Everyone has a family. And so nearly everyone can relate to the emotions—and their amplitude—that ensue when even just one member of a family gets thrown off track, be it by choice or by fate.
But what if lightning struck you? And what if the result of such a rare and fated strike changed you, so much so that you made entirely different life choices than you’d ever made before? Say, for example, that for all your adult life you had been a wildly successful pediatric psychopharmacologist, and then a bolt from the sky nearly fried you alive, and from then on all you wanted to do was…barbecue?
This is just one of the what if’s framed in Mary Kay Zuravleff’s hilarious and smart new novel, Man Alive! The book tells the story of a family going through massive upheaval after Owen Lerner, an adoring husband and father of twins and a daughter, gets zapped on the final day of vacation. With wit and precise observation, Zuravleff explores not only Owen’s transformation, but also the transformation of a family in the aftermath of his near-death experience. And somehow, she had me both laughing and crying at various points as I read—sometimes within the same pages.
Zuravleff is a master of the sentence, and so when I had the chance to sit down and discuss Man Alive! with her, our conversation took funny and unusual turns, and I left feeling like I’d learned not only about her latest book, but also something new about writing.
The Rumpus: So, first of all, this book is amazing. I really tore through it.
Mary Kay Zuravleff: Well, thank you! That’s really nice to hear. I hoped for that—for the kind of pace that is fast but not too fast. I wanted it to hit the reader, so that—BAM!—Owen is struck by lightning, and it just tears through the whole family, and the reader tears through the book.
Rumpus: Yes—exactly. When Owen is struck by lightning in the first chapter, it really felt as though all that plays out for the family throughout the rest of the book is both totally inevitable and incredibly surprising. And you do family so well. What is it, do you think, about families that lends for such rich material? You had me both laughing and crying with these people.
Zuravleff: You tell me. I mean, that’s the day in the life in any family, don’t you think? Laughing and crying. You know, yesterday there was some anxiety going on in the house, that compounded with mine, and sort of did me in for a bit, and I was thinking, It’s not actually a bad day. But it was just the accumulation of a couple different people’s worries. In a family, you take on each other’s problems and joys differently, and more intensely. The amplitude—and the undulation of the family—is different from the people you just generally bump into on the street, because you’re chained together. And what happens if you break that chain? In almost every family that I know, someone has escaped, set themselves free, tried to run away—whatever what you want to call it. And often, they are made more conspicuous by their absence. I wanted to explore all of this through Owen.
Rumpus: And it’s clear that Owen was a rock in the family until he was struck by lightning. He’s got his thriving psychopharmacology practice for kids with an “alphabet soup” of problems—ADD, ADHD, etc.—he has a sense of humor when his kids tease him, he loves his wife madly. How did he come to you as a character, and then a character in crisis?
Zuravleff: There was this line that I had been carrying around for a while, and I wound up using it in the book. Owen, before he was struck by lightning, would tell his wife Toni, and his patients, that “the art of family life is to not take it personally.” Especially for the autistic children patients he treated, that was his advice.
I actually got that line from the British psychotherapist, Adam Phillips. He’s a very prolific writer, and I was reading an article about him one day in The New York Times, and it quoted him saying that and—wow! That line. I felt like he was laughing at me, even though he was instructing me. I thought, Sure, it would be great if I could not take family life personally…but it is, after all, my family.
And so I tried the line out on some people on the street, like, “What do you think of this: ‘the art of family life is to not take it personally’?” And they would laugh. But you know, everybody’s got something going on in their families, and then once you have kids, that of course exponentially rises.
But I still kept thinking, Well, who would take that advice? That’s great advice to give, and it’s not bad to hear, but who can actually take it? So I put Owen in the situation of a person at the mercy of his own advice, because we’re all dealing out this great advice that we’re not taking.
Of course, I didn’t even do all of this as consciously as I’m making it out to sound now—I think because I was carrying that line around for so long, that when I had the idea for the book it was, like, Oh, that’s how this fits in.
Rumpus: Tell me about that—about the idea for the book.
Zuravleff: At first it was really like, haha, pediatric psychopharmacologist gets struck by lightning and wants to barbecue. This came to me as a full-form idea. Kind of like a joke, you know? Almost like “a man walks into a bar”—that same sort of premise. But then when I added that his mode of operating was that “the art of family life is to not take it personally,” it suddenly made him, and his story, more poignant.
And then I have this other continuing obsession with “existence versus uniqueness.” That’s usually a mathematical term, which is just that an object or an element or a number exists, but is it the only solution, is it unique? And with people that applies, say, when you’re choosing someone to marry, you want to feel that you don’t just exist, but that you are unique. And so he, Owen—who obviously had loved his family—now, after he’s struck by lightning, his family is in this category where “yeah, they’re here,” but he also loves his socks. They’ve lost their shininess, they’ve lost what made them special. He’s had a totally out-of-this-world experience and now they just exist, and they have been bumped down. And for the members of the family, being taken for granted is devastating.
Rumpus: Yeah, it seemed that it was devastating for every single member of the family—for Toni and Brooke, who live with Owen, and whose perspectives we get; and for the twins, who are off at college and in their own troubled worlds. I wondered how you balanced all of those perspectives so well, and I also remembered something that you said at your reading at Politics & Prose—that the plot of any novel exists in the subplots.
Zuravleff: All right. So this is my big theory: this is my strict theory of everything! Are you ready for this?
Rumpus: Please. I need to be demystified!
Zuravleff: The DNA of the novel—which, if I begin to write nonfiction, I will write about this—is that: the title of the novel is the whole novel. The first line of the novel is the whole novel. The point of view is the whole novel. Every subplot is the whole novel. The verb tense is the whole novel.
Now, as a reader, you shouldn’t feel the decisions the writer makes about this DNA, or it would be boring beyond belief. But, as a writer, you’re struggling to make these decisions. What should the title be? What’s the first line? The point of view? And the struggle with the decisions is because you’re trying to figure out WHAT IS THE NOVEL, WHAT IS THE NOVEL?
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about those decisions? How did you choose, for example, to write in the present tense, and how did you choose to write from multiple perspectives?
Zuravleff: The story with the present tense is that I took the book with me—nearly finished at that point—to a writer’s colony, VCCA [Virginia Center for the Creative Arts]. And I said to my family, “When I come back, I’ll be completely finished!” Famous last words.
I sat down my first night there and started reading. And it began to dawn on me: it wasn’t fast enough.
At some point, I had started thinking about how people tell stories out loud. You know when someone is telling a story, and they start in the past tense, and they’ll say something like, “So I got out of bed and went downstairs, and then I see that there’s this feral cat eating stink bugs from a mug on my front porch…” Or whatever. I felt what the book needed was that switch of tense. That’s called the historical present, when you go back and put something that’s in the past into the present tense.
I came back from the writer’s colony and had to tell my family that I hadn’t quite finished…I had actually started the whole thing over, in a new tense. Unfortunately you can’t do a “find-replace” with “-ed.”
As for the point of view: I realized early on in writing the book that it needed to be from a family point of view, and that nobody outside the family would weigh in. And then well into writing it, the question became how to balance the perspectives; how to switch between chapters told by Owen and Toni and the twins and Brooke. In one of my drafts, I had Owen narrating the first chapter, and then the second chapter was his son, Will, and then the third chapter returned to Owen. As a reader, if that’s the structure in the opening, you’re thinking, Okay, I get it—it goes Owen, Will, Owen, Will. Readers are just pattern machines. So by the time Toni came in, my early readers were like, Wait, what? I had to figure out how you knew that you would be hearing from everyone.
Rumpus: Why did you want to do it this way?
Zuravleff: There’s the fictional family, and then there’s the real family, and then there’s the fictional family that most closely resembles the real family.
In fictional families—in sitcoms, in dramas—the members are sharing huge amounts of their interior lives. And that has not been my real-life experience. So I was trying to capture each family member’s interior life—but the only way I knew to do this was to get each character’s point of view and not have them yammering to each other about their very private experiences after this traumatic event. And I didn’t want an overarching narrator, because you’re supposed to be with the family, and they’re not sharing anything with each other. Everybody has got his or her narrative—everyone is the hero of his/her own story.
Rumpus: Do you think of yourself as serious or not serious? There’s lots of humor in here, but lots of heaviness, too.
Zuravleff: I proclaim and embrace that I am both. One hundred percent serious and one hundred percent aware of the absurdities that any given day brings.
Rumpus: And where does all of your wordplay come from? Is it the mathematical part of your brain?
Zuravleff: Wordplay comes from dozens of directions. There are malapropisms: my son actually said after cleaning the pond, that he “got down to the premarital ooze”; misunderstandings: last night I was offered cupcakes with “maple cream cheese frosting,” but I thought she said “meatball cream cheese frosting”; and, of course, puns and jokes. Sometimes I’ll slap my forehead when I realize an obvious meaning I hadn’t heard before, like when you talked about revising as a “re-vision.” And I love to play with rhyming or alliteration. Also, I spend endless hours on the connotations of the words I choose. As if that’s not enough, I recently heard Don DeLillo talking about paying attention to the visual appearance of his words on the page.
Math-thinking, I would say, encourages flipping and substituting letters in words (in the novel, one of the boys double-majors in math and myth, for example, and his twin cracks a joke about the father’s handwriting that morphs “cacography” into “dadography”).
I can be really silly when I’m not actually writing silliness, and I have to rein that in. Pynchon, in my opinion, sometimes tells elaborate shaggy dog stories just to work up to a pun or punch line. My challenge is to use humor and wordplay to reinforce the emotional core of the novel.
Rumpus: Do you enjoy writing?
Zuravleff: Today? No. Another day? Sometimes, when it goes really well, and it’s exciting, and the puzzle fits and the shoe drops and you realize something that you didn’t know—then I enjoy it. Do you enjoy writing?
Rumpus: Sometimes. The putting-down of new material—not so much.
Zuravleff: Except for at the end of the day, right?!
Rumpus: That’s right. But I do love the tinkering, and when I realize new things…but that happens mostly when I’m reading.
Zuravleff: Annie Dillard said, “Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading— that is a good life.” And a day on a novel is completely inconsequential. That feeling of why bother can just blow you away. I know that it’s not moving and breaking rocks as some people are forced to do—I know that it sounds precious to say, “I had such a hard day…moving words around.” At the end of the day, though, that kind of brain work can be very satisfying.