works in children's book publishing and teaches musical theatre. The Fallback Plan is her first novel, and her full-length poetry collection, Dispatch from the Future, is forthcoming from Melville House in 2012

Blurbs

"The Fallback Plan is to this generation what Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm was to the previous generation, and The Catcher in the Rye before that."

– Susan Salter Reynolds

"Beautiful, funny, thrilling and true."

– Gary Shteyngart

"Intimate, urgent, and laugh-out-loud funny, Leigh Stein's novel bravely investigates the splendor and tragedy of the end of youth with a sensitivity and lyrical deftness that will not disappoint. Think Franny and Zooey. Think Goodbye, Columbus. Think of this book as your next great read."

– Joe Meno

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The Fallback Plan

An Interview With Leigh Stein

03/27/12

Rob MacDonald: Your first novel, The Fallback Plan, is doing very well, and I’m curious to hear how it feels to have your work in the hands of a wide audience. When you put out a chapbook of poems with a small press, you know that a lot of your readers are likely to come from within that poetry subculture, but when you put out a novel with Melville House that gets reviewed in Elle, the audience must cover the whole spectrum. Is that exciting or terrifying?

Leigh Stein: It’s true; they’re two totally different beasts. When I’ve had chapbooks of poetry published, I know who my audience is going to be: my friends in the poetry community, and their friends, who eventually become my friends, too, once we meet at AWP. Not even my family really reads my poetry (my mom and sister have read a little bit), so that’s how small the audience is.

Getting a novel published is bigger; it’s more like being on stage, which I used to love. There’s a distance between you and the reader (I’m not handselling my novel, like I’ve done with my tiny poetry chapbooks), and the reach is, of course, broader.

The hardest part of the experience for me so far has been the public reaction. All the major press I’ve gotten has been positive, but I initially made the mistake of reading all my amateur reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. These can be soul-crushing, personal, and vicious. I didn’t expect my book to elicit such a powerful response: I thought some people would like it, and some people would be meh. But instead, some people love it, and some people despise it (and me). There’s a lot of confusion over who Esther is: is she me? Am I a slacker readers can love to hate? ‘Cause I’m not.

RM: I made the mistake of reading some of those same reviews, and I was surprised to see how often people were getting hung up on the politics of moving back home after college. That aspect of the book felt secondary to me, and I didn’t get the feeling that you were trying to make a big statement about either entitlement or slackerdom — it was just another way of showing how life can fall short of our expectations, how reality doesn’t always live up to fantasy.

LS: The moving back home part felt secondary to me, too, while I was writing it. But publishing is a business, and my book is being marketed as having a lot to do with a particular moment in our economy / culture, so as to sell more units, and make my bed of money even fluffier.

But seriously, you hit on a good point: fantasies and expectations. Esther is an actress; she’s used to playing different roles and imagining fantasy scenarios, and that just carries over into her normal life. There are some fantasies, like winning the lottery, which are totally culturally acceptable. But the darker fantasies . . . that’s what’s controversial. I had a friend who once told me she wished something really bad would happen to her, like her mother dying, so people would feel sorry for her and leave her the hell alone. Successful, ambitious, hard-working people are under a tremendous amount of pressure (I’m including myself here) and sometimes our fantasies are about giving in and giving up. That’s Esther. Her invalid fantasy comes from pressure on the outside (“Get a job!”) and depression on the inside.

RM: Fantasy seems to play a significant role not just for Esther, but for all of your characters, regardless of age — Amy has her art, Jack and Pickle have their video games, and there’s that great scene at the end with May and the cicadas. As I was reading the book, I found myself thinking of fantasy as the element that survives even after we let go of our childhood — sort of a persistent echo of childhood itself.

LS: That’s true! Especially with Amy’s fantasies (or, sadly, memories) made manifest in her art, but also with May’s collection (and even the video games). Fantasy follows us, and I think is also what brings us back to literature (and there’s a lot of Esther going back to childhood books in the novel). Maybe we can’t dress up in capes and crowns the way we used to as children, but we can still read books that transport us.

Laura Miller wrote a book called The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventure in Narnia, which opens with a poignant, shimmering childhood memory: she’s standing outside in the California suburb where she grew up, wishing Narnia really existed and wishing she could go there. “I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me,” she says. “For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.” Bam! That’s the opening paragraph! I loved this book. I read it when I was almost done writing mine (in other words, when I was already deep into my own Narnia fantasy), but it has so much to say about childhood and yearning and magic.

RM: That quote speaks to the danger that comes along with imagination — even though we can use books (and music and art) to hold onto (or reconnect to) childhood, maybe we’re just prolonging the agony. I know that Esther eventually decides to let go of her childhood, but did you find that writing the novel helped you to let go, too, or are you still hanging on?

LS: Am I still hanging on to childhood? Not like I used to. In my early twenties, I was so nostalgic. Is that weird? To be young and nostalgic? I think it’s something I just outgrew, novel or not. The novel I’m working on now isn’t so nostalgic: it’s about girls in their mid-twenties and problems with girlfriends and boyfriends. Maybe it’s immature, or obvious, to write about life as I see it happening (there’s Gchat in my next novel, for example), without more reflective distance, but that’s what I’m interested in.

RM: It’s really interesting that The Fallback Plan is trying to make sense of the present through the lens of the past, but a lot of your poems are looking back at the present from the future’s perspective. 

LS: It’s hard to exist in the “now,” without reaching forwards or backwards, and I guess my writing is a reflection of my personal struggle to stay in the present. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.” This is good advice for living (smell the roses!), but my creative practice is fed, and inspired by, yearning for what is gone and what will come.

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