Sloane Tanen is the author of the novel There's a Word for That. She also has written nine illustrated and young adult books, including Bitter with Baggage Seeks Same and Hatched!. She lives in the Bay Area.
Q: You write of There's a Word for That that "my goal was to write a comedic version of the dysfunctional family drama." How did you come up with the Kessler family?
A: I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, very much the golden age of the Hollywood blockbuster. This is not a Hollywood book, but I was interested in exploring the aftermath of that time, the fall of what would have been perceived as an empiric family.
Though the book is fiction, my father was in the movie business, so it was easy enough soil to mine.
I do love dysfunctional family novels, so much the better if they happen to be funny. The fall from grace, both professionally, and personally (as we age) is both tragic and comic.
Straddling the line between these two extremes—finding the sweet spot where tragedy and comedy meet--well, that was my goal.
Q: You tell the story from a variety of characters' perspectives. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character before turning to the others?
A: I got into a big mess with the structure! I would just write whatever character I was in the mood to sit with that day.
The problem, of course, was making all their time lines fit together. I thought it would all fall in like a magic jigsaw puzzle, but it did not.
I had to do quite a bit of editing to get them all in the same time zones, in the same country, and on the same planet!
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The novel was originally called The Injustice Collectors, which I still like. The publicity department at Little Brown thought it sounded like a police procedural. So, we had to go back to the drawing board.
I was editing, and [noticed] that the German words began to play a bigger part in the book. What I love about German is how well the language can combine two words to create something totally new, something otherwise impossible to put a name to. We don’t really have this in English.
The novel is about a point in our lives that is likewise hard to name. Is there a word for that moment when our perceived potential has fallen short of our current reality?
Q: You've written for various age groups. Do you have a preference?
A: I had a wonderful time doing the children’s books and all the humor books with Stefan Hagen. That was just a magical collaboration for me. I’m a visual person so tapping into that was a lot of fun.
I don’t think YA is my thing. It’s very hard to hit the right note and I felt very nervous dipping my toe into that water.
I had a good time writing the adult novel, but the new emphasis on social media presence and the heavy input from editorial and PR and was a bit hard. Novel writing doesn’t feel like it should be collaborative, but finally, it is.
That takes getting used to but it’s all worthwhile and finally very satisfying.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am at work on a new adult novel. It’s about a woman in the 1980s. I don’t want to say too much as I’m still working it out.
It may be a bit more serious than the last book, but I’m still in the early stages. I think anything I write will have an undercurrent of comic absurdity if only because that’s how I see the world.
I’ve been working from 11pm-4am during the shelter in place. I am a night owl so not having to get up and get kids to school and get to work has been sort of nice for me!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb