Laura Zigman On How a Decade of Writer’s Block Led to New Book ‘Separation Anxiety’

Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman.

Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman. HarperCollins Publishers

The slippery thing about success is that its definition is never fixed. For struggling writers, success looks like a book deal. In 1998, after working as a publicist for over ten years, Laura Zigman published her first novel, Animal Husbandry which became a best seller. Another mark of success, the book was adapted into a 2001 film called Someone Like You starring Ashley Judd and Hugh Jackman. Success also came in the form of three more books within an eight-year period. Then silence. Mutability is the one thing you can expect of success. It’s been fourteen years since Zigman last published a novel.

That gap isn’t insignificant, but it’s also not the whole story. Life and writer’s block interrupted Zigman’s career as a novelist. But second acts are a particularly sweet manifestation of success. Chick-lit still reigned when Zigman’s Piece of Work was published in 2006. We’re living in a whole new world, one in which #metoo handily confronts toxic masculinity through memoir, fiction and even from somewhere in between: autofiction. The world has changed and so has Zigman. Separation Anxiety is a triumph of friendship and storytelling.

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Although Zigman didn’t write another novel for fourteen years, she worked as a ghostwriter, penning many successful books. She remained the breadwinner in her home, but she couldn’t work past that block. Regarding her own creative work, she wrote short scripts for the Xtranormal platform and even wrote a film script that didn’t sell. However, buoyed by family and a supportive network of other writer friends such as Alice Hoffman and Julie Klam, Zigman returned to novel writing. In conversation with Observer, she relates, “When you’re writing a novel—when you’re past the initial torturous phase of getting it off the ground and finally getting something that’s working—there’s nothing better. It’s a different world that you re-enter every day when you sit down to work or even when you’re just walking around doing errands and thinking about how to solve certain problems of plot or motivation. Writing is the ultimate escape and a fully sanctioned form of dissociation.”

Escapism is exactly what her burned-out protagonist Judy Vogel is looking for. With her writing career stalled out, she’s a 50-year-old wife and mother working for a wellness startup. She enjoys a monosyllabic relationship with her thirteen-year-old son, Teddy, but that level of communication’s better than what she shares with her estranged husband, Gary. The two don’t have enough money to divorce so they continue to live together while dodging any conversation with Teddy about the arrangement. While the stigma of divorce has faded, in its wake a unique shame of class and financial uncertainty circles couples who can’t afford the legal process.

Is it any wonder that, upon cleaning out her home in a fit of pique inspired by Marie Kondo, Judy begins to wear the family dog, a mini-sheltie, a little Lassie, in an unbleached cotton baby sling? “Until I slip the sling over my head and feel a strange surge of relief run through me, a liquid narcotic from an unknown source, there’s nothing special about the day…The ruthless purging of possessions to the point of self-erasure is what I’m after. I already feel invisible; why not go all the way?”

It’s an arresting image. Judy doesn’t think of herself as someone in need of a service dog. Her marriage is a sham, her parents’ illnesses and deaths took what was left of her creative energy, her son’s Montessori school is insufferable, and her best friend is dying of cancer. What’s left but to take comfort where you can? Yet what may look like an act of desperation is actually a step toward agency. Rather than continue to hide her shame and frustration, Judy literally wears her need across her body. This action unexpectedly sets into motion a series of events. In the months that follow, try as she may, Judy can’t hide from the pain of living—or the pleasure of it as well. Separation Anxiety confronts the stark plateau of middle age with humor and grace. It’s a book that transforms fractured domesticity into a more honest sense of community and selfhood with great wit and enormous heart. The catharsis it offers is both real and satisfying.

Talking over the phone, Zigman remarked at what could have been an easy tendency to put a sitcom spin on the foibles of a woman in middle age. “I had no interest in writing a purely comic novel. The world—and my life—had changed so drastically since I last wrote a novel—I’d lost my parents, a few close friends, my career, and the part of myself that had identified as a novelist—that I wanted this book to reflect that.”

She continues, “I didn’t want to sugar-coat Judy’s pain and just go for the joke, but I still wanted the funny parts to be really funny, because that’s how life is: the humor is sometimes right there next to the horror.” Separation Anxiety could also be a terrific satire of modern life. Judy’s work as a content creator for a wellness website, Well/er gives her the opportunity to reduce her crises into blog posts such as Are dogs the ultimate antidepressant? Is “moving on” like “giving up” but with a better publicist? After acting out in a completely uproarious fashion, Judy’s immediate worry is that she’ll be shamed on social media. It would be all too easy for Zigman to cakewalk a series of pitch perfect observations on contemporary culture, but skewering society wasn’t at the heart of her project.

“Mostly, I wanted to tell a story set in the time of life when loss seems overwhelming; when that sense of possibility you feel when you’re young and your family is young, disappears and that sense of being on solid ground is suddenly gone,” Zigman recognizes clearly that, “The novel starts in that still point of sadness, that moment when everything goes dark and you have to figure out how you’re going reinvent yourself, not because you want to but because you have to. Everyone I know has hit this point in one form or another—in their marriages, in their careers, with loss of friends and family—so writing about it felt like channeling a kind of collective consciousness. I wanted to write about that sense of struggle that we’re usually too ashamed to talk about.”

Laura Zigman. Adrianne Mathiowetz

Shame is the sinkhole of emotions, a fact that Zigman and I talked about with regard to her book but also the recent essay “Replaying My Shame” by Emily Gould (whose new novel, Perfect Tunes, will be published in April) from the Cut. In it Gould states plainly, “[A]moral people are not silenced by shame. Quite the opposite: The shame often rebounds off them and back onto the people whom they have victimized.” While Gould is talking about her experiences working for the now-defunct website Gawker, the sensation holds true for Judy in an arresting scene in the book. After watching a cashier fawn over the customer ahead of her at Trader Joe’s, Judy receives the cold shoulder from this otherwise chatty fellow. It’s instantly clear to her what’s going on: as a middle aged woman, she doesn’t register as anyone noteworthy. Zigman recalls, “The invisibility of becoming a middle-aged woman came, for me, with so much ambivalence. On the one hand, it’s devastating to feel like you don’t matter; on the other hand, there’s a relief in it. You can move around your world so freely that you almost feel weightless. No oneseriously no onecares what you’re wearing and what you look like. And I’ve had that exact moment at Trader Joe’s, the friendliest store on earth, where the young guy will flirt with the young single woman ahead of me and the young mom behind me but will disengage in between—when it’s me, in real life, I’m relieved when that happens—I don’t really want to discuss the naan I just bought or how great the ‘Everything but the Bagel’ spice is. But on the day that Judy experiences that erasure, it completely unhinges her.”

Recognizing his dismissal, Judy accosts the employee. “When he reaches for the bananas, I grab his hand midway. ‘You had opinions about all her items,’ I say pointing toward the parking lot, even though the young woman is already gone. ‘Why don’t you have anything to say about mine? Cat got your tongue?’” The confrontation triggers the cashier to ring that trademark Trader Joe’s bell—but not for the typical joyful reasons. “Before the ringing stops and the manager arrives to see what the problem is, I’ve dropped my basket and run back to my car while everyone in the store and everyone in the parking lot is looking at me. Finally I have their full attention.”

For Judy, she’s filled with shame for having brought the truth into the light—and yet, that shame reminds her she’s alive. What sounds melodramatic is a real midlife crisis. Zigman analyzes Judy’s anguish, “Her best friend Glenn is dying and Judy knows that the point when Glenn will truly become invisible is very near and in that moment she can hardly bear it. Being ghosted by the cashier underscores the horror of Glenn’s impending absence that is barreling toward her and she reacts, which only makes things worse, but having seen both her parents take their last breaths, she knows what’s coming. And she can’t bear the finality of her best friend’s death.” Faced with what Judy knows is a magnitude of shame, she chooses to act out in what feels like a subversive expression of survival.

Flailing as she may be, Judy inspires an unexpected sense of optimism. Without the possibility of perfection, she’s free to be wholly herself—idiosyncratic, incapable of masking her opinions, yet devoted to a fault. Like the late Laurie Colwin’s beloved heroines, Judy’s a mixed-up woman with faith in love despite an increasingly-threatening world poised to upset her battered sphere of comfort and care. Yet Colwin’s career was cut short when she died at age 48 in 1992. Her food writing has enjoyed continued success, but her terrific novels are often sidestepped. Literary circles don’t know what to make of women’s fiction when it isn’t aggressively marketed as literary and doesn’t shy away from domestic concerns.

While Colwin never enjoyed a second act, Zigman has returned to the literary spotlight with Ecco, a publisher known for serious literary fiction. Her stunning book jacket carries with it the current cloglit caché rather than the clichéd stilettos of upmarket women’s fiction of the late 1990s and early aughts. In the fourteen years since she was writing books that were contemporaries to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes, what is considered women’s fiction has evolved away from chick lit to something less defined—and perhaps that’s the point.

Pivoting further away from generalizations about women’s novels, Zigman notes, “When you’re a woman who writes comic novels, ‘meanness’ is something that becomes an issue: there was always a measurement, in my past books, of whether my humor was funny or mean. Meanness was never my objective, and in real life the joke is always at my own expense.” Zigman continues, “This time around I tried to be very sensitive to that: I wanted to be sure to make the jokes at Judy’s expense, even if that made her flawed—or, as they say in women’s fiction, ‘unlikeable’”—a description that Zigman’s contemporary Claire Messud has confronted head on in her novels The Woman Upstairs and The Burning Girl.

“Life had been so hard for me for so long that the last thing I wanted to do was take cheap shots at characters and go for cheap jokes at their expense. We’re also in a different world now,” Zigman reflects. “There’s a lot that isn’t funny in this political climate—people are truly vulnerable and that’s a serious thing. Woven into the writing of this book is the need for kindness and compassion and empathy because that’s what I think I learned most in my decade of pain and misery: that everyone is suffering. Everyone has grieved for people they’ve lost or versions of themselves that no longer exist. Everyone is struggling. I came to see people as fellow sufferers who were trying to make their way through a difficult world, just like I was, and that’s how I approached the creation and arc of each character in the novel. So many people had shown me such kindness all these years. I wanted to make that new world visible.”

Thankfully ending her hiatus between novels, Zigman extends a compassionate eye toward otherwise invisible or unlikable women. Beyond the confines of chick lit, may complex novels written by women expand the often gendered and restrictive world of literary fiction.

Laura Zigman On How a Decade of Writer’s Block Led to New Book ‘Separation Anxiety’