I'm excited to be here today with Elyssa Friedland. She's the author of two novels, her first debut novel, Love and Miscommunication, and now The Intermission, out July 3rd. A graduate of Yale University where she was the managing editor of The Yale Daily News, and Columbia Law School, Elyssa started her career working at a law firm before moving to writing full time after the birth of her second child. She has contributed to many publications including New York Magazine, Modern Bride, Real Simple, and most recently, The Washington Post. She grew up in New Jersey and currently lives in New York City with her husband and three young children.
Elyssa Friedland: Hi, Zibby.
Zibby: Hi, Elyssa. How are you?
Elyssa: I'm good. How's it goin’?
Zibby: Good. Thanks for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Elyssa: Thank you for having me. I'm excited.
Zibby: Of course. For listeners who don't know the backstory of The Intermission, could you give them a quick summary of what it’s about?
Elyssa: It’s about a couple, Cass and Jonathan Coyne, who have been married for five years. They are on the brink of starting a family. They are going to try to have their first child. Cass, the wife, has a bit of a freak-out and asks for a six-month intermission from their marriage to clear her head and think about whether they are right for each other. The book alternates between Jonathan and Cass’s perspective on how the separation is going and what happens while they're apart.
Zibby: I heard that the idea for The Intermission came to you when you watching your husband methodically do the dishes. You were sitting there thinking you could do it faster and better. Is that right?
Elyssa: That is true. This is my second novel. My first book was about a woman who gives up the internet for a year. It was a very different kind of a book. I was waiting for inspiration for my next book and knew I wanted to tackle a man’s voice. I like to take on a different challenge every time I write. I definitely want to have a male character. Whether it’s going to be a huge part of the book, I don't know. I was fleshing that out and thinking. I was at the kitchen counter. My husband was washing the dishes. I feel bad even complaining and telling this story because at least he's doing the dishes. A lot of people would say, “My husband has never loaded the dishwasher. What are you complaining about?”
This is marriage. We all find our faults and complain about things that seem silly to someone else. I was watching him. He was lifting every fork and analyzing, “Should it go face-up? Should it go face-down? This plate is oval. This one is round. Can they be next to each other?” It was a thirty-minute process. That's very him. He puts on sunscreen. It takes him so long. I'm surprised he’s not sunburned before he's done putting on the sunscreen. He's very slow and very methodical. I'm a super speedy person, for better or for worse. I definitely am sloppy. I have terrible handwriting. I forget things. I'm a little bit more of a mess. I am very, very fast at everything I do. I was watching him load the dishwasher and feeling this slow boil inside me. I said, “I'm going to write about marriage.” Marriage is so interesting. The fact that it ever works is kind of a miracle.
Zibby: I agree with that. I love in the book how you alternated between Cass and Jonathan’s point of view, although I feel like I want to call him Jon because I'm annoyed that Cass called him Jonathan. I feel like I really went through these six months with the two of them. I got to know them so well. I found myself really hoping for a certain outcome. I won't give away the end, but I was hoping for a different outcome than what ended up happening.
I was wondering did you try to push the reader to feel a certain loyalty towards either Cass or Jonathan? Did you know from the beginning of the book how it was going to unfold? Was it one of these things where the book just wrote itself as you went along?
Elyssa: The book definitely wrote itself. I don't outline in general. It’s not my style of writing. It really tramples on my creativity when I feel stuck to a script. Of course you can change your outline. It’s not like you're under a legal contract to stick to it. The whole construct of deciding how a book is going to go before I really feel the characters is antithetical to the way that I write. I also don't write mysteries, so it’s not as essential that I follow a specific formula. I really felt my way through the book. I really wanted to have a very evocative book, a book that makes people feel things very strongly and very deeply.
Yes, I wanted moments where the reader wanted to strangle Cass and want to tell her off as though she was a real person, a friend you wanted to give a good shake to and say, “What are you doing?” but then find themselves a hundred pages later all of a sudden feeling tremendous sympathy for her and almost forgetting how angry they were at her a hundred pages ago, the same journey with Jonathan where you're like, “This guy’s so nice. Why is she giving him such a hard time?” Then you're like, “Actually, he’s a little more complicated than I thought he was.” Obviously, I don't want to give it away and I know you don't want to give away any spoilers. I wanted an outcome that I could picture a book club debating and having people feel like, “I'm a thousand percent thrilled. This is what I wanted all along,” and other people saying the exact opposite and getting a little heated over that.
Zibby: Totally. I finished the book. I was sitting here. I was like, “I want to talk to somebody about this.” [laughs] Who can I talk to about this?
Elyssa: That was definitely what I wanted. Hopefully now that the book will be out in the world, there’ll be people to chat with about it.
Zibby: I'm sure a million people are going to be reading it. I just meant at that particular moment in my bedroom.
Elyssa: Most people I've talked to, my early readers, were happy with the outcome. I'm very interested that it was not the outcome you wanted. Offline, we’ll connect on that. We won't give away any spoilers.
Zibby: Not that I didn't like it. I loved the book. I just got so invested in it, I couldn't believe how much. I got so into your characters.
Elyssa: Thank you. I'm happy. That's exactly what I want to hear. I tried my best to create extremely three-dimensional characters that were as real as possible.
Zibby: You really did. I feel like I know these people now, and I should see them on the street or something. You put a lot of emphasis in the book on how Cass and Jonathan came from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Jonathan is this traditional, vineyard-going WASP, and Cass, whose mother lives at a Motel 6, basically.
How do you think their backgrounds were so relevant to their stories? Do you think it’s a big stumbling block in a relationship to come from different backgrounds like that?
Elyssa: Yes. I really wanted to tackle that. It’s an elephant in the room. Often people from different backgrounds don't even meet that easily. Certainly in high school, it’s typically very homogeneous. You're with people who are very similar to you. College, while it can be a melting pot, it can also be “stick to what you're familiar with.” I went to private school. Then I went off to college. Socially, I was connecting. It seemed like more often than not those people also went to private school. I certainly encountered people that were different than me.
Cass and Jonathan first meet in college. It’s the first time for both of them that they are connecting with people different from them. It can be a great advantage to a relationship to come from different backgrounds, certainly great for when you have children that you can bring two different experiences to the table. It’s impossible and it would be disingenuous to ignore the differences. There are subtle ways that they offend the other. Jonathan wants to feel that he is above carrying about how much money somebody has, and this and that. There are little things like his privileged upbringing -- he’s used to having a housekeeper. That's just the way things were for him growing up. He can't even almost conceive of a different way. He's a smart guy. He knows intellectually Cass grew up really poor. Her and her mom were evicted from different homes. It’s really, really rough. She couldn't have birthday parties and things like other children. It’s different knowing it. It’s different living it. There's a flashback scene where Cass is at dinner. I think it’s Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner with Jonathan’s family. His father’s complaining about some resort offering some deals and it’s attracting a different element. It’s not even Jonathan saying it. She feels wounded. She's self-conscious.
The flipside is she holds it against Jonathan that he never had to struggle. It’s not his fault that he was born into a very comfortable family. Yet she finds herself frustrated that he’s really never known what it’s like to watch your mother’s credit card get cut in half and the other indignities that she had to suffer. There can be many, many successful relationships where people come from different backgrounds. In fact, one of my points in the book is that nobody comes from the same background even if you grew up in the same town. Everybody parent’s marriage was different. Everybody's life experiences are different even when you are more homogeneous socioeconomically. These differences are pretty stark. The book tries to say that as much as we'd like to ignore the differences, it’s pretty much impossible not to. It’s impossible to ignore them. There's too many differences they had growing up. It leads to inevitable conflict.
Zibby: When Cass tells Jonathan about the break, she's upset originally that he doesn't think she could be requesting it because she's seeing someone else and that he believes her right away when she says the break is not about another guy. You write from Cass’s viewpoint and say, “Why didn't he picture some greasy tennis instructor in white shorts wetting her whistle? Maybe he believed she was more complex than a cliché, though that was optimistic.” What do you make of that cliché? Why did Cass get so upset then?
Elyssa: She really wants to see herself as appealing. She wants him to feel that jealously, that there's some guy who's better looking than him and more attractive than him that's getting her excited. Their sex life is not great anymore. They're tired. They’ve been together for five years. The sex is not the same as when they first got together. A part of her wanted him to have a surge of jealousy and feel like, “Who's better than me? Who’s more sexy and attractive to you than I am?” He doesn't seem to fall into that. He seems to believe her and take what she says at face value. She expected that he would be overcome with jealousy. When he's not -- again, she’s a very insecure person -- she’s like, “Why doesn't he feel like someone else is into me?” That's where she expected his mind to go. She's very pretty. She's very interesting. Of course another man would be interested in her. He doesn't go there right away. She's almost disappointed.
Zibby: You continue with the tennis themes later. You say, “They were living in a no man’s land relationship-wise, the place on the tennis court where you miss every shot. The purgatory seemed to be working for the time being, but only a fool would think it could continue that way indefinitely.” Are you a big tennis fan? What's with all the tennis stuff?
Elyssa: I like the association with tennis and Jonathan’s upbringing, the tennis club. I love tennis. I do.
Zibby: Me too. I'm a big fan. That's why I'm asking the question.
Elyssa: I love tennis. I'm not actually good, but I love to watch it. I'm very out of shape. I tried to play tennis recently and realized that it uses completely different muscles than [audio cuts out] tennis. I was out of breath in five minutes. I thought, “How's that possible? I go to the gym all the time.” It’s really different. I really respect tennis players. I find it to be a very sexy sport.
Zibby: I married a former tennis pro, so I'm particularly invested in this.
Elyssa: Oh, my god. A college player?
Zibby: Yeah. He was a coach. He coached people on the tour. It was great.
Elyssa: It’s very sexy. I'm into tennis players. Nadal, I'm into them. Federer is my number one. I go on Google and I stare at pictures of him.
Zibby: Wimbledon’s going on now. You got to check him out.
Elyssa: I know. I love him.
Zibby: Not to veer off. Anyway, you got married when you were twenty-five, which for these days is pretty young.
Elyssa: Super young.
Zibby: Super young. How much, if any of this, is autobiographical?
Elyssa: It’s young for New York. I forget what it’s called, the amygdala or whatever part of the brain controls decision-making, some neurologist was just saying that the part of your brain that controls decision-making isn't even fully developed until you're twenty-five or you're twenty-six, which is why a lot of bad stuff happens in college and a lot of bad decisions. That part of the brain is not as developed as the analytical part that's doing math equations. My husband was twenty-nine. He went into it fully formed. He went into it with his decision-making powers intact. I feel like I was very young. The future is long. Who knows? For right now, things are great. I feel almost like I won the lottery in a way. We dated for a very short amount of time. I was extremely young. I was twenty-three when we met. The fact that it’s working is nothing short of a miracle. I barely knew myself when we got together. I feel lucky that it’s going well so far.
Zibby: He must be pretty laid back. The essay you wrote recently for the On Parenting column in The Washington Post, which was called “We were drowning in diapers and scheduling sex. But then we got our groove back,” it was a great article by the way. Everybody listening should definitely read it. It’s online on The Washington Post. You talked about after giving away all your baby stuff in your home now that the kids are out of the baby phase. You said you were so ecstatic. You said it helped revive your relationship with your husband. You wrote that life still wasn’t perfect. You wrote, “We aren’t tired every minute of every day. We are a couple, not just parents of the same children. Best of all, we have sex in the morning sometimes spontaneously.” I'm sure many parents can relate to that feeling of being in the weeds with the kids and the bedroom being a revolving door of kids in the night and everything.
First of all, how does your husband feel about you talking about this personal stuff with him? Maybe talk a little about how your life has changed with your kids getting a little bit older.
Elyssa: He was completely fine with the article. He's a very laid-back person. There are times when I'm like, “Is there a pulse?” My friends who know him really, really well are like, “What is going to get him angry? Let's make a game where we try to ruffle his feathers.” He's so calm and collected. I'm not like that at all. That's a humongous part of the attraction. I know you've got kids, obviously. There are times they go in for a medical test. Probably ninety-nine percent, everything's going to be fine. There's a one percent chance that you're going to hear something really horrible. All I can fixate on is the one percent and that feeling until I get the call from the doctor, “Bloodwork is fine. Everything is fine.” All he can focus on is the ninety-nine percent. “It is so unlikely that something could be wrong. How could you even be upset in advance?”
He's a very calm person. That is a massive part of what I find sexy and attractive about him. I'm amazed by him. It’s not something that he works at. If it was something he worked at, I would try to work at it too. I would try to change myself. This is just how he is. He was born this way. His mother’s like that. She's very calm. He's very calm. It’s in the DNA. Other than popping an occasional pill to calm down, like a Xanax every now and then, I just accept that this is who I am. I'm a nervous person. He's calm. He doesn't really mind that I put that article out there. Now the world knows. We have sex in the morning. He’s feelin’ pretty good about what I put out there. It is really true. Other people feel completely differently about the fact that -- I mention one friend in the article, but she's not the only one.
I have a lot of friends that “went through a mourning period” when the baby stage ended. They sobbed and sobbed when they did their last walk out of preschool and into kindergarten, any major milestone that indicated that they are no longer parents of babies. They love all the grammatical mistakes that their kids make, which I find adorable too. Then all of a sudden, their kid can pronounce a word correctly and they're sobbing. “Not a baby anymore.” Of course I love all that cuteness. My littlest is not even five yet. He’s about to be five. He’s still this squishy, cute kid. I'm really happy that I don't travel with a diaper bag anymore. He doesn't have a highchair in a restaurant. There's no special equipment to enjoy being with him. He doesn't have accidents anymore. He’s a person.
I say it in the article, it’s paradoxical. It’s so weird to me. He's older, which means I'm older. Yet him being older makes me feel younger because I'm not physically doing this “dirty work” anymore. I leave him in the bath. I can turn my back and run and answer the phone. It’s not like I'm there watching him in the little baby tub. I could even say, “Here's the bar of soap,” and he soaps himself up. It’s not as backbreaking anymore. Also, just walking down the street not pushing a stroller in front of me -- it was like The Handmaid’s Tale where they're covered in these burka-like things. My identity walked in front of me. I was behind pushing the stroller. It was this imagine of being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Now, I'm not like that. I walk side by side my kid. We hold hands. It’s different. People see me first before they see the stroller. I feel free. I love it. A lot of people I know also love it. A lot of people don't and are really depressed and sad about it. It’s very personal. I don't know how you were when you got to that stage.
Zibby: My son still has diapers. I have a little guy still. I feel both ways. I can relate to you. I get really anxious about everything myself. I have a very laid-back husband. I'm super anxious. I agree with you. That's a really good combination. As the kids get older, some of that anxiety goes away because they seem less fragile in a way, like what you're saying about the bathtub. I'm with you. Having more sturdy, older kids, you can relax a little more in some ways.
You said somewhere that you are obsessed with sleep and you get nine hours a night of sleep, and yet you have three kids. I want to know how is this possible? How do you get that much sleep?
Elyssa: I'm a tremendous sleeper, so much so it’s actually debilitating. If I don't get those hours, I'm a terrible parent the next day. I'm a terrible spouse. I was talking about my husband and his calmness. Again, I believe this is firmly in the DNA. I require a massive quantity of sleep. I cannot keep my eyes open. I put my kids to sleep and then I get in bed. I'm off and sleeping twenty minutes later. I'm fast asleep nine o’clock, nine ten. It’s not so much on the other side because I have to get up to make lunch, get them ready for school. It’s the other side. My brain actually stops working. It’s debilitating. I didn't know myself well enough a few years ago. I would say I’ll pay the bills at night or I’ll respond to that email at night. Now, I know it’s not happening. I can't get to it during the day, but I know that I have to wait for the next morning. The chances of my doing anything that requires brain power in the evening is impossible. Like a machine with an off switch, I turn off. I fall asleep easily around nine, nine fifteen, every night.
Zibby: Wow. I'm jealous.
Elyssa: It’s terrible. It’s terrible for being a working mother.
Zibby: It’s not terrible. It’s enviable to get yourself to bed, so many distractions at night and everything. Speaking of distractions, your first debut novel, Love and Miscommunication, was about a woman, Evie Rosen, who decides to go phone-free. She's had enough. You've said before in articles that the advice your husband and kids would probably give you would be to get off your phone.
I'm wondering are you a phone addict, or are you just like all the rest of us trying to keep up with everything all the time?
Elyssa: I think I'm a phone addict. Yes, it’s definitely true that I have to keep up. There are times for ten minutes where I'm like, “I'm not going to look at my phone.” Then I have a text message from my son’s counselor in camp. “He vomited. You need to come get him.” Great. The one time I tried to not look at my phone, there's something urgent that came up. There are many times where I'm with all my children. Everybody is present and accounted for and totally fine. I'm still reaching for it to go look on Instagram, which is so terrible.
I don't know what to do. I saw that book, How to Break Up with Your Phone. It’s got a yellow cover. Maybe I’ll buy that book and try to read that. It’s totally fine when they're not around and I'm going through, I'm responding to emails. When they're around, why I can't control the impulse to look on Instagram is very upsetting to me. You know, we’re around similar age. We didn't have this when we were kids. We function. Our parents function. They manage to go to a doctor’s office, sit in the waiting room, and not have their phone to scroll through. They weren’t more bored than we are. That's just what you did. They're fine.
Zibby: It’s so funny. I sometimes now feel annoyed when I'm with my mom if she starts being on her phone. I don't know if you ever had that with your mom. I'm like, “Mom, you're with me. Why are you on your phone?”
Elyssa: I definitely have friends whose moms are really into their phones. It drives them crazy. I happen to have a mom who never looks at her phone because she doesn't have great vision and can barely see the screen. She's not into it. I have a number of friends whose moms are on Instagram. They're texting. They're always checking their email. It does drive their kids crazy. Luckily, I don't have that. I'm really upset about it. I got to deal with it, maybe this summer.
Zibby: If a close girlfriend came to you and said she was having doubts about her marriage similar to Cass and Jonathan in The Intermission, would you recommend she take a six-month break like Cass and Jonathan? What would you say to her?
Elyssa: I think therapy is very interesting. Both people have to believe in therapy in order to go to a couple’s counselor and deal with that. I'm a believer in therapy. I think it’s great. If one of the two comes at it with a very skeptical point of view about the benefits of it, then I don't know how successful and helpful it would be. Both parties have to be on board. A separation can be particularly helpful if you're a really, really busy person and just getting through the day is hard. You don't even have the mental space to take the time you need for yourself and evaluate what it is that you want. The physical separation can be very helpful.
Zibby: Jonathan’s view in the book, he said, “Life wasn’t about choosing to be single on Mondays and married on Tuesdays or getting to be a parent every other week. It was about picking a lane and committing to it.” Is this what you believe? Is this just what you wanted us to hear from Jonathan?
Elyssa: In that moment I feel like Jonathan is very frustrated. It’s not what I believe. You're always a parent. There are divorced parents who don't have full custody of their kids. They're just as much parents as everyone else. There are arrangements in marriages where both people decide that it can be open or look the other way. Marriages take many, many, many, many different forms. That was an expression of Jonathan’s exasperation, feeling that Cass was being impulsive and childish in wanting to have it all in that moment. That was meant to capture his frustration in the moment.
Zibby: In terms of the process of writing both of your books, you had different publishers for the two books. Is that correct?
Zibby: How was that process? How did that come to be? Compare and contrast the two experiences of writing both those novels.
Elyssa: I not only switched publishers, but I also switched agents between the two books. It’s a lot of transition for me. The first time around I had a lovely agent but in a very different stage in her career. She is a tremendous success, but she was wrapping up her career, I would say, and did not live locally. I require a lot of hand-holding. As I mentioned before, I'm a very nervous person. I wanted someone local. There was the agent switch. The first book, it was weird. I really didn't feel like I had a job because I would write it but there was no guarantee it was going to sell. When people were like, “Do you work?” I would just say, “No. I'm a stay-at-home mom.” They'd have to drag it out of me that I was working on a book. Until I had a contract, it didn't feel real to me.
Now, I feel like a more authentic person with a real profession. I always had a profession even when I was working on the first book. It’s just that I'm a very concrete person so until I had a check and a contract, it didn't feel real to me. I was with HarperCollins. They were great. I had a very good experience with my first book. I switched agents. She went out and shopped the book. I got a better offer from Penguin. Money talks. They offered me a two-book deal. I have another book coming out next summer. Back to being someone who likes things concrete, I would rather have a two-book deal and know that I have a contract even if it means that maybe I'm getting less money for the second book. I'd rather just know the bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
I switched editors. I have a great relationship with my editor. She's also a young mom. We bond over that. My agent’s a young mom. We’re all working women in similar stages of life, which is no joke. That really helps that we talk about packing for sleepaway camp and having a child home sick from school. Being able to send an email to my editor or my agent saying, “I need to cancel the call,” or “I can't turn this in. Sam has Coxsackie.” “You're dealing with Coxsackie? I’ll talk to you in three days.” We speak a common language.
Zibby: I speak that language. I get ya. [laughs]
Elyssa: It’s very helpful.
Zibby: What's the next book about?
Elyssa: The next book is a multigenerational Jewish family on a cruise ship together to celebrate the grandma’s seventieth birthday.
Zibby: I love it.
Elyssa: There's seven or eight main characters who narrate the story. I was really into what I did with The Intermission with the alternating perspectives. I was like, “Let's add more people. Let's have a full ensemble cast of people doing this together.” What could go wrong trapping people on a boat?
Zibby: That's my worst nightmare.
Elyssa: I know. I went on a cruise last year for research with my family.
Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How was it?
Elyssa: It was my worst nightmare.
Zibby: It’s that whole being-out-of-control feeling.
Elyssa: With so many other people.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring novelists out there?
Elyssa: It’s a lot of butt-in-chair, as they say. Everybody's different. For me, setting a word count goal per day really helps. Then I feel like I know when to stop. Whether it was good or it was bad, I got something accomplished. I set out to write three thousand words today. I did it. I can move on. I can guilt-free go out for lunch with a friend or guilt-free go to pickup instead of sending my nanny because I feel like I got what I set out to do. That helps keep me focused.
Read. Your book’s all about moms not having time to read, which of course is so, so true. Another thing I'm starting to do to break up with my phone a little bit is always having my Kindle with me. When I feel myself getting that twitch of “I need a little fix,” instead of reaching for my phone, I'm taking out my Kindle. I'm reading in very short spurts. Maybe I have six minutes at pickup before my kids come out of school. Instead of scrolling through Instagram, I'm reading. I'm not sitting down the way we did twenty years ago for an hour and a half and reading a novel. I'm doing it in short spurts. All the reading has really helped my writing. I hadn’t read a book in so long before I set out to write my first one. Now, because I'm in the industry, I read all the time. It has improved my writing tremendously.
Zibby: Excellent. Great advice. Congratulations on The Intermission. I became so attached to it, as I said. I really recommend it. It was a great read. Congratulations. I'm sure you'll have lots of success with it going forward. I can't wait to follow your career and see what else happens.
Elyssa: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me, such a good discussion.
Zibby: No problem. Take care, Elyssa.
Elyssa: Take care. Buh-bye.