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Claire Lombardo on her novel 'Same As It Ever Was'

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Claire Lombardo's new novel, "Same As It Ever Was," is, in part, about a woman named Julia raising a child without a village. Julia is quickly unraveling as a lonely stay-at-home mom when she makes a new older friend in Helen. Julia's life improves rapidly before nearly imploding. It's funny and sharp, and it's just really real if you've ever birthed a small person. Claire Lombardo, welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

CLAIRE LOMBARDO: Thank you so much. It's a delight to be here.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, your book is a delight. Let's start right at the start. The story opens with Julia. She's now 57. She's at the grocery store in pursuit of crab meat when she bumps into someone she hoped to never see again, and that someone is Helen. Start by setting the stage for us. Who are these women to each other?

LOMBARDO: Yeah, so that is one of the sort of central relationships of this novel for me. Helen is about 30 years Julia's senior. So when they meet, as you just described, they're both quite a bit older, but they meet originally when Julia is in her 30s. She is a new mom. She is underwhelmed by much of what life is offering her. And Helen is a mother of five, a corporate litigator, this woman who, you know, quote-unquote, "has it all" and has done it all. And Julia finds this totally intoxicating. And they embark on this very intense friendship that ends up changing both of their lives, I would say. Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: This book starts out being about that one friendship, and it's also about the difficulty of motherhood. But the book becomes about so much more. It's about marriage. It's about loneliness. It's about secrets. And also, I should say it's often just very funny. What would you say this book is about? How would you describe it?

LOMBARDO: I've been describing this book as a story of a woman's life sort of told out of order. You really kind of get the gamut of Julia's human experience, and Julia is a character who I would say finds it harder to be a person than a lot of us do. So I - yeah, a story of a life of a woman who finds life kind of challenging.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. It's a book - a lot happens in it, but I wouldn't call it plot driven. It is, like you said, about a woman's life. How do you approach writing a book where the plot is just the general messiness of a person's life?

LOMBARDO: Yeah, I've never been a very plot-driven writer, though I find the longer you spend with a character, the more they misbehave, which then creates plot. So with Julia, I mean, I was working on this book for, you know, seven or eight years and spending time with this character every day, and the better I got to know her, the more comfortable I felt putting her in different situations and just sort of seeing how she would navigate her way through them. And she often navigates her way through them by making choices that are, you know, maybe hard for readers to reconcile with, that were, you know, hard for me to reconcile with sometimes, that then yield more things. And so that's - Julia is very much a catalyst for plot, I would say.

KURTZLEBEN: I have a passage I hope you'll read for us. It's from early in the book. This is Julia thinking about her husband, Mark, and also her aloneness in those early days of motherhood.

LOMBARDO: Yeah, absolutely. (Reading) Oh, God. Oh, God. My best friend is 3, she thought sometimes. She'd recently tried to explain this to Mark when he'd suggested, using slightly kinder verbiage, that perhaps it would do her some good to find some friends her own age. Of course, she knew that Ben was not her friend but her child, but the realization somehow had not struck her until Mark pointed it out to her. And the loneliness that followed, loneliness on top of loneliness, loss from what was already such a sparsely populated space, was startlingly powerful. It was so easy lately to kick her when she was down, even unintentionally. And it was never intentional with Mark, the nicest man in the world, because she was always down, not even to be kicked necessarily, but tripped over, a standing date, a stagnant entity for emotional casualty. Are you sad? Ben asked, surprising her, and she swallowed the impulse to cry, though surely he was used, by now, to the sight of her tears. Of course not, she said into his head. Mama's so happy. She felt wisps of his hair between her lips. She had the urge, sometimes fierce and instinctual, to eat him. Sweet, my sweet, you make Mama so, so happy.

KURTZLEBEN: OK, it's paragraphs like that that really punched me in the face - in a good way, in a good way. But I think a lot of us have this intellectual sense that parenthood is hard, that motherhood is hard and that, yes, it's hard for everyone. So I'm wondering, why does it feel like such a revelation to actually hear these specific stories about it being hard for other people?

LOMBARDO: I wonder that myself, and I think it may have something to do with the fact that we're not supposed to say things like that. I think it's less palatable to talk about parts of our life, motherhood or otherwise, that we're struggling with, and Julia comes by it pretty honestly, even or perhaps especially in situations when she isn't supposed to. And so I do think that I'm getting a lot of responses like that from readers that I think they feel recognized or they feel that their experiences are being spoken of or to in a way that doesn't happen as often, maybe...

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

LOMBARDO: ...As it should.

KURTZLEBEN: I didn't ask, are you a mom?

LOMBARDO: I'm not. No.

KURTZLEBEN: 'Cause you write it so well. How do you capture it so specifically, not that - you don't have to be a mom to write mothers, of course, but how did you get into this head space?

LOMBARDO: I mean, I think I approached Julia as a mother in the same way that I approached, you know, any other facets of Julia that weren't like me - Julia as a librarian, Julia as a wife of 30 years, Julia as, you know, the daughter of a single mother, et cetera. But I think I spent so much time with this character, and once I felt like I knew her really well, it became easier to imagine, you know, here's Julia alone in a space. What would it look like if there's, you know, a 2-year-old in that space with her? How would she respond to that? How would she feel about that? I also worked at a preschool for a while in my 20s, which I feel like just sort of...

KURTZLEBEN: That'll do it. Yeah.

LOMBARDO: Yeah. Yeah, floating around in that space will inspire many novels probably. Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: You capture family dynamics in this book so well, and I'm thinking about - there's - at one point, you write that Julia is afraid of her teenage daughter, which is so funny and it feels so true. And your last book, "The Most Fun We Ever Had," that also digs into family relationships. What is so fascinating to you about families?

LOMBARDO: Everything. I had - the novelist Margot Livesey was one of my teachers when I was a graduate student, and she once said that every writer is drawn either to what she called messy families or tidy families. And I am very much drawn to messy families, in part because I come from a large family, but I think it's sort of a writer's dream to be presented with a ready-made cast of characters who are forced to be together and maybe wouldn't have chosen to be together. So I love that. I love having these people who are, for all intents and purposes, trapped in a house together for years, and, you know, there's just - there's never not entertainment to be found therein.

KURTZLEBEN: That was Claire Lombardo, author of the new novel "Same As It Ever Was." Claire, this was a treat. Thank you.

LOMBARDO: It was a delight. Thank you so much for having me.

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