Nearly a decade has passed since Nell Freudenberger burst onto the literary scene with a collection of short stories titled Lucky Girls. At the time, Freudenberger was hailed as a literary wunderkind, as famous (and infamous) for her beauty, Harvard education, and privileged upbringing as for her prose. She was working as an editorial assistant at the New Yorker when, in the summer of 2001, the magazine published "Lucky Girls," her novella-length story influenced by her extensive travels through Southeast Asia. Acclaimed by Vogue, Elle, and Entertainment Weekly as the year’s hottest young writer, she inspired a bidding war for Lucky Girls and always appeared perfectly poised in the public eye—much to the chagrin of her fellow literati. The release in 2006 of her first novel, The Dissidents, silenced the critics, however, and Freudenberger slipped out of the spotlight to start a family. Now living in Brooklyn, New York, married and a mother of two, she is back with her second novel, The Newlyweds, which takes on the timeless themes of love and marriage with a decidedly modern twist about an East-West culture clash, an Internet romance, and the effects of economic upheaval on personal and global scales. On the eve of the book’s publication, RL spoke with Freudenberger about The Newlyweds, her growth as a writer, and what it’s like to build both a family and a novel at the same time.
RL: The Newlyweds, like your earlier titles, centers on an East-West culture clash. Do you think this conflict is integral to your writing?
NF: What’s great about contemporary American novels, to my mind, is how disparate their themes can be. In this country we have novelists from every part of the world writing in English about a vast array of human experiences and concerns, and that’s what makes it so much fun to be a reader of fiction these days. I think that the reoccurring themes in a writer’s work are just a reflection of that individual’s particular preoccupations; mine have always been connected to the time I spent in Asia in my twenties.
What experiences of your own were reflected through the main character Amina’s eyes? How is her life in Bangladesh similar to that of a woman here in the United States?
Amina’s experiences are very different from mine, and that’s why I was interested in writing about her. But of course when you attempt to create a character’s inner life, that person always ends up sharing more with you than you might have intended. Amina is much braver than I am in that she chooses a path radically different from that of everyone she knows. She travels halfway around the world, alone, to make the expatriate life she’s imagined since childhood a reality. But she’s similar to me in her weaknesses, particularly in her desire to please: She’s a grown-up version of the A student that she was as a girl in Bangladesh. I think part of being a woman in many cultures is this desire to remain a "good girl," to be successful as a career woman and a mother and a wife all at once. Part of what Amina learns in the course of the novel is how little reward you get for that kind of perfectionism.
Were you seeking to answer any questions about marriage with The Newlyweds?
Novels shouldn’t aspire to answer questions, and I wouldn’t presume to offer advice about love or marriage in any case. What’s fascinating to me about marriage as a subject for fiction—a subject that fiction has taken on with gusto since the 19th century—is how unknowable other people’s relationships are. Even the marriages of your parents, your siblings, your closest friends always remain something of a mystery. Only in fiction can you pretend to know people completely.
What aspects of these characters are real? How much came from your own marriage and family life?
Amina’s early life in Bangladesh is based on the life of a dear friend, a Bangladeshi woman who also came to the United States to marry an American. She was so generous in sharing her story with me, and I hope the book honors the courage of her choices along the way. Amina’s marriage doesn’t have much in common with mine, although my husband bristled a bit at the description of a more minor character in the novel—a husband whose fanatical neatness drives his wife somewhat crazy. Then again, my husband’s fanatical neatness drives me somewhat crazy.
The end of your novel feels very deliberately truncated. What were your intentions for leaving your characters’ fate so open ended?
Long marriages go through many phases. I saw this as just the beginning of a marriage, and what happens next for George and Amina was less important to me than exploring the collision between their expectations of marriage and the reality that they face as newlyweds. I think that’s true of most marriages if not all of them: It’s very hard to imagine the rest of your life with someone before you embark on it.
"Even the marriages of your parents, your siblings, your closest friends always remain something of a mystery. Only in fiction can you pretend to know people completely."
How did writing a novel differ from writing a collection of short stories? How was it the same?
This is my second novel, and I like it better than writing stories if only because you have to think of a new idea less often. I like being involved with a character over a period of years rather than months; I felt like I’d lost an old friend when I finished this book. That said, there’s something satisfying about stories because they come together more quickly. There’s always a moment when I realize a story is going to work—often I sketch out an ending to return to later—and that’s exciting because so few ideas actually have the legs to make it onto the page.
When your first book was published, as much attention was paid by some to your looks and background as to your talent. Did this bother you or motivate you in any way? In what way do you think your public image will change with this second novel, or do you not concern yourself with that sort of media speculation?
It bothered me at the time, but that was more than ten years ago. I’d say now that any attention you get as a fiction writer is probably helpful in the long run for your book. And the better your book does with readers, the better chance you have to continue making a living doing something you love. As the mom of a toddler and an infant, I’m pretty unlikely to get that attention this time around and will consider myself fortunate if I have any sort of "public image" at all.
What books most influenced you, and what titles most inspired you to become a writer?
Among contemporary writers, I love Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Paula Fox, Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, V. S. Naipaul, Ha Jin, Marilynne Robinson, Colm Tóibín, and Norman Rush. My favorite books ever, unoriginally, might be Middlemarch and Anna Karenina.
How has your life changed since starting a family, and how is writing a novel different with small children at home?
My life has become a lot richer with the birth of my children, and a lot more hectic, too. I’m fortunate enough to have a room of my own to write in, or at least a messy office space I share with my husband, so it’s still possible to work at home—if much more slowly than I did before we had children.
What are your plans for the summer? Are you taking any vacations—or taking on new writing projects?
I’m traveling to the West Coast with an infant and my mom in tow for a book tour, and going to Scotland to read from the U.K. edition of The Newlyweds at the Edinburgh festival in August. Otherwise we’re staying pretty local. I just want to read and maybe think about another project this summer; I doubt I’ll start anything new before the fall.
How do you plan to celebrate the publication of The Newlyweds?
I’ll go on a date with my husband, maybe to a Bangladeshi restaurant in the Bronx we’ve been wanting to try.
Cary Randolph Fuller is the women’s fashion editor at Ralph Lauren.