By Leslie Lindsay
A spellbinding family saga set in Brooklyn in 1947-1970, THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE (St. Martin’s House, March 2016) will knock you over the head with insightful honesty, rich, complex characters, and a story that could be just about anyone’s.
Drawn from a smidgen of truth from the author’s own life, (her mother and two younger sisters grew up in a two-family house in Brooklyn), THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE feels raw, yet compassionate. It could easily have been a memoir, but it’s not.
In the midst of a blizzard, in a two-family brownstone, two babies are born, minutes apart. The mothers are sisters by marriage with an impenetrable bond forged before and during that dramatic night. When the storm passes, everyone seems to have gotten what they wanted, but the truth is not that simple.
Join me as I sit down with Lynda Cohen Loigman and learn more about her brilliant debut, THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE.
Leslie Lindsay: Lynda, it’s a pleasure to have you! Thanks for taking the time to visit. I read your author’s note on your gorgeous website [http://lyndacohenloigman.com/authors-note/], so I’m pretty familiar with your inspiration for THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE. But perhaps not everyone else is. Can you share at what moment you knew this was a book you had to write?
Lynda Cohen Loigman: Thanks so much for having me!
The Two-Family House is a story I carried in my head for over fifteen years before I ever wrote a word. 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 called “Getting The Girl,” by Lisa Belkin. The article was about new technology doctors were using to help couples preselect the gender of their babies, and it opened my eyes to 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.
In terms of when I really knew I had to write the story – that’s tougher to answer. It was a combination of many factors: having my mom pass away, turning forty, and finally overcoming my fear of putting the words down on paper.
L.L.: As some of the reviews I read indicated, many felt this story was a memoir (the writing is so raw and honest, it feels like it comes from a deeper place). I understand you had to tell them, ‘no, this really didn’t happen to anyone I know.’ I can see the confusion readers may have. There are a lot of similarities between your life and the lives of your characters. Can you speak to that, please?
Lynda Cohen Loigman: The setting is the biggest similarity, but I think once people found out my mom grew up in a two-family house with cousins living downstairs, it made some of them think the characters were modeled on my real family members. The truth is that I actually went out of my way to make Rose and Helen different from my grandmother and her sister-in-law. Of course, there are certainly autobiographical tidbits thrown in – just not necessarily where you might expect. For instance, the cinnamon cake Helen bakes is a cake my grandmother used to make. The scene in the Italian restaurant was inspired by an old photograph I have of my mother’s family at a restaurant in Little Italy. Also, my mom was a worrier, so the scene where Judith is in the library and feels like she has to be home at a certain time is something I experienced with my own mother. But unlike Rose, my mom was completely devoted to her children, and absolutely obsessed with our education.
L.L.: Oh and girls and education! Wow…I was just appalled at the adamant stance Mort took with Judith. My heart broke for her. How do you see the landscape of education changing?
Lynda Cohen Loigman: I think we forget that the attitude Mort and Rose have about girls attending college is something that isn’t so far back in our past. My mom didn’t go to college, and she was always ashamed of that. But at the time she graduated from high school, her parents didn’t see the need for it. In fact, if you were to look at my mom’s high school yearbook, you’d see that the majority of young women listed “secretary” as their chosen profession, including my mother. Her youngest sister did go to college, but she was fourteen years younger. By then, attitudes and expectations had shifted.
Because of her experience, my mother made it a point to learn everything there was to know about the college application process for every school. There was no such thing as a “college counselor” at that time (at least not where I grew up), but my mom easily could have been one. When I got my first college acceptance letter, she was unbelievably happy. She used to drive around the block looking for the mailman to make sure I’d get my letters.
Obviously there has been remarkable progress in terms of educational opportunities for girls and young women since my mom’s generation. But there is still a long way to go, especially when we look toward the rest of the world. Girls are still forbidden from attending school in many countries, and remarkable young women like Malala Yousafzai are raising global awareness of that. Recently, there’s also been an important push to educate people about how often girls miss school because they don’t have the resources to buy tampons or pads when they get their period. Menstruation results in prolonged school absences in many places. So for many reasons, true equality is a long way off.
L.L.: I’m curious about the debut author’s journey. First, the spark and then the frustrations, followed by glowing reviews. It’s quite a rollercoaster, to say the least Can you talk about that, please? And [how] can aspiring authors prepare for the ups and downs?
Lynda Cohen Loigman: I’m not sure that it’s possible to prepare. I’m 47 years old, and I was a lawyer before becoming a writer. I had plenty of professional experience, but working in a creative field is very different.
When I started to write, I wasn’t sure I could finish an entire novel. I didn’t know if I had the stamina. When I was done, I was so proud I had completed it, but that feeling of satisfaction was replaced very quickly with the knowledge that what I had achieved was only the first step in a very long process. The next step was finding an agent. I was extremely lucky on that front, and the day Marly Rusoff called to tell me she wanted to represent me was a life-changing day – a dream come true moment. For about twenty-four hours I let myself just revel in that accomplishment. But it was only the second step.
I could go on for pages about all the highs and lows. Next came sending the book to editors, getting the comments, getting the offer from St. Martin’s Press. Every step was glorious and brought me closer to my dream, but I always knew there was another step ahead of me. And now that the book is out in the world, I want it to be a success, not just for me, but for Marly and Jennifer (my editor) as well. It’s a never-ending process, and I think that is what I didn’t know when I started.
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 so many different people. But it’s a whole other education, 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.
Right now I’m promoting THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE and working on my second book at the same time. So I’m ready to start the rollercoaster ride all over again!
“An exquisitely written novel of love, alliances, the messiness of life and long buried secrets. Loigman’s debut is just shatteringly wonderful and I can’t wait to see what she does next.”
~Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You
L.L.: As I’m reading THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE, I got flavors of the hit PBS/BBC (and also memoirs) of CALL THE MIDWIFE. I think it’s the time period (the late 1940s-1960s) that did it for me. What kind of research did you do as you worked through drafts of the novel?
Lynda Cohen Loigman: The book covers a few decades, but the bulk of the story takes place in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s. I LOVED exploring that time period, and my research went in many different directions. First, I looked at calendars of major world events because I felt that is was important for me to know what was happening in the world during the time period I covered. That gave me a broader picture, and was necessary for setting the right tone.
In terms of specifics, I researched the popular music, movies and celebrities of the day. Damn Yankees was a big Broadway hit during that time, and when Natalie and Teddy were young, the Mickey Mouse Club show first aired on television. Those were fun details to add. I also looked at women’s magazines from the 40’s and 50’s and took notes about the cleaning supplies that were available in those years. Rose and Helen were traditional wives and homemakers, so it was important to know those details.
I really enjoyed exploring certain topics – the clothes and hairstyles were fun to learn about, and I loved reading old cookbooks. I also learned a lot about comic books of the 1950’s, and I spent a good amount of time researching the baseball players from the late 1940’s. All of that was information I needed to have in my head as I wrote.
Some of the most interesting research I did involved the cardboard box industry and the connection between dry cereals and cardboard packaging. Of course, I also tried to learn more about Brooklyn in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I spent a lot of time looking at old photographs so I could picture the setting.
L.L.: What kind of writer are you? A pantser or plotter, or this new hybrid style of writing I just read about: a plantser?! (isn’t that great?) What was your process like as you wrote THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE? And what might you do better/different for your next one?
Lynda Cohen Loigman: I am definitely a little of both. (I didn’t know about the “plantser” thing, but I like it!) I had a general storyline in mind, but I didn’t have an outline set in stone. What I did have was a list of moments I wanted to write about, and a very strong sense of who the characters were and how they would react during those moments.
For example, I knew I wanted to have a moment where Helen was faced with the task of filling out a hospital form for one of the children. I knew it was important to put her in that situation, and to make her choose what to write down as an answer to the question “What is your relationship to the patient.” Once I had that scene in my head, I had to get Helen to a hospital somehow, which involved writing about some sort of minor accident. I came up with the idea of the party at Sol’s house on Long Island and the kids playing baseball. I had to make Rose unavailable, so I wrote about her wandering off, away from the other party guests.
I guess this process means I’m a “WTM” writer – Writing Toward Moments. I like to keep a list of those big scenes with me as I work, and every time I finish one, I cross it off my list.
With the next book, I’m definitely feeling like I have to be more organized. The research is more intense, so I’m going to have to figure out a better system for keeping all of it in order.
L.L.: Speaking of which, what can we expect to read next from you?
Lynda Cohen Loigman: Oh this is a tough question! I actually just wrote an essay about how difficult it is for me to keep the details of my work-in-progress to myself. I’m not going to say too much, but I’m very excited about the next book.
It is another family story, centering on a grandmother and granddaughter and, of course, a long kept secret. Because of my research, I’ve decided to take the book in a slightly different direction than the original concept. The story will be set partly in Brooklyn and partly in Springfield, Massachusetts. I’m in that phase right now where I’m falling in love with all the characters and finding their individual voices.
L.L.: Many writers draw inspiration from good reading. What’s on your to-read pile?
Lynda Cohen Loigman: I love everything Alice Hoffman writes, and I just saw a picture of an advanced copy of her new book, FAITHFUL. I am so jealous of every person who gets to read it before the publication date! Other than that, I don’t even know where to start. My pile is enormous. I just finished AS CLOSE TO US AS BREATHING by Elizabeth Poliner, which I really enjoyed. Now I’m in the middle of Jillian Cantor’s
THE HOURS COUNT – it’s amazing. I need to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s ELIGIBLE, Richard Fifield’s THE FLOOD GIRLS, Camille Di Maio’s THE MEMORY OF US, and THE YEAR WE TURNED FORTY by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke. Oh, and I’m waiting for Jesse Burton’s new book, THE MUSE, to come out in July. Honestly, I hate to list any books at all, because for every one I name, there are ten more I’ve forgotten to put on the list. I hate to leave anyone out. There is so much talent, and every book I read teaches me something about how to improve my own writing.
L.L.: Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?
Lynda Cohen Loigman:
I think you’ve covered everything!
L.L: Thanks so much, Lynda! It was a pleasure
Lynda Cohen Loigman: Thank you so much for having me, and thank you for all of your thoughtful questions!
Author Bio: 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. She is now a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and lives with her husband and two children in Chappaqua, NY. Learn more at http://www.lyndacohenloigman.
Find her on Twitter @LyndaCLoigman and Facebook .
[Cover image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press. Author image credit Randy Matusow. Malala Yousafzai image retrieved from Wikipedia on 5.16.16, Brooklyn brownstone retrieved from on 5.16.16, book slideshow images retrieved from Amazon on 5.16.16, Special thanks to J. Preeg.]