Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney is sitting with me at a corner table at Figaro Bistrot, a few blocks from the Los Feliz home the debut novelist shares with her husband and two kids. Sweeney and I, we discover, have many things in common: Writer friends, books out in 2016. Our waitress delivers face-sized bowls of cafe au lait, and I begin our interview with characteristic tact.
"Tell me why I shouldn't hate you," I say.
Sweeney winces wearily. "I can't give you a reason," she says. "I don't know how it happened. It's as shocking to me as it is to everyone else."
The "it" in question is the bidding war that erupted over "The Nest" (Ecco: 368 pp., $26.99), Sweeney's first novel. The book came out this week, launching Sweeney on a national tour that will bring her back home in time for her appearance at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on April 10.
The manuscript, about the deliciously neurotic Plumb family of New York City, landed in publishers' "in" boxes on a carefully selected Monday in November.
"My agent said the best day of the year to send out a book about a dysfunctional family," Sweeney recalls, "was the day after all the editors come back from Thanksgiving with their dysfunctional families."
The agent, Henry Dunow, was soon fielding a feeding frenzy of multiple offers, including one from Harper that came with a seven-figure advance.
"Neither Henry nor I expected anything like that to happen," Sweeney says. "It's not like I went out there saying, 'I'll only accept a million dollars for this book.' It's lunacy, that much money. On the other hand, I wish the publishing world was structured differently, so an author getting paid a lot for her book wasn't such a rare thing that it's news. I wrote the book I wanted to write. I was just hoping someone would want it."
Many someones did, so Sweeney won the literary lottery, the stuff of every writer's (and every lottery ticket buyer's) dreams. Not bad for a former marketing copywriter and mother of two who went back to school at age 50 to learn to write fiction, and has published her first novel at 54.
The hoopla might have been unexpected, but it's not unwarranted. "The Nest" is an addictive, poignant read with an enticing premise: four adult siblings fighting over the trust fund they're all counting on to bail them out of their particular disappointments and self-inflicted disasters. If it isn't a universal scenario, it certainly is a common one: In the course of settling their father's estate, the siblings grapple with family meshugas past, present and future.
Contrary to the truism that holds that all first novels are autobiographical, Sweeney says that nothing apart from scenes set in New York is taken from her real life. But she acknowledges striking resemblances between her childhood and her protagonists'. The oldest of four siblings in an Irish-Italian Catholic family, Sweeney was struck by the chasms that opened among her brothers and sisters as they grew older. "We're all incredibly different," she says. "We were kids together, and then as adults we all created our own families, our own separate worlds. Inevitably, that leads to tensions."
Case in point: the book's opening scene, which depicts the real-life experience that spawned the book. "I was walking to a family brunch on the Upper West Side, passing all these restaurants full of people drinking mimosas," Sweeney says. "I thought, 'I should have a drink before I face my family.' And then I thought that if I did, I'd run into one or more of my siblings in the bar.
"It occurred to me that this was a great opening for a story: adult siblings gathering courage before a family brunch. I asked myself why there would be so much tension between them; why they would be mad at each other, and I thought, 'Money is always the story.' From there, the book took off pretty quickly."
"The Nest" reminds me of Jill Soloway's hit series "Transparent." Sweeney laughs when I tell her this. "Jill and I are old friends," she says. "Decades ago, we were in an online forum of creative women — a kind of support group that was instrumental in convincing me to take my writing more seriously, to do something more interesting than copywriting. Years later, when my family moved from New York to Los Angeles, Jill helped me with everything: where to send the kids to school, where to shop for groceries, where to live."
Thanks to her husband's longtime job as head writer on Conan O'Brien's TBS talk show "Conan," Sweeney has been blessed with an abundance of helpful links. In 2007, when she made her first foray into humor writing, a friend supplied the email address of the editor of the New York Times' "True Life Tales" column. Although Sweeney's first submission was rejected, she was encouraged by the editor to try again, and her essay, "My Dirty Book," made it into print. "That was my first flicker of believing I could write in my own voice and people would like it," Sweeney says. Then there were the years of networking with the likes of Soloway, writers Sarah Thyre and Amy Scheibe and comic actresses Ellie Kemper and Amy Poehler — several of whom make appearances in the trailer for "The Nest."
Sweeney's book tour began this week. "I love talking with people about writing. I want to do a good job. I want my publisher to be happy," she says.
"But mostly, I'm dreaming about the moment when I can go back to sitting in my office every day, making stuff up."