Excerpted from The Opposite of Love by Julie Buxbaum. Copyright © 2008 by Julie Buxbaum. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Julie Buxbaum
Random House Reader’s Circle: Before writing The Opposite of Love, you were a lawyer. How much of Emily’s experience at the law firm is based on your own?
Julie Buxbaum: Though I worked at a much gentler firm than Emily’s, the mundane details of her working life were definitely borrowed from my time as a lawyer and from my friends’ experiences–the long hours, the tedium, the windowless rooms full of thousands of documents waiting to be read, page-by-page. The bathroom as a respite. Worse, getting paged in a stall. But– and I probably get asked this question more than any other–I never encountered anyone like Carl, nor had to sleep in a horrible motel bathtub in Arkansas. (I am not sure why, but this fact always seems to disappoint readers.) Unfortunately, I have heard quite a few shocking sexual harassment stories from lawyer friends, though, so I do think it’s fair to say that what happened to Emily happens to young women in law firms a lot more often than people would like to think.
RHRC: What made you decide to become a writer, and how does it compare to your previous life as a lawyer?
JB: I actually became a writer as a result of a New Year’s resolution, probably the only resolution I’ve ever managed to keep.
After practicing law for a few years, I suddenly realized that I was sleepwalking through my life. My days were spent daydreaming about the weekends, and come the weekend, I’d be struck with the Sunday night blues–that creeping dread of Monday morning that anyone who has had a job they disliked knows all too well. I had always wanted to write a novel, and the time finally felt right to take the plunge. After making my vow on New Year’s Eve, I quit my job and sat down the very next day to start what ultimately became The Opposite of Love.
As for how my life has changed since becoming a writer, I have not worn a business suit in three years; instead, I now spend an inordinate amount of time in my pajamas. Rather than obsessively citing case law, I now get to make stuff up for a living. (I guess some lawyers make stuff up too, but it’s generally not a good idea.) Better yet, I actually look forward to Monday mornings these days. A lot of the time, writing doesn’t feel like “work,” or at least not what I’ve always assumed “work” was supposed to feel like. So I guess the simplest way of describing the difference is to say that being a writer nourishes me in a way that being a lawyer never did.
RHRC: What sparked the idea for The Opposite of Love?
JB: Basically, I started with the thematic question of what happens when you delay grief. How does the corrosive power of an early traumatic loss play out on a day-to-day basis years after the fact? Does it change who we are as people? From there, I began to picture Emily, someone who has spent more than a decade running from the loss of her mother. Once I got to know her, to fully understand who Emily was as a person, I saw how the accumulation of choices she made along the way all stemmed from that central question about grief–her willingness to put up with a tedious job, for example, or the way she deals with Andrew or her father. Only then did she become a character with a story to tell.
RHRC: What’s your process like?
JB: I don’t have much of a process. I’m always impressed by writers who tack note cards to a bulletin board or who create complicated Excel spreadsheets. For me, “process” is just a fancy word for “routine.” I get up in the morning, make coffee, sit at my desk, waste too much time online, put on classical music (my way of signaling to myself that the workday has officially started), take a few minutes to review and edit yesterday’s pages, and then I start writing. A lot of time, maybe even most of the time, the writing part is torturous. But every once in a while, I’ll nail a sentence, or a paragraph, or figure out a plot point that hasn’t been working for me, and those moments bring such a rush that I forget about everything else. And that’s when I know I’m doing my job–when I so lose myself that I don’t notice time slipping by in the real world, and forget all of the silly details that normally rule my brain. (Did I pay my credit card bill? Is there milk in the fridge? When was the last time I shaved my legs?) It’s strange and wonderful feeling–like almost forgetting to exist for a little while.
RHRC: All of your characters are so engaging and relatable, and they each have such distinct personalities. Do you have a favorite?
JB: I am one of those embarrassing writers who talks about my characters as if they are real people living in an alternate universe somewhere. And I have to confess that some small part of me might actually believe this. So after spending so much of my time with Emily, I feel almost guilty admitting that she is not my favorite. But–despite the fact that I do love her as a character, and no doubt know her the best–she’s not.
Ruth wins that one, perhaps in part because she is still a mystery to me, and in part because I would love to have someone like that in my life. Her characterization in the book is necessarily limited by Emily’s knowledge, and so we don’t get to see a complete portrait of her as person–we don’t know, for example, what her kids think of her, what sort of wife she was, what it was like to work for her when she was a judge. Before I sat down to write about Ruth, I always believed I had a full and complete picture of who she was in my head, but somehow she kept surprising me on the page. Come to think of it, maybe she’s my favorite because she reinforces that illusion that she does exist somewhere else, somewhere just beyond my control.
RHRC: Your descriptions of New York City are utterly vivid and familiar. Did you intend for the city itself to play such a large role in the book? How much has living in New York influenced you and your writing?
JB: I think it’s practically impossible to set a book in New York without the city becoming an essential character. It has an amazing amount of adaptability. Beyond even neighborhood (setting a book in Harlem is completely different from setting a book in the East Village, for example), New York forces you to deal with certain questions of city life: How do your characters react to living in a place so full of people? Does it give them a feeling of power, or are they sapped by its opposite, insignificance? In Emily’s case, I used the city almost as a mirror for her emotional state–much like her choice of a job, living in New York for Emily is about succumbing to numbness. To that end, much of my description of the city intentionally revolves around sound and its peculiar brand of white noise. And I think Emily’s New York is a lonely one; a place where she can indulge in too much thinking about her own anonymity, a place where she turns to her doorman for solace.
For me, I found that living in New York created this bizarre situation where I would see someone every single day–the lady with the yappy dog in my building, the guy who commuted on the 6 train at the same time, the woman at Starbucks who made my coffee–and still pretend like I’d never seen them before in my life. Weirder still, I was supposed to pretend that we were all strangers; whenever I did say hello, I always felt like I was breaking some sort of tacit New York pact.
In the book, Marge noticing Emily (or not noticing her, as the case may be) matters more to her than it should. But those circumstances–being strangers and not strangers at once–and Emily’s neurosis around it too, is quintessential New York to me.
RHRC: Some of the most touching scenes are those with Emily’s grandfather, Jack. What was your inspiration for that particular storyline? Did you have that kind of relationship with your own grandparents?
JB: Since so much of Emily’s life is shaped by the loss of her mother, I wanted to contrast that experience with a different kind of loss, a “good death,” in a way. When Grandpa Jack dies, Emily is devastated but realizes his passing is in the natural order of things. (She’s also in a place in her life where she finally has the ability to cope with it. To put it crudely, she’s grown up.) But at the start, before I knew where the novel was going, I created Grandpa Jack because I felt Emily needed at least one parental figure in her life. She had already been robbed of too much. I was incredibly close to my grandparents, both of whom had a huge impact on who I am today. My grandmother was a shortstory writer and poet in the thirties–I keep a scrapbook of her work on my desk–and was the reason I fell in love with reading when I was a kid. It was important to me to create older characters who weren’t condescended to or reduced to a “cute” archetype. I wanted to create people who had wisdom and experience, yes, but who also felt like real people in the real world.
RHRC: In your mind, was there always going to be a happy ending with Emily and Andrew? Or did this evolve naturally while you were writing?
JB: I always hoped there would be a happy ending with Emily and Andrew (or I guess depending on how you look at it, a happy rebeginning), but I was only going to let that happen if Emily worked for it. And she does! I sometimes encounter readers who are surprised that Andrew took her back, but I never felt that way. In my mind, at least, Andrew wasn’t the type of character to let his pride trump love. (I find it interesting to wonder, though, whether the question of one taking the other back would arise at all had the genders of the characters been switched.) I think it’s also worth nothing that though Emily grows up a lot over the course of the book, I don’t think she is fully restored at the end of the novel. She has as happy an ending as she can manage, but I don’t think she has stopped feeling the repercussions of her loss. To be honest, I am not sure one ever does.
RHRC: What are some of your favorite books, and whose work has inspired you?
JB: This question always makes me anxious, and gives me the same feeling I used to have as a kid when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up: You mean I have to choose? But what if some days I want to be a firewoman and others an astronaut? I always make sure to have a bunch of very different books around for exactly this reason, because it turns out I haven’t changed much: Some days I do want to be a firewoman and some days I want to spacewalk. Often, I love to curl up with Anna Quindlen or Elizabeth Berg. Recently, I went on a Martin Amis kick, followed by a re-diving into Jane Austen. I always love Milan Kundera (lately I’ve been digging his nonfiction work on the novel form). And when I feel like a big, fulfilling read–a book that is guaranteed to inspire me and make me fall in love with the written word all over again–I turn to two very different and extraordinary writers: Richard Powers and Marilynne Robinson. That being said, I do have an all-time favorite book that I have loved since childhood: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I revisited the classic many, many times in the past year since it plays a central role in my next novel. And even on the hundredth reading, it still holds up.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. What was your perception of the letter at the beginning of the novel? Did this future glimpse of Emily in the years after the story takes place influence your reading experience, or how you related to the character, as her past unfolded? Did knowing the outcome affect your judgment of her actions?
2. What is Jess referring to when she tells Emily, “It’s like you get pleasure out of breaking your own heart?” (page 46) Is she referring only to the breakup with Andrew? What else in Emily’s past or present could this apply to?
3. “This is who I am: someone who simultaneously longs for and fears the commitment of remembering.” (page 3) How is memory a commitment? Do memories make you the person you are? Are they something you can regulate?
4. Why doesn’t Emily report Carl’s lewd inappropriateness in the Arkansas hotel room, or any of his other advances? What would you have done if put in Emily’s situation? Do you think the portrayal of Emily’s experience working in a law firm is realistic—that sexual harassment cases like this still exist? And, if so, do they often go unreported?
5. Did you expect Andrew to take Emily back? Do you think she deserves him? Is he too perfect, or does he have chinks in his armor?
6. For part of her story, Emily is a workaholic, commitment-phobic, tough lawyer who compartmentalizes her emotions. Is that a description that is often applied to young women today, or it more associated with male behavior? Is it more unusual to see a woman behave this way than a man?
7. How do the women in Emily’s life—Jess, Kate, Ruth, Dr. Lerner, Carisse, Miranda Washington, even Marge, the security guard—affect Emily over the course of the novel? What does each unique woman bring to her? In which ways do they ultimately help her, knowingly or unknowingly? Do you think they can be seen as maternal, in their own ways?
8. The death of Emily’s mother was an extremely profound event in Emily’s childhood and greatly influenced her personality as an adult. How did she process her grief at that time, and what were the lasting effects? Did you empathize with her father and the distance he created in their relationship, or do you find fault with his actions?
9. What was your impression of the men in this novel—from Mason to Carl, Andrew to Grandpa Jack—did they break or perpetuate stereotypes? If so, how?
10. Do you share Emily’s belief that the only unconditional love is from a parent to a child? Reflecting on her mother’s death, Emily surmised that she would have to spend the rest of her life earning someone else’s love. Do you think love is often idealized as unwavering and a given, yet the reality is it that it cannot be taken for granted and involves effort to cultivate?
11. How effective are the e-mail notes throughout the book? Have e-mails become our own form of letter writing? Do they hold the same value as a handwritten note? Do you think different generations of readers would give the same answer to this question? Compare Ruth’s e-mail writing style with Emily or Andrew’s.
12. Describe some of the small acts of kindness different characters bestow upon Emily. Are they usually given by family members, acquaintances, strangers?
13. What role does absence play in the novel? For instance, Emily is disappointed when Robert, her doorman, isn’t there when she comes home on Christmas Eve—she misses him, and his kindness, which she usually takes for granted. How could this concept be applied to her relationship with Grandpa Jack, her parents, or even to Andrew?
14. Is Emily mature or immature for her age? Does your opinion change as the novel progresses? How do you define maturity? Has your definition evolved as you yourself have gotten older?
15. Emily’s concept of “the opposite of love” shifts over the course of the book. What is your concept of love’s “opposite?” Could it be defined as hate, indifference, apathy, simply the absence of love, or something else entirely?