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Books ‘I guess your art is where your traumas go’: Taffy Brodesser-Akner talks about her novel on men and modern divorce

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is an award-winning long-form journalist who joined The New York Times and its magazine in 2017.

VINCENT TULLO/The New York Times

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, an award-winning long-form journalist who joined The New York Times and its magazine in 2017, has brought tsunamis of traffic to the newspaper’s website with her empathetic and unusually in-depth celebrity profiles of the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Bradley Cooper and Jonathan Franzen. She’s never afraid to insert herself – or a meme – into the pages of the Grey Lady.

Fleishman is in Trouble, Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel out this month, tells the story of Toby, a hardworking 41-year-old doctor living among the idle rich in Manhattan and in the middle of a divorce. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Rachel, a workaholic agent, drops off the kids one weekend to go on a yoga retreat – and then doesn’t show up to pick them up on Monday. The author spoke to J. Kelly Nestruck from her home in New Jersey.

The novel’s narrator is Elizabeth Slater, a writer who quit the men’s magazine that she worked for after having kids, and now lives in New Jersey. “I had worked at a men’s magazine, trying to do work I could be proud of, only to learn that a woman at a men’s magazine is like a woman in the world – unwelcome, auxiliary at best, there to fill in the rough spots that men don’t want to.” Is that how you felt after your …

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Time at GQ? I was very happy at GQ. That thought only occurred to me, at the very end, when I was considering leaving and I read a collection of one of the other GQ writers, a man. I read it and I thought, ‘You know what? There are limits to what I can do there. I am never sent to metabolize the male American experience. That’s the limit; I reached the limit.’ They let me do everything except be a man, which may seem obvious.

'All of my friends were getting divorced – and I wanted to try to write about modern divorce and what it’s like for my generation to be dating again,' says Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

Random House via The Associated Press

What made you want to branch out from non-fiction and write a novel?

All of my friends were getting divorced – and I wanted to try to write about modern divorce and what it’s like for my generation to be dating again. I would have done this in a magazine story if anyone had let me. Nobody wanted that story; you know, if there was a celebrity in it, maybe. So, I wrote it as a novel.

Libby is the narrator, but your main character, who she’s telling us the story of, is Toby Fleishman, her friend from college. He’s a liver specialist who we hear put his wife’s career first, spends the most time with their kids and who also seems to be aware of some of the structurally sexist elements of medicine. Did you want to set up a man like this in order to dismantle him in front of the reader? ​

That’s an aggressive question. And the answer is no. The answer is I wanted to write a story about a man getting divorced; I did not want to write the story I ended up writing. I was kind of repeating what a lot of my friends were telling me about their wives, about their spouses, and my natural inclination is to ask myself: What’s the other side of it? So that’s what happened. But the book is not supposed to play a trick on the reader; it’s more that the trick was played on me.

Why, when you were choosing to tackle the subject of divorce, did you choose to write mainly about a man?

Men were having more fun and it seemed like a better story. At the time I started this, I was still at GQ. I’m very fluent in man. Also, the general quandary of the universe of gender relations and books is this: that men are very interested in male stories, and women are very interested in male and female stories. So, another good reason to do it this way is so that you would get the biggest possible readership for your book.

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Fleishman is fascinated to discover that he is so sexually desired after the divorce and uses this app that you’ve invented called Hr, where women are always sending pictures of their body parts to him. So, your newly divorced male friends are getting sexually explicit photographs on their phone all the time?

All the time. I went on the apps myself to do research – with my husband’s consent – and that’s what it was like. I went on as a man and as a woman; and the men will just send you a picture of their penis.

Fleishman works in a hospital and we encounter some doctors behaving less compassionately toward patients, including a male doctor who breaks a pregnant woman’s water without her consent. That really happened to you and you have written about it before in non-fiction. What made you want to put it into the novel?

I didn’t want to, I just did. I guess your art is where your traumas go. I cried every time I read that part, even though, every time, I was the one who wrote it and I knew how it ended. I wonder if I’ve written about it enough? I don’t think about it very often. Like, I think about it when I see birthing things on TV that are adorable and everybody’s making jokes. But I no longer think about it when somebody tells me that they had a baby; and I no longer think about it on my son’s birthday. I no longer think: “It’s this many years to the date of the worst day in my life.” But I guess it’s just still there; I guess that’s how trauma works.

'I’m very fluent in man,' says Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

Erik Tanner/Handout

You have two subplots. In one, Dr. Fleishman is treating a woman who has a rare inability to process copper through the liver, that leads to a brown ring in the eye, called Wilson’s Disease; and then Rachel, his wife, is an agent who represents a Lin-Manuel Miranda-esque playwright who’s written a musical about Woodrow Wilson’s wife called Presidentrix. What is up with the Wilson thing?

Oh my god, I never even put that together.

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I had imagined that you had an old set of encyclopedias and the W book fell off the shelf and opened to the Wilson page.

No, no, I did a lot of research. I searched very hard for a good poetic disease – and when I came upon Wilson’s, I saw that it was a disease where a woman would never have been in that condition if anyone had been paying enough attention to her and had been looking her in the eye. I hope if my eye colour changes, there will be several people in my life who will say: “Hey, are you doing okay? Your eye colour has changed.”

And the other Wilson plot: Are you a Hamilton fan? Is that what this is a nod to?

Who is not a Hamilton fan? I wanted Rachel to be a big agent who was required to be out a lot at night. I love the way she scouted Presidentrix; I love the idea of her coming across a one-woman show being performed at the community centre of a housing project every single night until someone shows up. That’s so often how we write, right? How we become who we are? We just keep doing it until someone shows up. If I were writing my profile, that would have been the kicker.

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