First Comes Love (Ballantine Books, 400 pp.), Emily’s Giffin’s latest novel, is a drama that centers on the Garland family as they struggle to reconcile a tragedy nearly 15 years after it shattered their almost-idyllic lives in Buckhead. As the anniversary of the event approaches, 30-something sisters Josie and Meredith find themselves at a crossroads… and in one another’s crosshairs, owing to their long-simmering sibling rivalry.
Giffin will be in conversation with Mara Davis on June 30 at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center. In anticipation of her book signing, the Atlanta-based New York Times bestselling author spoke to me about the futility of trying to move forward while looking backward, writing in PJs and the unexpected ferocity of maternal instincts over completely imaginary characters.
ArtsATL: My favorite James Hollis (Jungian analyst and author) quote kept looping through my head as I read First Comes Love: “In the end, we are only tiny frightened animals, doing our best to survive amid other tiny frightened animals.” What’s your take on the double-edged sword of intimacy and vulnerability in family relationships?
Emily Giffin: How many people know the really true, unfiltered you? My number would be pretty small — my husband, mother and sister. And those are the very same people I tend to be the most dismissive of, or get the most angry at because I can . . . because I know their love is unconditional.
Only the people who are closest to us can touch those parts of us that can make us go crazy or make us want to kill them. They’re the ones you fight with and the ones you love the most fiercely.
ArtsATL: You practiced law before taking a leap of faith to become a writer. If you could have a do over, would you have skipped your first career?
Giffin: No, definitely not. From a practical standpoint, I think what we conventionally refer to as mistakes or missteps –– relationships that don’t work, jobs that we hate — all of that is such rich training for writing.
I don’t regret my education, the friendships I formed at that law firm or living in New York City. And I don’t think I would have chosen Manhattan as a first place to live fresh out of school if I didn’t have the safety net of a job and a nice salary.
ArtsATL: What-ifs and characters coming to terms with their life choices is a recurring theme in many of your novels. Why?
Giffin: Both themes are at odds in my writing and in my life. I think it has a lot to do with my parents — really introspective people — who can be very backward-looking and nostalgic, prone to regret, guilt and reimagining the dialogue. My sister and I are that way too, [mulling over hypotheticals like] “What was going through their head the last minute before the plane went down?”
Other people, my husband, for example, will ask, “Why are you thinking that? It’s so morbid.”
It’s not really a choice when you’re hardwired to be that kind of a person. But the gift that comes with such inclinations is empathy.
ArtsATL: You write with your mother in mind. What is she looking for in a good read?
Giffin: We share similar tastes in books. She wants to really feel immersed in a world. It doesn’t really matter how much is happening in that world as long as the relationships are authentic and she cares about the people.
ArtsATL: What books are on your nightstand right now?
Giffin: If I Forget You [Thomas Christopher Greene], The Girls [Emma Cline] and on my list for this summer is The Children [Ann Leary]. The last book I read was Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible. She’s a friend who is interesting, funny and quirky . . . and it shows in her writing.
ArtsATL: Which do you prefer: the solitude of writing, or the tribal aspect of book talks like the one coming up at MJCC?
Giffin: I publish a novel every two years and the cycle of writing vs. promoting a book is dramatically different. You go from working in pajamas all day with zero consideration for hair, makeup or having to interact with anyone, to being on the road and having every step of the journey documented and shared on social media.
I like both, but I’m a natural introvert who can fake [being a social animal] extremely well. People think that if you’re socially adept you can’t be an introvert, but that’s not true.
Once I’m in the moment, though, I wind up having a fabulous time because I like people and invariably lose myself in the moment.
ArtsATL: Do you feel protective of your characters who are flawed?
Giffin: I don’t shy away from writing about unconventional love and messy relationships. By the same token, it almost hurts my feelings when people are judgmental of my characters and I can get defensive on their behalf.
My sister [one of a handful of people Giffin allows to read her manuscripts before they go to press] might say of a less-than-sympathetic character, “She’s so obnoxious!” And I’ll say, “Well, I didn’t think she was that bad here . . . ”
ArtsATL: What do you love most about spending time with your characters?
Giffin: The first third of every book that I’ve written, I feel like the marionette — in control, pulling the strings and making them do things. But by the halfway point, it becomes a little more emotionally effortless when I feel like my characters take on a life of their own.
I still have to put in the hours, it’s still hard work to write. But I like the aha! moments of saying, “Of course this is what she would do here . . . and this is where she would go . . . and this is the reaction that this other character would have to it.” That’s fun to me.
ArtsATL: Sounds like a beautiful metaphor for raising children — in which the first part of their lives you spend molding, shaping and trying to civilize them . . . and when they finally reflect who they were meant to be back to you, you say, “Oh wow! That’s really cool. I like that.”
Giffin: That is genius! I’m going to steal it!
ArtsATL: Go right ahead!