Wolas’s second novel, The Family Tabor, unfolds over the course of a single weekend during which the Tabor siblings gather to celebrate their father, Harry, who grapples with the demons of his past misdeeds even as he prepares to accept a prestigious honor. His wife, Roma, is a respected psychologist who struggles to help her own children—Phoebe, Camille, and Simon, outwardly successful adults who are nevertheless caught in maelstroms of interpersonal and internal conflict. Wolas spoke to PW about writing complicated lives, the book’s religious themes, and the fascinating dynamics of family.
Can you talk a bit about your background and how you came to writing?
I’ve written since childhood. I was a lawyer when I wrote a first novel, and I left the firm to revise it, but ended up founding a film company, where I acquired and developed the scripts, stories, and novels of others. Then I thought, “Why am I working on other people’s words when my own are what I want to be working on?”
Are the Tabors based on any family you know?
No, but certainly I know people who are searching for love or feel they made the wrong choice in love or are hungry to understand their lives or want a deeper spiritual connection or suddenly find themselves unsure of everything or have had their worlds upended or wish they could undo something they’ve done.
The Tabors are exceptional in many ways, but they are far from happy. Can you talk about the discontent that many of your characters experience?
The Tabors are accomplished, intelligent, and worldly, but those attributes don’t safeguard them or anyone—fictional or real—from confusion and struggle. Harry Tabor is delighted with the world he’s created for himself, but then everything he believes about himself is upended. Roma Tabor is a “miracle worker” psychologist for children and teens and a mother who loves her children but sees them clearly. Phoebe, Camille, and Simon are at personal crossroads, each seeking something we all want—love or connection or the belief we’re living our right life. The Tabors find themselves searching for new paths they hope will lead them in the right direction.
Religious identity—particularly Jewish and Catholic—plays a fairly significant role in the story. Did you always intend for this theme to be present, or did it arise organically?
I knew that the Tabors are Jewish and that Harry Tabor considers himself a “historical Jew.” I also knew that Simon is married to Elena Abascal, who is Catholic, and that their marriage is undergoing some strain. But otherwise, I had no idea that religious identity would play the role that it does.
Can you talk about some of your literary influences?
What the literature I love has taught me is that the work must be about so much more than the story. There are books that have wowed me, and I’ve read them for enjoyment but also with specific intent, to see how the marvels were accomplished. The Extra and A Late Divorce by A.B. Yehoshua, A Person of Interest by Susan Choi, The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara, The Translator by Nina Schuyler, and the novels of Wallace Stegner, among many others, remain with me.
What’s the best thing about family? What’s the worst?
The best is the shared history, which gives rise to the shared language, which creates the “institutional knowledge.” That’s what Simon thinks when he’s about to question his mother about his father—that she’s the one with the institutional family knowledge that predates his birth.
The worst thing about family? Everyone believes they know everything about every other family member: what they think, what makes them tick, what they should do, how they should do it. If we’re lucky, it’s very loving, but even then, family breeds a wholly unique and binding brand of familiarity that is not always accurate.