Sibling Rivalry, Trust Funds, and Ellie Kemper
'The Nest' author on the family drama that's at the heart of her debut novel
Book of the Month, Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
April Guest Judge Ellie Kemper selected Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's debut novel,'The Nest' as her Book of the Month. As it turns out, Ellie met Cynthia when she was working on 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien,' before we all knew her as 'The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.' We talked to Cynthia about the dramatic, money-fueled fights that are at the heart of this New York City-based novel, and about why we all love Ellie.
There's a lot of family drama in this book. Do you know anyone who has these kinds of dysfunctional relationships with their siblings?
[LAUGHS] Yes! I think fighting, particularly over money, as you age, is very, very common. One of the coolest things about the book tour starting - me going out into the world, going to a lot of bookseller conventions, and talking to booksellers - everyone wants to tell me their family money drama stories. Everyone. It's kind of amazing.
What's the craziest story you've heard?
It's usually the same thing - parents die, and it's like everyone becomes, I don't even know what word to use, just incredibly proprietary about objects, and houses, and finances, and believing they're owed certain things. I've had people tell me how they have siblings who feel that they were not the favorite and so therefore they should get more money after the parents have died. It's kind of like people keep a little running tab in their head of ways in which they think they have been treated by their parents, and how that differs from how they perceive their siblings were treated by their parents. All of that stuff, all of those old fights and resentments, and emotions, just seem to be fueled by the act of having to distribute things in a house or distribute money, or come to terms with finances, or who's responsible for helping mom and dad, because someone needs a nursing assistant or something like that. And all the old sibling dynamics come into play in ways that are not always admirable.
What do you think is the most powerful dividing force in adult sibling relationships? Do you think it's money, or care taking for elderly parents, spouses that siblings don't like, infidelity, distance, what have you seen along the way?
I think it's family history. I think that you are born into a story that you have no control over, including who the other people in the story are. And there's this assumption that because you share DNA with people, that then you'll all get along. And that just doesn't happen in a lot of families. It happens in some families, but I think the more kids you have, the more unlikely it is that everyone's going to get along. It's one thing when you're children and you're just arguing about whose turn it is to load the dishwasher. It's a completely different thing when you're adults and you all have different lives and the family keeps expanding and expanding, and then the argument is over who gets that ring that all the sisters want. Or who gets that painting or whatever. And I just think it's all of your history as children that comes into play.
Photo credit: Camille Perri
So along that theme, what's your favorite trust fund fight of all time? We have a couple of examples: There's been J. Howard Marshall / Anna Nicole Smith, Brooke Astor - another big New Yorker, Ron Perleman. Anyone else that comes to mind, or any of those?
You know I grew up in a very middle class, suburban family and I thought trust funds were something that really only existed in books and movies. And then I moved to New York City and found out that they were real. I don't know. People fighting over trust funds is just so pathetic.
What about Leona Helmsley - what do you think about leaving money to your dogs?
People can leave money to whomever they want. Leona was not exactly a humanitarian when she was alive.
So if parents shouldn't leave their money to their kids - why do you think this is an all-consuming goal for many wealthy people, passing along the biggest nest to their children, if we can see what it does to siblings?
I don't know. Do you think that's a goal for a lot of people? I'm not sure it is.
I think it's still pretty big aspiration for many, making sure that your kids are better off than you were. But it's not necessarily doing that'¦
I think people want their kids to be better off than they were, but I think it's a very American assumption, or certainly it's a cultural assumption in this country, that kids will do better than their parents, but not because someone's given them money. I think that's more of a European concept, and I've been having interesting conversations with my German editor about this. Going back to how I grew up, I didn't know anyone who inherited money. I didn't know anyone whose family operated that way. And when I met people when I was much older where that dynamic was in place, it didn't always seem like a healthy one to me.
Getting a little bit into the news cycle here, do you think family inheritance has had any personality impact on any of the current presidential candidates? Any point of view on that?
Pretty much anyone who's running for president has family money. I think that's one thing that attracted certain people to Obama's story, and Bill Clinton's story. They came from more humble financial backgrounds. But the way the political system is right now, it seems like you have to check off so many boxes, I'm not sure how you do it if you're just a scrabbling, ambitious, smart, hard-worker. But that's life: if you have a family who's able to open doors for you in all different kinds of ways, you have access to opportunities other people don't. It's unfair, but it's how things work.
Ellie Kemper is Book of the Month's Guest Judge and she selected your book. What's your favorite Ellie Kemper role? (She's been in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Office, Bridesmaids, The Mindy Project? )
Well I love Kimmy Schmidt. I think it's the perfect Ellie role. She's so talented she can do anything. She has this very middle America, very innocent, open, sweet face. And I like that the Kimmy Schmidt character allows her to be that person, but also have this very dark streak running through. And that's a really, really hard thing to pull off, and she just does it perfectly.
Ellie has a unique sensibility and a dedicated group of fans, what three words would you use as an author to describe her?
Funny. Generous. Authentic. She is very genuine. What you see off the screen, in real life, is who she is.
Do you know her, personally?
Yes I do.
How do you know her?
I've known Ellie for years. My husband has worked with Conan O'Brien since 1995 and Ellie was an intern on the Late Night show. After that, she started performing in sketches and also started dating one of the writers'”her now husband'”and we became friends around that time.
Going back to The Nest. There's a lot of New York City themes: money, power, privilege. All taking place in the aftermath of 9/11 and the financial crisis. Do you think this book could have been set anywhere else?
No. Publishing is in New York, media is in New York. You could take this cast of characters and put them in a different city but a lot would have to change.
Where did you live when you were in New York?
I lived in many, many different neighborhoods. I lived in New York for over 25 years.
Oh wow. What was your favorite?
I loved Brooklyn. That's where we lived right before we moved out here. We lived in the West Village for a while and I loved the West Village. That was really special, that's where I lived when my kids were born.
Do you miss New York?
I do, I do, but I get back a lot.
So this is your first book, correct?
What prompted you to become an author and to write a novel?
We had moved to LA. And my kids were older and I was trying to figure out what my next career move was going to be and I had always been a marketing, communications copywriter and I didn't want to do that anymore. I had always harbored a desire to write from a more personal place. When I was living in New York, I started writing some essays When we moved to Los Angeles, I decided to take some fiction classes and that led to me deciding to get my MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminar and that's where I started the book.
You said you were once a member of Book of the Month.
I was - my mom was always a member. When I first moved to New York City in my 20s, in the mid-1980s, I joined the Book of the Month Club and Columbia Records. I probably still have books in this house from then.
Awesome. So our members will choose from one of five books each month, yours will be one of them for April. What kind of readers will most enjoy The Nest?
Anyone who likes reading about family relationships, anyone who likes books set in New York City. I think it would definitely appeal to people who like books that have humor but I wouldn't describe it as a comedy. The book has been described as darkly comic and I think that's probably pretty accurate.
This interview has been edited