By Rachel Cain
Julie Langsdorf has spent much of her life in the Washington, DC area—granting her first-hand knowledge of the social dynamics within communities in the surrounding area. This insider knowledge is clearly evident in WHITE ELEPHANT (HarperCollins, 2019), her debut novel. WHITE ELEPHANT, which was named one of the 12 new books to watch out for in March by The New York Times, features a fictionalized DC suburb embroiled in a debate about development. Julie kindly took the time to speak with me about her writing life and growing up in DC.
Rachel Cain: I understand you drew inspiration for your novel from a series of articles you read about disputes in DC neighborhoods. To what extent did you draw on these stories while writing the book?
Julie Langsdorf: The stories were a jumping-off point for me. The situations fascinated me because they were such a far cry from the way people feel when someone initially moves into a neighborhood. Neighbors usually invite them to town with cookies—but in the situations I was reading about, they wanted to kill each other. It was interesting to imagine how people might go from here to there. Human behavior is so fascinating.
You completed White Elephant around 2008, and faced challenges finding a publisher. In 2018, you easily located a publisher. How has timing affected this book’s publication? How, if at all, did that waiting period affect the book, and how did it affect you as a writer?
It’s so hard to know exactly why something happens when it does. In large part, I think the book finally got into the right hands. Suzanne Gluck, my amazing agent whom I started working with in October 2017, picked it up out of the slush pile, and she quickly got it to my equally amazing editor, Megan Lynch, at Ecco. Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies had had such success on HBO not long before I sent it out, and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere was selling like crazy, so there was a hunger for neighborhood dramas. We also had a new president and the country was very divided, just as the town is in the fictional Willard Park.
Your novel broaches serious topics and situations while maintaining an air of wit and comedy. How do you balance this tension between the serious and the comedic in your writing?
I wanted to encourage a conversation about the reality of human behavior and frailty, and the best way to do that, for me, was to think about the comic and tragic aspects of life. I hope readers will reflect on the underlying issues, the way humans can be kind of ridiculous, but also sweet and vulnerable: we all feel fear and shame and all of the other emotions even if we claim otherwise. We are all so similar, though we may appear to be quite different. I felt I needed both the comic and the serious to accomplish that.
Throughout the text, you switch between various characters’ voices. This technique offers a rich texture to the storyline in which many people feel misunderstood and/or harbor secrets. What creative opportunities did writing from various viewpoints offer you? What challenges did you face in writing from so many perspectives?
I love writing from multiple perspectives. I’ve tried to write from just one, but I can’t seem to manage more than a short story. I mean, why restrict yourself to one point of view when you can see inside all of your characters’ heads? I’m interested in the difference between what goes on within a person and what they choose to present to the world, and the ways we struggle to communicate. Sometimes working with so many characters is a little like a three-ring circus. Actually, there are many more rings than that in this book. As the author, it’s my job to keep track of them all, even if I can’t keep them all in line. Some days they are more cooperative than others.
When reading the book, I found myself forming judgements and opinions about certain characters that were upended once I read a section from that character’s point of view. In what ways is the reader complicit in the assumptions that cause such fierce disputes in the neighborhood?
I’m so glad to hear that your opinion changed once you read from the perspectives of different characters! That’s one of my goals. We can’t read each others’ minds, but we try to, and usually we read them wrong, misunderstanding why others do what they do, and guessing incorrectly about what they are feeling. I don’t know that the reader is complicit, but I hope they will have a better understanding of how seemingly small issues can take on greater import.
Several main characters are mothers and fathers. It seems motherhood has particularly affected the women’s lives and livelihoods—especially in terms of added responsibility and a sense of disconnect from their envisioned ideal lives—that is not immediately evident for the men. Why did you choose to emphasize this element of the women’s lives?
I think it still tends to be harder for women to create a work-family balance that satisfies them. This is changing, certainly, but for so many years women were responsible for the home and children, even when they had other work they had to do, and men, for the most part, were encouraged to focus on bringing an income home. This struggle, to be there for your young children as much as you’d like to be, but also to fulfill the other needs and wants in your life is something that I think many women continue to struggle with. Certainly it’s true for the women in my book.
Much of the conflict in this book centers on the tension between different people’s concepts of what a “community” should be, both in terms of relationships and aesthetics. These are dynamics neighborhoods still face today. What do you hope readers take away from the novel? What sort of conversations do you hope it sparks?
It’s so easy to vilify the people we think of as ‘other,’ and we seem to be doing it more and more these days. As humans we share so many of the same feelings, and we all want to feel connected and loved; but we’re not very good at expressing these feelings. In the book I hope to convey the idea that people, even those we disagree with, are not all that different from us. I’d love for WHITE ELEPHANT to contribute to the conversation about getting along in this very divided world.
Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
For me, it helps to work every day, even if it’s just for a little while. It’s best to sit down at the same time each day, if you can, to get into the habit. Read a lot. Deconstruct passages and even entire books to figure out what the writer is doing, if you like doing that sort of thing. Eavesdrop wherever you go. Take out your earbuds and be present or you’ll miss all the good stuff. Most importantly, keep at it. It took me thirty years to get my first novel published. You read that right: thirty! Be the little engine that could.