This week’s story, “F.A.Q.s,” is about a college student named Phoebe.
She’s just returned to her parents’ home after breaking up with her
boyfriend and, initially, is largely silent. Why did you want to write
about this post-adolescent state of despair?
This story is part of a larger project about a multigenerational family.
The first story I wrote about the Rubinsteins is called “Apple Cake” and
was published in The New Yorker a few years ago. Since that time, I’ve
been writing about different members of the family and their
relationships. Each character interests me, and each stage of life
interests me, but what fascinates me the most is the way that characters
and stages rub off one each other. When I was a child, my art teacher
told me that there are no pure colors in painting. There is no such
thing as pure, unadulterated blue or red. Colors define each other. I
think this is true of people, as well. So this story is as much about
Phoebe’s parents as it is about her. We see Phoebe through their eyes,
even as we see them through hers.
Phoebe has inherited a violin from her grandmother Jeanne, an event you
wrote about in “Apple Cake,” which traced Jeanne’s final days as her
family gathered around her sickbed. In that story, Phoebe makes a brief,
but significant, appearance at the end. As you finished “Apple Cake,”
did you know that you’d return to Phoebe and the violin? What’s it like
to return to characters you’ve written about in the past?
I love to return to characters and develop them over time. Novels permit
a continuous narrative of change, but a series of short stories is like
stop-motion animation. You see characters in sequence at different
points in their lives. After writing a story about the matriarch of the
Rubinstein family, I thought it would be fun to write about someone
quite young. Jeanne is facing death, and Phoebe is facing decisions
about how to live.
Phoebe’s parents, Dan and Melanie, are anxious to know what, exactly,
has happened in their daughter’s life, yet they don’t want to intrude.
They spend a lot of time hovering—and disagreeing with each other about
the best approach to take. Did you always know that they’d be anxiously
hovering? Is that hovering fun to describe, or anxious-making in
It’s a tricky balance when your child is no longer quite a child. What
should you ask, or do, or say? And how do you face the fact that the
answer is—not much? And, of course, parents don’t always agree on their
approach. Long-married couples tend to think aloud when they are talking
to each other. I feel for Dan and Melanie. They are real to me, and so I
loved writing them.
The narrative shifts between all three perspectives, so that sometimes
we’re viewing events through Dan’s or Melanie’s eyes, and at other times
we’re most aware of Phoebe’s response. Are those shifts in perspective
something you’re aware of as you’re writing? Do you plot them out? As
Phoebe regains strength, she takes over more of the story. Is this
something that you’d planned, or was it something that became apparent
as you were writing?
The shifts in perspective came naturally as the story unfolded. I do
make plans, but I change them as I go along. In some ways, Phoebe comes
back to life in this story. The plot belongs to her—although she doesn’t
realize that as first.
Phoebe is an only child, and she feels that she’s the person who kept
the family together when she was younger, working as hard as she
possibly could: “Math, poetry, physics, and violin had filled her
days—especially violin.” How common do you think the rejection of a
childhood music habit is?
I think it is common to give up an instrument—but what’s interesting is
that those years of practice and lessons remain with you even after you
stop playing. Phoebe played seriously, and music haunts her, along with
memories of her grandmother.
In the story, Phoebe starts travelling from her home in New Jersey to
Penn Station, in New York, and busking with her violin. It’s something
that seems to happen without her willing it. Why did you want to show
her recovering an interest in music?
I see Phoebe’s renewed interest in music as a return to herself. I was
particularly interested in the way that music might take on new
significance right now.
You recently published your latest novel, “The Chalk Artist,” which, in part, is about a teen-age boy who gets drawn further and further into
the virtual world of an online game. Did you do much research for the
novel? Do you see any connections between Phoebe’s retreat and that of
Aidan, the boy in the novel?
Although Phoebe is quite different from Aidan in “The Chalk Artist,”
both young characters are touched by art. Music comforts Phoebe. Virtual
worlds empower and, at the same time, threaten Aidan. I am interested in
art as escapism and revelation. And I’m interested in what it’s like to
be young. It’s one of those F.A.Q.s: How do you grow up in this