Taffy Brodesser-Akner: ‘People really love how messy the truth is’

The journalist turned novelist on exorcising her fear of divorce, the state of gender relations, and reading Philip Roth at 11

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is an award-winning American journalist who made her name writing profiles for magazines such as GQ and ESPN. In 2017, she was hired by the New York Times, where her work has included an encounter with Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire that went viral. Fleishman Is in Trouble, her first novel, tells the story of divorcees Toby and Rachel Fleishman, respectively a doctor newly immersed in the world of app-based dating and a theatre agent managing her unstinting ambition. Novelist Elizabeth Gilbert describes it as: “Just the sort of thing that Philip Roth or John Updike might have produced in their prime (except, of course, that the author understands women).”

How did you find building characters from scratch? Had you collected scraps from interviewees?
It was really hard, because I’m good at observing. To create someone in order to observe them is a really big game of imagination, and I don’t usually ever have to rely on my imagination. But once I had a character in mind, it was easy for me to say, “What would he do now?” because I believe most people operate from the same impulses. [I didn’t collect] from interviewees but friends. When I turned 40, my friends started getting divorced. I wanted to understand it better because I had so much anxiety about divorce – from the minute I agreed to marry my husband, I have been in an obsessive defence against our marriage ending.

Did you have to resist trying to create the perfect character – how you’d want someone to behave in a profile?
I got into journalism because screenwriting and fiction weren’t working out for me. Back when I started out trying to write [fiction], I made people too perfect because I didn’t know if anyone would ever believe that a loving stable mother could also have seditious dreams of leaving her suburb. Or that a loving father would do whatever he can to make sure he’s having sex every night. Finally I was able to see that I could worship someone like Gwyneth Paltrow and hate her at the same time, and that was something people responded to. What I’ve learned is that people really love how messy the truth is. Then I could approach fiction with the same messiness.

Why do you have Toby as the centre of the story and not Rachel?
I told the story of a male synchronised swimmer a few years ago, and I loved that it was this white man fighting discrimination. It tickled me – putting a problem in the not-usually-oppressed person’s hands is a really easy way for people to understand it. And of the friends who told me their [divorce] stories, the men were having so much more fun. The women dating on apps had so much anxiety. Men keep sending them dick pics, it’s demoralising, they’re worried that they don’t look good any more.

The book is bleak on female ambition.
I remember on election day thinking, of course she [Hillary Clinton] lost – people hate women. All these people wearing “The future is female” T-shirts made me forget. I was so disappointed in myself for allowing the winds of my optimism to gather. The next day, I wrote [the part] about how it will always be in the future that the future is female. There was a time when I wanted the writing to be timeless, but then I thought, that’s not who I am: I can only write about what is going on at this particular minute, and at this particular minute, I am devastated over the state of gender relations.

In the book Rachel is very high-achieving – how do women deal with the pressure that brings?
The only thing that can help me is feeling less alone. I don’t ever want to hear that someone did five hours of kundalini yoga; I want to hear about the roiling dissatisfaction that makes them do it. I will never take tips from anyone. I have spent hours with Gwyneth Paltrow. If I could be like that, I promise you I would be! Instead, the only things that were helpful for me was like when we were talking about her divorce. She said her divorce was the worst thing that happened to her. I do want to hear that nobody thinks they’re making the right decisions; I want to stop asking myself if it comes easier to everyone else, because honestly, it isn’t coming easily to me. Every decision I make I worry is the wrong decision.

Did writing this book assuage or exacerbate your anxiety about divorce?
It assuaged it. I wrote this years ago now, and so the issues in it feel resolved to me. I was obviously struggling so much with something. I have resolved that the book is clearly not about my marriage. I don’t think I ever really gave credit to how traumatic my parents’ divorce was for me. I’m very judgmental about people whose childhood issues [stem from] low-grade trauma – I’m not talking about molestation, but everyone’s parents get divorced. I think that stopped me from really understanding that a divorce is something you can move on from when it’s your parents – until you get married.

You tweeted recently: “I have a certain kind of book that I like.” What kind is that?
I like a difficult book. I don’t mean intellectually devouring; I mean it should make you think about hard things and play with your levels of compassion and invoke all your fears and make you ask yourself hard questions. I like full and total absorption, which happens to me with Donna Tartt, Elena Ferrante, Jonathan Franzen, Phillip Roth, John Irving.

What’s your favourite literary portrayal of a marriage or a divorce?
The Pistachio Prescription by Paula Danziger was the first book I ever read about divorce. I was 10. It was the first time I ever saw that this thing that had happened in my life had happened to others – my family were the first people on our block to get divorced and it was very exotic at the time.

Which other authors have stayed with you since childhood?
When something has an emotional impact on me, I revisit it again and again from a craft perspective to figure out how it did that. So I read all the Judy Blumes and Paula Danzigers. Once you get me, you get me for ever. And from age 11, I was reading Philip Roth, and I reread those over and over – mostly because every time I reread them every two years, I literally understood new things.

Why were you reading Roth at 11?
My mother was very religious and always on the lookout for smut. Everyone in fifth grade was reading the Sweet Valley High books. My mother took one look at those twin girls and she was like: “No way, there is sex in this book, those girls are clearly easy!” My mother was an Israeli immigrant and didn’t have the same kind of literary education we’d had, so my older sister started bringing home Philip Roth books, which only had text on the cover and so we were able to get away with reading them. That’s how I ended up with a confused, traumatised, filthy mind as a 12-year-old.

Which classic novel are you most ashamed not to have read?
It’s not a book but I’ve never read Macbeth and I don’t understand any Macbeth references. I keep meaning to just read the Wikipedia page.

• Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is published by Wildfire (£18.99)


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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