Written by: Matthew Wisnefsky
Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, MA. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. Her debut novel, The Two-Family House, was a USA Today bestseller and a nominee for the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards in Historical Fiction. Her second novel, The Wartime Sisters, was selected as a Woman’s World Book Club pick and a Best Book of 2019 by Real Simple Magazine. She is currently at work on her third novel.
[This interview was conducted over email.]
How does your writing process begin? Where does your inspiration come from? (For example, a specific line, or a memory?) How does it proceed from there?
The process has been slightly different for each book, but my stories usually begin with the question “What if?” With my debut novel, The Two-Family House, the inspiration for the setting came from stories my mother and aunts used to tell me about their childhood, growing up in a two-family house in Brooklyn. They lived upstairs, and my grandmother’s brother lived downstairs with his wife and three daughters. The six girls were playmates and friends, and the families spent a lot of time together.
The idea for the plot of the book came to me separately, and much later. A few months after my first child was born, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about new technology that doctors were using to help couples preselect the gender of their babies. The article made me think about how all-consuming a wish for a child of a certain gender could be. After I read it, I began to reimagine the house of my mother’s childhood – what if the upstairs family had all boys and the downstairs family had all girls? A two-family house seemed like a perfect place for tension and jealousy to percolate.
What is the most challenging part of the writing process for you and what are some strategies you use to overcome that?
For me, the most difficult part is putting the words on the page. My favorite part is thinking about the story and letting the characters percolate. I’m not much of an outliner, but I always know how my stories will begin and how they will end. I have a vague idea of the middle too – I know certain key scenes that I want to include and certain character arcs I want to achieve. But when it comes to the part where I have to write the words, it can be a little bit agonizing. I pay too much attention to the cadence of my sentences and the sound of the words as I write them. I also self-edit too much as I write, and that makes for very slow progress sometimes.
The role of family plays a significant role in both The Two-Family House and The Wartime Sisters. How important is your family background when it comes to your writing?
I draw a lot of inspiration from my family and from the stories my mother, grandmother, and aunts used to tell me when I was a child. I mentioned that the setting for The-Two Family House came from those stories. With The Wartime Sisters, my family background was woven in more thematically. My first wave of inspiration for the book came from the move my mother’s family made in the early 1960’s from Brooklyn, New York, to Springfield, Massachusetts.
When I first thought about my second novel, I wanted to capture the feelings my mother and aunts used to convey to me in the stories they told me about that time in their lives – I wanted to write about sisters in transition, the disappointment that accompanied moving from a big city to small one, and the complications of leaving family and friends behind. Ultimately, I moved the book to an earlier time period – the early 1940’s instead of the 1960’s. But the themes I wanted to explore remained.
Were there any obstacles you came across while trying to get the novels out into the world, whether in terms of rejections by publishers or from a marketing standpoint?
Working in a creative field means there will always be obstacles and rejection. I published my first novel when I was 47 years old. Although I had a lot of life experience, I was completely unprepared for what the journey would entail. Publishing a book is an extremely long process. First, you have to write it, and then you have to find an agent. Even after those tasks are behind you, an editor has to want to buy it. I had 10 rejections from editors before one of them wanted to publish my book.
To do well, you have to be ready for everything that comes with publishing your book – not just the solitary creative part, but the business side as well. I really like that post-publishing side, because it involves connecting with many different people. But it’s a whole other learning process as well, and it’s very easy to become insecure. All of a sudden, you find yourself paying attention to book marketing and publicity and which books get mentioned in magazines and newspapers. I have found that when I am looking outward too much, the best thing to do is to get off of social media and go back to reading. Reading reminds me of why I wanted to write in the first place.
I know that you received a J.D. from Columbia Law School. Have you found that this degree plays a role in your writing? Does what you learned during your time at Columbia influence the way you write or what you write about?
I went to law school right after college, but I wasn’t truly interested in legal studies. Like many English majors, I chose law school only because I didn’t know what else to do. When I was supposed to be studying for my first set of exams, I pulled out my Norton Anthology of Poetry instead of working on my civil procedure outline. I read poetry instead of the tax code. I should have known then that I wasn’t supposed to be there.
How important of a role has your Jewish heritage and faith played in your writing?
I tend to write about Jewish families because that is what I know, but also because it’s important to me that Jewish stories continue to be told. My novels aren’t about particularly religious or political people, but they are told through a Jewish lens.
In both of your novels, you chose to switch the role of the narrator between different characters within the story. What was your motivation behind this style of narration? How difficult of a process was it to get into the heads of multiple characters?
I thought about the story behind my first book for over ten years before I wrote a word. By the time I started writing, the four adult characters were already so developed in my mind that I didn’t want to combine their separate voices. I already knew what each of them sounded like and I wanted to use all of that in the story. In addition, I felt like writing from four different points of view would help me to dig deeper – it gave me the chance to fully explore each character’s motivations and insights. I just couldn’t pass up that opportunity. When it came time to write my second book, I felt attached to that alternating structure. It worked well for the second story, and it helped to make the writing a little more manageable because I knew the form the narration would take.
Are there any authors or books that you find inspiration from, content or style-wise?
I draw a lot of inspiration from fairy-tales, and I’d love to write a fairy-tale based story one day. Lately, I find I’m very drawn to stories that are historical fantasy. I recently finished Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner, a historical fairy-tale about two Jewish sisters that was inspired, in part, by Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market. It has a Hansel and Gretel meets Fiddler on the Roof feeling to it, and the writing is lush and beautiful.
What is the piece of advice that you think about the most when sitting down to write?
There are a few, but the most important advice is the simplest: a “writer” is someone who writes. If I want to continue to be a writer, that means I have to write every day. Some days I write five good pages and some days I only write five good words. But I try to sit down and try every day.