How did you think of the idea for BY THE NUMBERS? And what inspired you to want to write about the sandwich generation?
Prior to this, I’ve written anti-heroes as my protagonists. While none of them have ever been on Walter White’s level, I’ve always made my heroines a bit difficult to root for, at least initially. I strive to do something different in each book, so this time, bowling right down the center of the lane was a departure for me. Because I myself am a bit of an anti-hero, I had to dig deep to find inspiration for Penny’s character - she’s the polar opposite of me. She pays her water bill in advance and knows exactly where the spare batteries are kept. She’d never hem her curtains with a steak knife. For Penny, her metamorphosis is much subtler, more internally-focused, as on the surface, she already has it all together.
In the past, I’ve had memoir readers tell me they’ve been frustrated when they weren’t sure what came from my life and what was fiction so I wanted this book to be a definitive line between fantasy and reality. I brought in the sandwich generation plot twist because it’s something so prevalent in my generation and I thought readers could identify with it. Again, as everything about Penny is the antithesis of me, I figured these were the ideal problems for her to have, since they’re not my issues.
As has been the case in some of your past fiction, is there any of YOU in this novel?
Because I wrote this, it’s impossible to remove my sense of humor, such as the scene in the Walgreens where Penny’s buying cigarettes. I don’t smoke and I’m not an actuary, but if I did, and if I were, hers is the exact conversation I would have had when the clerk told me to “be well.”
I actually struggled with this book, not because of the cast of characters or the plot, but because Penny is so enamored with math and uses numbers to better understand her world. That part was so damn foreign to me as I literally have to use a calculator to add anything more than single digits. (And even then…)
Probably the portion that smacks the most of me now is her devotion to physical activity. A year and a half ago, I ruptured my Achilles. In losing the ability to walk – really, to even perform basic household and personal tasks, like showering safely – I gained such an appreciation for being able to move that since then, I’ve lost something like ninety pounds and become a daily communicate at the gym. (Anyone familiar with my memoirs will know exactly how much of a departure this is.) Now I’m as likely to miss a workout as I would be to skip brushing my teeth. So, when Penny waxes poetic about deadlifts, that’s all me shining through.
You recently got back from a trip to Turks + Caicos with some of your readers--what was that experience like?
I’ve been doing dozens of events each year, every year, and I’m always meeting incredible people… in thirty-second increments. I always think, “I bet we’d be friends if we could actually spend time together.” The Turks & Caicos trip proved that theory true. I fell in love with every single person who came and we had the time of our lives. What was supposed to be a fan event for me turned me into a fan of all the participants. (Imagine your best summer camp experience and then multiply it by a million.)
Originally, the plan was that I would go to a couple of hours’ worth of events with the readers over the course of two and a half days. In actuality, everyone extended their stay and we had such a great time that we ended up hanging out en masse for five full days. Everyone became BFF with everyone. There was one day when a big group of us just lazed in the water, drinking frozen mojitos, laughing and narrating the scene as people fell off their paddle boards and I thought to myself, “I have found my tribe.” Now we have our own little group on Facebook and we’re in touch every day and we can’t wait to do it again.
On that note, your fans LOVE you. What is your favorite way to interact with them?
My fans have been very good to me and I’m so appreciative. I like Twitter best because that’s the most one-on-one and it doesn’t engender the in-fighting that Facebook can spawn.
You've always been a big champion of other writers--who are you recommending we read right now?
I am crazy-mad-obsessed with Swedish author Fredrik Backman. A Man Called Ove is one of my favorite all-time novels and I’m currently reading My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. I just read Matthew Norman’s We’re All Damaged and I think he’s wonderful, too. I will always and forever love Joshilyn Jackson and Dorthea Benton Frank. (Southern women rock my world.) Libba Bray is an author who constantly surprises and delights. If you haven’t picked up the paperback copy of Shanna Mahin’s Oh, You Pretty Things, do so now. Jennifer Niven’s YA All the Bright Places has been on my mind ever since I read it - amazing. Once in a while, I’ll love a book so much, I’ll buy/send it to everyone I know. I did that with Mahin’s book last year, Backman’s Ove this year, and Norman’s Domestic Violets a few years ago. So maybe the key here is to be my friend and great books will just start arriving at your house.
What's up next for you?
I’m on what I’m calling a hard re-set because it was time. New publisher, new contract, new editor, new agent, new film team. I’m working what will be my last memoir (at least for a long while) and it’s going to be welcome departure from the same old formula. I’m also readying a young adult novel for sale, which is so different from anything I’ve written that I may publish under a different name. So I guess new is the new black for me.
Thanks, Jen!!! xoxo