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Laura Dave, L.A. Novelist, on Nora Ephron, Chick Lit and Whether Facebook Makes Us Happy

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Fri, May 25, 2012 at 9:00 AM

click to enlarge ALLEN MURABAYASHI
  • Allen Murabayashi

Laura Dave made a career of writing the kind of fun, unabashedly frothy fiction we all tend to impulse-buy at the airport before long flights, but that doesn't mean she hasn't earned her literary stripes.

For one thing, the author has an MFA from the University of Virginia's highly regarded creative writing program, which also claims as alumni current literary stars Chad Harbach and Eleanor Henderson. But while that program is known for producing the kinds of novels whose covers wind up on the front page of the New York Times' Book Review, Dave says that even in her student days, she had her sights set in an entirely different direction.

"Somebody said to me early on, you can write for other writers, or you can write for readers," Dave said by phone from her home in Los Angeles. "I always wanted to write for readers -- for people who, if they get to read two books a month, my book is the one they want to read." In one writing group, she added, this habit earned her the nickname Laura Ephron, an apt label considering Nora Ephron turns out to be a key figure in Dave's career.

On May 26, Dave will read from her third book, The First Husband, at Barnes & Noble in the Grove. In the meantime, she was kind enough to chat with us.

The First Husband follows Annie, a young travel writer who gets dumped by her first husband and winds up marrying the next man she dates. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired that plot?

I liked the idea of creating a character who was forced to be all over the place for her job, and who then, through a series of accidents, finds herself in almost the exact opposite position of where she imagined she would be. I wanted to see her try to make that work. The novel didn't come from an autobiographical place, as in, the facts don't match my life really, but there is sort of an emotional truth there.

I think I was also trying to look at the idea of freedom versus commitment. I think now there's a huge premium on being free and having endless options whenever we want them. On not being tied down. It makes it hard to create something lasting -- be it a lasting career or a lasting relationship -- and sort of stick with it. Especially if it looks like, over the horizon, or sort of thanks to Facebook or the Internet or what have you, there's another, better option waiting. I wanted to take a hard look at what it takes to stay committed to one lifestyle, one husband, etc., and to be happy about it.

In reviews, your readers seem to bring up the idea that you're writing "for them" fairly often, or that your characters remind them of themselves when they were younger. Do you set out to write for a certain type of audience?

It's funny you should ask that. I had a teacher in grad school, John Wideman, who said something that really stuck with me: His favorite books are like a love letter to one person. I don't necessarily imagine a specific reader when I'm writing, but I do imagine that only one person is ever going to see it. I try to write with that kind of intimacy. That way I'm not concerned with any voices in my head of who's going to see it or what other people are going to think. It's really just a letter to somebody.

I teach every once in a while, and sometimes when my students tell me they're having writer's block, I say, "Try and pretend no one's ever going to read it." And it seems to help.

Your background includes an MFA from UVA, a program known for its highly literary bent. Your aesthetic definitely tends toward a voicier, more candid, funnier style. Did you catch any friction for that back in school, or when you were first starting out?

You know, as a woman writer writing about relationships and marriage and truth in family and that kind of thing -- let's just say the umbrella you and your work fall under is always going to be different than if you were a man writing about those things. I've always been interested in looking at domesticity and the battles that rage there. I made the decision to write about what I want to write about, to make it funny, to make it open instead of sentimental or tragic, and that puts my books in a more lighthearted category, and that's OK.

Your books have been optioned by Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, and you're also married to TV writer Josh Singer. Do you think of your novels in cinematic terms when you're writing? When you're drafting, do you ever think about how they might play out on screen?

I'm doing some screenwriting now actually, and it's funny, I write my novels in exactly the opposite way you're supposed to write a screenplay. I don't outline my fiction. I start with a question that has to do with something I'm curious about. Like with The First Husband, I wanted to know what it looks like to wind up in a life you didn't imagine for yourself. So I started there and never knew what was going to happen more than 20 pages ahead. I knew Annabel was going to leave Massachusetts at some point and go to London, but that's it.

I've never really consciously thought about writing my books as movies. Especially since I've learned since moving out here that there's a long road between optioning a novel for a movie and getting a movie made. When my first book got optioned, I was so excited! But my film agent, very lovingly, was like, you know, it's going to be a very long time before a movie gets made. It's such a hard road that way.

What's your writing process like?

Writing a book usually takes about 18 months from beginning to end. Usually about five months are entirely research. I know my books don't necessarily seem like there's a lot of research in them, but I'm a huge researcher. I go live in the places I'm writing about, and I shadow all the main characters' professions. For example, in my first book I had a Bull Mastiff breeder, so I went to Rhode Island and spent time with a Bull Mastiff breeder. For this book, I spent time with chefs and travel writers. That kind of experience is really important to me. After that, the actual writing usually takes about a year.

Can you talk about a few of the findings that surprised you while you were researching for this book?

I think what writing this book affirmed for me is this idea of figuring out your own authentic happiness versus what you think might make you happy because it's been shoved down your throat. What I mean is, sometimes the most exciting life is the opposite of what we've been told "exciting" looks like.

I think there's a real sheen now to what we think we're supposed to do, or what happiness is supposed to be. You're supposed to post on Facebook all the time and have a glamorous photographic display to match your equally glamorous life, and I think sometimes you can really get lost in that. I like the idea of finding happiness in a quieter way, trying to get to a more authentic version of happiness, which Annie does here.

Besides John Edgar Wideman, which other writers do you credit for helping you become a novelist?

When I was 20 years old I wrote a letter to Nora Ephron and I was, like, "I love you, and I want to come work for you and I want to write books and how do I do that?" And she wrote back! She said, "Don't come work for anybody. Go work for a newspaper. You'll learn more about writing that way than any other way."

After graduate school, I ended up freelancing, and it's probably one of the most helpful things I've done. Journalism reminds you to penetrate the story right away. I actually started out writing for ESPN. I wrote about what the sports guys did in their off time. Like, I'd go with football players to rock concerts on the weekends.

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