|Julie Langsdorf, photo by Robin B. Langsdorf|
Q: How did you come up with the idea for White Elephant, and for your cast of characters?
A: I was inspired to write White Elephant in 2005, when a series of articles appeared in the local papers about a crisis in the older, more established Washington, D.C.-area neighborhoods.
Home owners were tearing down or adding large additions onto the older houses, which were often a large part of the reason people had moved to the communities in the first place. Suddenly these neighborly towns were not so neighborly; people were egging one another’s houses, yelling at each other in the street, and dragging each other to court.
It was such juicy material! I couldn’t help but wonder how these people had gone from welcoming one another with cookies to wanting to sue each other—and so I decided to invent a community and find out for myself…
Allison, who opens the book, just appeared to me one day lying in bed, listening to the hammering on the house next door and thinking about sex. And there was her husband Ted beside her, fit to be tied. Then there was Nick Cox next door, hammering away, putting a bee in everyone’s bonnet.
Q: The novel takes place in a Washington, D.C., suburb. How important is setting to you in your work?
A: Setting is very important to me. In my mind I need to be able to see the houses—a lot of Sears kit houses in the town in the story—and to walk down the sidewalk to the café, the post office and all of the other landmarks that play their role in the novel.
The town, Willard Park, is an amalgamation of a few Maryland towns; I just stole my favorite elements. It happens to take place on the outskirts of Washington, but it really could be anywhere in the country. The problems the residents are facing are country-wide problems.
Q: You tell the story from various characters' perspectives. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character at a time?
A: I wrote the story in order, dipping into the heads of the various characters as the events progress. Together, they tell the story of what happens in the town. Toward the later stages of the process I worked on each character’s chapters together, to make sure their arc was resolved by the end of the story.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: While I hope readers finish the book wiping tears of laughter from their eyes, I also hope I’ve gotten them to think about some of the difficult issues we all face in our lives—loneliness, shame, desire and fear among them. We all long for connection, to be seen and to be loved, but we don’t always express those longings very well.
I hope people will think about the idea that people—even those we don’t agree with—are not so different from us. I wrote White Elephant between 2005 and 2008, during a time when the country was less divided than it is now. In the meantime it has become more timely; it seems like a microcosm of what’s going on in our country. I hope the book will contribute to a larger conversation about learning to get along.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My new novel is also set in the D.C. suburbs, in a town with a different vibe. It, too, has its comedic and not-so-comedic elements. I can’t say much more than that right now, but I think if you like White Elephant, you’ll like that one too.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb