Where We Belong
Novelist Emily Giffin talks secrets, chick lit, and her love of Alice Munro
Emily Giffin is the striking blond on the back cover of the New York Times bestsellers like Something Borrowed—you may have seen the movie with Ginnifer Goodwin and Kate Hudson. It explores the power of female friendships, even unhealthy ones, and the cost of inconvenient love. The latest from this lawyer-turned-novelist, Where We Belong (out July 24), deals with secrets and the bond between mother and child, which Giffin, a mother herself, considers to be the strongest of all. —Kate Guadagnino
Did you always want to be a writer? What led you to leave your job as an attorney to pursue writing fulltime?
Yes. For as long as I can remember. But I went to law school because it seemed the practical, safe thing to do. And although I really enjoyed law school, I loathed the actual practice of law—at least the big firm culture—and never really let go of my dream of being a writer. So I devised a plan to pay off my law school loans so I could get out of that profession. Meanwhile, I began writing a young adult novel in my free time (and sometimes while at work!). Four years later, my loans were paid off and my book was completed. I was able to land an agent, but over the next several months, I received a dozen rejection letters from publishers. I seriously contemplated giving up, but instead I quit my job, moved to London, and decided to try again. It was then and there that I began writing Something Borrowed. I gave myself a one-year deadline, stuck to it, and got lucky the second time around!
Can you talk a bit about your new book, Where We Belong?
At its heart, the book is about secrets and what happens to us and those closest to us when we keep them. I’ve always been intrigued by the power of secrets. When is it justifiable to keep them from the ones we love? And does keeping them irrevocably change who we are? Adoption (under the secretive circumstances in Where We Belong) seemed to be a great way to explore some of the broader themes.
How do you feel about the term “chick lit?”
It’s not that I don’t like the moniker—and I’m in favor of any label that encourages people to read or helps them find the kind of books they enjoy. It’s just that I don’t think it’s entirely accurate, especially for my last few novels. There is nothing about Heart of the Matter or Where We Belong that conjures chick lit. They are more straight women’s fiction—books about exploring universal relationships and complicated emotional terrain.
Who are some of your favorite authors? Read anything good lately?
I love books from all genres, except science fiction and horror. And I never really got into vampires! Some of my favorite authors include Ann Patchett, Alice Munro, Elinor Lipman, Sue Miller, Jane Smiley, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jane Hamilton, Elizabeth Strout, Marisa de los Santos, and Anne Lamott. I’m reading Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding right now, and I love it. I’m a sucker for a great sports story.
What was it like to see one of your books turned into a feature film? I once heard Jonathan Safran Foer describe it as being akin to feeling slightly aghast when you hear your own voice on a recording.
The word is overused but it truly was surreal, especially because I actually liked the film (and had prepared myself to hate it!). Of course there were things I would have changed, but that will happen in any collaborative process. Overall, I think the movie really captured my characters and the feel and tone of the book—and my readers really seemed to like it. The entire experience is something I will always treasure.
You seem to be a master of the women’s fiction novel. Did you ever experiment with short stories or other forms?
I wrote short stories a lot in high school and college, and have written a few since then. I think they are more difficult than novels in a lot of ways, which is one reason Alice Munro might be my favorite writer. Her short stories blow me away with their power and insight and rich character development. How does she do that in so few pages and words?
Do you feel that having kids has changed your writing? Do you find yourself drawn to topics relevant to your own life?
Although I don’t always write about children, I think all relationships in my life have an impact on my writing and certainly there is no greater bond than that between mother and child. My books are not autobiographical, but I draw much inspiration from my own experiences and the issues and concerns that arise among my friends and family. It’s amazing how universal certain themes are, such as whether there are deal breakers when it comes to true love (Baby Proof); the idealization of a past relationship and a fixation on the “the one who got away” (Love the One You’re With); or complicated, if not downright toxic, female friendships (Something Borrowed).
Tell us a bit about your writing process. Writing is a flexible job, but I’m sure you still have to set aside time apart from your family.
I usually write in my office, located in a small, detached carriage house in my backyard. It is such a happy place—there’s so much sunlight and everything is white, pink, and orange—my favorite colors. On rare occasions, when I need a change of scenery, I write in a coffee shop or bookstore. I don’t have many rituals, but I always start out my writing day with a strong cup of black coffee and find that my writing flows more the first thing in the morning (after I get my children off to school) or very late at night. For much of the day, though, I handle the business side of writing—working on marketing, publicity, speeches, social media. But to answer the second part of your question more specifically, of course I have to set aside time! It’s my full-time job, not a hobby. I mean, doesn’t a doctor have to set aside time to practice medicine? [Laughs.]
Click here for an audio clip of Where We Belong!