Taffy Brodesser-Akner made her name as a celebrity profiler, getting inside the heads of people like Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Hanks and making them resemble humans instead of icons. With her first novelFleishman Is in Trouble, she proved she could do the same with fictional characters. Now she returns with Long Island Compromise (Random House, July 9), an even more ambitious and gripping novel set in the fictional town of Middle Rock, New York. Brodesser-Akner, 48, lived on Long Island until she was 6, when her parents divorced and she moved to Brooklyn with her mother, visiting her father in Great Neck on the weekends. “I say I’m from Brooklyn, because it used to feel so braggy to say you’re from Long Island,” she reveals. “Though now it’s braggy to say you’re from Brooklyn.”

The book centers on the wealthy Fletcher family: Carl, who inherited a Styrofoam factory; his wife, Ruth; and their children, Nathan, Beamer, and Jenny. In 1980, Carl was kidnapped from their driveway and held for a week until Ruth paid a $250,000 ransom—most of which they never got back. Forty years later, the family gathers for the funeral of Carl’s mother, Phyllis, and it’s clear that all their lives have been deformed by the kidnapping.

I recently spoke to Brodesser-Akner by Zoom from her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Colm Tóibín has a book out now called Long Island. Why is it a good title?

Because it’s a mythical place. First of all, I love how many Long Islands there are. Is it fancy Long Island? Is it working-class Long Island? I don’t even know which Long Island I’m from. It was designed to be a suburb and then became more and more its own place, its own ecosystem. I meet people from Long Island who are loath to leave, even for a weekend, if they don’t have to.

Is the book written about the Long Island in your head, or did you do research? Is Middle Rock based on a particular place?

Middle Rock—the closest you can call it is Great Neck. I didn’t do research, though I tried. The Great Neck library has a full-time historian, which is hilarious because I think the library down my street is only open two afternoons a week. It’s pretty amazing the resources in terms of schools and libraries that that kind of money gives you. And then my most judgmental parts are like, Well, what did you do with all your education? You just returned to this place and perpetuated the same life you had.

One of the things I’m looking at in the book is the way we have not progressed. I think that’s an urgent matter, the dearth of ideas and creativity of the cloistered generation that did not come from trauma or struggle. I think my generation was maybe the first group of people who did not come from a historic struggle directly. And what did they do with it? They were educated, they know everything, and then they went into finance. They use their minds for their money to make [more] money, which is great. I haven’t figured out how to do that! But I am worried about the fact that our lives are not better than our parents’ lives. It really is remarkable to me that it’s hard to know how to give your children a better life than you had.

What do you mean by a better life?

The state of curiosity and intellectualism. The state of using the money you’ve been given or earned to understand the world better, and to make it better. It does not seem that that’s an imperative or a value that is taught outside of elementary school.

Do you think this is a specifically Jewish book?

I didn’t, until everyone started telling me it was, like Fleishman. I always wonder if anyone ever called [Jonathan Franzen’s] The Corrections Christian. I also wonder if anyone even called Crossroads Christian, and that is a story about a pastor in a Christian church. I think the sort of underlying paranoid question of this question is, Are Jews really considered American? And I guess the answer is: If you call The Corrections an American novel, and you call Crossroads an American novel, and you call this a Jewish novel—even though all it has is a bar mitzvah at the end, and a dybbuk flying around—then I guess you don’t really consider Jews American. We’re still some sort of asterisk to the American experience, which is maybe clearer than ever these days.

Did the screenwriting you did for the Fleishman TV series, and the success of that novel, have an impact on this book?

Yes, it paralyzed me. Here’s what happens when you’re making a television show. You hire people. You write it, you produce it, but mostly you’re hiring people. And as you hire the 350 people that it takes to make a TV show, each one starts out by telling you how much they loved your book. I hope it was true—it might not have been, it might have just been good interviewing skills—but you come to think that Fleishman is all you have to offer the world. And so you try to distill what it is that people loved about it.

The one thing I can say I was good at was moving on and starting over. I had some big stories, and I still had to write the next story. But my editor and my agent, who had never seen me not hand something in, saw me hand in seven completely different drafts of this huge book, one of them 700 pages. And they both at different times said, “Do you want to let this one go?”

So when you handed in those drafts, did your editor say, “This isn’t it?” Or was it just you not being happy with them?

Some of them were almost there, but nothing was a revelation. And again, from publishing so much, I’m very acquainted with the sounds of people loving something. And it’s never people saying, “I love it.” When people love something, they start talking about themselves. And that was my metric. When that first happened, it was one of my agents who called me and said, “I just finished your book, and I have to tell you about something that happened to me when I was young.”

Can I tell you something about myself? We find out late in the book that Phyllis Fletcher’s birth name was Frieda Mutchnick. I actually had a great-aunt named Frieda Muchnick.

I’ll tell you why this is funny. Because in my last book, I had a character named Philippa London. And the name of the guy who interviewed me [when I bought a coop apartment] was Philip London. And he kept talking about how much he loved the book; he’s like, “I read it three times.” And I’m like, “And?” And he had no recollection of the character with his almost exact name. So I’m very glad you saw that. I think it would be a very funny thing if by the end of all my interviews someone would be like, “Oh, that’s my name!” 

Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.