Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Author Laura Zigman talks about Painful Writer’s Block and Her New Book Separation Anxiety

July 26th, 2020
Calling All Authors

I knew I was going to like author Laura Zigman before I’d opened her latest book, Separation Anxiety. How can you not like a writer who uses her friend’s dog Shelbie to promote her book …

Here’s Shelbie talking

Or an author whose bio on Amazon reads like this:

Laura Zigman grew up in Newton, Massachusetts (where she felt she never quite fit in), and graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (where she didn’t fit in either) and the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course (where she finally started to feel like she fit in). She spent ten years working (slaving away) in New York in book publishing where she was a (much-abused under-appreciated) publicist for Times Books, Vintage Books, Turtle Bay Books, Atlantic Monthly Press, and Alfred A. Knopf. After moving to Washington, D.C. (because she was burnt out and didn’t know where else to go) and working briefly as a project manager for The Smithsonian Associates (she had a cubicle) and a consultant for Share Our Strength, an anti-poverty non-profit group (she didn’t even have a cubicle), she (finally) finished her first novel (that she’d been writing in her ‘spare time’ for the last five years).

That first novel Animal Husbandry became a  chick lit hit, was sold in about 22 countries and was made into the 2001 rom-com Someone Like You starring Ashley Judd and Hugh Jackman.  Three more books followed, the last coming out in 2006, the same year Zigman’s son was born and that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A lot of other personal losses followed. And so did 14 years of writer’s block.

Luckily for us, Zigman got unblocked (not sure how that sounds) and penned this marvellous novel, a sad and funny semi-autobiographical story about middle age disappointments and what pulls us through- the kindness of others.  Separation Anxiety (working title was “Wearing the Dog”) – will keep you flipping the pages, and wondering if maybe you should try wearing your dog.

photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz

1) Can you tell us a bit about how you conquered your writer’s block and how it and other life disappointments became the subject matter for your new book?

Animal Husbandry, was published almost 22 years ago, in 1998, and my fourth and last novel, Piece of Work, was published almost 14 years ago in 2006. Then there was nothing. In one way, my publishing-math is just a set of numbers, but in another way, those numbers mean everything to me. They mark the time between writing and not writing; publishing and not publishing. But mostly they mark the time between when life was fairly easy and full of possibility, and when it went dark.

Almost everyone goes through the kind of rough patch that I did — a period of time when they’ve grieved people they’ve lost or a version of a themselves they once were. Not everything in life works out – in fact, most things don’t, and sometimes life feels like a series of moments that require difficult acceptance: This is who I thought I would be; this is who I now know I’ll never become. It happens to all of us.

For me, that rough patch lasted almost a decade — from my mid 40s to my mid 50s. I’d had breast cancer, lost both my parents and several friends, and, along with those deaths, had lost the version of myself that identified as a writer and a novelist. I started ghostwriting to earn a living. And while it helped financially, it contributed to me losing my own voice because I was now writing in someone else’s. I was grateful for the work, but I always hoped to return to my own writing someday, even though that seemed impossible: I felt hopelessly blocked, as if that part of my brain had just shorted out.

In 2015, after moving to Harvard Square, friends kept encouraging me to write – to try again. Finally, in between ghostwriting projects and having an actual job-job, I decided to try. I went on Craig’s List and found out that I could rent a shrink’s office when it wasn’t in use — by the hour. So, in four-hour blocks of time on Sundays and Mondays, I’d walk into Harvard Square and sit in an empty psychiatrist’s office. Sometimes, I would write something. Other times I would just play stupid games on my phone. But eventually I took a few sections from a screenplay I’d written a few years earlier and that got me started. It took about three and a half years, in between ongoing ghostwriting projects, to finish a draft of Wearing The Dog, which eventually was retitled Separation Anxiety.

I can honestly say that I never thought I’d ever finish it. Having this second chance at publishing my own work, after so many years of not-writing and of ghostwriting, feels like a miracle.

2) Your main character Judy wears her dog in a sling, a form of emotional support as she struggles with the loneliness of middle age, a teenage child who is pulling away, a husband who smokes a lot of pot and sleeps in the basement,  a dwindling career that once had such promise and a dying best friend. These middle age struggles that you write about so poignantly and with humour are very relatable. Did you think your novel about a woman who wears her dog in a sling could speak to so many?

I think of this novel as starting in a still point: like when you turn your computer off to reset it and the screen goes black. You’re waiting for the power to come back on – you assume it will, but, if you’re like me, there’s a part of you that fears maybe it won’t; that maybe things will stay dark; that maybe the light will never return.

I knew I wanted to write about a woman set in that still point-moment: when loss seems overwhelming; when the sense of possibility you feel when you’re young and when your family is young is lost and has been replaced by melancholy. People you love are gone; dreams you had for yourself haven’t been realized; most things haven’t turned out the way you thought they would. Loss and grief for big and small things can wear you down and wear you out and that’s where Judy is at the beginning of the book. It’s what I knew and what so many people I know have experienced. Everyone I know has hit this point in one form or another – in their marriages; in their careers; following the loss of friends and family – so writing about it felt like channelling a kind of collective consciousness. I didn’t want to sugar-coat Judy’s pain or the pain of anyone in the book.

And yet: I still wanted the book to be funny somehow, because often there is still humor and absurdity happening right alongside everything else. It was very important to me to be honest about the sadness at this point in mid-life because we all struggle with it. We all hit these walls and for some reason we feel like failures when we do. Why not admit it that it’s a normal part of life? Why are we all so ashamed?

3) What books are on your summer reading list? 

I love a few that are out right now: Debra Jo Immergut’s You Again, Jennifer Weiner’s Big Summer, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, and I’m dying to read Want by Lynn Steger Strong. I just read Sue Miller’s Monogamy (coming in the fall), and I’ve got galleys for Alice Hoffman’s prequel to the Practical Magic trilogy, Magic Lessons, and Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind.

4) What’s next?

What’s next is a novel called The Ghostwriter about two sisters who move back in together as adults. It’s so hard concentrating in this era of terrible-and-terrifying news, but when I’m able to work it’s such a welcome distraction.

The rest of my Q&A with Zigman can be found here in 26’s monthly newsletter.

Happy reading

July, 2020